Comparative Spiritualities: Formative Christianity and Judaism on Finding Life and Meeting Death
by Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner
Morehouse Publishing Don't be misled by the title of this marvelous book, which may suggest the mushiness of that recent special issue of The New York Times Magazine, in which we learned that close to 50% of our fellow Americans believe that the best religion is one that combines elements from many different religions.

That mix-and-match approach is the logical conclusion of the vogue for generic spirituality. In contrast, when Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner talk about religion--exchanging chapters in a dialogue--they are talking about an encompassing way of being:

"Spirituality...is more than the sum of what a person might report of the existence of God and related topics; rather, it involves the composition of experience itself within the religious system which makes a culture and a consciousness possible."

In other words, there's no such thing as pure religious "experience" prior to the religious system in which that experience is formed and defined. Seen from this perspective, the feel-good, democratic, consumer religion suggested by the Times poll is not so much wrong as it is illusory--a fake. The claim that we postmodern folk prefer "spiritual experience" to "organized religion" is simply nonsense, since without "organized religion" we wouldn't have the categories that allow us to recognize spiritual experience in the first place.

Alasdair MacIntyre has shown in his book "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" that a universal rationality is an Enlightenment myth. Chilton and Neusner similarly show that there is no generic spirituality but rather rival spiritualities. "The distinctive qualities of Judaism and Christianity only become apparent under comparison," they write. "Without it, the spirituality of each seems just to be a matter of a relatively greater or lesser degree of piety."

So, for example, they compare and contrast Jewish and Christian approaches to death. The Jewish believer aspires to "the sage's good death," as Neusner puts it; "Judaism confronts death with the persistent practice of the same virtues it endorses every day." The Christian, on the other hand, rather than confronting death as an irreducible fact, sees it as a transformation, "a profound shift in the very medium in which we are human," and through which "the prospect of spiritual being is opened up to us."

This dialogue between Chilton and the legendarily productive Neusner, who have collaborated on a number of previous books on Jewish-Christian themes, is exemplary as much for its civility as for its learning and clarity. While they respect each other--and each other's tradition--enormously, Chilton and Neusner acknowledge significant differences, contradictions, conflicts in understanding. Ordinary believers like most of us, who cannot begin to approach the learning of these men, can learn from them not only about the commonalities and the differences between Jewish and Christian spiritualities but also how to conduct interfaith conversations.

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