It’s common wisdom that religion is NEVER, EVER a topic of polite conversation. Talking about religious views supposedly leads to arguments, so if one wishes to avoid the risk of a friendship-ending conflict, one should keep mum. We are trained at near Pavlovian levels; if our interlocutor has the bad grace to bring up religion, we either find an excuse to leave, switch to a different topic, or fall back on the conversation-stopper “let’s just agree to disagree.”
Which is a waste, because the imagined conversation between Tillich and Anderson in Post #33 helped identify some of the strengths and weaknesses of Anderson’s empirical theology.
Given the importance of religion in all of our lives (atheists are as impacted by religion as anyone else), shouldn’t we engage this topic at every opportunity? Doing so would require the conversation partners to be honest about their views, including their concerns and disagreements. Because how can common ground be discovered (if any is to be had) unless differences are acknowledged?
The Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, in an address delivered at a conference of Christian missionary societies in 1930, did not subscribe to the self-censorship practiced by so many liberal religionists and theologians then and today. He broached, with frankness but also with hope, the subjects of what Christians and Jews have in common and of where they cannot agree.
This a slightly adapted version of what Buber said to the missionaries (Buber’s words are in italics):
What do Christians and Jews have in common? To put it in the most concrete way, Jews and Christians have a book and an expectation. The book they have in common is called the Tanakh by Jews and the Old Testament by Christians.
It is the sanctuary itself for Jews but only the antechamber for Christians who walk through it on the way to a different sanctuary—the New Testament. Still, it is a place they have in common, and in it they may listen together to the voice which speaks in it. They can labor together digging for the speech that is buried there, liberating the living word that is imprisoned.
They also share an expectation for a different reality. The expectation of Jews is for a coming of what has not yet been. The expectation of Christians is for the second coming. Their fortunes took separate directions in the pre-Messianic era. Since then, the Jew is incomprehensible to the Christian; he is the stiff-necked one who refuses to see that God came in the person of Jesus to inaugurate a new and redeemed history. The Christian is equally incomprehensible to the Jew; he is the presumptuous one who asserts redemption as an accomplished fact in a world which is unredeemed.
This schism, no human power can bridge. But it does not preclude harmonious cooperation in watching for the oneness coming from God. Although they expect a different oneness, they can wait together for that which is to come, and in those moments, pave the road for it in joint effort.
– End of adapted excerpt –
Some reading Buber’s words today would find that he simply named the obvious schism between Judaism and Christianity. Others might have preferred that he had used gentler terms than “stiff-necked” or “presumptious,” or resorted to more round-about language, or not mentioned the schism at all. Were Buber’s remarks inflammatory? The missionaries to whom he spoke had no illusion about the abyss separating the two faith-traditions. And Buber, having demonstrated his willingness to discuss that abyss, could be taken seriously when he explored what the Jewish and Christian communities could hope accomplish in “harmonious cooperation.” Having openly discussed their differences, when he described his vision of the work they could undertake together, his vision seemed a genuine possibility and mutual enrichment seemed plausible.
So here’s a plea to set aside the old adage of “be polite; don’t talk about religion.” Whether you’re an atheist talking to a theist or vice-versa, or a Lutheran talking to a Roman Catholic or vice-versa, or a process theologian talking to an Orthodox theologian, or pick-your- group talking to someone from pick-another-group, try to have an authentic conversation.
If you wish to be authentic, you’ll name the schism. Then you just might have a shot at a more interesting dialogue—the one about harmonious cooperation.
HNFFT: If you reacted negatively to Buber’s comments, how would you have broached the differences between Jews and Christians? If you’d have chosen to say nothing at all about them, do you think it’s possible to have an authentic conversation without mentioning disagreements?
Reference: The address, delivered by Martin Buber to a conference of Christian missionary societies in 1930, is quoted in Samuel Bergman’s Faith and Reason: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, trans. and ed. by Alfred Jospe (Washington, D.C.: B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations, 1961), 96.