(RNS) — Four overarching realities will define relations between Christians and Jews in the coming years.
The first two, demography and geography, are linked. Since the fifth century, Europe and, more recently, North America, have been the centers of Christian population, clerical leadership and religious thought. Today, thanks to rapid population growth in South America, Africa and Asia, most of the world’s Christians reside in the Southern Hemisphere.
This trend is accelerating even as the number of Christians is holding steady or actually declining in Europe and North America, where Christians and Jews are older and fewer in number than their co-religionists in the rest of the world.
Recent figures report that since 2000, the Catholic population grew by 33% in Asia, by 15.6% in Africa, and by 10.9% in Central and South America. The increase in the European Catholic population since 2000 was only 1%.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI repeatedly expressed concern about the shrinking number of professing Catholics on the European continent. The causes of the decline include the clergy sexual abuse scandals, the “secularization” of the “First World,” and the decreasing Catholic birth rate in North America and Europe.
This shift will influence both Christianity and Judaism in the 21st century, as the longtime spiritual, intellectual and population cores of Christianity and Judaism lose their dominance and influence. Already, Catholic priests and, importantly, cardinals are increasingly from Asia, the Americas or Africa.
Christians in Africa and Asia, in addition, have relatively minimal contact with large, viable Jewish communities. As a result, there is frequently a gap in their knowledge of and personal experience with Jews and Judaism. Similarly, Jews in Africa and Asia have limited contact with Christian clergy and laity.
With modern Israel’s creation in 1948, nearly 900,000 Jews from Africa and Asia immigrated to the Jewish state, most of them from communities in Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Ethiopia that had existed for more than 1,000 years. They are changing the dominant European makeup of modern Israel.
But they are also changing how the world experiences Judaism. For 2,000 years, the majority of Jews lived in the Diaspora outside of Israel. In the near future, if not already, more than half the world’s Jews will live in Israel, not Europe.
In a twist of history, the “Holy Land” is one of the few parts of the Middle East to harbor a growing Christian population. Israel will become a different arena for Christian-Jewish relations than the United States and Europe; one where Jews are the majority and Christians the minority.
The third reality shaping Christian-Jewish relations is the passing of time. It has been 55 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and the historic “Nostra Aetate” declaration. Two generations have been born since then, and many of these young people are unaware of the positive advances in Catholic-Jewish relations the council set in motion in 1965.
Also slipping away with every passing year are the eyewitnesses to the best and worst in Christians’ and Jews’ shared history — victory in World War II, the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel and the Second Vatican Council. The mists of legend and forgetfulness often obscure much of the truly revolutionary achievements in Christian-Jewish relations.
The fourth influence shaping interreligious relations is technology. Fax machines, email, personal blogs, the internet, Zoom, iPhones, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, texting, e-books and much more are part of our daily lives. The pandemic has hastened the arrival of online academic courses, “virtual” religious services, and electronic partnerships among libraries, colleges, universities and seminaries.
This technology allows people of faith to discuss any issue at any time with almost anyone around the globe. This diminishes the ingredients of clergy leadership, shared physical space and the collection and experience of physical books in libraries.
The Bible commands us: “Build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you.” The text does not say God dwells in the sanctuary, but rather God dwells within the people assembled in the sanctuary. As an internet devotee, I interpret this to mean God also dwells among those connected to one another via the computer.
In the proliferation of “couch churches” and “sofa synagogues,” we are seeing religion become decentralized. Virtual gatherings of Christians and Jews study, pray and “share” meals together in a nonstructured form, all done “without benefit of clergy.”
Christian-Jewish encounters have therefore become independent of academic or clerical guidance. The idea of a text is changed, too, as a papal declaration, a rabbinical statement or a personal blog all appear the same on a computer screen.
But our reach has been infinitely extended as “webinars” replace traditional “seminars.” Webinars allow teachers to reach more students in one morning than they could in person in their entire academic careers.
Christian and Jewish leaders need to recall that in the past, a mastery of land routes, rivers and sea lanes was necessary to gain influence and shape history. Today mastery of cyberspace and social networking is paramount.
There is no substitute for “up close and personal” interreligious encounters. But we can no longer function as effective advocates of our faith without employing the gifts of technology.
As much as relations between Christians and Jews have changed and will change, in other words, we must change, too.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at jamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)