The End of Dialogue?

by Allan R. Brockway


"Relations" and "Dialogue"
From Dialogue to "Regrouping"

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following article is an edited version of the Sectretary's Report to a meeting of the World Council of Churches' Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People (CCJP), held at the Arnoldshain Evangelical Academy in the Federal Republic of Germany, 10-14 February 1986.

The suggestion I made at that time remains timely ten years later: Christians must talk with Christians and Jews must talk with Jews in order to "learn what they have learned" in the course of dialogue. The specific programatic proposal that concludes the essay resultedin the volume, The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People (WCC, 1989).

A Turning Point

I am convinced that the relation between the church and the Jewish people is now at a turning point. Crucial decisions, whether conscious or not, are in the process of being taken that will determine for good or ill, perhaps for decades to come, the theological understanding of the church, and in the process condition if not dictate the relationship between the church and the Jewish people. I will suggest that the period during which we could best characterize the relationship between the two faith communities by the term "dialogue"' is coming to a close and that a new period is beginning, the proper name for which has yet to emerge. I will attempt to explain this suggestion, first, by a look at the "dialogue" period and, then, by outlining the kind of decisions that would seem to be required if we are to move creatively into the period that lies ahead.

Before doing so, however, I need to make clear that I am speaking about the World Council of Churches and the Jewish People, not about the Christian-Jewish dialogue as such. Such a distinction is necessary because the future requirements of the Christian-Jewish dialogue or, better, relations between Christians and Jews, are significantly different than are those for institutional relationships between the WCC and organized expressions of the Jewish people. And both are different from the requirements of the next historical period in the life of the World Council of Churches and the churches that are members of it. The question before us during these next days is simply put and extremely difficult to answer: What is the unique role of the World Council of Churches vis-a-vis the Jewish people, in the first instance and, in the second, relative to the churches that comprise it.

"Relations" and "Dialogue"

Jewish-Christian dialogue is an important component of Jewish-Christian relations. But we must not collapse "relations" into "dialogue," nor must we assume that "dialogue" is the totality of "relations. Dialogue is a method utilized in the on-going interaction between Jews and Christians, between the Jewish people and the church. As we all know, there are a number of levels for dialogue, ranging all the way from casual conversation on a bus or at the grocery store to deep theological or religious discussion, complete with footnotes. But no matter what the aegis, dialogue is fundamentally a matter between Christians and Jews as individuals. Seldom are institutions, churches or Jewish organizations, committed to abide by the results of dialogue, although they may well be influenced by them. It is not necessary to rehearse the "rules" for dialogue. We know them well; they are enshrined in the WCC's Guidelines on Dialogue and Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

During the period leading up to the last Assembly, at Vancouver, the CCJP concentrated on developing and securing official WCC approval for what finally became the Ecumenical Considerations. This document, which represents the most and best that was possible to say at the time about the churches' understanding of Jews and Judaism, has yet to become a normative text for most churches. Some of them, however, have developed similar statements of their own, occasionally going very far in their willingness to affirm the Jewish people as beloved of the God worshipped by both religions and, thus, declaring the necessary concurrence of Christians and the church in God's choice of the Jewish people as his own. As far as the CCJP is concerned, the Ecumenical Considerations represents the culmination of the dialogue stage in Jewish Christian relations. When I say that, I mean that the theory of Jewish-Christian dialogue has been developed as fully as it needs to be for the moment. Unfortunately, it goes without saying that the practice lags very far behind. As we have sometimes put it, the Ecumenical Considerations now needs to be implemented by the churches in their own dialogues with Jews and Jewish groups in their own settings.

In most of Europe and North America such dialogical activity is in full swing. Every year many dialogical conferences and seminars are held at local and national levels. In that sense, the CCJP/WCC document is being implemented indeed (though in no sense is our document directly responsible for the development of these dialogues). Some initial efforts have been made to extend the implementation to South America and, I am happy to report, a Council of Christians and Jews has now been inaugurated in Melbourne, Australia.

The national Councils of Christians and Jews (the member organizations of the International Council of Christians and Jews, headquartered at the Buber House in Heppenheim, are primary media for the development and expansion of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Councils of Christians and Jews represent a unique type of organization, in that they are composed of both Jews and Christians, largely individuals who are seldom officially representative of either Jewish or Christian bodies. Thus, while the CCJP/WCC, the World Jewish Congress, other Jewish organizations, and the Roman Catholic Church send "official observers" to meetings of the International Council of Christians and Jews, none of them is a member. Their representatives monitor and participate as individuals in ICCJ functions, contributing when they can to the ensuing dialogues.

