How can both religions claim to hold the truth?

04 March 2009

The claims of both Christians and Jews to know God’s truth need to be moderated by humility, argues Tony Bayfield

Judaism and Christianity are sib­lings, but not identical twins. We have indulged in that most common of sibling feelings, rivalry. We have theologised our neurotic sense of being better, of owning the only true revelation, and of being exclusively right.

In the unique relationship be­tween Judaism and Christianity, such inflated truth-claims are both absurd and profoundly damaging. I have come to this far-reaching conclusion through a series of gut convictions.

It all began for me more than 20 years ago. I was living — as I still do — in Hampstead Garden Suburb, no more than 150 metres from St Jude’s, and I had become friendly with the Vicar. One Saturday morning, I came out of my house and turned right to walk to the synagogue. As I turned, something made me look the other way — up to the church — and there was my friend, the Vicar.

At some point, I asked myself whether God would have wanted me to turn left instead, and go up to the church, or whether God would have wanted the Vicar to come sprinting down the road and accompany me to shul.

I became convinced that God has no interest whatsoever in my becom­ing a Christian, or in the Vicar’s be­coming a Jew. God is perfectly happy with how things are (only in that regard, I hasten to add).

I am clear that mine was and is an emotional response, a gut reaction. I have done enough psychotherapeutic training not to take gut reactions at face value. But now, as I was begin­ning to do then, I do my religion that way round — start with my intu­ition, and then test it both psy­chologically and intellectually rather than start with the theology and get terribly anxious when something does not ring true.

LATER, I met the Revd Marcus Bray­brooke, who was then the Director of the Council of Christians and Jews. I came quickly to think of him as one of the most significant Christians I have ever met. I had served a 13-year apprenticeship in polite cups of tea with Christian groups, at which I talked endlessly about Judaism, and the Christians exclaimed: “How inter­esting to learn about the origins of our faith.”


It was all very worthy, but Marcus wanted to do more. He wanted to talk theology — particularly the theological relationship between the two faiths. This led to the emergence of a second gut conviction.

Experience had taught me that, over the polite cups of tea and behind the positive smiles lay a reservation: “You Jews really are remarkable for your persistence, contribution to civilisation, family life, and chicken soup. But you are missing out on the greatest truth of all, which is a pity for you.”

From my side, it was: “You Christians really have captured the lion’s share of the market in spectacular fashion; your cathed­rals are magnificent and you really are outstanding exponents of self-sacrificing, suffering love for the poor and the sick. It’s a pity it’s all founded on a misunder­standing of a relatively unremarkable Jew. How can you believe that stuff about incarnation?”

I was convinced that such state­ments — made explicitly, or more usually held back — are terribly condescending rather than respect­ful, and are inadequate for explaining the depth and quality of each other’s faith.

A THIRD episode came after several encounters with a remarkable Ro­man Catholic, Gavin D’Costa, who, some years later, re-entered my life as my younger daughter’s theo­logy tutor at Bristol. Now a rabbi, she remembers him with affection.

Gavin and I debated covenant theory — whether there is one covenant, which includes Christians and Jews, or whether there are two separate covenants. I came to the conclusion that there are three: one with all of humanity from Noah; one with the Jewish people at Sinai; one with Christians at Golgotha.

I am not sure how much it mat­ters. Or at least it is just the result of the intellectual testing of the intuitive conviction that Judaism and Chris­tian­ity are two valid, independent (albeit deeply connected) revelations, demanding equal theological space and equal respect.

It compelled me to write words that Jews, understandably, have found it difficult to write: “I believe that Christians find in the life and death of Jesus as described in the New Testament and in the tradition which flows from those events the fullest disclosure of the nature of God and God’s will for them. Such faith involves no necessary error or illusion.”

MY FOURTH and most recent state­ment of conviction: it is utterly absurd to think that God would entrust all knowledge of God and God’s will to any one group of people at any particular moment in history. It is equally delusional for any group of human beings to believe that they have grasped the fullness of God


and understand more than fragments of God’s truth. In my heart, such truth claims feel absurd. But I have come to realise that the best word is “hubris”.

Religions supposedly value hu­mil­ity, but think we show it when we wash the feet of our fellow human beings or live without the trappings of wealth and power. We confuse the symbol with the reality. True humil­ity lies in recognising how little we know about God, and that what we do know, or think we know, is at best a fragment of Truth.

Humility necessitates the recogni­tion that our own stories are extra­ordinarily precious, but they are only our own stories. They reveal truths, but not Truth, which belongs only with God. There is a Hasidic aphor­ism that is worth more than all the words in this article: “Take care of your own soul and another person’s body, not your own body and the other person’s soul.”

True dialogue, the dialogue of respect, recognises the full validity of the other, and their equality in the eyes of God. It demands that we moderate our truth-claims, and recog­nise the true meaning of humil­ity.

Lest you worry that I am falling into the trap of banal relativism — “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion” — let me add that all truth-claims must be subject to the touchstone of the ethical.

Lest you worry that I lack passion and commitment, I would end as follows. Deep, personal faith and con­viction is no barrier to an accept­ance of the faith of the other. Rather, faith and con­viction should lead to accept­ance of the other, especially between siblings.

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, and a President of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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