Saturday, December 10, 2011

Healthy Models for Interfaith Dialogue

Our congregation recently hosted a lecture titled "What is the Significance of My Neighbor’s Religion for My Own? Deepening Faith and Learning from Others in a Context of Religious Diversity." Our lecturer was Dr. Emily Holmes, of the religion and philosophy department at Christian Brothers University, Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. Holmes specializes in a newly emerging and renewing field of theology--comparative theology. As the concluding text for a class I have been teaching at our local indie bookstore, Nightbird Books, we read the signature text in this field, Francis X. Clooney's Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders.

Clooney recommends small, specific engagements (the close reading of religious texts of other religions, for example) rather than a search for grand unifying theories of religion. He writes as a Jesuit priest who studies the ancient sacred texts of the Hindu tradition.

As a Christian, I have become increasingly skeptical of forms of interfaith dialogue that try to develop or discover overly simplistic and facile commonalities. It is almost as if a popular version of interfaith dialogue has as its goal a migration to a "third place," a religion that is a mashup of the two or more religious traditions that are in conversation with each other.

In my estimation, this tendency respects neither the particularities and visions of the religion of the one engaging in dialogue, nor the faith and particularity of their neighbor. It assumes "you are really actually like me and we just need to gloss over differences or make up similarities," and that counts as interfaith dialogue.

Comparative theology, in comparison, invites a theologian (and by the way, EVERYONE IS A THEOLOGIAN) to travel to live with the religious other, especially by reading their texts, closely and carefully and slowly, in order to learn something and discover the riches of those texts. Then, and only then, does the comparative theologian return and examine how this deep learning across religious borders has reformed and shaped how they think about their own faith and tradition.

What I love about this model is that it invites us, even requires us, to remain deeply grounded in our own tradition, while deeply engaging the religious other. This had been the goal of our class at Nightbird Books, to examine the riches of having a tradition. The course was titled "Canon, Creed, and Comparative Theology," and our four books included books on the development of the creed and biblical canon in conversation with each other, plus a book on ecumenical dialogue between Christian denominations, and concluding with Clooney's book on comparative theology.

This model has additional value, because it models humility (and even repentance) in the face of religious difference. It starts with a posture of listening, sitting in humble love together in common reading of sacred texts.

As part of Dr. Holmes presentation, she had this to say, ""I’m searching for theological language that avoids the twin dangers of religious imperialism, on the one hand (depicting the other as the same as or just like me, included in my theological categories and assumptions), and incommensurability, on the other (depicting the other as so different that we have nothing in common and I can say nothing to or about her). How, then, might one engage in a task that is both necessary and seemingly impossible? How might one responsibly speak of and to the other in a way that preserves the otherness of the other? An apophatic approach to our theological language for religious diversity may provide one path through this dilemma."

This is about all I can accomplish in this short blog post, to hint at some directions, and witness to the value of comparative theology. In an era when people tend to either assume that other religions are really, actually, in the end, just another path to God quite like our own (in other words, they are really me), or in an era when people tend to assume that other religions are totally different from us, evil and different and distinct (in other words, they are truly "not me"), Clooney and Holmes and others are working at a way of maintaining who we are while also honoring who the other is.

And we trust, in the exercise of such practices, and openness to such dialogue, truth does emerge, faith is strengthened, and love is formed, for it is to this kind of conversation that God has called us--for we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the context of interfaith dialogue and comparative theology, this call to love of neighbor as self takes on precisely the dimensions the Good Samaritan story illustrates. We love our neighbor, who is the religious and ethnic other, while remaining committed to loving who we are ourselves. And in loving the other as ourselves, we discover who we are together in God. That is a solid way forward.


  1. Kathy Suarez11:13 AM

    Very good post! I have been engaging in Lutheran/Catholic dialogue almost since the cradle. I was born a Lutheran and became a Catholic in 1974. I personally believe -- rather strongly -- that NOW is the time for reconciliation.

    I like "read the texts carefully." This has been my path. I suggest the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is the gift of Pope John Paul II to the church catholic.

  2. ... just an addition:

    Here is a "perfect" example of a barrier to interfaith dialogue. This following quote is about the Virgin Mary from Living Lutheran.
    "She was far from perfect, but maybe that’s exactly what made her God’s perfect choice. She had nothing to offer but her very self."

    How do Lutherans know this? By what AUTHORITY? We must first answer the questions of HOW we discover truth.

    I offer a suggestion: We need to answer these questions --

    1) Who (or what) has the Authority to interpret Scripture? 2) How does Christian Doctrine develop?

  3. Kathy, thank you for reading. I do think reconciliation is the goal, and I also think under this model each communion (Roman Catholic and Lutheran) will have to approach the comparative theological task from their own tradition.

