January 24, 2009

Inter-religious dialogue

Inter-religious dialogue – is it good, or is it bad?  I think it is good – as is all scholarly dialogue.  I find that I learn much whenever anyone presents a reasoned opinion – even if the opinion is completely wrong

What about inter-religious worship?   Well, this seems unnecessary.  Worship can be an individual experience (prayer) or a community experience (group prayer), but it has traditionally been based within a framework of a system of beliefs.  To say that these beliefs do not matter and we should all simply worship together is an act of anti-religion.

In many religious traditions this distinction is realized in religious law – inter-religious services are forbidden.  It seems that this is the case in Judaism, as is seen in the famous essay “Confrontation.”  (For a fascinating set of responses to this essay, including responses by a wide variety of voices, see this extensive 2003 website hosted by Boston College.)

United Methodist Minister Hobbins, whose website reflects a continuing interest in inter-religious dialogue, dryly notes here on criticism of Rabbi Lookstein for participating in an inter-religious worship service for the new inaugurated president.  But of course, the criticism of Rabbi Lookstein was based on ancient Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud which to the extent it reflects Biblical law is not subject to revision.  (Now, there is room for argument here over the interpretation of the law, as the immediately preceding link shows, but it is clear Rabbi Lookstein’s actions were in violation of the majority opinion.  Rabbi Lookstein has published a defense of his action.)

Why is there government-sponsored inauguration religious service at all?  I admire the example of John Quincy Adams, who according to his letters took the inauguration oath with his hand over a book containing the constitution and laws of the United States.  This is real oath – one that represents all the people of the US, who are bound together under the US constitution.   A private prayer service or private worship by the President is his or her own business; but the United States was founded on the ideal of religious freedom.

So, I’m not sure what the concern here is:  Rabbi Lookstein did something which many of his co-religionists view as contrary to the laws of his religion, and he received a rebuke from his colleagues (but no punishment at all.)

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On a related note, let me also comment on the decision of the Catholic Pope’s decision to lift the excommunication on the bishops of the schismatic SSPX group, including the controversial and virulently anti-semitic Richard Williamson (who upholds the Protocol of the Elders of Zion as a factual work and denies the Holocaust).  See this opinion piece by Williamson, for example.  SSPX actively shields French collaborators who murdered Jews in its priories (e.g., the Paul Touvier affair). 

Frankly, I am surprised that the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to embrace these pro-genocidal extremists.   But on the other hand, I believe this is an issue that is purely internal to the Roman Catholic Church.  It is clear that the contemporary Roman Catholic mainstream is opposed to religious genocide, but that it is also a “big tent” that can accept those like Paul Touvier and Richard Williamson.  It seems likely that this is a first step towards welcoming back splinter traditionalist Catholic groups, but I wonder if it is worth the pain:  I suspect that many who belong to those splinter groups will not accept any Church that still embraces the revisions of the Second Vatican Council, while the Catholic mainstream will recoil from the extremism of the SSPX and other traditionalist groups.  I suspect that in retrospect, this will be seen as a serious misstep by the current Vatican, and will rank along with Vatican’s mishandling of its sex abuse scandals and its cozying up to the Beijing parallel “Catholic” Church.

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Finally, let me comment on another attempt for apparent inter-religious dialogue:  the recent appearance of the Oxford University Press’s English Standard Version with Apocrypha

The English Standard Version (ESV) is a Protestant conservative revision of the venerable Revised Standard Version (RSV) which has been widely used as a standard English translation in academic circles for years. The ESV has appeared in a number of innovative physical editions, and has been actively advocated, particularly by conservative American Calvinists. 

The RSV was noted for being published in editions that included a particularly full set of Catholic and Orthodox Deuterocanonical books (many of which are also in appendices to many Anglican and Lutheran Protestant Bibles, including such standard versions as the Geneva and King James Bibles.)

The Oxford edition includes a minor revision of the Apocrypha by three scholars – David A. deSilva (Ashland Theological Seminary, and a bona fide scholar of the Apocrypha), Dan McCartney (Westminster Theological Seminary, reviser of the class Machen textbook on elementary Greek), and Bernard Taylor (Loma Linda University, an African-American Seven Day Adventist scholar).

I’ve spot-checked a number of verses and found no substantive changes between the RSV Apocrypha and this new ESV Apocrypha.

I’m afraid I don’t understand the market for this book.  As a scholarly edition, the minimal this edition offers no advantages over existing editions of the RSV and is certainly outpaced by more specialized editions such as the New English Translation of the Septuagint.  As a Bible for worship, most Calvinists will prefer a Bible without the Apocryphal books, Anglicans will likely prefer the RSV or NRSV with Apocrypha, Orthodox will note that no Orthodox were invited to participate in the translation, and the Catholic Church are unlikely to grant an imprimatur (given the absence of any Catholic participation in the translation).  As a Bible for casual study, certainly one of the many annotated Bibles with Apocrypha would be prefered.  As a Bible as a fine book, the work falls short – the Oxford edition has super thin “bleed through paper” and uses a san-serif font that I find a bit hard to read with the bleed-through. 

Still, even though the changes from the RSV are minimal, it is nice to have any new edition of these books, and I am certain that this text will soon be incorporated into major Bible text computer programs.  And I’ve seen at least one enthusiastic review from a Catholic minister.


