Where Cultures Coexist

15 Jun 2020

In support of its mission to foster understanding, the Social Trends Institute collaborates with the Saxum Foundation to offer the Holy Land Dialogues (HLD) lecture series. HLD is a biennial invitation to the Holy Land that aims to immerse pilgrims from all walks of life in the ancient history and current reality of this small area of the world that is so uniquely rich in cultural heritage. STI invites scholars and public intellectuals to address the pilgrims with keynote speeches that center each year on a particular theme. Daniel Johnson, who has moderated all three editions, has written the following retrospective for STI:

STI Experts

The Holy Land Dialogues: A Retrospect

By Daniel Johnson


The Concept

There is nothing else quite like the Holy Land Dialogues. What makes them so special? I would answer that it is the unique combination of a pilgrimage to the cradle of Christianity, a Judeo-Christian encounter and an intellectual exchange at a high level yet accessible to all.

Due to the incredible energy of the staff of Saxum, hundreds of mainly Catholic pilgrims from all over the world are brought together in Jerusalem every year to experience first hand the holiest city on earth. Thanks to the wisdom of Carlos Cavallé, whose brainchild the Dialogues are, these pilgrims not only receive the spiritual nourishment of walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, but their souls are also uplifted by the discourses and discussions of eminent scholars. The Dialogues provide both education and entertainment to these seekers after truth, all of whom have come to the Holy Land with open hearts and minds, hungry for knowledge and insight into God’s purposes.

Such is the appetite to learn at the Dialogues that not only do the pilgrims listen attentively during the papers, but are eager to ask questions afterwards. The atmosphere of spiritual awakening is so strong that even after the formal proceedings are over, many people come up to the speakers to continue the dialogue. Almost without exception, the audience has been appreciative and feedback later has been positive.

One of the best aspects of the Dialogues has been the encounter between Jews and Christians. Jerusalem is, after all, not only the place of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, but also the ancient and modern capital of Israel. Our Jewish speakers have contributed decisively to the success of the Dialogues, adding an extra dimension to the pilgrimage and opening a new perspective for many.


The Experience

My own role as moderator of the Holy Land Dialogues has been unexpectedly rewarding. I have relished the challenge: the imperative to get up to speed with some very high-powered experts and the rough and tumble of chairing their debates. Although I first came to Jerusalem at the age of 19 and have returned a number of times since, these three visits as a guest of the Social Trends Institute and Saxum have been exceptional. First, because the company of pilgrims is always especially moving: they have come here from the ends of the earth, usually for the first time and often at great personal sacrifice, to see for themselves the places where God revealed Himself in all His glory. Secondly, because I have found each and every participant in the Dialogues to be impressive in his or her own way. With three I was already acquainted; the rest were new to me. But all of us have parted as friends. Such a feeling of fellowship is rare in my experience of academics and writers. Finally, my experience of the Dialogues has given me, too, food for thought. One year I found myself unexpectedly moderating a no-holds barred discussion between Israelis and Arabs. The intellectual intensity of such encounters cannot fail to leave its mark. This year, for example, the Dialogues took place just before Europe was plunged into the nightmare of the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation of lockdown. I myself was quite unwell with a pneumonia which may or may not have been caused by coronavirus. The memory of our exchanges in Jerusalem stayed with me throughout my illness and helped to sustain me. I am sure that many others who were present will also have drawn comfort from the Dialogues during this long ordeal.


The Contributions

The first Holy Land Dialogues in 2017 opened with a beautifully illustrated talk by Professor Andrew Briggs, who has studied at both Oxford and Cambridge and holds the chair of Nanomaterials at the former university. He is not only a physicist of renown but, more unusually, an Anglican theologian as well. Basing his remarks on his recent book The Penultimate Curiosity, he talked eloquently about the ways in which the smallest phenomena in creation illuminate the biggest questions of all. No less fascinating was his ability to draw on the history of science and the humanities, having worked closely with the artist Roger Wagner in researching his book. Curiosity, the readiness to inquire more deeply and the courage to question received wisdom, is a precious quality, not only for scientists, but for all of us. It was a delight to join Andrew for expeditions into the Old City in between sessions.

Eric Cohen, the executive director of the Tikvah Fund in New York, gave us a fiery and inspiring presentation, calling on his audience to stand up for Western civilization. For Eric, this means the Judeo-Christian traditions that derive ultimately from the Hebrew Bible. In my introduction to his talk, I quoted St John Paul II on his visit to the Holy Land, when he paid a visit to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and declared: “Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people.” In all our encounters with our “elder brothers”, as the late Pope called the Jewish people, we have been conscious of this terrible crime and the need to resist anti-Semitism from whatever source. The burden of Eric’s message was that Jews cannot defend our biblical civilization to which they have contributed so much, they cannot resist moral relativism and uphold the family-friendly values that ultimately come from God, all by themselves. “However grand the vision, we are too few,” he said. Christians too must play their part in the battle of ideas to create God’s kingdom here on earth.

