Revive religious debates to promote understanding

February 10, 2005|By David Klinghoffer

THIS WEEK marks the beginning of the Christian penitential season of Lent. It's also the one-year anniversary of the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The film called forth a massive outpouring from American religious communities, which descended, as usual, into a widespread national squabble about religion in the most irrational and pointless fashion.

Penitence means looking frankly at our bad habits, regretting them and resolving to do better. So let's take the opportunity to shape up by learning to express disagreements in a way that uplifts and informs - by debating, formally and intelligently, about God.

The Passion revealed a serious theological fault line separating Jews from Christians. Prior to its release, groups led by the Anti-Defamation League used terrifying visions of medieval pogroms to demand that Mr. Gibson change not only his film but, implicitly, his very beliefs - specifically, the belief that Jews had a hand in Jesus' death. Mr. Gibson refused to be intimidated and did not back down. No pogroms materialized, and the ADL never apologized for manipulating emotions.

Within religions, disputes generate more noise than enlightenment. Protestant denominations are being torn apart by issues relating to the normalization of homosexual relationships, with emotional appeals too often taking the place of scriptural analysis. The alternative to the dumbing-down of religious disputes is not "dialogue," that namby-pamby, relativistic activity for academics and other religion professionals in which all sides are assumed to be somehow right. Rather, I propose reviving the ancient tradition of the religious disputation.

In medieval Spain and France, Jews and Christians debated the divinity of Jesus and truth of Judaism before audiences of kings, priests and laymen of both religions. Often, the Jewish debaters were terrified - held under house arrest by Christian authorities until the marathon debate was judged to be concluded, their arguments circumscribed by preset rules. But not always.

Today, we could revive the better features of the old disputations - American-style, in a spirit of freedom, friendship, tolerance and respect. There would be three major benefits to doing so.

First, the nation's exuberant religiosity would ensure that public religious debates would be entertainment, much more fun than "dialogue" with a panel of windbags.

Second, debate is like sport. The modern Olympic Games, a sublimation of international warfare, permit countries to exercise the natural inclination to beat an opponent, but in a safe and civilized venue. If Jews could debate Christians, if Christians could debate Muslims - and then all could smile and shake hands afterward - what a wonderful alternative that would be to insults and outbursts.

Third, debating religion is good for the soul. My own spiritual journey to Orthodox Judaism started with an encounter on UCLA's campus. I met a "Jews for Jesus" missionary, preaching on Bruin Walk, who revealed to me how little I knew then about my inherited religion, Judaism, prompting me to learn more.

God gave us brains to read the religious texts we love. Debate challenges us to re-examine what we think we know. It opens paths for sharpening our minds, deepening our relationship with God. Let's exercise our brains about the subject that matters, to many of us, more than any other: God. Let's debate.

I volunteer.

David Klinghoffer, a columnist for Forward, is author of the forthcoming Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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