DIALOGUE TODAY: A CERTAIN STUBBORNNESS
Dwan Family Chair Inaugural Lecture: GTU Dinner Board Room – October 7, 2004
Members of the Dwan Family, Presidents Daoust and Donahue, faculty colleagues and students of the Jesuit School of Theology, the Graduate Theological Union, and the University of California, dialogue partners from the Bay Area, esteemed guests and friends, thank you for coming!
Let me begin by taking you on a dialogue journey. The letter describing it embodies well both its urgency and its facts.
Dear Interfaith Friends,
Monday morning I began preparations to travel to the North for our scheduled Learning Day for the WIE (Women’s Interfaith Encounter) in the Galilee in Turan, the village of Randa Zarik Sabag, our Christian co-ordinator in the Galilee—with Jews, Christians, Muslims studying “Honor Thy Mother” (the day before was the Arab Mother’s Day) from the scriptures of the three religions. As the news started coming in about the assassination of Sheik Yassin by the Israeli Army, I started to receive phone calls being warned by friends not to travel on buses, not to go to an Arab village, not to talk with Arabs today, etc., etc. However, I refuse to allow terrorism to dictate my life choices (especially because my own son is a survivor of a terrorist suicide bombing) for me that would be a victory for terrorism. So I set out on the bus from Jerusalem at 11 a.m. for the 2:30 p.m. meeting. We were supposed to be 40-50 women meeting in a school, but Randa called to tell me that most of the Muslims (including our coordinator) and the Druze women called to say they weren’t coming, because of the situation. They felt that because of the assassination, it was not the right time to dialogue. So Randa moved the meeting to her home to be more intimate.
The entire bus ride I was receiving phone calls from the various coordinators informing me about who was and wasn’t coming. At one point there was some concern that we should postpone the meeting—Randa said the Arabs didn’t want to talk to Jews—Piera Edelman, our Jewish coordinator said that some of the Jews were afraid that there would be demonstrations, her mother called and was worried it would be dangerous, etc. I told them that I heard their concerns and understood and accepted the reluctance of some women to meet today—but I reminded them that we must learn from our experience in Jerusalem; even when there are suicide bus bombings there, we never cancel a meeting—we must not allow violence, terror, war, to deter us from our course of demonstrating that women can meet together in peace. So our process must continue and provide a space for whoever would be there to benefit from it. The coordinators agreed that our task was greater than our fears.
At the entrance to Turan two carloads of Jewish women met and drove together into Turan. We entered Randa’s home carrying flowers, food, and a cake fresh out of the oven with a beautiful sweet aroma that filled the room. Randa and her sister-in-law and three daughters greeted us with hugs and kisses. Ibtisam Mahameed, our Northern Muslim coordinator was waiting there with Michal Fuchs, a Jewish friend who drove her there. We began speaking of the difficulty and pain she was feeling as a Muslim today, but her determination to be here and to continue with our work together. The Christian women were beginning to arrive. One came over smiling and happy and saying “Happy Holiday. Happy Mother’s Day.” Ibtisam and I were startled by her cheery greeting—but somehow it brought us back to the reality of the goal of our meeting—mothers giving and getting strength from each other—and I was impressed with the way Ibtisam put her struggles aside and entered into the atmosphere of our meeting. The room kept filling with women bringing food, greeting each other, feeling relief to arrive safely and find other women willing to be together today.
Randa opened with greetings and a circle of introductions. We regretted that our British donor was unable to be with us because he had been refused entry at the airport and we were very grateful for his generosity and support for interfaith women building peace together. We acknowledged the importance of people abroad being aware of our situation and willing to strengthen us to do this holy work. Everyone spoke in their own language and Randa translated into Hebrew or Arabic. In the end we were 8 Jews, 12 Christians, and 2 Muslims—a tiny microcosm struggling to be open and sane and understanding towards each other. We spoke about the significance of continuing with our process in spite of what was going on—acknowledging the difficulty, pain, and dangers that each experienced coming here today—and validating the strength and support that we get from each other. The test of our work is not that we get together when times are good, but that we continue when times are bad. We did a paired exercise with someone of another religion that we did not know—telling them about ourselves and what it meant to meet together today. The room immediately filled with the buzz of so many intimate conversations as women leaned towards each other and looked deeply into each other’s eyes and listened intently. By the time we’d finished, a web of connection had been woven among us—and it felt like a safety net. (from Message 148—3/29/04—from www.interfaith-encounter.org)
That’s stubbornness!! The account was by Elana Rozenman and her sisters-in-dialogue.
