On “supersessionism”: Abrahamic faiths in history
By Clive Kessler*
Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 @ 1:01AM
Supersessionism (also called replacement theology or fulfilment theology) is a Christian theological view on the current status of Jews and Judaism. Supersessionism designates the belief that the Christian Church has replaced the Israelites as God’s chosen people and that the Mosaic covenant has been replaced or superseded by the New Covenant.
This view directly contrasts with dual-covenant theology which holds the Mosaic Covenant as valid for Jews…
While supersessionism has been common throughout the history of Christianity and remains a common assumption among Christians, since the Holocaust it has been rejected by mainstream Christian theologians and denominations. [Wikipedia].
Underlying the “rage against history” that lurks in the soul of the Muslim world today is something that few people know of or understand: the impetus provided by one hugely important but scarcely recognised fact. The historical fact of religious supersessionism.
Supersessionism is not just the historically specific “subsumption”, or attempted absorption, of Judaism by, and within, Christianity.
It is also, and must be seen as, a more general and generic process in religious history and evolution.
Within the Abrahamic faith tradition, in addition to the Christian subsumption (or appropriation and selectively self-validating incorporation) of Judaism), there is also Islamic or Muslim supersession with which, and whose implications, we must all come to terms.
Our ability to understand today’s world and to cope with the enormous interfaith and inter-civilisational challenges and conflicts that mar the face of our now shaky “liberal modernist” dispensation and age depend heavily upon our doing so.
Islam is quite explicit about its own triumphalist supersession of its two predecessor faiths in Abrahamic monotheism. The problem is that too many people —— especially those who with hope and evident sincerity pursue “interfaith dialogue” in all too simplistic ways —— fail recognise “Islamic supersessionism”. They fail to grasp the clear, but constraining, implications of Islam’s supersessionist stance towards its two predecessor faiths.
Constraints upon Muslims in what they may bring to and how they may come into genuinely conciliatory “interfaith dialogue” (and “trialogue”): on an “even footing” with Judaism and Christianity, and fully open to their interfaith interlocutors. And constraining too, meaning limiting and restrictive, upon the possibility of what such conversations may consider, explore and resolve among their participants and the religious outlooks that they represent.
These are not easy matters to understand. But, if we are to make sense of world and its current interfaith predicaments and antagonisms, they must be understood.
So let me try to explain what is involved: to make clear the nature of the challenge that we face here and how, on what basis of historical understanding, we may begin to cope with it.
Theses on supersessionism
1. Judaism, Christianity and Islam: does any of them (and if so which) have, from its origins and hence in its “foundational” character, an “inbuilt” doctrinal attitude, an inherent orientation and stance, towards the other two? Yes, Islam and only Islam does.
2. Islam comes after Judaism and Christianity, and sees itself as their successor and culmination. In its beginnings and originating processes, from its formative moments, it had knowledge of them. From its outset, as Muhammad said (and as his followers have continued to see it and hold), Islam was explicitly built upon them.
3. Judaism had no such doctrinally constitutive knowledge of Christianity and Islam. It simply could not have any such idea. It preceded them historically. It was untouched by, unaware and “quite innocent of”, any idea of successors. Before Christianity and Islam arrived on the scene of human religious evolution, it simply conceived of itself as the singular faith —— as the one and unique faith neither requiring nor implying any others or any “improved” successors —— of a principled and consistent monotheism.
It saw and understood itself in Biblical and immediately post-biblical times (together, a very long historical period of many centuries) simply as an island of monotheism in a vast sea or ocean of pagan idol-worship and polytheism.
It saw no need for any other monotheistic faith, and had no idea of nor any “doctrinal space” for any other. It simply could and did not imagine that there might be any other, new Abrahamic monotheism, any successors. (And when, as with such great medieval Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides 1135/38 – 1204), it had to come to terms with their existence, it acknowledged them as different and additional —— even if from its own perspective unnecessary —— monotheisms: as faiths whose true believers might and would “enter the world to come”.)
