Making sense of our different beliefs

By  Barbara Boraks, Catholic Register Special
  • October 20, 2008
{mosimage}Common Ground: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together by Andrew M. Greeley and Jacob Neusner (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 335 pages, softcover, $24.95).

A couple of nights ago I looked up at the sky and saw the wishing star and so I made a wish. I wished there was a university course, perhaps called Thinking and Judgment 101, and that it became a required course for everyone in a position of responsibility or aspiring to one.
In this course each participant would have to read Common Ground and write an essay outlining what they learned. If they didn’t present a paper which obviously pointed to an increase in their humility and humanity, they would fail the course and lose their positions.

Is this a perfect book? Far from it. It is a maddening sparring match written by a rabbi and academic and a self-admitted tricky Irish priest from Chicago who also happens to be a sociologist and author of Harold Robbins-style fiction.

{sa 0773534474}Jacob Neusner leads Andrew Greeley, and us, logically and intelligently in an exercise of Jewish theological midrash — the give-and-take of reading Scripture in light of our everyday lives and experiences. He logically builds up to the crescendo, to the final knockout punch... and then changes his mind.

Greeley, on very light feet, is dancing around Neusner, poking and prodding, going off on seemingly irrelevant screed-like attacks against the second-rate theologians and bureaucrats who, from his perspective, populate the Roman Catholic curia. At times he seems obsessed with sexual metaphor. But then Greeley’s points hit home and he and Neusner find a common ground.

This is a book written by two men whose mutual respect and close relationship allows them to make fun of each other, of themselves, of their faiths. Most of all they publicly engage in sometimes brutal honesty. Listen to this uppercut by Greeley:

“So Jesus did not take seriously the minutiae of the laws that the scribes tried to impose on the people. He could readily associate with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners because God loved them, too. He could defy religious and political authority because they did not understand, could not understand, God’s love.”

And then the left hook from Neusner:

“The beam in the eye of Christianity is of course its imperialism, the Christian caricature of Israel, the religious community as a mere ethnic group. The beam in my own eye, not so difficult to discern, is Judaic isolationism, not so much self-righteousness as standoffishness, which holds that God has given us 613 commandments, but to everyone else only seven.”

What we, the readers, are so privileged to be the observers of is the process of watching how Greeley and Neusner, as Neusner so eloquently states, “make sense of the outsider with not mere tolerance of difference but esteem for a faith not my own.”

What also is so remarkable about this book is the reason which Neusner gives as to why he changes his position from stating, quite deliberately, that religious faiths could speak to each other but not really communicate, to agreeing with Greeley that communication is not only possible but essential. It is not due to some intellectual sleight of hand on Greeley’s part, but because of the very day-to-day event of Neusner’s changing the school at which he taught.

Neusner moved from living and working in a rarefied east coast Ivy League school where “religion was studied in the biological manner, like a frog under dissection,” to a southern school where blacks and whites, Catholics, Methodists and Baptists saw God not as a philosophical problem but as a “living presence.”

Perhaps this is the perfect example of what Neusner is trying to teach Greeley — that the very human and experiential process of midrash should truly be the model for dialogue.

(Boraks is the executive director of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto.)

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