Skip to main content

Three faiths practicing peace for Creation’s sake

A few years ago, when Dr. William Booth and Anne and Ray Bonnah gave St Michael’s a gift big enough to endow a lecture series in memory of alumnus Fred Furlong, Cardinal Edward Cassidy was chosen as the first Furlong lecturer. Famous for his pioneering work in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, Cardinal Cassidy spoke on Catholic and Jews: where are we today? His talk handed St Michael’s a key to open the next door: a day-long symposium on Jewish-Christian relations, following the lecture. A roomful of Toronto-area Jews and Christians came eagerly to the event, which was led by thinkers with a strong inter-faith track record. That was 2001.

In 2002 came the next step. With the world reeling from 9/11, and humanity’s interactions with Islam greatly complicated as a result, the second Furlong lecturer was Dr. John Espositio, founder of the Muslim-Christian Centre for Understanding at Georgetown University . Where do we go from here?, his lecture asked; and all the next day, Muslim thinkers met with local Christian scholars to educate each other on several dimensions of an answer to that question.

The world’s thorniest inter-faith questions, however, engage all three of the traditions that spring out of the faith of Abraham. And Toronto is home to large communities from all three religions. So it is in a Jewish-Christian-Islamic trialogue that we need to seek insights that might roll some of the rocks off the path of world peace.

Which explains why, on October 3, 2004, one of the world’s most persistent students of the intertwined history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was headlined at St Michael’s, as the third annual Furlong Lecturer.

David Burrell began his teaching career at Notre Dame University (1964) just as student opposition to the war in Vietnam was growing hot. Being a gifted pastoral counsellor as well as a Yale-trained scholar, Father Burrell was drawn heart and soul, as a scholar, into the search for a just peace. To this day, part of his academic time is committed to Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He spends half of each academic year living and working in Jerusalem ’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute, where he directs an academic program for Notre Dame, and meets face to face with Muslim and Jewish leaders who live in Jerusalem , the epicentre of confrontation between those two peoples. Meanwhile, he keeps up his Notre Dame-based academic leadership in the other half of each year. Burrell is one of his University’s major stars, holding the highly respected Theodore Hesburgh Chair of Philosophy and Theology. His track record at developing the inter-faith dimension of theological education at Notre Dame is awesome.

The Furlong planning committee had asked David Burrell to speak on the theme of creation in the three Abrahamic traditions—a topic on which he has done much comparative work. Dr. Burrell took an exhilarating approach, centered on the issue of God’s freedom in creation, and on the human response which is that of “a servant’s freedom” moving us towards God. He cruised through the history of philosophy, pointing out that you can divide it into “eras” depending on the approach each period has taken to the concept of a free Creator. Hellenic philosophy was a “seamless garment” without any conceptual recourse to a free Creator. As Jewish, then Christian, then Islamic thinkers engaged Greek philosophy in the light of their own traditions, each had the task of re-thinking the Greek heritage in ways that make room for God as the deliberate, unconstrained Source of what exists. More than we realize, that intellectual work was done with each of the three great monotheistic faiths influencing each other, and that interfaith achievement is what David Burrell has set himself to understand—and to recreate in our time. Why particularly in our time? Because in this so-called post-modern era, the kind of God-free rationalist scepticism proper to the modern period has broken into fragments, putting us in some interesting ways “in synch” with the medieval philosophical pioneers.

The question period was even more fun than the lecture. David Burrell treated each question like a valuable opportunity, each questioner like an esteemed colleague in a search that will develop our shared, wondrous status as free creatures of the one Source. His attitude of eagerness for interfaith friendship, even more than his emphasis on the value of the intellectual support each Abrahamic faith can give to the other, set the stage for the next day’s colloquium.

Warmth and cordiality ran strongly through the colloquium day (October 4) that followed the Furlong Lecture (October 3).

Even if you skipped all the formal presentations, you could witness a lot of mutual enlightenment going on. In one conversation you could hear the president of the U of T’s Muslim Students’ Association describing to a visitor how he hosted a post-sunset, ending-the-fast, open-house supper every night of Ramadan for Muslim students from a dozen nations. At another table you could encounter an Iranian-born Muslim telling an American Roman Catholic priest exactly whom to interview in a research trip to Tehran which the priest was about to undertake. Or you could observe Canada’s most experienced inter-faith editor, Robert Chodos of Voices Across Boundaries (his newest but not his first experiment in multifaith religious commentary) taking in the whole scene so as to condense it in an upcoming issue of that recently-born, Montreal-based journal.