4. Christianity has an “inbuilt” view of and hence a constitutive stance toward Judaism (but, again, preceding it historically, not towards Islam). It sees itself as built upon and succeeding, as completing and correcting, Judaism, as the only previously existing form of Abrahamic monotheism —— as “rectified” Judaism —— and it took definitive shape, religious and historical, upon that foundation.
In time, with Aquinas (1225 -1274), Christianity came to see and explicitly declare itself as Israel verus, as now “the true Israel”, after the proud and wilful Jews had forfeited divine favour and mercy by rejecting Jesus as their true saviour, their rightfully “anointed” messiah.
“The suffering of the Jews”, meaning the systematic Church-driven persecution inflicted upon the Jews in the Middle Ages, was officially portrayed and doctrinally explained as simultaneously the consequence, the proof and also the justification of their perverse rejection of the one true redeemer of Christendom and universal humankind.
For Christianity, Judaism was —— on this decided view, an authoritative statement of long evolving attitudes —— simply too difficult to be properly understood by Jews and too important to be entrusted to their custodianship and care. That was now done, and done better than the Jews had been doing it for centuries, by Christianity.
This attitude is what we mean by “supersessionism”. Laid out in this way, it demonstrates “the arrogance of supersessionism”.
5. Some Christians are dismayed to see reports of Muslims hailing, and claiming, Jesus, or “their Jesus” as some Christians put it —— since he is mentioned and his prophetic status recognised in the Quran —— as a “prophet of Islam”.
Christians of this kind are unable to recognise —— they are obstructed and even prevented from recognising —— Islamic supersessionism towards Christianity and recognising it as such largely because (or so it may be plausibly argued) they have failed fully, or at all, to grasp their own, and Christianity’s, formative and foundational (or “constitutive” and “inbuilt”) supersessionism towards Judaism. Theirs is a failure to come fully to terms with and acknowledge Christianity’s (and hence their own) unilateral, selective and self-validating appropriation of “the Jewish faith tradition”; to understand the fact and consequences of Christianity’s defining pre-occupation with its own preferred version and construction of historical Judaism. This failure rests upon yet obscures another: a failure to recognise Judaism for what it was and is, as the primary and, in its own terms, sufficient and self-sufficient monotheism.
So when Christians speak of the “Old Testament”, they see and can read it only in the light of their own “New” Testament —— the completion and clarification of its (for them) unfinished or incomplete predecessor. Christians of this doctrinal attitude and inclination have no ability to understand, and no real interest in seeking to understand, Biblical and formative Judaism, including its Bible (“Old” Testament) as a free-standing, historically autonomous and self-sufficient faith “in its own right”, sui generis.
Christianity —— as a historical tradition, entity and ensemble of ideas –— finds it difficult to cope and come to terms with, to accept, its own appropriation by and treatment at the hands of Islam –— its being made subject to a repertoire of supersessionist attitudes and strategies —— because (for the most part, with very honourable exceptions) it resists understanding, and so fails to grasp and recognise, its own formative and foundational supersessionist treatment (or non-consensual, un-negotiated appropriation) of Judaism.
6. In time, next in historical sequence, came Islam. Islam, according to its own self-understanding, completed and repaired, it augmented and rectified, it appropriated and superseded (lit., “sat on top of”) Judaism and Christianity. But, perhaps having seen what Christianity had made of and done with Judaism, Islam soon insulated itself against being in turn similarly absorbed and incorporated by another revelation on its terms: against being superseded or (to use a colloquial term) “gazumped” by any subsequent successor faith in the same historical tradition. (Hence the branding as “heretical”, in many Islamic countries and the suppression and harassment, of groups, or “deviant sects” as orthodox Islam characterises them, such as the Ahmadiyyas or, pejoratively, “Qadianis”: the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community or the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at founded in nineteenth century India by one Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.)
