Dialogue can be challenging especially when you see your faith from another perspective. Sometimes it challenges your very identity. This is especially true when it comes to supercessionism which is also called replacement theology, that is when one religion believes that it has a revelation that replaces or develops that of a previous one which can suggest a superiority. Christianity did it to Judaism. Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Hebrew scriptures; the Jews didn’t recognise him, so those who did and followed Jesus fell heirs to the promises given by God to the People of Israel. Christians had in fact replaced Jews as God’s Chosen People. Islam then did it to Judaism and Christianity when Muslims, while respecting the prophets of Judaism, including Jesus, claimed that Mohammed was the final prophet and the Qur’an the true expression of the Word of God. And the Baha’i faith reflects this attitude in believing that Baha’a’ullah is a further revelation from God which is appropriate for the modern age.
While in no way explicitly rejecting previous revelations it did feel a bit like supercessionism as I listened to an interpretation of the Christian scriptures which Baha’u’llah reinterpreted to show how he understood them or fulfilled them. This being accepted by Baha’is as the correct understanding of the scriptures. It raised for me questions about how to accept the integrity of another faith when one faith develops from another or is influenced by another. How do we accept the integrity of a faith’s understanding of scripture when it is shared or used by another faith but understood differently?
I had an experience of this a few months ago when I was involved in a project to interpret a scripture story depicted on a medieval tapestry which was to be put on display in the newly refurbished Burrell Museum in Glasgow. The story chosen was that of the story in Genesis 22 of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son but being saved from doing so by an angel. The Christians and Jews shared the same text but interpreted it in different ways and even had different names for it. For Jews the story is called the Binding of Isaac or the Akedah and shows the total submission to God’s will of Abraham, the exemplar of faith. It’s because of Abraham’s obedience and willingness to kill his son that God tells him, “Because you have done this…I will bestow my blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore” (Genesis 22:16–17). Isaac was saved and a ram sacrificed in his place and in memory of this a ram’s horn is blown each year at the festival of Rosh Hashanah to remind God of the Akedah and his promise to bestow blessings on God’s People and safeguard their future.
Christians on the other hand refer to the story as the sacrifice of Isaac and see in it a prefiguration of the death of Jesus on the Cross. They approach the same story from a different viewpoint, from their own theological understanding of seeing Christ at the centre of revelation. For one person in our group this was a bit disconcerting – another faith interpreting her faith, not only differently but in a way that could suggest the Christian understanding was the correct one. It was very obvious that we are standing in different places with different mind sets even when we read the same scriptures.
This was the case with my interaction with my Baha’i friends which was enjoyable and friendly but used passages from the Gospels and understood them in a way that was alien to me. It was obvious that our whole approach to the Gospels was quite different. For me the scripture was saying something about Jesus and the reality of God’s relationship with humanity, while for the Bahai’s the same scripture was used to show that the Christian understanding was inadequate and replaced by a further revelation. Do I have the right to say that this was wrong? Not really because I don’t own my scriptures. The scriptures of the world religions contain a wisdom that is universal and available to all and as such are not the property of any one faith. For the Baha’is or Baha’u’llah to interpret the Christian scriptures as proof of the validity of his own faith is an act of faith in itself and it’s this that has to be acknowledged by saying Baha’is believe that this ……… means……….. Christians too have to acknowledge that their understanding of these same texts is based on their faith, perhaps even foundational to it.
What all this says to me is that we need to be sensitive when using scripture within the context of dialogue. We need to listen and acknowledge different understandings, be sensitive to supercessionist texts and what impact they can have on our dialogue partners. We also need to face up to the challenges that a replacement theology poses as we acknowledge our respect for the integrity of other faiths – a respect which is foundational to interreligious dialogue.