Reflections on the American Jesuit Response
to Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue
The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, a land where all the world religions have now found a home and to greater or lesser extents, grow and flourish. Due to the arrival of new immigrants, particularly from Asia and the Mideast, due to conversions by people of Christian and Jewish backgrounds to other religions, and due also to the ways in which other religions are influencing the thinking and spirituality of American Christians and Catholics, the so-called "world religions" are now also "American religions." Pluralism - the simple fact of religious diversity, but also the cultural and religious climate in which diversity subtly changes the way we think about every religious topic - is a fact of life, an opportunity, and a challenge, in the places where we live and work.
Therefore, although it may be tempting to read the 34th General Congregation's "Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue" as a document about interreligious encounters occurring elsewhere in the world, far off in Asia and Africa, it is more to the point to realize that religious pluralism is a reality closer to home, a religious and cultural reality to which we are called to respond; the Congregation's document sheds new light on our work as Jesuits in the United States.
Pluralism deeply affects all our ministries, especially when we realize that we cannot reserve our service for those who are firmly or solely Christian and Catholic, and open ourselves to include people of other faiths among our collaborators. We need to be involved in conversation with Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and others too, cooperating with them in common social and spiritual tasks. Both the invitation put before us by the Congregation and also the needs of American society call us into conversation with these other faith communities, to converse and work together with teachers and scholars, and also religious leaders and parents, on issues which concern us all - e.g., ways of fostering religious faith in American culture, transmitting moral values to children, weaving together religious knowledge with other kinds of academic and broader cultural learning, making sure that ethical values have a healthy role in public discourse, etc. These are issues about which religious people of all faith traditions share concern.
Nor can we ignore the effect of pluralism on "traditional Catholics" who may be subtly influenced by new religious and spiritual ideas, even if they have decided not to pursue such learning nor to bring new elements into their Christian piety or belief; we need also to be able to help the Catholic community to learn from other religions, in a way that makes sense in terms of Catholic identity and values. As Jesuits, we are professional representatives of our religion and are often thought to be experts on religion more generally; we need to be responsible and well-informed interpreters and analysts of the religious values already present American culture, able to speak for the Church and to the culture in a way that recognizes today's diversity. Indeed, if we are to preach the Gospel confidently in American culture we need to be able to communicate it in terms that are intelligible to the people around us, not only to those who are Catholic or Christian and those who are secularized or "post-religious," but also to people who belong to other faith traditions or are exploring multiple religious possibilities.
It is also true, I believe, that the experience of religious pluralism is an important feature of our own identities as American Jesuits at the end of the 20th century. We cannot claim to stand apart from our culture nor to be immune to its religious impulses. Pluralism, a sense of alternatives, and particular positive and negative influences of other ways of thinking and acting religiously, are all influencing our identities as Jesuits today, even if we think of ourselves as "not-involved" with other religions. One of the ways of our making the Society a clearer and more inviting religious presence in America today is to understand better how we have been reshaping our own identities as Catholic Christians in the midst of religious diversity today. I tried to express my own experience in this regard in my May, 1996 essay in Studies in Jesuit Spirituality, ""In Ten Thousand Places, In Every Blade of Grass: Uneventful but True Confessions about Finding God in India, and Here Too."
To be reflective, to communicate our values, to preach the Gospel, and to help in the education of our own American people in the midst of this pluralism, we need to pay more attention to and be better informed about the beliefs and practices of the large world religions and also of the small, new sectarian groups, as these develop in the United States today. There are many ways to encounter the ideas, beliefs, practices, and faith communities of other religions, and here too the advice of the Congregation is timely when it points to several ways of dialogue (Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue #4). A few of us need to undertake the "dialogue of theological exchange," but for most of us, the three dialogues of "life, action, and religious experience" are most likely to be operative and effective parts of our Jesuit ministries.
Although engagement in the various kinds of dialogue could eventually point to new directions for our ministries, first of all we must take a new look at what we are all ready doing, as we continue to interact with people of other faiths in America today. Many of us are already in regular contact with people of other religious traditions, even if we do not think of ourselves as officially engaged in "interreligious dialogue." Some of us work in schools where a significant number of students belong to other religions, some work with Native Americans who are not Christian, and some with Asian refugees. Some Jesuits have real but less regular contact with people of other faiths, in hospitals or jails, in schools or colleges, in retreat centers or parishes. Some Jesuits have become adept in non-Christian meditation practices as a part of their pastoral ministries. Some who are involved in ecumenical relations with other Christian communities may see value in connecting this Christian ecumenism with the wider encounter of religions.
"Interreligious dialogue" opens up new possibilities for prayer and action with many ramifications, and it will be important for us to think carefully about what we can do together. But first we need to learn more about ourselves, the Congregation's invitation, and whether the points I have made about the interreligious dimension of our ministries are really verified in the experience of Jesuits around the country. We need to establish a network to bring interested Jesuits into contact with one another as we implement the vision of the Congregation in the United States. Since I have been appointed the Assistancy Coordinator for Interreligious Dialogue by the provincials, one of my first tasks is to help convene this conversation among us, and this brief essay is a step in that direction. I look forward to being in contact with those of you interested in religious pluralism, in our encounter with people of other faiths here in the United States, and to your reactions to the ideas I have put forth here. I welcome your letters, phone calls, or e-mails.
This document originally appeared in the National Jesuit News, October 1998
Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
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