It did so by declaring its founding prophet Muhammad the “seal of prophecy”, the closure of all legitimate revelation, the final and definitive prophet. And at the same time, in that same act of historical closure, the Quran —— the ultimately transcribed and accepted record of the revelation entrusted to him —— was deemed the primary yet final and complete, the perfect and unalterable, word of God. Final because that was the end of the matter, of authentic revelation; and primary since, long before it was entrusted piecemeal by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad and then preserved by his followers in a standard written form, it had been, in its pristine totality, “in the mind of God”, so to speak, before and ontologically preceding God’s creation of the world itself. It was the pre-existing template and blueprint of created worldly reality. So both first and final, definitively.
7. In the language of the financial press, the history of Abrahamic monotheism consists (not just from Judaism’s own internal or partisan standpoint, but from a detached outside vantage-point of historical analysis) of not one but two successful non-consensual and uninvited or “hostile” reverse “take-over bids”. Two, but only two, no more. By declaring his revelation final and complete and so establishing himself as the final prophet, Muhammad closed the door on the possibility of his, or Islam’s, ever being theologically subsumed in the same way.
8. Jews and the evolving Jewish tradition have come (both before and since Maimonides, who straddled the worlds of all three Abrahamic faiths and their civilisations, first in Andalusia/Spain, then in North Africa and Egypt) to include views towards Christianity and Islam that were always “contingently formed”, humanly fashioned in the course of human history. Adverse or otherwise, these views are in no way doctrinally pre-determined, founded, entrenched, “sacralised” as part of the faith’s holy tradition and revelation, or underwritten in or by sacred texts.
Christianity is predisposed and pre-committed towards, or resolved and founded upon, what was, or became, a “doctrinally given” stance towards Judaism, but not towards Islam.
9. Islam, in a very specific and explicit and rigorous way, is committed to, and hence also shaped and limited by, such a pre-determined view of, and stance towards, both Judaism and Christianity. While one must be wary about offering “biologising” metaphors and explanations of social and cultural realities, one might say that Islam’s view towards the two predecessor Abrahamic faiths is an “inherent” one; that Islam has these views as part of its formative nature or “in its very bones” (or DNA, a people now like, often unhelpfully, to say).
In other words, that doctrinally given or predetermined view and stance is not incidental but central to Islam’s sacred tradition —— and is hence, where and among those for whom the sacred is still seen as sacred, obligatory and immutable.
This fact, this mandatory —— because “inbuilt” and sacredly entrenched —— and pejorative dismissal of Judaism and Christianity in their own terms (as distinct from Islam’s own selective, self-defining and self-validating typifications of them) has enormous implications for the possibility of constructive “interfaith dialogue” (and “trialogue”) between the three Abrahamic faith communities and their representatives.
It imposes massive restrictions and limitations upon such engagements, even (and especially) those among and involving “sincere, loyal believers”.
The doctrinally predetermined and constitutive or defining views of Judaism and Christianity that Islam and its representatives must bring to any such engagement cannot but inhibit, and impose serious obstacles to, the exploration and clarification and so-called “negotiation” (or mutual specification and articulation) of the salient differences, as well as points of commonality and convergence, between the three faith traditions and communities of Abrahamic monotheism.
10. So the key question is posed: on what basis, from what available position compatible with their own religion’s constitutive doctrinal foundations, are Muslims “of good faith” to enter, and to enter “in good faith”, into “interreligious conversation” with Jews and Christians?
This second invocation here of “good faith” refers not to the doctrinal principles of their faith but to the presuppositions and imperatives of democratic pluralist “discourse ethics”.
One can enter into “good faith” exploration and discussions with others of different views and standpoint only if one adopts —— or is committed to adopting and together fashioning some non-prejudicial and non-pejorative basis and way of doing so —— an approach that does not privilege, and make “sacrosanct”, the doctrinal position, preconceptions and preferences of any party over those of the others. One that does not typify and position them adversely, against their own agreement and will. That does not impugn and scandalise them and deride their beliefs.
