Jesuits and Interreligious Dialogue

Finding common ground, not fundamental opposition

By Raymond A. Bucko SJ

Back in graduate school days one of the many rites of passage enjoyed by myself and my classmates was to present our dissertation proposal to our colleagues. The first thing I was asked was if being a Catholic priest and a Jesuit would interfere with my research. I assured my interlocutors that it would be far more difficult to present myself to Lakota religious leaders as an anthropologist than it would be to present myself as a priest.

I found this to be a quite accurate assessment upon my reaching the field (Pine Ridge Reservation) when eyebrows would rise if I used the “A” word. I finally settled on introducing myself as a student of cultural studies.

Spiritual leaders and those engaged in practicing traditional religion were extremely welcoming to me when they learned of my interest in the sweat lodge and my willingness to learn from them about this important ritual.

My classmates at the University of Chicago were looking at what they considered a fundamental opposition - traditional religion vs. Christianity. The Lakota people with whom I worked and who generously became my mentors, friends, and in some cases, adoptive family, looked rather at the common ground between the two religions.

I represented someone else who was seeking a spiritual path just as they were. Even those who were former Catholics or Episcopalians who had left Christianity to recover their traditions in their own lives were welcoming and most willing to dialogue with me.

My research was not simply a matter of being an anthropological fountain pen, ready to perfectly transcribe what I heard to paper (this was Paul Radin's idea of anthropology), but rather this was indeed a matter of dialogue. My mentors were quite willing to explain how they understood the sweat lodge and other elements of their Native beliefs. But they were also interested in how I understood their beliefs, my own belief and the relationship between the two.

During discussions I would repeat back what I was told to be sure I understood. I would also discuss my own interpretations of what I was learning to see if they “fit” how my mentors understood what they were doing or to see if the analyses, though not their own, were at least plausible. Since the actual ceremonies within the lodge are private, I would never report on what actually happened in any specific ceremony but rather rely on what my teachers told me to fill in the content of the ceremony itself.

This dialogue also often went beyond fieldwork. Not infrequently I was asked by my teachers to stop writing so that I might hear something that they wanted me to know but did not feel should be recorded. Once they were done they would announce that I could begin writing again. These acts of trust and intimate sharing of experience and knowledge transcended anthropological study and fostered mutual respect and friendship. Dialogue is not simply about knowledge but most importantly about relationship.

I don't want to give the impression that establishing this dialogue was simple or without problems. We enter any dialogue with a long history, in this case a history of attempted assimilation and at times condemnation of the very beliefs I was trying to study. On the other hand there was also a long history of my own Jesuit predecessors who were equally interested in the beliefs of these people and who acted, as the Lakota would characterize it, “respectfully”.

Not everyone on the reservation is open to dialogue. Since I had taught in regency and had also spent many summers on Pine Ridge I pretty much knew who would be open and willing to help me in my work. I was amazed at how many more people I met during my work who were at time more enthused about the research than even I was. Still there were places where non-Indians were not welcome to come to pray. I simply respected that.

Dialogue is a rather mundane phenomenon. Like the high school student who returned home from class one day to inform his parents that he spoke in prose, we do it every day. What is asked of us as Jesuits and Jesuit colleagues is that we expand the circle of dialogue partners through our many apostolic endeavors.

Disciplines like anthropology and theology can prepare us to enter a dialogue with more perception and sensitivity but ultimately dialogue is about human relations, equality, respect, mutual curiosity and willingness to both listen and speak. By finding the common ground rather than the fundamental oppositions in faith and ritual and practice, we can establish that dialogue and sustain it.

(Bucko [NYK] is professor of anthropology and teacher of Native American studies at Creighton University . He is also adviser to bishops on Native Americans, as well as being advisor to the Sioux Spiritual Center on inculturation.)

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This page last updated: April 9, 2004

This website is managed by Raymond A. Bucko, S.J.