I mention the Councils of Christians and Jews because they are a significant part of the reason it is possible for me to assert that the period of dialogue for the CCJP and the World Council is coming to a conclusion. Their composition is dialogical by definition, their purpose is dialogue, and frequently they do a very good job of it. But they are not churches, nor are they representative of Jewish organizations–they are composed of individuals and it is individuals who, in the last analysis must be engaged in dialogue. The CCJP has a different job to do from that of the Councils of Christians and Jews, though there is a clear relationship.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the CCJP and its parent body, the World Council of Churches, must not continue to organize and participate in Jewish-Christian dialogues. Only by so doing is it possible to keep abreast of what is happening in the dialogues and what new trends are emerging. But the primary responsibility of the WCC's work in relation to the Jewish people will lie elsewhere in the days to come. It is on that primary responsibility that I would now focus your attention. It has two foci, which often appear to have little relation to one another: institutional relationships and theological change in the church.


The structured relationships between the World Council of Churches and the organized Jewish community can be characterized as dialogue only in the broadest sense, but they are a highly important aspect of the WCC's responsibility to and for the Jewish people. As most of you know, a group of Jewish organizations has formed a special committee, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), for the express purpose of relating to the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, plus, more recently, the various confessional bodies, e.g., the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Orthodox churches, the Anglican Church, etc.

With the IJCIC, the WCC has over the years conducted a series of consultations (significantly, they have never been called dialogues) on various subjects such as the concept of power, modernity, and, most recently, the Harvard consultation in 1984 on religious pluralism. Apart from the often significant contributions these consultations make to better understanding between the church and the Jewish people, they represent the most official encounter between the organized expressions of the two fraternal religions.

But the continuing, day to day, contact between my office and the IJCIC and the annual or semi-annual meetings between representatives of IJCIC and the World Council in the Liaison and Planning Committee (LPC) -- a committee composed of delegates from IJCIC and WCC representatives from the CCJP, the General Secretariat, and other programs of the World Council--are probably more crucial for sustaining and deepening the relationship between the Jewish people and the World Council of Churches than are the consultations. It is in these sessions that the Jewish response to what the churches say about Israel, antisemitism, and attempts at conversion are offered and discussed. Not infrequently, these meetings have been the scene for heated exchanges, not all of which have resulted in reconciliation.

Meetings of the LPC are not restricted to Jewish "complaints" about the WCC, however. The agenda always includes discussion of ways we can cooperate in projects that will be mutually beneficial. The most recent of these projects is a forthcoming consultation in Nairobi with participants from IJCIC and African theologians. The significance of the Liaison and Planning Committee extends beyond the discussion that takes place during its meetings and even beyond the projects it develops. Its primary significance lies in its very existence, for that existence signifies the openness of each religious community to the other, an openness that is, tragically, not apparent large parts of the time.

For the future, the maintenance of open communication and fraternal good-will between the World Council of Churches and the international Jewish community, represented by the Liaison and Planning Committee, is of critical importance. But, let us be clear about this, it is not dialogue as such. Instead, it is more in the order of diplomacy and requires diplomatic skills that are usually not absolutely necessary in "normal" dialogue.

From Dialogue to "Regrouping"

What I have said about Jewish-Christian dialogue and about the diplomacy required for keeping open the communication between the WCC and the IJCIC is relevant to the "age of dialogue." Each of these activities and concerns is highly important and must under no circumstances be diluted or be allocated less time and energy. In particular, organizational diplomacy is requisite to all other activities.

But the next period, which I am going to venture to name, instead of "dialogue," the period of "regrouping," will demand of the CCJP something that has always been incipient in its work, but which has to date not been visible programatically, namely theological study, reflection on the results of that study, and dissemination of what that reflection produces. In order to explain what I mean it will be necessary to go back to the Harvard consultation, if not before.

The discussion on religious pluralism at Harvard was interesting and, oft-times, exciting. But it did not take us much beyond the stimulation of another meeting between Jews and Christians who are involved in and concerned for Jewish-Christian encounter. In other words, we did not learn very much that we didn't already know, either about each other or the world we jointly live in and confront. We did come to know each other as individuals a little better, and that is, of course, a value. And we learned a few things about what to do and what not to do at the next consultation. My general feeling was that the most significant thing about the consultation was that it was held, that Jews and Christians got together and talked about something that concerned them both. The specific subject matter was secondary.

In the dialogue period that was ample justification for having a "dialogue"; the event itself was the object of the enterprise. But in the post-dialogue period, in the "re-grouping" period, it is not enough. In the days to come each of us, Jews and Christians alike, must actually learn something about ourselves if we are to be able to benefit most from such meetings together. The period of re-grouping is a period of looking inward, of assessing what we have learned over the past fifty or sixty years of Jewish-Christian dialogue about Christianity, in the case of Christians, and Judaism, in the case of Jews. And that can only be done by Christians talking with Christians, and Jews doing the same thing with Jews. We now need to talk with ourselves to find out what we really have learned from the others.