Let’s move about 2,000 miles west, and a few years earlier. Near the village of Tibhirine in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, nine Trappist monks stayed in a priory. That they “stayed” is the point, because, after the Islamic Salvation Front party won a clear majority in the 1991 legislative elections, an emergency was declared and the election results annulled. Muslim militants both legitimate and extremist made the Algerian countryside very hot. In late 1993 the extremist Islamic Armed Group issued an ultimatum giving foreigners thirty days to leave Algeria. At regular intervals throughout this time, the monks prayed and discerned about whether their ministry of presence to the Muslim villagers of Tibhirine—the strong mutual love and help, which involved deliberate Muslim-Christian dialogue--should continue even in the face of killings of priests, brothers, sisters, and Muslims. The monks agonized, but reaffirmed each time the leadership position of their prior, Fr. Christian de Cherge, and of their bishops, that their presence, prayer and work in Tibhirine was God’s loving will.
When the prior and six other monks were kidnapped in March, 1996, and killed not long afterwards, a testament Fr. de Cherge had written, both inspiring and thought provoking, read in part:
I know the contempt that some people have for Algerians as a whole. I also know the caricatures of Islam that a certain ideology promotes. It is too easy for such people to dismiss, in good conscience, this religion as something hateful by associating it with violent extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are quite different from the commonly held opinion. They are body and soul.
Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic . . . But such people should know my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able—if God pleases—to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity among our differences . . . Amen! Insha Allah! (from John W. Kiser, The Monks of Tibhirine. N.Y.: St. Martin’s, 2002. 245-46)
But what’s all this about stubbornness—stubbornness and dialogue--in my title and in my lecture? You could say that I got it from Mahatma Gandhi. Because the Indian-language word that Gandhi coined to embody his teaching of nonviolent resistance is Satyagraha. ‘Satya’ means ‘truth’; and so Gandhi’s compound word is often translated as “Truth-force,” or “Truth-power.” But my experience with India and the Indian languages has taught me that ‘agraha’, the compound’s second word, means something more like “stubbornness, obstinacy, persistence, urgency, perseverance.” And so Gandhi’s word for nonviolent resistance, ‘Satyagraha’, really means “stubbornness in the truth.” And that’s how Gandhi was—stubborn, in the mostly positive sense.
In my spiritual life and preaching I’ve often made one application of this idea. It’s simply that all of us humans have “stubbornness in doubt”—a persistence we get without even trying. What I try to oppose to that, because God has so often rescued us from doubt and other difficulties, is a “stubbornness in faith”—God will rescue us again!
But what I’m saying today is that we should exhibit, even idealize, “stubbornness in dialogue.” Persevere, persist, press forward; take a bus, stay around.
And yet, as I’m sure you’re thinking, sometimes stubbornness needs to take unstubborn forms. For example: last July at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, the great dialogue theologian Raimon Panikkar was asked: “What should I do? An important theologian I know won’t get into dialogue. But he’d be very valuable, and I’m sure he should be in dialogue . . .” Panikkar answered: “Wait!”
II. Someone might ask what impels dialogue—what started it, or what should start it now? Originally for Christians, I think, it was the mission situation. Not at first, when the other religions encountered were assumed to be false, wrong, demonically inspired, or all three. But later, as certain missionaries were able to look around and see truly holy Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, the question naturally arose: what about their salvation? Some, instead of asking only Christian theologians, spoke with Buddhists and Hindus, learned about their faiths, and found themselves seeking the supreme goals of their faiths together. So, the question of salvation impelled dialogue, but friendship’s love continued it, binding some dialogue partners together for the duration.
Commitment to urgent human need also impels dialogue, and did so early on, as when the Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Tokyo in the late 1970’s found its natural outflow in helping the boat people who were reaching Japan’s harbors from Vietnam. Matters of poverty-relief and the environment can also motivate dialogue.
What most obviously impels dialogue since 9/11? Peace. Peace and the mutual knowledge and good will without which peace is an illusion. Perhaps only patient dialogue will yield that depth of knowledge and goodwill, as in the case of the mosque and synagogue on Long Island, whose years of dialogue kept their members talking with each other even after the most recent cycle of horrors began in Israel/Palestine. Put another way: we would not easily go to war with people from whom we are learning about God.
