On “supersessionism”: Abrahamic faiths in history

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Clive Kessler, New Mandala


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Christian Church has replaced the Israelites as God’s chosen people and that the Mosaic covenant has been replaced or superseded by the New Covenant.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 to 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.

A recent (non-)event

A “rage against history”? And now, too, below, “the arrogance ofsupersessionism”? What does all this have to do with Southeast Asia and, specifically, Malaysia.

A lot, as the third essay in this series will suggest.

But, to provide a preliminary indication of the crucial importance of understanding the problem of supersessionism that is analysed in detail below, I refer to a recent event in Kuching.

Under Islamic organisational auspices, a Muslim scholar wanted to give a public lecture on “Muhammad in the Bible”.[i]

This predictably created disquiet. It did so in a way that, in Malaysia, is perhaps unique to Sarawak.

There in Sarawak neither Malays nor Muslims nor anybody, no single ethnic-religious group, alone constitutes a majority in local society. So everybody knows and accepts that they must “tread softly” or they will tread upon other people’s dreams, and upon their deepest religious sensibilities and spiritual yearnings.

So something happened there in Kuching that might not have happened so easily, or at all, elsewhere in Malaysia.

People backed off. The lectures did not go ahead as planned.

Persisting might have proved too confrontational to too many people.

A similar tension can arise when people argue and unilaterally assert —— as I have often heard them do in Malaysia, and as created great consternation and confusion and outright bewilderment here in Australia several years ago —— that “Jesus is a Prophet of Islam”.

What is going on in these often raw interfaith confrontations, and why do they cause the misunderstanding and resentment that they often do?

The reason has to do with supersessionism. These stand-offs are explicable in no other way, in no other terms.

It is sometimes, even routinely, argued or suggested that “Jesus is mentioned in the Quran”, and that this fact makes lectures on Jesus and Christianity by Muslims permissible —— while Muhammad in not mentioned in the Christian gospels, and this fact accordingly disqualifies Christians from commenting upon Islam.

Yet such arguments authorising Muslim speakers to pronounce, even adversely, upon non-Muslim faiths do not seem to hold the same force in Sarawak as elsewhere in Malaysia.

Why not? It is the same argument, not a different or weaker one, wherever else it is made.

The argument is the same, but the context differs.

Sarawak, it would seem, is a place where one cannot —— as can be done elsewhere in much of Malaysia —— simply advance and promote, and act publicly upon, certain kinds of argument about religion; and especially arguments resting upon assertions of the right and authority of Islamic religious teachers and scholars to present public lectures on, for example, Jesus and Christianity, upon Jesus in the Quran and Muhammad in the Bible.

Elsewhere, such things might pass, but in Sarawak they would come across, as they did recently, as simply too provocative.

So it is a matter of context, of the local demographic and political context. That is how this variation in local interfaith “discourse ethics” is to be understood and explained.

But, that said —— locally contextual politics aside —— what about that argument?

It is the same argument everywhere, no matter where it is posed.

So how, for example, can one make sense of arguments —— based upon the fact that Jesus is mentioned in the Quran —— and of the bitter disputes that they may generate, that Jesus, as it is sometimes put, is a “Prophet of Islam”?

What is going on here?

To understand what is at issue here involves pursuing not religious arguments —— what is sometimes known as religious “apologetics” on behalf, and from the standpoint, of any particular faith and doctrinal system —— but world history: the history of human civilisation and historical consciousness and of the forms that it has taken.

To understand what is at issue here one must come to grips with what, in the study of religious evolution —— especially within the Abrahamic faith tradition —— is known as supersessionism.

It may be a little difficult at first to get your mind around these things.

But if you are to understand the contested world in which we now live, you need to know.

So now read on!