I participated yesterday in a conference sponsored by the University of St. Thomas on The Church in the Modern World: Teaching and Understanding Gaudium et Spes after 50 Years. The objectives of the conference, held over a two day and a half day period, were to examine the contemporary context of the Church in the 21st century, reflect on the continuing impact of Gaudium et Spes on the Church, its practices and its theology and consider the role of Catholic colleges and universities in educating students to be agents of the proper development of human culture for the common good.
Each of the panels I attended yesterday was quite good, and I hope to share some thoughts in coming days about some of the fine presentations I listened to.
I spoke on the panel yesterday morning on Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue, presenting a paper titled The Engagement of Catholics with Other Faith Traditions in the Post-Vatican II World. In my presentation I spoke a bit about the paradigm shift created by the Second Vatican Council with respect to engagement with other faith traditions before then speaking about the value to Catholics and non-Catholics of the inter-faith dialogue and interspirituality that have resulted from the increased freedom granted by Vatican II for Catholicism to engage with other faith traditions. (I focused particularly on the engagement of Christians with non-Christian.) My comments drew on both my academic interest in inter-faith dialogue and my personal experience, first as someone returning to Catholicism after spending twenty years practicing Buddhism, and second, as a spiritual director and retreat leader working with people whose spiritual practice incorporate elements from multiple faith traditions.
Why should anyone, regardless of his or her faith, think there is any benefit in exploring other religious traditions?
In his 2010 Santa Clara Lecture on Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue, Professor Peter Phan expressed the goal of interreligious dialogue as
mutual correction and enrichment. In interreligious dialogue both Christian and other believers are invited to examine their religious beliefs and practices, to correct them when necessary (this is always necessary at least for Christians, since the church is “semper reformanda”), to deepen their commitment to their own faiths and to live them more fully.
Those words capture well the experience of those who have engaged seriously with other religions, that is, that by such engagement we learn much about ourselves and our own religions. Referring to his experience with the Dalai Lama, Jewish Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg said:
The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit [humanness], and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, the encounter with the Dalai Lama opened to us the other faith’s integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other.
Zen Rabbi Alan Lew writes that it was Zen practice that helped him to discover the depth of Jewish spirituality and quotes a friend of his who suggested that his years of Zen meditation enabled him to understand how deep and “utterly gratifying” ordinary Jewish practices could be. Tom Chetwynd made a similar observation about his experience with Zen Buddhism in Zen & The Kingdom of Heaven, writing “I had had the privilege to be born into Christianity, but because I had encountered Zen, I would not die in it—I would live in it.” He describes in that book how his Zen practice allowed him to see new things in his Christian practice he had not seen before and “to take a fresh delight in the Mass.”
Whatever else Vatican II did or did not accomplish, it opened the door a bit wider for Catholics to benefit from the practice of other faith traditions.