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Is a Systematic Liberal Theology Possible and Where Does it Leave God?

Published October 17, 2019 by Rabbi Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar)

Rabbi Tony Bayfield reflects on the challenges to all faiths explored through Jewish eyes.

Cover of Rabbi Bayfield's newly published work

The story of how Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues (Bloomsbury, 2019) [also available in Audible] came about is particularly relevant to those of us committed to dialogue between the three Abrahamic Faiths.

Eight years ago, I started work on a book which would explore the possibility of giving a coherent, systematic account of liberal religion (using Judaism as the litmus test) and soon realised that what I was also doing was asking whether my belief in God would stand up to my own personal scrutiny. Which is very scary after decades of burying the question under a blanket of communal leadership and countless meetings as Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism!

I started work, produced innumerable pages of script but then set the project aside. It was, however, kept alive teaching Jewish Theology and Thought at Leo Baeck College – I have much to be grateful for to the College and my students: my account of the Jewish journey and description of the journey today resonated with many.

Meanwhile, I concentrated on a project (my fourth and final!) for the Council of Christians and Jews, which led to the publication of Deep Calls to Deep: Transforming Conversations Between Jews and Christians (SCM Press, 2017). This was astonishingly well received and it was at this point that my partner Jacqueline Fisher took a decisive lead. She insisted I went back to the liberal religion project – and offer it to a mainstream publisher.

At this point I'm hoist by own non-interventionist petard because I was 'lucky' to be directed to Robin Baird-Smith at Bloomsbury, a man of mature years like me! I produced an overlong, over-detailed and stultifying academic proposal for him. When we met he said that there was material here for at least three books and insisted I focused on what I really wanted to write – which he defined as '100,000 words for the intelligent general reader'. I doubted that this was what I wanted to write but Robin was absolutely spot on. And that's how Being Jewish Today came about – addressed primarily to the Jewish community but by no means exclusively: the particular is invariably the best way of exploring the universal. The book's language is also of the utmost importance – gender-neutral even when speaking of God. And what of the readership? Being Jewish Today isn't intended for an exclusively academic audience but has, I hope, scholarly integrity.

In the course of the long gestation period, I arrived at the conclusion that the context, the environment in which we live is decisive. All of us – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Humanists, Secularists – are born into, educated within, work in, live and breathe the modern western world. The questions we ask – about the meaning and purpose of life, about human suffering and God – are pretty much the same. We may make very different responses but the challenges to be faced or ignored are shared. Moreover, few if any of us start with the inaccessible metaphysical statements of Revealed Religion; we start with ourselves, with our identity and utilise both reason and experience to move forward from there.

It became increasingly clear to me that I had no interest in writing a polemical book or attacking people with settled beliefs (unless they choose to thrust their beliefs down the throats of others – that kind of fundamentalism is a scourge of our times and discredits all religion). My interest lies in addressing those people who cannot believe that Holy Scriptures come unmediated by human experience and translation; who cannot accept that the righteous prosper whilst the wicked are punished; who cannot believe in miracles in the sense of divine suspension of the laws of nature; and those who cannot believe that a just and compassionate God could intervene to prevent the suffering of the innocent but chooses not to.

So those are my prospective 'intelligent general readers'.

I discovered that Judaism's tradition of challenging God over the suffering of the innocent spoke to me personally. And I indulge in the hutzpah of challenging God myself – a potentially arrogant process but one which I hope the Rabbis would have excused as 'hutzpah k'lapei shamaya', bare-faced defiance for the sake of heaven.

Because I write out of Jewish tradition and experience, the 'examples' and terms of engagement are Jewish but the methodology and fundamental issues are for a wider audience as well. I won't tell you whether I found it possible to write a coherent, systematic, liberal theology or whether my belief in God stood up to scrutiny – or how God responded to my challenge. I'll leave that for you to decide yourself. I would only add that the endorsements and reviews have utterly astonished me: it would seem there are others with whom my journey resonates.

This article is written by Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield CBE, DD (Cantuar) who is Professor of Jewish Theology and Thought at Leo Baeck College, London.

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