But what impels dialogue most in the long run, in the peacetime that we pray will once again be our more ordinary state? Friendship. From among many dialogue partners will come a few who seek God together with us in love. And so I submit that the greatest impulse to dialogue for Christians are Jesus’ two great commandments. Love of God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind and strength in that we look for the touch of God’s saving love in other religions. “Over again I feel thy finger and find Thee,” says the poet Hopkins. Second and “like that,” the love of neighbor, we find in the friendship, but more broadly also, in taking our neighbor seriously as to her truths, beliefs, and ultimate concerns.
On the lighter side of stubbornness in dialogue: sometimes such deep concerns start very young in life. On the first day of the Interreligious Dialogue on Education which I co-directed in Washington, D.C., we eight partners introduced ourselves by telling our own religious story. It had come down to the last three. The first, a well known Catholic theologian, told how, at the age of three, she had experienced God quite consciously in the magnificent sweep and uplift of a cathedral in Germany. The second, a Sudanese Muslim man, averred that a Sufi holy woman had put her hands on his mother’s stomach, big with child, and declared that not only would there be twins, but they would be specially close to Allah. So, God had touched him even before birth. The Hindu partner then said simply: “According to my religion, I have been seeking God from beginningless eternity!” Score one for the Hindus!
III. Impelled to dialogue, then, the next obvious subject is: with whom do we dialogue? and in what ways? Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, says that Christians should dialogue with persons who have not yet heard the Gospel. While I would certainly include these people in dialogue, it is my experience and that of many others who have been in dialogue that our much more frequent dialogue partners are those who know something about Christ and are eager to talk, but remain firm believers in their own faiths. As Fr. Thomas Michel, the Islamologist who is the Jesuits’ international Secretary for Dialogue, put it: “What interreligious dialogue really means is how we relate to people who have no interest in becoming Christians.” Just think about the implications of that deceptively informal statement—especially if you think that, while dialogue may be an important religious activity of today, it is limited to a relative few. Because, out of the world’s six billion people, if you take away the estimated two billion Christians, how many of the rest are probably not interested in becoming Christians? In this room, how many, do you suppose, even if very interested in dialogue, are actively interested in becoming a member of another religion? Not many, I suspect. So, conservatively, there must be two to three billion people who are possible partners for dialogue with Christians. There are large numbers in the question we’re talking about.
In what ways do we dialogue, then? A formulation just over ten years old, but already becoming classic, suggests four ways: 1) the dialogue of life, in which we all take part, as in weddings and funerals, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, festivals and holydays of our neighbors and co-workers, as with Ramadan beginning next week; 2) dialogue of action, when partners from different faiths seek and find social or environmental causes which they work to improve, because in dialogue they perceive their faith as making such action imperative; 3) the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists meet and work together, perhaps to explore specific points of their religions, with a common statement or publication as their goal; and 4) the dialogue of religious experience, in which deeply believing partners share with and lead each other into the weighty matters of their religions by prayer, meditation, liturgy, silence, and so forth. To these four ways I would add, when partners are not present for dialogue, personal prayer for them and their fellow believers, or, as Buddhists do, dedication of the merits of one’s deeds to help them. And a final way: to read your newspaper, and the internet, with interreligious dialogue eyes. There’s a great deal of matter these days—I’m sure you’ve noticed. It may even move you to write to the New York Times, as I did recently, when our Departments of State and Homeland Security revoked a visa that had been granted to the outstanding young Muslim professor, Tariq Ramadan, to teach at Notre Dame University’s Peace Institute. The Times didn’t publish my letter, but they did better, by publishing an excellent op-ed piece by Dr. Ramadan himself (on September 1).
What about the negatives and the hard questions? You can’t ignore the elephants in the living-room forever. And you shouldn’t want to. And religious dialogue has a whole herd of them. What is necessary is to build up enough trust that partners will speak honestly to each other and yet survive the doubt-filled silences or loud territorial statements that follow. Some dialogues die at those difficult moments. But in others that trust, or stubbornness, becomes very ingenious at finding ways for the dialogue to survive and even to grow and prosper.
And on difficult doctrinal, moral, or cultural points, Raimon Panikkar helps once more by teaching a very strong definition of the word “understand.” In dialogue we should so “stand under” what the partner describes of her faith as to uphold it as she does, to be convinced of, even converted to, that belief, says Panikkar. But what dialogue then continues about are the matters one has not yet so “understood.” There are expected to be several such matters, at least—and the last thing one should do, says Panikkar, is to say one has understood before one has. Such pseudo-courteous dishonesty would defeat the dialogue by robbing it of both integrity and credibility. (Cf. R. Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue. Revised edition. N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1999, 47-48, plus personal conversation with the author, 1981.)