At this point I would make bold to suggest that the time is ripe for the Jewish community to "regroup" as well. It will have quite different specific items on its agenda than does the Christian community, but they are no less important. For instance, could not Jews profit from a serious reflection on what it means for them to live in a world in which the church is on their side, rather than opposing and persecuting them? I have made this suggestion from time to time to Jews, some of whom have responded, "What makes you think there is, or is likely to be, such a world?" There are many signs, not least among them the fact that virtually all branches of organized Christianity have rejected the deicide charge, affirmed the validity of God's covenant with Israel, and vigorously opposed antisemitism. That the residue of centuries, when precisely the opposite was the case, continues to plague both Jews and Christians is no denial of the basic change in Christian understandings of Jews and Judaism that has taken place in our life-times. Not incidentally, that change in attitude represents a major alteration in Christianity itself, the significance of which has yet to be assimilated by the church.

I grant you that these suggestions are not very "dialogical." But we are now past the "dialogical" period in Jewish-Christian relations (which is not the case, however, with reference to other religions). We can and will continue to engage in dialogue on the basis of the principles we have struggled so long and hard to enunciate; we must not fail to do so -- but we are commanded to go beyond, to examine our own faith, our own religion. We are commanded by the God of history to look toward the re-shaping of Christianity itself in light of what we have learned from our Jewish colleagues.

There are some, many perhaps, who fear that such re-shaping would so alter Christianity that it would no longer be the same religion, the same faith, and that therefore the enterprise should be avoided. But they should be reminded that Christianity has changed many times during its history, some of those times radically. Moreover, in its most serious intent, theology is most faithful when it works toward changing Christianity into a fuller and more comprehensive understanding of God and what God is doing in the world in and through his people. And what could be more appropriate for the church than to learn about its own faith from encounter with the People of God, the Jewish people? There are two major areas of Christian theology that are benefiting from the dialogical encounter, but those benefits have not made their way into the life of the churches (another, the impact and significance of the Shoah, has had some, though still too limited, success). These are ( 1 ) the meaning of the land and state of Israel for Christians, coupled with the problem of the "peoplehood" of the Palestinians; and (2) beliefs and doctrines surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ.

(1) For too long the conflict of Israel with the surrounding Arab states and the Palestinians has been treated by the churches as a political problem with no genuinely religious component, when in fact it presents one of the most serious theological problems facing us today. Since this report is obviously not the place to enter into an extended discussion of the complexities of the problem, I will simply state the issue: How do we reconcile the church's definitive identity with the Jewish people, of whom Israel is today the most tangible and powerful symbol, with the church's conviction that its place is on the side of the poor and dispossessed? I submit that that question cannot be answered with political answers; only careful theology will suffice.

(2) In the area of beliefs and doctrines about Jesus and Christ the questions are many; I will mention but a few. What, for instance, is the import for Christianity of the Jewish denial that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the prophets? Do we continue to claim that they are wrong? Or do we take them seriously and ask what their claim might mean for Christian theology? What, for instance, do we make of the Jewish puzzlement, at best, over the Christian claim for the incarnation? Do we ignore it? Or do we take another look at our doctrine? And, then, there's the resurrection. How important is that for Christian faith? How can it be interpreted so as to make sense within a contemporary Jewish world-view, or, for that matter, within a contemporary scientific world-view? What have we learned about ourselves from our more than half century of serious and open encounter with Jews and Judaism?


The point I've been making is that we Christians need to stand back and take a look at ourselves, at our own religion, at our own faith and its basic tenets. No longer can we go on acting as though dealing with Jews was only a matter of good interreligious public relations, fighting antisemitism, and trying to get the church to understand why the State of Israel acts the way it does. All of these things are vitally important. But beyond them, time-honored Christian theologies and dogmas are in question. The effort to help the churches toward faithful responses to that question is, I would suggest, the unique role of the Consultation on the Church and the Jewish people as we look to the future.

How should we go about it? What should we do? Clearly the CCJP or the World Council, as such, cannot attempt to duplicate or replace the work that is being done by professional theologians. That is to say that we are in no position to produce de novo a definitive and revolutionary theological statement that will shock the churches into a revision of their faith understandings. that will cause them to pay heed to what we and others in the Jewish-Christian dialogue think we have learned. But it is the role of the CCJP to develop a procedure for distilling the theological learning that is being accumulated and making it available to the churches, their theological institutions, their clergy and laity.