Interfaith conference hears from Jewish-Christian relations expert

Dr Ed Kessler an expert on Jewish- Christian relations, was the keynote speaker at an interfaith conference at Queens Park Church in Glasgow, Thursday 20 April.

Dr Kessler and the Moderator
Dr Ed Kessler and the Moderator

Mario Conti, Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow, joined the Moderator, Very Rev Dr John Chalmers and more than 70 others to discuss relationships among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Dr Kessler MBE, an author and founder of The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, spoke on the topic— What Replaces Replacement Theology?—referring to previous controversies over the idea that God has a chosen people.

The event was held in Queens Park Church, where Church of Scotland missionary Jane Haining worshipped. The teacher who died in Auschwitz, was named Righteous Among the Nations In Jerusalem’s sacred Yad Vashem in 1997.

In his wide-ranging talk, Dr Kessler posed the question:

“How do we solve the problem that has caused people to kill each other in the name of God since the beginning of time?”

His answer started with the scriptures, texts from Christian and Jewish thinkers, the similarities between the two faiths, and his reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He said:

“Paul affirmed that the Jewish people, despite their disobedience toward Christ, are still the elect people of God and that Christian Gentiles are honorary citizens grafted onto the rich tree of Jewish heritage.

“While Paul argued that unbelieving Jews are in a state of disobedience regarding Christ, nevertheless, he unreservedly affirmed their continued election.”

Mario Conti
Attendees at the conference included Archbishop Emeritus of Glasgow Mario Conti (centre)

The three faiths share stories as well as having unique stories and reading sacred texts together can make for useful discussion, Dr Kessler said.

“…despite our differences, we each have integrity and dignity in the mind of God. One of God’s messages to us is that we must learn to live together by making space for one another.

“We are reminded – and this is a point of immense significance – that beyond the truths that define the human situation as such, all further relationships between God and humanity are covenantal. None excludes others. God may be with us but also with those who are not like us; with friends but also with strangers.”

Dr Kessler noted that parents who have more than one child can love all of them equally.

“If that is true of human parents, how much more is it true of God?”, he said.

“Can I really believe that God, having set his love on, and made a covenant with, the children of Israel, then rejected them when they continued to honour that covenant, choosing not to follow the new faith, Christianity?

“Can I believe that the God of love, in loving Christians, thereby abandoned Jews? Can I make sense of the idea that, six centuries after the birth of Christianity and 26 after the journey of Abraham, God revealed that Jews and Christians had been mistaken all along and that their religious destiny was other than they had believed it to be?

“I can perfectly well understand that first Ptolemy, then Copernicus, then Newton – perhaps even Einstein - were shown to be wrong in their scientific beliefs and that if religion is like science, it is open to such refutations.

“But to think of religion on the model of science is to think that God is a concept yet the Bible reminds us that God is a parent.”

Interfaith speakers
The speakers at the interfaith conference were (from left): Dr Ed Kessler, Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, Rev Dr Janet Foggie, Rev Dr Alison Jack, Rev Dr Graham McGeoch, Rev Dr Frances Henderson

Dr Kessler was one of seven speakers at the conference. Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr gave the welcoming address and chaired the discussion. Read his full address.

Rev Dr Alison Jack, a Bible expert from Edinburgh University, discussed different ways to interpret the scriptures, looking particularly at passages that have been seen as stumbling blocks to interfaith relationships.

“We struggle to hear the voices of the early Christians,” she said. “What we have is later.”

Rev Dr Fran Henderson shared her knowledge of the history of Christian thought on interfaith relations and set the scene for the keynote speech.

“In 1491, statistically 19 % of the world was Christian and with 93 % of Christians in Europe, just 2% of Christians had contact with people of other faiths,” she said.

“By 1991, 33 percent of the world was Christian and 77% of Christians had contact with people of other faiths.”

Rev Graham McGeoch, minister at Broughton St Mary’s in Edinburgh, shared his congregation’s experience of interfaith work, while Rev Janet Foggie, pioneer minister for students through Stirling Presbytery talked about Christian mission and the Biblical stories of Sarah and Hagar.

Dr Amanullah De Sondy
Dr Amanullah De Sondy

Dr Amanullah De Sondy, senior lecturer at University College Cork, and author ofThe Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, spoke about his experiences growing up in Glasgow as a Sunni Muslim and in calling for a more inclusive approach to faith.

The idea of mission might be compared to the Muslim concept of Dawa, which challenges believers to invite others to uphold good, Dr De Sondy said. The diversity of traditions within the faith also raises questions about what is Islamic and who speaks for Islam.

“The most contentious issues facing Muslims globally are on race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality and most importantly internal pluralism and diversity,” he said.

“Muslims are beginning to think about these things critically. There is hope because we are beginning to see the very beautiful colors that Islam can represent.”

The Moderator thanked the speakers saying the “excellent” presentations had made a valuable contribution to interfaith discussion. He added:

“The conference was a very honest conversation among people from the Jewish, Christian and Moslem communities and while acknowledging differences of opinion and areas of tension, it was conducted in an extremely positive and respectful spirit.”