    I disagree with the author on Living Lutheran who indicated Mary was "far from perfect." As you probably know, however, most Protestants have considered Christ to be the only one without sin, so although I wouldn't say what that author said, you can see how they got there from first principles. And so it goes. Comparative theology is never easy.

  4. Kathy7:14 PM

    Clint, first, I apologize for my little rant yesterday. I can see that I did misunderstand your writing -- the antecedent of "it." (I had been "set off" earlier in the day by that "stuff" on LL.)

    Nevertheless, as usual, both of us were a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

    I have so much to say that I truly don't know where to start. Since we're on the subject of language, I'll start there.

    You use words like "model" and "tradition." I have studied a little Theology at the Graduate level: in fact, I was expelled from two fine Catholic Institutions of Higher Learning, for insubordination.

    My friend, it seems to me, we have the same "tradition": the catholic tradition. That should not be an issue. If we want to talk about words, what about "orthodoxy"?

    What does that mean to you?

    P.S. Didn't Martin Luther always say something like "What does this mean"?

  5. Anonymous9:58 PM

    I attended the 7th annual interfaith dialogue dinner this week. I sat at table 9. There was a Fayetteville native (poet) there, and a student from Turkey, a man from Iran (of the Islamic faith), a woman from Iran (of the Islamic faith), another from Fayetteville (First Christian), one from Denver (an Episcopalian) We didn't read each others sacred texts. We ate dinner. But we connected, from deep within our own traditions and faiths and with an intent to honor the other. Although you would term the other at table 9 is a bit of a mystery. There are many ways to connect deeply across faith traditions. Comparative theology is but one. Shared silence is always an option, as Rumi teaches out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field.. I like the phrase you used at the end, we discover ourselves together in God. Mother Teresa would remind us that we belong to each other. Peace, Janet

  6. Janet, thank you for that "local color" description. I agree that CT is simply one way, hope I didn't give the impression it is the "only" way in the blog post. I tend to think, actually, that listening to each other's texts and shared silence are not that dissimilar in the end.

  7. Clint,
    I just read "Peter's" mindless comment on your LL blog re. John the Baptist. Now I am in a bad mood again!

    "Peter's" comment:

    "God's Law said to people: 'Repent!' None of us like hearing that word. Sometimes the church catholic has had those words, but more often it has been a human institution in need of hearing those words."

    "church catholic"? I feel like throwing up again!

    If we are going to have peace and reconciliation, first we need to start THINKING -- just a little at least.

  8. ...also, I forgot to add -- Thanks for responding to the Nuetzman column about Mary. I am totally convinced we can work out our differences.

    My comment on what "Anonymous" said and your response -- I think you are heading in the "New Age" direction. This is one of the things that is killing the Lutheran Church. Jesus did not sit around in silence whispering "OM."

    The Immaculate Conception, as I am sure you know from your studies, has been a belief in the "church catholic" since the beginning. It was only proclaimed and confirmed by Lourdes, Bernadette, in the 1800s.

    Again -- I highly recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You have to GIVE the people something. People want TRUTH -- NOT SILENCE!!!

  9. Anonymous4:30 PM

    God can speak truth in Silence. Some would say the language of God is Silence. Meditation, contemplation, silence isn't new age as much as it is ancient, and pure contemplation of the beloved, God, Christ, is and was the highest calling for many in the Christian faith (Bonaventure comes to mind), throughout time..
    and Jesus went up to the mountain to pray..
    People seek God and some find God's presence most clear in deep silence.

    As to Jesus and the OM, it seems to me that Jesus would understand the OM, the all, the syllable that states every sound fully. The language attributed to Jesus in the gospel of John is all about the oneness of God with us, and thus, the oneness of us with each other.

    Pastor Clint, I'll put reading together and listening and studying each others sacred texts on the Interfaith idea list. It would be something I would like to be a part of. Actually, this is a bit of what we did at Read for Peace this year on the square. We listened to the Upanishads and the Bible and various other readings on the theme of peace. They were powerful moments for those who attended and participated.

    Janet L. Graige, ObJN

    (I can't get it to let me post without saying I am anonymous so listed my name here)

  10. Kathy Suarez8:11 PM

    There is nothing wrong with interfaith dialog and study. What I am trying to do is identify the reasons for the decline of the Mainline Denominations.

    In my view, the remnant of the Catholic Faith that used to exist in Protestantism has now been so diluted by syncretism that there is almost nothing there -- only "silence." This is why people are clearing out of churches. I am hoping that people will find their way back to orthodoxy -- to sound doctrine: to the teachings of the church catholic.

  11. Kathy Suarez10:12 AM

    Pastor Clint -- I just read the new comments on Nuetzman's post. Help! I cannot respond. I was blocked for being a Catholic.

    Feliz Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe!