Intellect Magazine: “Differing Perspectives on the Holy Land”

The following article appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Intellect, the magazine of SJU’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Enabling Fruitful Dialogues

By Marisa (Fulton) Benjamin ’03

The International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) was receiving the same request for help, over and over again. When local Jewish and Christian dialogue groups met, in countries all over the world, its members could not discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without verbal battle.

“The polarizing power of this topic is tremendous,” says interfaith scholar Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D., professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations (IJCR) at Saint Joseph’s. “I was hearing reports regularly that when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up, people were suddenly at each other’s throats.” Cunningham is the ICCJ’s most recent past president.

Headquartered in Heppenheim, Germany, the ICCJ is a global organization engaged in the historic renewal of Christian-Jewish dialogue. Cunningham relates that the frequency of calls from groups across Europe, North and South America, and Israel signaled an opportunity to take action.

“The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has complicated and intertwined political and theological aspects, which make dialogue very challenging,” he says. “We needed to develop resources to enable people to think about differing perspectives by engaging in constructive analysis and discussion of writings representing diverse viewpoints.”

The ICCJ chose to sponsor “Promise, Land, and Hope,” a five-year (2012-17) collaborative research initiative, for which Cunningham served as the project coordinator and liaison with a team of 15 scholars charged with developing materials for groups to use when discussing these issues. SJU Jewish studies scholar Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., assistant professor of religious studies and assistant director of the IJCR, joined Cunningham on the leadership team.

In their roles as institute directors, examining issues from multiple religious perspectives — and finding mutuality — is daily work. SJU’s ongoing commitment to the study and promotion of Jewish-Catholic dialogue has been closely aligned with the University’s identity since the institute’s inception in 1967.

“The interreligious relationship between Jews and Catholics is richly woven into SJU’s ethos,” says Cunningham.

The collaboration will result in a forthcoming book, Enabling Dialogue About the Land: A Resource Book for Jews and Christians. The work includes two parts: the first is a selection of essays written primarily by Jews and Christians on various facets of the Holy Land, including scriptural overviews; the meaning of the land for Jews, Christians and Muslims; challenges and creative approaches; and personal reflections. The second is a series of exercises that center on encountering the subject by discussing relevant religious texts in small groups.

“We thought it would be useful to address the topic directly by featuring diverse scholars who offer varying viewpoints and can foster dialogue around this complicated issue,” says Gregerman.

The research team met annually at sponsoring universities all over the world, including initially at Saint Joseph’s in 2011, and later in Jerusalem in 2015. Meeting in the Holy Land was especially significant, says Cunningham, as the team gained additional insights from local residents and, in return, witnessed how their work related to what was happening in Jerusalem.

Continuing to field test the developing exercises, the pair worked with members of their own local community and SJU honors students. Within each group, the exercises focused on participants discussing texts from perspectives beyond their own often closely held beliefs.

Cunningham and Gregerman stress that the purpose of the exercises is for people to see the logic, evidence and rationale behind each perspective — no matter the level of controversy — and not to win an argument or score debating points. They hoped that by introducing participants to a range of approaches, individuals would become aware of their existing presuppositions which, in turn, would lead to more fruitful conversations.

“By the end of the sessions when we had a variety of documents to compare, we saw that the tendency to inject premature judgments diminished,” says Cunningham. “Participants now understood a more varied set of opinions.”

Notes Gregerman, “These sessions have been fruitful because while Phil and I are both rooted in a religious tradition, we are also committed to promoting a productive dialogue about these traditions.”

“Promise, Land, and Hope” is among the numerous contributions that Cunningham and Gregerman continue to make to the international study of interfaith relations. In addition to sponsoring educational events for the University and wider community, the IJCR works in partnership with several organizations dedicated to interreligious relations. Cunningham also oversees the interfaith database Dialogika. Gregerman is the book review editor for Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations.

Especially noteworthy is the role the IJCR played in inviting Pope Francis to campus during his 2015 American tour. At SJU, his Holiness was reunited with his longtime friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Their friendship was embodied in the University’s new sculpture, Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time, which the pope blessed during his visit.

“SJU was the first educational institution to respond to the directive issued during the Second Vatican Council in 1965 for Jews and Catholics to collaborate and study alongside each other,” says Cunningham. “If, in the past 50 years, we have learned to have authentic dialogue with each other, now is the time to go forward to probe key topics together.”

“…now is the time to go forward to probe key topics together.” 

Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D.