Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

Conversion to Interreligious Dialogue: a duty within the Church's mission

By James T. Bretzke SJ

Recently I came across some remarks by a former acquaintance from my years of teaching at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome , Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Fitzgerald, a former missionary in Africa , was commenting on a forthcoming document from the Holy See on interreligious dialogue. He strongly affirmed that dialogue with believers of other religions “is not a hobby or an extra activity but a duty within the mission of the Church.”

Dialogue, though, involves more than merely conversational etiquette. Fitzgerald stated “the problem that arises is how to reconcile dialogue as part of the mission of the Church with Jesus' mandate to go out and preach.”

Thus there is an intimate connection between evangelization and dialogue. Fitzgerald stated that the Church must do both, noting the two tasks “are different but not opposed,” since the ultimate judge and animator of the Church's mission, including interreligious dialogue, is the Holy Spirit.

Interreligious dialogue is a bit like inculturation: everyone seems to be in favor of it, but the precise roadmap to reach these theological destinations remains open to some considerable debate.

At the time of Pope John Paul II's 1990 Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (“On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate”), one of my colleagues at the Gregorian lamented that too many of our international students wanted to do their thesis research on topics related to their native culture and contexts.

Qui si fa la teologia universale. “Here we do universal theology” was his reply to these requests and that remark reveals the ongoing tension over the universal and particular that any, and every, valid theology must encompass.

The old Italian travel advisory, “All roads lead to Rome ,” would mark a danger indeed if these roads all turned out to be one-way and/or dead-ends.

The road that led me personally to Rome (and later on to California ) started in Asia .

After ordination I went to Korea as a missionary and my Korean superiors sent me to Rome for my doctorate in moral theology, with a view to teaching in a future theologate back in Seoul (that still has not quite opened).

Probably my encounters with the religious and philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shamanism in their native Asian contexts convinced me that a “ teologia universale a la Romana” might not be the only, or best response, to the twin task of mission and dialogue that Archbishop Fitzgerald underscores.

The year after my Roman arrival (1987) the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) with the Protestant Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) released a joint statement titled “Working With Other Religions,” in which they spoke of dialogue as being not “ primarily a matter of talking. It is, in the first instance an attitude, an openness to the neighbor, a sharing of spiritual resources as people stand befo0re the great crisis of life and death, as they struggle for justice and human dignity, ... In dialogue, Christians and their neighbors enter into a reciprocal relationship which becomes a process of mutual learning and growth.”

Another colleague of my days in Berkeley, the well-known Protestant Taiwanese theologian C. S. Song, has written extensively in this area, and argues that genuine interreligious dialogue is not so much a communication technique as it is a multi-stage process of conversion for those involved.

An initial stage Song labels “bi-lateral cease-fire,” which requires that those involved in the dialogue have to stop trying to conquer the other side by converting them. If the parties agree to this theological armistice then they might reach the next crucial stage of “blessed ignorance,” in which we recognize (or least entertain the suspicion) that our own religious-cultural experience is not the sum of all possible truth.

If we accept the possibility that the absolute fullness of complete truth does not reside in our religious tradition or moment in history, then this may lead us to accept that our dialogue partners might have something to contribute to the mutual search for the splendor of the truth. Song calls this ignorance “blessed” because it is a graced development, which allows real dialogue to begin.

This grace supposes a human nature of incompleteness, and builds on and perfects it through the practice of epistemological humility, leading to a real conversion to a new goal, a commitment to entering into what the FABC calls the dialogue of life.

Like conversion from sin, dialogic conversion involves a metanoia , turning away from using dialogue as a strategic means to convert others and turning towards stepping more fully into the richness of the lives our dialogue partners.

Let the conversion begin.

(Fr. Bretzke is associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco and visiting professor of moral theology at the Loyola School of Theology in Manila , Philippines .)


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