Rabbi Irving Greenberg, left, and Imam Yahya Hendi, practise the Three Testaments' premise by listening to each other at the Pope John II Cultural Centre in Washington.

CNS PHOTO | RICK MUSACCHIO

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, left, and Imam Yahya Hendi, practise the Three Testaments' premise by listening to each other at the Pope John II Cultural Centre in Washington.

September 10, 2012
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

Faith is a difficult subject to bring up with our children, our own flesh and blood. How many of us would endure earnest talk of faith from friends? A combination of courage and psychopathology is necessary before most Christians can talk about faith with strangers.

So, what chance does interfaith dialogue really have?

Brian Brown is not so easily dissuaded. The United Church minister and prolific author is convinced all we need is the right starting point.

"The most basic approach is to go to each others' Scriptures," he said in an interview. "If we're to understand what each other aspires to be, the place to begin is each others' Scriptures."

That's the premise behind Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel and Quran. Brown has assembled Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to introduce modern, readable translations of the three texts. The scholars explain how the holy books of each community are used and understood within the faith they represent.

In the 21st century the three Abrahamic faiths do not occupy separate patches of the globe or even separate social spheres. The three major faiths of the West rub shoulders daily, and we have the wars to prove it.

For Brown, getting past the dialogue of caricatures, suspicion, fear and resentment is a matter of life and death. "It's an antidote to the burning of the Quran," he said.

It's not just terror attacks in far off capitals, or sick minds blowing up cars and shooting up theatres, that has Brown concerned. Ordinary Christians, Muslims and Jews have all been touched by the toxic stew of interfaith ranting, slander and innuendo.

NEGATIVE IMPACT

"I had a person tell me they were a little afraid to go to the hospital in Niagara Falls because most of the doctors are Muslim. These are good, sensible Christian people who are influenced by those bomb-makers and now need to hear from the Scripture authorities," he said.

"Eighty per cent of Christians - and I'm guessing 80 per cent of Muslims and Jews - are so negatively impacted by the bombers and bloggers that good, proper-thinking Christian people getting emails that are cockeyed develop strange notions about their Muslim neighbours or their Jewish neighbours."

David Bruce, a United Church minister for 25 years who is now the lay Catholic director of The Good Neighbours' Club for homeless men in Toronto, introduces the Gospel in Three Testaments.

ACCESSIBLE TEXT

With doctorates from California's Fuller Theological Seminary and Toronto's University of St. Michael's College, Bruce believes the Three Testaments approach works because it's based on solid scholarship and aimed at ordinary, intelligent readers.

"Anybody who picks up a National Geographic and enjoys the articles should be able to enjoy Three Testaments," he said.

It's also successful because the book isn't trying to cram three different religions into a single test tube of kind and fluffy thoughts.

"There's an increasingly large proportion of Western Christianity that says there really isn't any difference in the world religions if you boil it all down," said Bruce.

"We're not saying that. We're saying that there are real differences but that doesn't mean we can't stand side by side and listen to one another."

The book is meant to be read by people of faith. It's not an outsider's sociological analysis of religion as a curious phenomenon among certain classes of people.

"All of this is written by believers to believers of other faiths," said Bruce.

As such it's the antidote to common distortions that hijack religion, said Brown.

"Scriptures are abused and can be made to say things. This project is a joint project of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars to run counter to that, to say, 'Let the Scriptures speak for themselves.' "

BOOK LAUNCH

The book is as much a cause as it is literature. Brown wants it read in seminaries and on university campuses. The book launch will take place in seven cities, beginning at Ground Zero in New York. New York launch events include a Sept. 9 interfaith rally in St. Peter's Church next door to Ground Zero.

The book also has something to say to people who dismiss religious thinking or think religious people incapable of solving religious conflict, said Bruce.

"There is a stereotype out there that anybody who is actually committed to one of the three great Western faiths has somehow parked at least a section of their brains - they've put it in neutral. That's just not the case," he said.

"In fact, the best scholarship in all three religions is by those who actually practise the faith. . . .

"It's important for the three Abrahamic religions to hear each other on their own terms. When you bring them so close together in a single volume, they don't really have any choice."