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Welcome to blogging! I greatly enjoy the variety of your posts, and your gracious link to my own blog, Theophrastus!

A slight demurrer in the description of the Orthodox relation to Bibles for liturgical use: we (I'm Greek Orthodox, myself) don't use regular continuous-text Bibles at all in Orthodox services, but rather specially-produced internally-approved lectionary-based volumes. The thought of using something like the ESV or NRSV as our liturgical text is, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. But, of course, Orthodox do like to be part of such things for personal study, and both the RSV and NRSV translation teams included an Orthodox participant, in the person of Fr Demetrios Constantelos. The RSV is still often used in group Bible studies in Orthodox parishes.

Theophrastus said...

Kevin, thanks so much for your wonderful comment.

Did the RSV team include Fr. Constantelos? I know he was on the NRSV team, but I was not aware he was on the RSV team. In fact, I was under the impression that there were not even Catholics on the RSV team (which is why the Vatican insisted on a special Catholic edition of the RSV.)

I understand your point about worship being based around dictionaries, and it is well taken. The same point applies to Roman Catholics as well, who are restricted to using a single liturgical translation in each territory (in the US in English parishes, I understand this to be the New American Bible.)

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, oh, the poor Catholics, to have to use that thing. The US Council of Catholic Bishops both owns the copyright and actually charges royalties for its use in all publications, incluing the printed handout "missalettes" which include the reading of the day for parishioners. So perhaps it is understandable and not so surprising that these bishops would require that translation to be used!

Fr Constantelos was involved in the committee that did the expansion to the RSV Apocrypha from 1972, which was first published in 1976, including Third and Fourth Maccabees and Psalm 151. He then continued on the Standard Bible Committee through the NRSV project, serving on the Apocrypha and New Testament committees.

The information on Fr Constantelos is from Bruce Metzger's interesting memoir, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian and from Robert Dentan's "The Story of the New Revised Standard Version" in The Making of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Looking in my editions of the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fr Constantelos did the notes for the New Oxford Annotated Bible in the first, RSV, edition, for 3 Maccabees. These were reviewed and updated in the second edition of the NOAB, the first NRSV edition, by Fr John Breck, who did the same for Sherman Johnson's 4 Maccabees annotation from the earlier edition. George Barrois was a convert to Orthodoxy later in life and contributed the article "Survey of the Geography, History, and Archaeology of the Bible Lands" for the first NOAB, which was reviewed and updated by Philip King in the second edition. Looking at the third edition NOAB and the big Oxford Bible Commentary, I don't see any names of anyone I recognize as Orthodox, so the Orthodox element seems to have dropped out of the picture, though I may of course simply be wrong on that count. Perhaps a dual cause for this change could be the recent general trend away from ecumenical gestures on the Orthodox side, as well as a distancing from the NRSV, which several bishops banned its use for group Bible studies.

John Hobbins said...

What a delightful blog I have found. Brave new world, with such people in it.

The best part of this post for me personally was to be called "United Methodist minister Hobbins," which for some reason irks me though I have no reason to think it was meant to be so. On the contrary, I suspect it's better "United Methodist" than you-fill-in-the-blank.

You would think that, after being on loan from the Waldensian Church of Italy for more than 10 years now, and having grown up United Methodist in Madison WI as a lad, I would accept being called a United Methodist with greater equanimity.

The online moniker I have been given that I wear with greatest delight, the donor of which will go unmentioned, is "that wicked Mennonite."

"Waldensian pastor" is more accurate, but of course, no one knows what "that" might be, excluding, of course, the learned Esteban.

Sewa Yoleme said...

I'd like to comment on the first part of the post.

My mentor in college, Ron Miller, is a former Jesuit priest who co-founded an organization called Common Ground. It's dedicated to inter-faith dialogue (he has worked for most of his career on Jewish-Christian relations; his co-founder is a Buddhist).

He always taught that the single indispensable factor in successful dialogue is openness — to be just open enough that you countenance the possibility that your most cherished beliefs might turn out to be wrong. At the same time, there is no effort to convince others that one's position (in this case, one's religious faith) is more correct or in any way better. It's mostly a place to listen and try to understand.

As for interreligious worship: I have friends who attend a local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. While I love their genuine acceptance of all religious perspectives, when they come together in worship, it's pretty much a lowest-common denominator approach: "offend none" seems to be their dictum. The problem, of course, is that it takes all the teeth out of everyone's tradition. No blood, no guts, no electricity, no reality.

On the other hand, because I am by nature a syncretist, I am comfortable in a synagogue, a Protestant church, a Hindu ashram, a Thai Buddhist temple, even (occasionally) something wild and paganish. I like the authenticity; and yes, I do worship there, using their words, their names for the great Mystery, their rituals. Is that then "interreligious"? Or am I just a man without a country, and so grateful for any port in the storm?

Theophrastus said...

Kevin, thanks so much for your clarification, and for your kind mention in your blog!

John, I am sorry I offended you with the title -- since the goal of this blog is NOT to offend, I have already failed. I'll be sure to use Waldensian pastor in the future.

Sewa, I suspect you are not so much "inter-religious" as someone who is open to seeing the varied truths of the "one who is a light unto all the nations."

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

You're very welcome, Theophrastus!

I've just remembered to put a link there to you. Sorry about that!

You are among my Wunderkammern!