15 August, 2000
Thank you for your letter regarding your work as Interreligious Dialogue Coordinator for the Jesuits in the United States. This letter is in response to your request for information regarding my own work here in Los Angeles in regard to the Catholic church and other religions.
My own research and teaching: As you are well aware, I have been engaged in dialogue with Buddhists for many years. Here in Loyola Marymount University, we teach courses on "world religions," Buddhism (with a comparative dimension), as well as courses on Judaism and Islam, South Asian religions etc. at the undergraduate level. We also teach graduate courses on comparative theology, comparative mysticism, and comparative religious ethics.
Chris Chapple and I are also involved in specific interreligious dialogues. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles co-sponsors formal dialogue programs with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Chris is a convenor for the Hindu-RC group. I participate in the Buddhist-RC group. These groups meet regularly at LMU. Please note that the Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts continues to be interested in the question of religious diversity. Our Campus Ministry program has begun to sponsor events which bring together students, faculty and staff with roots in many religious traditions. Campus Ministry has always been very supportive of my work with Buddhists.
There is another matter of great importance to LMU. Discussions have begun regarding the possibility of LMU becoming a permanent home for the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies. That LMU has been named as a possibility in this regard reflects the prominence of Los Angeles as a center for both Christians and Buddhists and also the value the University places on responding to religious diversity.
Religious diversity in Jesuit Theology Departments: The entire question of Christianity and other religious traditions is of importance to Loyola Marymount University for multiple reasons. First and foremost, the University is situated within a community of great religious diversity. L.A.'s religious diversity should be seen as a resource for LMU in the fulfillment of its mission as a university in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions. Second, the emphasis placed on interreligious dialogue by the 34th General Congregation makes LMU, as the Jesuit university in Los Angeles, a logical place for the Society of Jesus to engage in structured, formal, continuing dialogues with other religious traditions. Nevertheless, at LMU we still suffer from what can only be described as the "all the rest" mentality. Theology Departments are typically divided into theological sub-specializations such as scripture studies, liturgy, systematics, ethics etc. Sometimes one faculty member, often from a phenomenology of religion background, does "all the rest" by teaching "world religions" courses. Alternatively, Jews, Muslims etc. are hired as part-time faculty to teach one course on their particular tradition. This might be called the "Jews as adjuncts" mentality. In any event, Catholic theologians continue to think of non-Christians as exotics to be handled (tolerated) with some theological variant of the inclusivist or pluralist theology of religions.
One possible response to this problem would be to transform our theology departments into departments of religious studies. This would be a mistake for Jesuit universities. Frankly, I donít know what "religious studies" is, except perhaps a form of theology for the European Enlightenment. Religious studies is certainly as sectarian as the various lineages of Christian theology, only less aware of this fact. A much better response would be for Jesuit theology departments to provide a home for theologians of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions to do their theological work in conversation with Christian theologians as full-time tenured colleagues (not adjuncts). The incorporation of non-Christian theologians into Jesuit theology departments should only be part of the solution. In addition, we need to develop Christian comparative theologians. I speak of Christian theologians who have professional training in a specific non-Christian religious tradition. With my roots in Christianity and my interests in Buddhism, I am an obvious example. The course I teach entitled "Buddhism" is in fact a course in Christian theology and is appropriate to a department of theology such as we have at LMU. Buddhism is presented in conversation with my own Christian tradition. As you are aware, there are appallingly few Christian theologians prepared to do such work. This constitutes a major challenge to us today and I hope your work for the Jesuit Conference will address this problem.
Proposed Meeting: I believe we need to have a series of meetings, not just one. An initial meeting would be helpful to discuss the following:
1. Information about the various Jesuit institutions and to establish lines of communication among them.
2. The most appropriate response(s) to the opportunity religious diversity offers us at Jesuit universities in the USA. Given my comments on the discipline of "religious studies" above, I suspect that there will be a fair amount of diversity on this issue.
3. Cooperation between Jesuit schools and their local diocesan ecumenical and interreligious offices. LMU has worked closely with the Archdiocese for many years to our own benefit.
Additional meetings might involve the chairs of the various departments. This might lead, possibly, to presentations on-site to specific faculties around the country. We might also want meetings with presidents, AVPs and deans.
We might also have a meeting about graduate programs in comparative theology. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has recognized the importance of religious diversity in its curriculum (especially at the high school level) and is looking for teachers qualified to teach about non-Christian traditions. The "Catholic character" of Archdiocesan schools is also a sensitive issues. Training MA candidates to be comparative theologians is a perfect solution. In this regard, we might have meetings with diocesan officials and MA program directors.
I also want MA programs around the country to become feeder schools for the doctoral programs at Notre Dame and Boston College. This means that faculty at schools like LMU are aware of these programs and able to offer adequate academic counseling to prospective students. In regard to doctoral programs, Frank, I think you need to be in touch with Fr. Leo Lefebure who is currently at Fordham. Leo has distinguished himself in the area of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He acted as a theological advisor at the Gethsamani Encounter in 1996.
Frank, thank you for your efforts in this regard. I will be happy to help you in any way I can.
- Jim Fredericks
Created: September 2, 2000 Updated: September 2, 2000