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Fundamentalist Relativism: A Bad Choice

Rabbi Stern’s recent comments on Pope Benedict and the direction in which he is taking the Catholic Church gives good cause for alarm. On the one hand, the Pope is certainly well within his rights (and role) to assert that Catholic doctrine is the sole truth and all those outside of the Church will suffer eternal damnation. On the other hand, this is almost surely not a helpful point to bring out when one also claims to be seeking greater interfaith understanding.
I certainly understand that in interfaith dialogue everyone is entitled to their theological convictions, as we discussed on this blog a few weeks ago, and no one should enter dialogue seeking to prove someone else is wrong. But I see real problems with the “fundamentalist relativism” Rabbi Stern describes. Fundamentalism is based on assuming your truth alone is complete and correct, without allowing the possibility for questioning and discovery. There is a great difference between saying, “I believe Jesus is the one and only path to salvation” and “Jesus is the one and only path to salvation.” The former informs the listener while the latter seeks to make a claim upon him.


Relativism too poses grave difficulties. It’s attractive and easy to say: You can believe whatever you want and I can believe whatever I want, since who’s to say what’s right? But such an approach confers the “blessing” of religion on every practice from murdering infidels to honor killings to human sacrifice (if you imagine taking that approach with the ancient Mayans).
I would like an approach to interfaith dialogue that is neither fundamentalist nor relativistic–to have participants engage one another with an acknowledgment that each of us holds some piece of truth and, only by working together to see what core principles we share, can we really come to see what is true. Religion should uphold values of human dignity, of justice, of compassion, of love, of right action, and of finding holiness in the world. We may have different ways to get there but that’s not the same thing as taking a relativist position of saying, “Sure, but hatred, injustice, and violence are nice values too.” Insist on the integrity of your own position but strive to see what truths one can learn from the other: this is the formula for dialogue that Pope Benedict seems to be missing.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 12:37 pm

I do know that Christians believe in “love your neighbor” and they believe in charity. These are also Jewish beliefs. We all believe that murder, stealing, adultery, and lying are wrong. That we should honor and care for our parents. And that we should be loyal to the God we believe in. What other beliefs do we share?

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john brungardt

posted July 13, 2007 at 2:38 pm

My advice to Rabbis Stern and Waxman is to actually read the statement you are criticizing before you make the criticism. Readers can go directly to the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at
Nowhere does the Pope state that those outside the Catholic Church will suffer eternal damnation. Technically, this is a statement by the prefect of the congregation, not a Papal statement, although the Pope may have approved its release.
More on point, the response to the third question quotes Vatican II to the effect that the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using separated churches and other communities as instruments of salvation, i.e. they possess elements of sanctification and truth, and that they “are deprived neither of signficance nor importance in the mystery of salvation…”
The distinction that is drawn though is that it is to the Catholic Church that the fullness of grace and truth has been entrusted. You may of course disagree with that, just as non-Jews can dispute the concept of “Chosen People”, but I do not understand how these statements can honestly be interpreted as imposing eternal damnation on non-Catholics.
The responses quote liberally from the documents of Vatican II to make the point that these statements do not represent any change from the teachings of the council. Anyone claiming that this recent document represents an attempt to repeal the reforms of Vatican II is simply uninformed as to its teachings. And those teachings are not inconsistent with the ecumenical efforts that have been made since the council, nor are those efforts at all harmed by this statement.
The real problem, I believe, is that people are reacting to a very distorted article from the Associated Press which sought to put the worst possible spin to the statement. If people feel outrage, it should be directed at this journalistic deception.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 7:07 pm

“On the one hand, the Pope is certainly well within his rights (and role) to assert that Catholic doctrine is the sole truth and all those outside of the Church will suffer eternal damnation.”
Like John, I think Rabbis Stern and Waxman—and many others—have misinterpreted what the Pope has said. (Catholicism, like Judaism, is a faith of complex legalese. :-)
From the way I understand it, Catholicism teaches that the RCC is the one path to Heaven. However, in what does seem to be a case of “have your cake and eat it too,” they teach that non-Catholics or non-Christians can go to Heaven, because, in essence, any good person is a member of the church “in spirit,” basically. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but the pope did not overturn that ruling, merely clarified it with what seems to be somewhat bad wording.
God bless.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 8:52 pm

Sadly jews and all Christians have different point of view on G-d. Us Christians for most part believe Jesus-G-d.
It is so inslut to tell other your faith is wrong and my is right. Just other day a hindu priest was saying prayers and some right wing christians attack his prayer. This was petty and rude. It seem all our faiths no matter what it is in poof taste at time. we need to look more to our common humanity and our devotioal of love for all. I think in all honest jews and christians , muslim worship the same God, but have their own theology languse. Maybe all our faith have error in them and we need realized maybe God speak in all of them somehow. G-d bless you all who read this. Shalom and gassho to you All.