For dialogue and “trialogue” to proceed, no one party can “set the rules”. No one party may tell another who they really are, and how, on that basis, they are to be permitted to come into engagement and find accommodation as an interlocutor.
The first and most important stage of any such process is not the negotiation of an agenda of substantive doctrinal issues and differences between faith systems.
It is to fashion, though patient engagement and in mutual respect, a negotiated basis of conversation that is acceptable and equally fair to all parties —— impartial to all and partial to none, stigmatising none and favouring none above the others; a shared definition of the common situation and challenge that embodies and privileges the special, and contested, claims of none of them.
In other words, it is matter of consensually creating some “neutral ground” —— and of then nourishing together the seedlings, the standpoint, that can be cultivated on it.
That neutral ground sits upon a dual recognition: of the fact and processes of supersessionism in the history of Abrahamic monotheism and its successive faith communities; and of the critical importance of Abrahamic supersessionism in shaping the contours of a great part of world history.
11. And if one party to such a dialogue or “trialogue” cannot manage and offer that, what is to be done? What possibilities of any common deliberative consideration of these important matters are there? In the face of such obstacles, how are we to proceed? On what basis can Jews, Christians and Muslims agree to “share the world” together?
I do not know.
It is not and cannot be easy.
But it can, and must, be done.
The overcoming of no less intractable (deeply entrenched and derivatively supersessionist) difficulties was in the end worked out and achieved between Jews and Christians, notably the Catholic Church, beginning with the Vatican’s great Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965 and leading to the statement on the Church on the Nazi agenda of annihilation (“Holocaust”) of Europe’s Jews (in the landmark 1998 publication “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah“).
The Church was able to find and clear a way, without making any concessions upon its own doctrinal grounding and integrity, to recognise the Jews as “their elder brothers [and sisters] in faith” —— and to recognise, too, that its failure to do so over the centuries had been a disabling and wounding mistake: disabling to itself and the Church’s own believers and wounding to followers of the Jewish faith tradition.
So, it can be done, provided there is the focused will to do so.
And it does not require doctrinal vandalism or theological treason, a wrecking of the sacred past.
It can be done provided people are determined upon fashioning, adopting and practically exemplifying thoughtful news ways in which modern people, under modern conditions and as creatures of modernity, may live with their sacred texts and their faith’s sacred legacy.
That, and nothing less than that, is now required from the world of Islam. From its religious leaders and scholars and notable academies, if they are capable of taking the lead. Or, if not, then it must come as a result of the determination of a critical mass, a ground-level movement, of thoughtful “lay” Muslims, everyday believers —— rather than those drawn from the “clericalist” establishment who hold themselves out as the sole authorised custodians and exponents of Islam’s sacred traditions; and as the solely empowered successors to Muhammad’s role as the leader of the ummah, the worldwide community of the Muslim faithful.
It is the task and responsibility of the traditional scholars, the ulama. But should those duly credentialed conventional authorities not do so, then taking the lead will be up to the modern Muslims: those who hold the view that their faith and its worldly fate are too important to be left in the exclusive, monopolistic care of the backward-looking clerics and scholars of their faith community’s “old establishment”.
That is now the challenge.
12. That is one path, the positive and hopeful way forward.
The other choice is to refuse this direction and opt instead for a more familiar but regressive and unhelpful course.
That barren option will be to refuse to rethink what must be reconsidered in and about Islam, its place in the world and in world history.
That is the course, or choice, of holding fast to the view that theirs alone is the one true, complete and perfected faith of authentic divine revelation. That Islam alone is uniquely favoured and preferred by God, and that all non-Muslims must recognise and accept this fact (or assertion).
The view that its Abrahamic faith predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, are superseded models, obsolete human and spiritual equipment. That, bereft of any value that they may once have had and their religious adequacy now long suspended, these precursor faith communities are now left by the emergence of the perfected Islam without any religious validity —— instead simply hanging on (for those who still wish to cling to them) as surviving relics from an inherently defective and now defunct pre-Islamic phased of human spiritual evolution and social history.
