Date: April 7, 2006
"Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you..." While the words to this popular Christian campfire jingle may indeed be trite, their message is a crucial one: there is no one son of Abraham, something subscribers to the three Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - tend to forget amid the current religio-political climate marked by rampant strife, suspicion, and stereotypes. Rather than embracing a common heritage, the orthodox use doctrinal and ideological differences as license to exclude, propagating I'm-right-you're-wrong mentalities.
In response to such skewed attitudes and general misconceptions among the three religions, concerned individuals gathered on the campus of Andrews University on March 28, 2006 for "Our Father Abraham," a symposium spotlighting Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations via a series of presentations delivered by a preeminent group of inter-confessional scholars. While they hail from around the world, the speakers share an ardent dedication to mutual tolerance, dialogue, and peace. Presentations explored the sociological, ethical, and philosophical dimensions of each religion, along with the theological grounds for each faith's attitude toward the other two with the hope of replacing narrow-mindedness and antagonism with common ground.
Jointly sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, and Shabbat Shalom, "Our Father Abraham" commenced with a morning presentation delivered by professor of Rabbinic Literature at the Schechter Institute, Mordechai Arad. Arad's lecture, "For the Sake of Peace: Rabbinic Evolving Attitude Toward Gentiles, Christians, and Moslems," looked at the history of the Jewish perspective of Christians and Muslims as is seen in Rabbinic literature throughout time. Arad noted that at the beginning of the Christian and Muslim faiths, these two religions were not considered to be Gentiles, or outsiders, by Jews, but rather were recognized for their commonalities.
Jacques B. Doukhan, professor of Hebrew language and ancient Egyptian, exegesis, and Jewish studies, and director of the Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, spoke on "Whose Son Are You?" Doukhan's message stressed that "brotherhood is a sign of sonhood." In other words, anyone claiming to be a son of Abraham had better show respect for his brother. Doukhan went on to suggest that "differences in belief are something precious to help us discover the Father." Thus, when we alienate Christians, Jews, or Muslims, we are turning our back to a facet of our Father's face not visible in our own reflection. Doukhan closed by reminding attendees of the results of religious intolerance and exclusion: "Disputes are often fueled because those who have sought to make Abraham exclusively theirs have in the process demonized the others" (Marvin R. Wilson, Shabbat Shalom, Spring, 2003). Doukhan's message that each faith not only acknowledge the other two, but commit to learn from what they do right, was echoed by speakers throughout the symposium.
Coordinator of the Kroc Institute's Program in Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (PRCP) at the University of Notre Dame, A. Rashied Omar, along with president and co-founder of the Islamic Education and Resources Network "ILearn," Soraya M. Orady, provided a Muslim perspective on inter-religio relations. Omar acknowledged the reality of interpretive ambivalence, as evidenced by those who wrongly use the Koran or the Bible to justify atrocities. He then grappled with the dilemma of reconciling the oneness of God with the diversity of creation, reasoning that "God is always greater than our limited and frail interpretations." "The litmus test of a good religion," Omar concluded, "is the extent to which our faith motivates us to embrace 'the other' as an extension of ourselves." Soraya Orady followed Omar's lecture with a comprehensive look at the Muslim faith, rooting the religion in a state of God-consciousness existent in Eden. Nodding to current political turmoil, Orady pointed out that "injustice is not a license for further injustice." "God alone is the only one qualified to judge," she clarified, "He alone knows all individual intentions and circumstances."
During an afternoon interview panel, representatives of the three religions: Soraya Orady; spiritual leader of Sinai Synagogue in South Bend, Ind., Michael Friedland; and Seventh-day Adventist Jerald Whitehouse committed to cultivating an "academic, authentic, and truthful discussion of religion." The panelists discussed what it means to be a child of Abraham, the role political greed and negative media play in aggravating the already fractured relationship among the three Abrahamic faiths, and how best to eradicate misconceptions and build community. Citing the moral of an ancient parable - "How can you say you love me when you don't even know what hurts me?" - Friedland zeroed in on the importance of communication. All three panelists advised proponents of their respective religions that the best way to destroy stereotypes and misinformation is to get acquainted and work together toward remedying issues of social injustice independent of any doctrinal or ideological thrust. As Whitehouse seconded, it is vital to approach inter-religio relations with a "non-sectarian agenda," if one hopes to discover the "tremendous commonalities" among the three religions.
Throughout the day, other symposium speakers included Jon Paulien, professor of New Testament interpretation at the Seventh-day Theological Seminary; Abigail Doukhan, professor and lecturer who is currently completing her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Nanterre, Paris, France, with an emphasis in contemporary ethics; Oystein S. LaBianca, professor of anthropology and senior director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University; and John Graz, director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Springs, Md.
"Our Father Abraham" concluded with a roundtable discussion held in the Howard Performing Arts Center. Afterward, attendees and speakers alike closed the evening with
light refreshments featuring Middle Eastern fare served in the Howard Center's lobby accompanied by musical selections inspired by traditional Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern pieces.