In 2018, the second year of the Holy Land Dialogues, Rusty Reno took the stage. The Editor of the New York monthly First Things was controversial at the time and has become even more so since. And his paper on “Holiness in the Flesh” did not fail to stir up debate. Rusty, a Catholic convert whose wife is Jewish, argued that although Judaism rejects the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, it nevertheless shares with Christianity an urge to transform the spiritual into the real, to encounter God not only in heaven but on earth. This manifests itself in the here and now, the daily observance of the law. Rusty wanted us to set aside the question “what does it mean?” Instead, for Jews and Christians alike, the question should be: “What shall I do, Lord?”

My old friend Melanie Phillips offered a very Jewish response to Rusty’s very Catholic question. Her answer is simple: we must stop waging war against the religious roots of our Judeo-Christian morality in the name of a secularism that threatens to undermine Western civilisation. The moral codes that Jews and Christians share “are actually the Mosaic laws of the Hebrew Bible”. In the field of sexual morality in particular, Christians need to wake up and defend the constraints on conduct originally imposed by Judaism, “the mother-ship of Christianity”. Melanie turned conventional wisdom on its head by suggesting that the concept of a rational universe susceptible to scientific inquiry was a biblical, not a Greek, invention, and that atheism turns the universe back into an irrational place where laws do not apply. Her spirited defense of the indivisible unity of religion and reason chimes with Catholic thinkers ever since Augustine and Aquinas. The threat now is a reversion to a kind of barbarism that denies the biblical insights that made civilization possible. She concluded that without Judaism, “Christianity is nothing. And without Christianity, the West will become something very different indeed.”

After a hiatus in 2019, the Dialogues resumed in 2020 with a tighter, one-day format. Professor Mariano Crespo, from Navarra in Spain, and Professor Ruth Fine, from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, held the pilgrims spellbound with their papers on the theme of forgiveness. Mariano is a philosopher in the phenomenological tradition that also gave the Church such luminaries as St Edith Stein and St John Paul II. He took his cue from the remarkable act of forgiveness of the widow of a Spanish general towards the terrorist who had murdered her husband. How is such an act of pure, selfless generosity even possible? Mariano followed “the logic of forgiveness” to its ultimate conclusions. He placed the emphasis on the person who is forgiven even more than on the one who forgives. The wrongdoer can only benefit to the full extent from forgiveness if they regret and repent their actions, but such repentance must be freely given, or it is worthless. The audience may have struggled to follow all the professor’s arguments, but they certainly grasped the main point.

Ruth Fine, whose expertise lies mainly in Hispanic literature of the Golden Age, applied her knowledge of the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain to the theme of forgiveness. We learned a good deal from her discussion of the recent offer by Madrid to restore citizenship to the descendants of these refugees as an act of atonement for past wrongs. Most striking of all was her analysis of the captive’s tale in Don Quixote. Here was the greatest of Spanish authors,  a soldier and adventurer, who had fought the Turks at Lepanto and been incarcerated for years before being ransomed and freed. Such a man might be expected to have no empathy at all for the Muslim father who loses his daughter to the escaping Christian captives in the eponymous tale told in Don Quixote. Yet Ruth drew our attention to a remarkable fact: the father forgives his apostate daughter and her infidel companions, indeed offers them all his wealth, if only she will return to him. Such nobility of character shines through the narrative and is even more remarkable given that the period when Cervantes was writing was contemporaneous with the final expulsion of the Muslims from Spain. Our audience of pilgrims was evidently moved by Ruth’s account: here was a Jewish scholar speaking about Christian attitudes towards Muslims in Jerusalem, the city that is holy to all three religions.

All of our speakers contributed hugely to the success of the Dialogues. Yet it was the Jewish perspective — variously presented by Eric, Melanie and Ruth — that, perhaps because it was less familiar to our pilgrims, that left the deepest impression. We are grateful to all six lecturers for sharing with us their papers and their personalities. The Dialogues are an ongoing experiment in bringing together ideas, people and place. Pilgrimage is about coming closer to God through a physical and spiritual journey; dialogue is about coming closer to God through our common humanity. Each complements the other. May the Holy Land Dialogues continue to do God’s work, not only in Jerusalem, but in the homelands of all those pilgrims and others who take part.