Monday, December 1, 2008

an ample space for dialogue

O servant, where do you seek me?
Lo! I am beside you.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
neither am I in rites and ceremonies,
nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If you are a true seeker,
you shall see Me at once:
you shall meet Me in a moment of time.

Kabir says, ‘O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath!”

It was the most amazing thing, if ironic: I had just finished writing for the first time a full talk about what I understand to be the basis of inter-religious dialogue, based both on the official Roman Catholic teachings and on the work of Bede Griffiths et al, and then that amazing one-liner appears in the headlines: “Pope says Inter-religious Dialogue is Impossible.”

Here’s a fuller version of what he wrote. It was in an open letter serving as a preface for a book in a letter he wrote to Marcello Pera, an Italian center-right politician and scholar whose book, Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian, argues that Europe should stay true to its Christian roots. Of course this would be dear to Pope Benedict who has tried to focus attention on the Christian roots of an increasingly secular Europe:
You explain with great clarity that an inter-religious dialogue, in the strict sense of the term, is not possible, while you urge intercultural dialogue that develops the cultural consequences of the religious option which lies beneath [a given culture]. While a true dialogue is not possible about this basic option without putting one’s own faith into parentheses, it’s important, in public exchange, to explore the cultural consequences of these religious options. Here, dialogue and mutual correction and enrichment are both possible and necessary.
A better sound-bite would have been that the pope says “inter-religious dialogue no, intercultural dialogue yes.” But headlines started spinning it both ways right away, and those who wanted or were prone to be incensed or exasperated at the pope (the latter, like me), were.

But John Allen explained pretty well, that “this is not a judgment on whether religions should be talking to each other, but rather what they should be talking about. In the pope’s mind, the point of inter-faith exchange is not to seek a lowest-common-denominator shared theology, but rather to find ways that cultures shaped by strong religious commitments can nevertheless live in mutual respect…” This is consistent with the approach to inter-faith relations Benedict has taken since his election to the papacy. By naming Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, for example, "Benedict opted for a professional diplomat over a theologian––the idea being that he wanted to reorient inter-faith exchange away from speculative theology, and towards more concrete questions of co-existence and cooperation.”

Then John Allen, as many others, goes on to explain how the pope actually is exploring inter-religious dialogue, in his own way, especially with Islam and between Islam and Judaism; and you could easily see this as mainly addressed to Muslims. But he doesn’t understand this dialogue with Islam in terms of theological exploration: how the Qur’an, for example, might inform new approaches to Christology. “Rather, he’s focused on more practical questions, above all what the Vatican calls ‘reciprocity.’ The question is, if Islamic immigrants in the West can claim the protection of the rule of law and of religious freedom, shouldn’t religious minorities in majority Islamic states get the same deal? The equal-and-opposite form of that question in the West, especially Europe, is how Western societies can express respect for religious diversity without cutting themselves off from their Christian roots.”

That said, I have to agree with Allen that it’s still a perfectly fair question to ask whether the pope might find a less ambivalent way of making his point––one that’s not demoralizing for the church’s experts on inter-religious dialogue, and that doesn’t send the wrong signal to the outside world about the church’s commitment to good working relationships with other religions!? Because he certainly seems to be contradicting Vatican II, the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue and its pronouncements, and some of his own writings. That’s what I might say, with all due respect, in an open letter to the Holy Father. I might say something even stronger, again––and I mean it––, with all due respect: Do you not realize that people don’t understand the philosophical nuances of your pronouncements and arguments, such as the ill-fated Regensburg address. They (we) hear one-liners, and we understand gestures and attitudes. How much more eloquent was that simple photo of John Paul in Assisi with all the other leaders.

At this point I feel like it’s important to be in dialogue with my own tradition too, and I want to see the positive in this. I would say that one good point in this is that he is saying, for example, to Muslims that even if we can’t agree on theological differences, we still need to talk about the cultural consequences of our beliefs. In the back of everyone’s mind, of course, is the violence in the name of religion. He says, “… a true dialogue is not possible without putting one's own faith in parentheses.” I actually think this could be taken as a positive statement. Maybe he means we actually do have to put our faith in parentheses for a moment and simply look at the cultural consequences of our religious decisions. This could apply to America just as well and our decision to invade Iraq, which some high placed Vatican officials were saying at the time was based too much on George Bush’s Calivnism. It also could apply to Israel’s Zionist movements, no?

Another hidden gem here that will perhaps get missed (as in the Regensburg address) is that in the rest of the letter, which few will probably read, he praises the author, Pera, for his defense of liberalism as the basis of human rights, only saying that it has lost (as Bruno might say) it’s metaphysical base, i.e., it’s Christianity. Hence the importance of Europe staying true to its Christian roots. That could easily be seen as a shot at America too, albeit a genteel one.

I just still don’t understand this insistence that no other dialogue is possible, is it at a theological level? Is it because Jews will never believe that Jesus is the Messiah and Muslims will never not believe that they surpass Judaism and Christianity? Or, if it’s true that he doesn’t understand dialogue with Islam in terms of theological exploration, i.e., how the Qur’an, for example, might inform new approaches to Christology, does this mean that we have nothing to learn from any other tradition either––say Hinduism or Buddhism––about God’s self-revelation that we feel is complete in and of itself and interpreted adequately already by our Greek philosophy? Is this a justification for the suspicion of the Asian theologians such as Peter Phan? This would obviously negate the work of my heroes and role models.

On the other hand, the pope himself said in his talk on Pseudo-Dionysius this past year, which I quoted at length in my own paper, that Dionysius the Areopagite, for instance, has a new relevance today: just as in his own day he was a mediator between the spirit of Greek philosophy and the Gospel, today he could be “a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia," because there is “a similarity between the thought of the Areopagite and that of the Asian religions.” But, here he says we must understand “that dialogue does not accept superficiality.”
Precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ, an ample space for dialogue also opens. When one finds the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear and it is possible to understand one another, or at least, speak to one another, draw closer together. The path of dialogue consists precisely in being close to God in Christ, in the depths of the encounter with him, in the experience of the truth, which opens us to the light and helps us to go out to meet others––the light of truth, the light of love. In the end, [Dionysius] tells us: Take the path of the experience, of the humble experience of faith, every day. Then, the heart is made big and can see and also illuminate reason so that it sees the beauty of God.
In some way this is not far from our teaching about Universal Wisdom, that perhaps the only level at which we can dialogue is at the mystical level, that place beyond words, dogmas and doctrines, and forms and rituals, a level at which we will not find much agreement.

Someone sent me this quote from John O’Donohue’s book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, which he said connects nicely with the pope’s own words on experience, that may be a good challenge to our servant/leaders: “We grow increasingly deaf to the worn platitudes of staid authority. Their forced, didactic tones no longer reach our need. Now we want the experience itself, not the analysis or the membership card to some new syndrome.” He also suggested that we go back to Raimundo Panikkar’s insights “in both Christophany where he speaks frankly of the uselessness of Christology and every other conceptual approach to inter-religious dialogue (shades of Abhishiktananda!), and his Intra-religious Dialogue, where he understands the dialogue as ‘religious ritual’ in which all are participants." In a weird sort of way he does seem to be speaking much the same language as the pope.

I guess that's it––the integrity of our lives and our personal spiritual paths. There are some things that we will never have the depth to understand without that, and there is also an authority that comes only from that depth. Otherwise we are just part of the "worn platitudes." But, of course, we can't forget those "well-worn paths between huts" too, the charismatic relationships, the friendships between us all that are really the building blocks for everything.