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posted July 13, 2007 at 10:22 pm

If the Pope (or anyone for that matter) really believes that a person will “spend eternity in hell” unless he (or she) makes a profession of belief in Jesus the Christ as Saviour, would that Pope (or other person) not be obliged (morally, at least)to compel others to believe in Jesus the Christ?

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posted July 13, 2007 at 11:00 pm

Yahweh is the great I AM, our G-d who created us, and this earth and everything in it. Life is not about trying to find out through common ground what is the truth. G-d is the truth, He put us here to worship Him and seek His word with all of our heart, and when you seek, truely seek-you will find Him who loves you. This goes for every religion out here. G-d is the “core principal” that we all share. If there are any other questions I can help you with rabbi – I would be happy to :)

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posted July 14, 2007 at 1:05 pm

I have a funny feeling that no one has thought to ask G_d what he thinks. Now if they would then they might just get an answer. Scary huh?
In addition, people say G_d has spoken through the scriptures. Yes this may be very true. However sometimes people have trouble interpreting what they have read. Would it hurt to ask G_d for a little help.
As for the Jews being G_d’s chosen people. Well exactly what are they chosen for? Should this bother the rest of the human race? No, not really if they comprehend the science of the human genome and read the scriptures very closely. The Lord’s prophets prophecies are all coming true. Maybe Jews, Christians, and Moslems will be very surprised.
All would be wise to remember before religion, there was G_d. G_d does not need religion. Religion is for man.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 10:12 am

I agree with John Brungardt on what he posted. You must read the whole document to get the real meaning to what has been written. First this is not a reversal of any relationship with other churches since Vat.II. It is the same position as it has been this way as long as I can remember. I have given up on the NY Times for full reporting – they too have taken pieces out so that one does not get the full text. I go to and to the Vatican Information Service for full documents. Thank God a Lutheran Minister who is the head of the AL and the head of the Anglican church in England understood the text. Sorry if the Rabbi didn’t.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 12:01 pm

Just some thoughts… why do people write G-d instead of God? God is the entity not the Name.
I applaud Julie and shood in their reminder to us that God is the core principal and God does not need religion.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 12:18 pm

1/ Since Rabbi Waxman comes from a branch of Judaism that believes that the Torah was written by flawed humans but was ‘divinely inspired’ or some such equivocation he doesn’t understand what the phrase ‘belief’ is from a religious perspective.
The Pope believes in Catholicism. That means that if you do not believe in Catholicism you aren’t believing what is true. Therefore there is no difference between the two phrases about Jesus mentioned above, and there is no reason to differentiate between them.
2/ Jews use the phrase G-d because to do otherwise in an age of pen and ink would be to make a graven image of G-d. Also paper is thrown out. There is some debate as to whether this should be applied to writing on the computer. I sometimes err in this.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 12:52 pm

Being a High Anglican Kath, converting to the Catholic faith, I have to say I agree with the Pope. The Catholic Church is based on the Jewish Faith, then taken beyond that.
As someone who can’t eat a ham and cheese sandwich without a tummy ache (I found vegan meats the solution to that problem), I can honestly say I follow the Doctrine of Judah, however, I have been lead there by Jesus Christ, to truly understand the beauty of a unified faith. Egypt to Ireland is a long way to walk in an uncomfortable pair of sandals.
I believe in Latter Day Saints, I believe in bot Bearing False Witness. I believe that the 613 Commandments were designed to help us lead pure lives, in GOD’s love. I believe that traditionalism is not a sin, the same could be true of the Catholic faith. We hold on to the old rules to make current life understandable.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 1:49 pm

the rabbi’s point is the missunderstand of people like thousand in the past and now, that use anything to do violence against someone who doesn’t believe what they do, I can see non of you is part of them, but those people exists, and missunderstanding, can hurt someone else non catholic, and that is really serious, that kind of missunderstand
has made the biggers religious wars in the world, …maybe sounds
exegarate, but who can blame to the jews for that, being hurt just because they are jews, …….evreyone here talk about to love ….but I can see that evreyone forgot to love , THE LOVE COVERS SINS or fears , or mistakes.or…whatever,,,,,love you all,god bless you.

