Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

Making friends with real life representatives of world religions

Joseph A. Bracken SJ

For many years before my arrival at Xavier University in 1982, the late Edward B. Brueggeman SJ was co-host of a popular Sunday morning television program called “Dialogue,” which involved a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi in conversation on a variety of topics.

When the local network station cancelled the program, funds were raised to establish a chair in interreligious dialogue. Initially, the endowment for the chair only allowed for visiting lecturers to give talks on interreligious topics each semester. But in due time the revenue from the endowment permitted us to invite a distinguished professor in interreligious studies to give courses of his/her choice for an entire semester.

Most recently, a house on campus has been set aside both as living quarters for the visiting professor and for the offices of the Brueggeman Center .

Within this context I have until recently offered survey courses on the undergraduate level dealing with various non-Christian religions, first, under the title of “World Religions in Dialogue” and then under the heading of “Far Eastern Religions.”

Being primarily a philosopher rather than a historian of religion, I tended to focus on the differences and similarities between the different religions in terms of their respective worldviews.

I was likewise aided in my reflections by regular conversations with an academic colleague, Dr. Paul Knitter, who has been even more active than I in interreligious dialogue as a result of the extraordinary success of his first major book “No Other Name?” (Orbis, 1985).

My own book “The Divine Matrix: Creativity as Link between East and West (Orbis, 1995) was the eventual fruit of this extended line of thought.

Brueggeman Center for Interreligious Dialogue at Xavier was commissioned to organize an interfaith Millennium Peace Celebration involving the various religious communities in the greater Cincinnati area (Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Native American) together with Dr. Knitter and the current chairperson of the theology department, Dr. Brennan Hill.

Assisting the three of us was a remarkable young woman, Sheila Speth, who, besides being the mother of one young child and pregnant with another, managed to coordinate all the details of such a wide-ranging public relations event. Subsequently she served as my assistant (program director) of the Brueggeman Center until this past spring (2003) when the birth of her third child forced her to give full attention to her growing family.

The Millennium Peace Celebration was so successful that we forthwith decided that as director of the center I should organize an annual symposium on an interreligious topic as well as secure the services of a visiting professor in interreligious studies in the fall semester of each year. Likewise, given the numerous personal contacts thus achieved in virtue of staging the Millennium Peace Celebration, it was further decided to have a board of advisors for the Brueggeman Center drawn from those same religious communities in the greater Cincinnati area.

In this way, I gradually found myself making friends with real-life representatives of the world religions, which I had been teaching in a survey course for so many years. As Paul Knitter has often remarked in conversation, it is a totally different experience truly to become friends with someone from another religious tradition than to simply read about his/her religion in a college textbook.

One cannot but be impressed by the depth of faith and commitment in the other person.

At present, I have ceded the directorship of the center to another academic colleague, Dr. James Buchanan, who will thus be in charge of making the move to the new Brueggeman Center residence. Likewise, with the recent arrival of Dr. Jonathan Tan in the theology department who has considerable background in Confucianism and Taoism, I have given up teaching courses in Far Eastern Religions and focused on my other major speculative interest, namely, the dialogue between religion and science.

But the friendships thus gained with members of other religious traditions have made an indelible impression upon me and have convinced me that in the future Christian theology should regularly be done in an interreligious context. For, as I see it, we Christians will never fully comprehend our own religious identity except through careful comparison and contrast with the living traditions of the other world religions.

Religiously oriented people have much to learn from one another, preferably through conversation on an interpersonal basis.

(Bracken is professor of theology at Xavier University .)


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