Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a deep respect for self-critique, and can each offer lessons on how to evolve without forsaking everything that make them unique, said Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society.
In Prophetic Faith and the Critique of Tradition: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives, which he delivered on Monday, Nov. 15 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus and again on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus as part of the annual fall McGinley lecture, Father Ryan continued the “trialogue” between the three Abrahamic religions that he established when he assumed the position in 2009.
“How can a faith tradition or those who bear that tradition repent? How can a faith tradition revise its self-understanding? I would suggest that it is precisely the prophetic charism—the free gift of God’s intervention in the lives of faithful human beings, enabling them to speak on God’s behalf to you and to me—that makes such repentance, such self-critique, such revision possible,” he said.
“We Jews, Christians and Muslims have much to learn from each other in this matter, much need to share how our faith traditions can undergo genuine internal critique, can endure prophetic rebuke from God. As a result we can undergo or even undertake change,” Father Ryan said.
“This assertion flies in the face of the opinions of some interpreters within each tradition of faith who propagate an ahistorical vision of the past, as if nothing important has ever changed or ever can change. A great English writer and theologian of the 19th century, the recently beatified John Henry Newman, thought quite differently: ‘In a higher world,’ he wrote, ‘it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’”
Working chronologically, Father Ryan detailed examples of how the prophet Ezekiel and the Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, from the Jewish tradition, St. Paul and Jesus from the Christian tradition, and the prophet Muhammad and the Sudanese thinker Mahmoud Mohammed Taha from the Islamic tradition, all at one time or another rethought aspects of their faiths.
As with last years’ McGinley Lecture, Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., spiritual leader of Congregation of Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Amir Hussain, Ph.D., professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, offered responses to the lecture.
Rabbi Polish noted that although it is easy to think of Hebrew scriptures as immutable, what is striking is the frequency in which evolution can be seen within them.
“We can discern the development of the sacrificial cult, the role of the priest and of the prophets, dietary laws, the structure and content and meaning of various festivals, the development of the Biblical religion into a text-focused practice, even strikingly the way in which the deity is named and understood,” he said.
He cited three techniques—nullification, mitigation and rejection—that have been used to allow for change that does not undermine core Jewish beliefs. One can see the use of the first technique in early debates over capital punishment.
“Modern readers will be dismayed to find that the Bible makes clear its acceptance of capital punishment, which we might find anathema,” he said, quoting chapter of the book of Genesis. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man’s shall his blood be shed. You can’t get more unequivocal than that.”
“What we know about the rabbinical application of the death penalty is that they applied it in such as way as to absolutely nullify it.”
For a person to be eligible for the death penalty, he said, authorities decided that three witnesses had to have seen the crime being committed. Each of them had to have not only warned the perpetrator, but also received a reply that yes, they know what they were doing would subject them to capital punishment, but were going to do it anyhow.
“What we have seen in regard to the issue of capital punishment can be replicated in numerous other instances as well. Later tradition, without repudiating or mitigating in practice, embraces it in such a way, as to render it inoperable,” he said.
Dr. Hussain used his time to highlight the works of many prophetic Muslim scholars, and noted Islam’s historical connections to Christianity and Judaism, saying that if one does not understand the stories of the Bible, the Quran does not make sense.
“When the Quran speaks of the end times, when ‘The heavens are rolled up as a scroll,’ from the chapter called on the Prophets, Al-Anbiya, chapter 21, verse 104 of the Quran, this echoes the same image found in both Isaiah 34, verse 4, and Revelations 6:14. I must confess I learned about this parallel in an article published 35 years ago in the Ghana Bulletin of Theology, by a young man named Patrick J. Ryan,” he said.
“From you, Jews and Christians, we, as Muslims, can learn prophetic words of self-criticism. Admittedly, there is a lot of criticism about Islam, but that’s different from Muslim self-criticism.”
Father Ryan acknowledged there are limits to the critique of faith traditions, saying that at a certain point, a critic enters into a new homeland of faith or wanders into a limbo of unfaith. He pointed to Saint Vincent of Lerins, who in the 5th century CE, first sketched the outlines of a legitimate development of a faith tradition that does not distort the core of the tradition.
“He was writing about the Christian tradition of faith, but I think his words can shed light on the faith traditions of Judaism and Islam as well,” Father Ryan said before quoting Lerins:
“The religion of souls should follow the law of the development of bodies. Though bodies develop and unfold their component parts with the passing of the years, they always remain what they were. There is a great difference between the flower of childhood and the maturity of age, but those who become old are the very same people who were once young. Though the condition and appearance of one and the same individual may change, it is one and the same nature, one and the same person.”