This involves holding tenaciously to a view which, itself, many people these days might consider outdated and superseded. Namely the view that inheres, and from the outset has inhered doctrinally, within Islam and been integral to it. Its supersessionist view and stance. The view upon which Islam as a successor and negating supersessor built itself: that —— once Islam had made its entry into human history with Muhammad —— Judaism and Christianity, the two earlier Abrahamic faiths, were made and had become, in principle and in widely insisted fact, deficient, defective, deformed, dépassé, and defunct. Superseded and obsolete. Without any further real and continuing spiritual value.
Is this a position that can be maintained, unconsidered and revised, in today’s world? Is it historically sustainable? Is it ethically compatible with the nature of global humanity, the cultural diversity and spiritual realities of pluralistic humankind?
Are Judaism and Christianity —— as living and continuing spiritual enterprises and adventures, and as profound faith traditions, in their own right —— too important, and too difficult to be rightly understood, to be left by Muslims to the care and custodianship of Jews and Christians?
If so, then there can hardly be any secure basis upon which Jews, Christians and Muslims might “share the world” together decently.
If not, then a major doctrinal reorientation and even intellectual revolution remains necessary within Islam: one that will enable Muslims to live at ease as “modern people” with their sacred texts and traditions and also with their non-Muslim fellow citizens in modern, democratic, pluralistic societies.
13. Many Muslims are still dismayed and bewildered that Islamic civilisation no longer enjoys the primacy, ascendancy and dominance (“the ability to live in the world on its own terms”, “to write and live by its own sacred historical script” and have others too accommodate or submit themselves to it) that the world of Islam exercised during the first thousand years of its worldly career.
Instead of choosing to move forward, and finding for themselves a coherent basis upon which to do so, many of Islam’s “true believers” prefer to feel at that have been deprived of, and have had rudely and unreasonably snatched for them, a divinely vouchsafed world-historical ascendancy, a divinely guaranteed worldly command.
Modern militant including violent Islamist action in our present time is inspired and driven by the conviction (and it is a conviction that is not unique or confined to the radicals who are so ready to act dramatically upon it, but far more widely and deeply held throughout the Islamic world) that that history —— their own history and the history of Islam generally, of which theirs is a part —— has “gone wrong”; that it has taken a wrong and improper direction, and that in doing so it has wronged them and all Muslims; that the direction and momentum of the world’s development have perversely departed from and illegitimately abandoned the divinely ordained historical script that, under Islamic leadership, the entire world was always supposed to follow and keep following; and that history has therefore not just been unkind but uniquely and brutally unkind to Muslims —— in a way that militant and jihadi Islamist activists now feel entitled to “set right” forcibly, if need be.
14. In maintaining and clinging to this long historically entrenched position, this rich culturally “sedimented” stance and attitude, many Muslims —— meaning, in effect, all who are not modern, liberal, secular, democratic, pluralist and humanly inclusive Muslims —— are not only being unfair to, and shutting themselves off from, unreserved common human fellowship with Jews and Christians, who in Western nations are their fellow citizens.
They are also disabling themselves, their fellow Muslims and the worldwide ummah or “community of the Muslim faithful” as a whole and generally. Socially and culturally, they are maiming and disabling themselves and their own people.
They are denying themselves the ability and opportunity to inhabit today’s (and tomorrow’s) world happily, decently, successfully and in full human capacity and integrity.
15. The basic challenge facing Muslims, and the Muslim world, today is not religious and spiritual but historical, even historiographic.
Muslims must learn to see and read the history of the world not through the lens and from the standpoint of the history of Islam (as they understand it, usually poorly); instead, they must begin to see and grasp the history of Islam —— its worldly career as a religion or “faith community” and an evolving human civilization —— from the standpoint and the vantage-point of the history of the world.
*Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.
**This article was also published in the New Mandala, February 4, 2015