We are living through a period of pernicious religious intolerance, so it is vital that people of different faiths find new ways of healing the lethal divisions of the past. Jewish-Christian relations are especially problematic. For 1,000 years, Jews suffered persecution in Christian Europe and hatred of Judaism became a chronic disease in the churches, at both a popular and an official level. When Hitler attempted to exterminate European Jewry, he was able to tap into centuries of pious bigotry, and the death camps were a terrifying revelation of what can happen when we fail to revere the sacred rights and traditions of our neighbours.
How can Jews and Christians move beyond the Holocaust? Richard Harries, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford who has for years been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, has attempted to answer this question, by addressing some of the most contentious issues. He looks briefly at the history of anti-Semitism, explores ways in which Christians can best define their relationship to the Jewish Jesus, and asks how Jews regard Christianity. There are also political problems: how should Christians regard the state of Israel or Jewish claims to Jerusalem?
Harries concludes that Christians must become more fully conscious of the anti-Semitism that is never far from the surface. Christians and Jews must learn to disagree without dismissing each other, and they must hold to their traditions with humility, aware that God transcends the reach of all our attempts to formulate the divine. Finally, Christians must resist the anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament - which has led them in the past to see Judaism as a soullessly legalistic religion - and realise that it has a rich spiritual tradition of its own.
Few could disagree with these laudable conclusions. But Harries proceeds so cautiously that it is sometimes difficult to understand what he is trying to tell us. In each chapter, he is engaged in a balancing act, presenting contradictory perspectives with scrupulous fairness. Thus we are told that while forgiveness is an important Christian virtue, Jews believe that it is a strictly divine prerogative and that only the victims themselves can forgive their persecutors. Again, Harries explains that Christians must learn to understand the importance of the Holy Land in Judaism, yet at the same time they must become more responsibly aware of the suffering of the Palestinians. Having guided us through these potentially polarising positions, however, Harries leaves the reader floundering, with no clear or practical ideas about how we should resolve these tensions and move on, finishing each chapter with a vague, lofty peroration, which casts little light on the problem.
Harries seems afraid of saying anything new or to depart from convention. Instead of going out on a limb, he prefers to discuss the opinions of other theologians in the past. But the world has changed and we need fresh solutions. We have entered a period of history when religious hatred has become so dangerous that a more radical pluralism is no longer merely worthy and desirable but necessary for our very survival. In the US, for example, the Christian right are stirring up a vicious hatred of Islam that could imperil us all. We can no longer afford, even in the smallest degree, the assumption that our religion is right, and everybody else's is either wrong or second best.
Harries, however, believes that religions make certain claims to truth that cannot be laid aside with integrity. He spends a whole chapter discussing whether Christians should try to convert Jews, an idea that is grotesque in today's climate, but which Harries has to address, be- cause the more evangelical wing of his church still regards such a mission as a sacred duty. After a somewhat evasive and nervous probing of the pros and cons, Harries finally decides that Christians should make no deliberate attempt to convert their Jewish friends. Yet at the same time, he clearly feels that his Christian opinions must be a barrier to true communion and understanding.
But why should this be so? For centuries, Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians have asserted that when we are confronted with the ineffable mystery of God, we are at the end of what words and thoughts can do, and that our religious ideas are simply man-made, provisional attempts to express the inexpressible. Harries himself makes this point in his final chapter, but the book as a whole shows that he does not really believe it. Because they are sacred to us, it is all too easy to turn our beliefs and doctrines into idols and to forget that, on the subject of God, there is no last, definitive word. As a result, interfaith dialogue becomes stalled, each side believing that it alone is really in possession of the truth.
Harries dismisses this pluralism, seeing it as destructive of Christian identity. Yet in one of the more illuminating passages of his book, he explains that his belief in the incarnation was based on Aldous Huxley's claim that at the heart of every religion is the idea of kenosis: you give yourself away, in order to find yourself. When Harries read this in The Perennial Philosophy, it dawned upon him that the idea of a Creator who makes himself nothing by becoming incarnate in Jesus was a supremely beautiful expression of this universal religious insight.
Yet it is only supreme for Harries because he has internalised this Christian image in his prayer and ethical practice. Jews have their own ways of expressing the divine kenosis and making it their own. And if we take this ideal seriously, does it not follow that we cannot cling to what we see as our Christian identity, but must be ready to relinquish it in order to find ourselves anew in our radically altered world? Kenosis is difficult, especially perhaps for a bishop, but it may be more fruitful than Harries's carefully nuanced defence of the status quo.
Karen Armstrong's most recent book is The Battle for God: fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (HarperCollins)