I write this from Jerusalem where I have had the privilege for some 10 days to participate in the first stage of the Christian Leadership Initiative, an intensive 13-month educational program on Judaism sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel. Rabbi Noam Marans, director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations for the AJC, describes the program as “an open space for Christian leadership to experience and study Judaism and Israel from a Jewish perspective.” Participants in the Institute come from a wide range of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant backgrounds and from a variety of seminaries and theological institutions in the United States. Four of us are Baptists, including Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Greg Mobley, professor of Christian Bible at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, and David Gushee, who teaches on the faculty with me at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.
We’ve immersed ourselves in Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and a number of other sacred writings through a method of study called Havrutah, utilized in the Orthodox Jewish tradition. Two or more people explore an ancient text together, ferreting out meaning and understanding. We’ve studied with some of the brightest scholars of the Jewish tradition, exploring together the nuances of the sacred texts.
It has been a powerful and transformative experience for me, proving again that we have much to learn as Christian people from the Jewish tradition which gave birth to us and from which we received so many of the symbols and rituals that provide meaning and purpose to our faith. I take from the experience a number of “lessons learned”:
1. It is good to wrestle, struggle with, question and challenge God. God can take it. It is not just that God welcomes it or expects it. Rather it is an inherent part of the creation itself. When God created, God entered into a conversation with humanity, a dialogue, if you will. In the process, God gave up something that had to do with God’s power. God invited us into the conversation. Let’s take God up on that invitation.
2. Let’s get over our fear of otherness and difference. It is a fear that is crippling the church. We must come to understand the reality that “a religion can be theologically problematic but devotionally true.” These words were spoken by Yossi Klein Halevi, one of our teachers during these ten days of study. In 1998, Halevi, an Israeli Jew, set out on a journey to encounter his Christian and Muslim neighbors in the context of their devotional lives. He wrote about his experiences in a work entitled, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.” We stand on sacred ground whenever we enter into a conversation with a person of faith about their experience of God, no matter what religion they may profess. Let’s open up to the possibility of our own transformation as we dialogue with people of other faiths about God.
3. Christianity in and of itself is not sufficient to explain the divine mystery of God. We fall far short, as do all faiths. In my days as a college professor, I regularly asked freshman classes to tell me what percentage of God they understood. Was it 90 percent? 80 percent? 50 percent? 20 percent? I’m glad to report that most fell somewhere between .01 percent and 1 percent. By our own admission, we cannot comprehend the mystery of God. We need help. And what better source of help than the faith that gave birth to us.
4. And finally, God is beyond any absolute pronouncements that we might attempt to make about God. To make any such pronouncement is to somehow limit God. This is true even when we say that God is merciful, gracious, just and righteous. These are human categories that define and limit God. God is far more than any descriptive adjective that we might attempt to place upon God. All such pronouncements are deficient and inadequate. Best to admit this and to end any and all efforts to reduce the divine mystery to the inadequate limits of human language.
It’s been a good 10 days. I’ll be working out the implications of it for many years to come. It has reminded me again that we are all in the process of transformation and that the point at which we come together as people of faith is always holy ground. God is not finished with any of us yet. And, as my Jewish brothers and sisters have taught me throughout this experience, we aren’t finished with God, either.