On a more formal level, the colloquium had four sections. The first featured a Jewish presenter and a Jewish chair, with a Christian and a Muslim respondent. The next two worked the same way, with roles rotated to fit a Christian and then a Muslim presenter.

Professor Norbert Samuelson sparkled in the lead-off presentation on Creation Theology in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Mediterranean World. Author of many books on the biblical idea of creation in various contexts, Samuelson is Grossman Chair of Jewish Studies at Arizona University . He is particularly interested in the interface between theology and today’s new ways of doing physics and cosmology.

An articulate Tehran-born political scientist from Carleton University , Dr. Farhang Rajaee, was Samuelson’s Muslim respondent. The Christian voice belonged to the director of USMC’s Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology, Dr. Dennis O’Hara. The three thinkers differed dramatically in their degree of deference to the shifting frameworks of today’s earth-sciences; but their enjoyment of each others’ explorations was infectious.

The Christian-led panel featured Dr. Mary Jo Leddy, a popular sessional lecturer in theology at Regis College and a well known author, but even better known for what her respondent Rabbi Dow Marmur referred to as her “magnificent deeds”. As the founder and director of Romero House in Toronto , Dr. Leddy lives and works full-time with refugee claimants, many of whom are observant Muslims; and deep friendship with some of them has changed her life. Having studied Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt as a doctoral student under Emil Fackenheim, Jewish-Christian dialogue has been one of Leddy’s lifetime preoccupations. Leddy chose to speak about the human capacity to bring (not without suffering) newness within creation: to be a beginner, a birth-giver. Leddy’s Muslim respondent, a young writer from Montreal named Afra Jalabi, seized on this understanding of the human to initiate a fascinating feminist exegesis of the Qur’an’s words about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

An Islamic scholar led the third panel. Dr. Liyakat Takim, born in Tanzania , now teaches at the University of Denver but had long experience as an Imam in Toronto . His current writing focuses on the reform of Islamic law in contemporary times. But in his talk, Imam Takim stayed poetically close to traditional Qur’anic images of the act of divine creation, drawing out their implications for the Islamic sense of the surpassing blessing that is the creation in which we live, of which we are part.

Imam Takim’s Christian respondent was William Klassen, a Princeton-trained New Testament scholar of Mennonite heritage who has taught in Jerusalem (at the Ecole Biblique), Cambridge , New York , Toronto and Waterloo . His Jewish respondent was a lynch-pin of interfaith dialogue in Canada : Dr. (and Rabbi) David Novak of the University of Toronto , Director of the Jewish Studies Program at University College .

A final panel, deftly chaired by Mary Hynes of CBC Radio’s Tapestry series, brought all four major speakers together for a reflection on the whole day: Burrell, Samuelson, Leddy, Takim. There were some sparkling moments of debate—my personal favourite was David Novak, from the audience, challenging Norbert Samuelson on how far one can imagine contemporary physicists to be reliable guides for probing what the Book of Genesis was all about. And there was a feeling of cordiality, of colleagues relaxed and at ease. Finally there was before our eyes a working model of world citizens determined not to be defined by the lethal conflicts currently engulfing millions of their co-religionists in a world now seeming to resign itself all over again to the primacy of bloody force. If globalization were always as civilized as it looked that day in October in our own Carr Hall…

The little committee that planned October 3 and 4 would have been bereft without the deep communal expertise of its Jewish and Muslim members. They were Rabbi Dow Marmur—a leader both locally and internationally in Reform Judaism’s outreach to the world; and consulting engineer Hanny Hassan, who is in constant inter-faith demand for his gentle skills in building bridges between diverse Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Sister Anne Anderson, dean of the faculty of theology, and Father Daniel Donovan of USMC’s Christianity and Culture program strengthened the committee, and Dr. Mimi Marrocco and Karen Beitel of Continuing Education brought their special skills. The committee was co-chaired by Principal Mark McGowan and by alumna Janet Somerville, recently retired after a five-year term as General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.

The plan now is to build in a capacity for year-round three-faiths dialogue by inviting half a dozen leaders from each tradition to meet regularly. Out of that deepening conversation, the small Furlong crew hopes to be able to plan public events of deepening relevance to a big city where the whole world has come to live. Stay tuned for further developments!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Universities wither if they stay aloof from the drama and struggles of the world as a whole. Since St Michael’s has no intention of withering, there was a feeling of rightness when a way was found for St Michael’s to join the intense conversation among Jews, Christians and Muslims that is one layer of the great multi-layered cultural and political challenge shaking today’s world.