IV. Finally in our stubbornness, we can ask what are the goals of dialogue? I would answer first and foremost that, since interreligious dialogue is a way of meeting God and one’s neighbor in the depths of faith, it is an end in itself. As Thanksgiving’s joy—and I mean both the holiday and the Eucharist—as Thanksgiving’s joy is an end or goal in itself. As great art is; as friendship is—like love and God’s sudden grace, dialogue needs no further goal. It doesn’t always feel like that, by the way; but it often does.
As we’ve already seen, however, certain goals can go with dialogue. The dialogue of action specifically orients its mutual exchanges toward helping solve a societal or other problem. And the dialogues of theological exchange and religious experience can intend specific expressions of greater unity, for example, among the faiths concerned. And importantly, dialogue can sometimes help in conflict resolution. Even rather early in dialogue’s recent history, for example, when Hindu-Muslim rioting broke out in the Indian city of Jamshedpur around 1970, Fr. Emile Coelho invited key leaders of the two communities to Xavier Labour Relations Institute. And, with the help of dialogue techniques, he got the leaders talking constructively with each other, with the result that the leaders were able to persuade their co-religionists to stop the violence.
And finally, dialogue-theologian Gavin D’Costa points out an important religious goal for Christians. Since, he reasons, the Holy Spirit is seen as the source of the recognized truths of other religions, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, Christians must learn what the Spirit teaches them in these other faiths. Such teachings can be expected to be very different, but they are taught there by the Spirit of Christ for Christians, too.
One theological point (talk about stubbornness!): since this Dwan Family Chair will be in the Jesuit School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union, what kind of theological questions might be explored? Here’s an example: I’m often enough asked a question like: “Jim, do they have forgiveness in Hinduism?” It seems a simple question. But it is usually asked from a Christian context, and that’s significant. Because it’s not from a Christian context that a Hindu would do whatever is the Hindu equivalent of forgiveness, if there is one. So, to answer the question fairly, I would have to think out and then explain the Hindu context for a personal offense, how Hindus think of it, and how they might reconcile with each other. Under the pressure of immediate conversation, however, I have usually said, squirmingly, “No, not exactly,” or “I’m not entirely sure.”
But after I had been asked that forgiveness in Hinduism question recently, and was thinking over the bad answer I had given—an epiphany!: here I am in the Jesuit School of Theology, where our greatest desire is to do contextual theology. And contextual theology is precisely what the question about forgiveness in Hinduism is all about—contextual theology and epistemology. We all see readily, when we go to India or China, that that different culture requires a new and contextual theology. But what I realized is that seemingly straightforward questions about another religion can’t be answered unless that religion’s context-area is explored and explained. Only then can similarity or not be assessed. I also have to learn to say, nicely: “I can’t give a simple answer; you asked a complicated question.” On that forgiveness question, by the way: I think that I would look first in Indian religion at the “perfection of patience” practices of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Path—and I think many Hindus would agree it’s a good place to look.
And before we leave contextual theology, let me mention that I have long thought that the kind of theology I do is best named after its context—dialogue theology. Theology of religions and comparative theology would be the two other theological areas that are close. And whether this is systematic theology or pastoral theology is not always easy to say. But I prefer to be named, after my context, a dialogue theologian.
Lastly—and this time I mean it—you might have noticed that this chair is in ecumenical dialogue, too. Now, I am not a specialist in ecumenism—my colleague Professor Mary Ann Donovan is. But let me say two things: first, that the intra-Christian questions and aspects of interreligious dialogue have come forward so prominently that they are now a large part of, for instance, the recent Parliament of the World’s Religions. At that Parliament the first full ninety-minute session of all seven days was devoted to “intrareligious” dialogue—the necessary talking that members of each religion at the Parliament had to do with each other. It was only then that the second session of each day featured interreligious dialogue. These intrareligious sessions are filled with ecumenical considerations—as I’m finding out also in the Theology of Religions course I’m presently teaching. Secondly, I’ll keep up with ecumenical work as best I can, at such meetings as the Congress of Jesuit Ecumenists—which also now includes interreligious papers.
Stubbornness in dialogue, then, is our song. Persistent in our tenderness, unyielding in our adaptability, obstinate in our friendship. And straightforward in our faith, hope, and love—simple and profound.
Family Dwan, you have done a great thing here. Thank you for establishing dialogue at the Jesuit School and the Graduate Theological Union—on Holy Hill—permanently! And stubbornly!
James D. Redington, S.J.