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Pauline Gill

posted July 15, 2007 at 1:59 pm

Just some thoughts to add, Being a practising catholic I find
it very sad to hear Pope Benedict being criticized. He is
the head of our church and is a good man. Far from saying that
catholics are intolerant to any other religion nothing could be further from the truth. We have total respect for all the other religions regardless of class colour or creed. We see
Jesus in ourselves and everybody else.
Peace and God bless to all.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 5:00 pm

If anyone is confused about the differences between being a Catholic and being a practioner of Judaism, then please by all means let them finish the sixth grade.
Pope Benedict is a breath of fresh air when it comes to a Pope saying what it is to be a Catholic. Let politicians and sales reps try to get everybody to but into what they are selling.
Benedict has decided that deception is not honest.
He may be wrong on some aspects of walking with God, but he is certainly not wrong on aspects of what it is to be a Catholic.
He should be applauded for being honest, if he wants to preach the Gospel of Christ Jesus accurately, he’ll have to get around to loving everyone fairly soon. And one thing needs pointing out, THIS Pope is against war settling differences.
I’m not a Catholic and I am not upset by Benedict at all.

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posted July 15, 2007 at 5:05 pm

Umm, by the way . . .
Isn’t it a “fundamental” fact that “a Jew” cannot believe in Jesus as the Messiah and “still” be a Jew?
Would some non-Christian Rabbi please answer my question as honestly as Pope Benedict handles his authority?

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posted July 15, 2007 at 7:43 pm

The Jewish definition of what the messiah is and does and the Christian definition are two entirely different concepts. A messiah, in Judaism, is supposed to accomplish a specific set of goals – among them bringing all the Jews back to Israel and ushering in an age of peace. Jesus didn’t do that, therefore by Jewish definition he was not the messiah. It may interest you to know another Jew claimed to be the messiah about 200 years after Jesus, but was also proven not to be the messiah. Jesus was a rabbi. He believed in Jewish law. Paul was the one who said Jesus would come back to life and fulfill the goals the messiah is meant to fulfill. Peter embellished that further. It was because of Paul and Peter that the break with Judaism occured. They were the founders of Christianity, preaching three ideas not present in Jewish thought: 1) that sins are forgiven through Jesus, 2) that Christians should love their enemies, and 3) that people can only come to God through Jesus. Jews believe anyone can come to God.

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Larry Lennhoff

posted July 16, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Isn’t it a “fundamental” fact that “a Jew” cannot believe in Jesus as the Messiah and “still” be a Jew?
I’m neither a rabbi nor a Christian, but I’ll venture to answer this question anyway. A Jew who believes the Jesus is the messiah is an apostate, but still a Jew. Judaism is not exclusively a faith community. It makes no sense to say “I’m a non-believing Episcopalian”. It is perfectly viable to say “I’m a non-believing Jew”. Although in Orthodox eyes such a person loses many of the privileges of being a Jew, a Jew they remain, and the gates of teshuvah (repentance) are always open.

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posted July 16, 2007 at 2:10 pm

I want to thank Dave for his reply; and, also “linoscript” for his post, and Larry Lennhoff for reminding us all that, “the gates to teshuva are always open”…
It is always good to talk and share our thoughts. But we must always remember that the greatest gift to humanity is the knowledge that we are all G-d’s children and all created in His image.
I am so thankful that I am able to read the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and not have to simply rely on reading or listening to what someone one else says the Bible tells us or what Jesus taught.

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posted July 16, 2007 at 2:49 pm

To the poster who wrote: > I have to pipe in here and say that this concept has been taken out of context by most non-Jews and probably some unaware Jews as well. It was according to tradition and interpretation a joint decision. God offered The Torah to other nations, and God was was refused. Only the Hebrews agreed to accept God’s laws. So in effect, God and the Hebrews chose each other. Hence the Jews were the chosen people of God. It is amazing how things are strewn out of context over the years. There is not doubt that Jews have contributed many gifts to our civilization because of the history of a love of education and a love to make this a better world. Even a non-Jew realized this in his book, > But if Jews were chosen, it was mutual and perhaps designed to put some order and discipline into humans’ lives during Biblical Times.

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posted July 16, 2007 at 3:51 pm


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posted July 16, 2007 at 11:01 pm

Jews write G-d without the “O” in fulfillment of the commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the L-rd G-d in vain,” any writing which will get destroyed or erased or defaced, is not permitted to spell out His name, according to Jewish law.
Prayer books and Bibles have the “O” in His name, since these are holy books that do not get discarded or defaced. Old Jewish holy books are buried in a cemetery, not thrown away…Joe

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laura t mushkat

posted July 17, 2007 at 5:44 pm

I must disagree with the author that we can all come together to see what is true.
I do not believe in G-d the way many others do and many do not believe as I do.
I think everyone comes to their own decision on what is the truth.
As a Jew and an individual I would find other religons interesting, but I base my truth on what I have come to believe thruout the years.
It may or may not agree with other Jewish thought as well as non-Jewish. It hurts nobody and feels good to me for what I have lived thru, what I will live thru, and the afterlife.
As far as religon goes I am content. If others were also things would be so much better for our world.

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