The Election of a New General
and Our Mission of Interreligious Dialogue

By Daniel A. Madigan SJ

 It would be pointless to begin at this stage making prognostications about the significance of Fr. Adolfo Nicolás' election for our mission of interreligious dialogue. It may even be impious! GC 34 enunciated very clearly this priority for the Society and, if anything, this aspect of our mission is now even more urgent than it was in those relatively serene times.

Under Fr.Kolvenbach, the work expanded as he consistently encouraged and supported those Jesuits engaged in it. It is also likely that the current Congregation will address some aspects of dialogue, so predictions would be premature. The election of a General from East Asia might, however, draw our focus to some important questions in this area to which we Jesuits may have been giving too little attention recently.

The events of this new century have so fixed our concerns on the relationship between Christians and Muslims that other dialogue relationships have surely suffered. The questions posed to us by the great religious traditions of Asia have tended to be neglected while we focus on - or at least fret about - Islam.

For all the acknowledged difficulties of the dialogue among the Abrahamic faiths, we can at least recognize that we are speaking a similar theological language.We are offering different readings of what is recognizably the same tradition. Those diverse readings may prove to be ultimately incompatible, but there is nonetheless some common basis for a discussion. As Fr. Nicolás has pointed out in a 2005 article in Concilium, Asian religious traditions - especially Buddhism - are a "challenge to every theological word we produce."We consistently criticize Muslims for their supposed inability to enter into theological dialogue; are we suggesting that it is easy with a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Taoist?

If with our new General we take a fresh look at Asia,we will find still undone much of the work of inculturation that has been part of the Society's work since the very beginning - think of Ricci, DiNobili, de Britto,Valignano - and which received new impetus and attention after the Council. Fr Nicolás has called this centuries-long failure to find a way to interact with Asian cultures a profound crisis for the Church, but he uses crisis in a positive sense. It is "a blessing, a call, an opportunity to grow." Though some conservative bloggers have seen his election as a sign of baby-boomer nostalgia for the Arrupe years, one might also read it as an acknowledgement that the enormous challenges posed by Asia have not yet been faced, and that we must resist a fortress mentality that would simply try to sure up a Christian West against those challenges.

One of the most recent buzzwords in Catholic talk about dialogue is "culture."At times the enthusiasm for a "dialogue of cultures" or "of civilizations" has been a kind of code for "You can't talk religion with them; let's talk politics or human rights." Moreover, it carries with it the risk of thinking that there is one culture for each religion. But what is going on when a Japanese Catholic dialogues with a follower of Tenrikyo? Is that intercultural or interreligious? Might not an English Catholic philosopher have much more in common culturally with her Muslim colleague in the university than, for example,with a recently catechized tribal Catholic from India? Individual religions take form in many cultures, and a single culture is capable of hosting more than one religion. The frontiers between religions do not simply map onto the borders between cultures, as indeed the variety of the forms of Islam and Buddhism in Asia attest.

One of the most vexed questions in contemporary theology - how to understand the uniqueness of Christ in the context of religious pluralism - is as far from a satisfactory resolution now as it was when the late Fr. Jacques Dupuis was under scrutiny by the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith 10 years ago. Dominus Iesus, the CDF attempt to clarify this issue in 2000, has not succeeded in putting an end to discussions, and unfortunately the theology of religions is presently polarized between increasingly rigid positions that seem unable to engage one another. It is an area of theology waiting for a major breakthrough. In the meantime, Fr Nicolás may find himself having to accompany some of our brothers through investigations and disciplinary proceedings, as Fr Kolvenbach has had to do.

Affirmations of uniqueness nowadays are heard as arrogant pretension to a monopoly on salvation, or as a claim that Christians are better or holier than anyone else. Both claims are demonstrably false, and neither of these things is what is meant by Christians who proclaim Jesus as uniquely revealing of who God is. It is in the humbling encounter with the richness of varied humanity - and Asia has that in spades - that we will find the way to speak of the originality and particularity of the God who humbled himself in Jesus Christ.

As the new General was being greeted by his confreres immediately after his election, one of them said to him almost in a whisper, "Don't forget the poor."This is not a bad motto for our work in dialogue.A tendency to define conflicts in religious terms often masks the social and economic factors that contribute to those tensions and whose resolution is essential to the reconciliation and understanding we seek.

In Western countries we tend to blame immigrants' faith for their inability to integrate seamlessly into the societies that host them. Yet it is essential to understand the role of poverty in pushing people to emigrate in the first place and then keeping the majority of them in cultural ghettos, because they are fearful of integration, or are rejected when they try to take their place in their newly adopted societies. \

Furthermore, the current tendency to see our world as a face-off or,worse, a fight to the death, between two powerful but incompatible civilizations inevitably saps our energy and draws our attention away from the powerless who are crushed by corruption, debt and poverty, and who die in their millions each year for want of food, water and basic health care. "Don't forget the poor."

Madigan (ASL) headed the Institute for Study of Religions and Cultures at the Gregorian University from 2002-07 and is currently a visiting fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

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