Pope Francis’ Prayer Intention for January

I can’t remember a time when I’ve gone this many days without blogging! But I’m teaching two “J-term” courses – January term courses, each of which meets for six hours a week for the four weeks of January – an undergraduate honors seminar called Heroes and Heroism at University of St. Thomas and a graduate Theology course in World Spiritualities at St. Catherine University. Suffice it to say that 12 hours of teaching and the related course preparation are taking a lot of my energy!

I’ve managed to pay enough attention to things outside of my two courses to watch Pope Francis’ first video message for the traditional papal prayer intention for the month, in which he calls on people of different faiths around the world to work together for peace and justice. The reaction to the video has been sharp and varied, with some expressing joy and admiration for the Pope’s words, and others questioning the Pope’s catholicity.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to interfaith dialogue is how to reconcile Christianity’s faith in Jesus Christ as the universal Savior with the positive meaning in God’s plan of salvation of the other religious traditions and their saving value for their adherents. To quote one commentator “How to make sense of the universal mission of Christianity for the whole world without having thereby to depreciate and undervalue the significance of other religious faiths for their adherents?”

It is not a small challenge.

Here is the video, which I plan to show to my World Spiritualities class this evening before we begin our discussion of Judaiam:


Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships

It was my privilege and delight last evening to participate in a program sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. (The Jay Phillips Center is a joint project of University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville.) The program featured a lecture given by my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen and a response by me.

The title of Rabbi Cohen’s lecture was Jews and Christians: Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships. In his lecture, he talked about the history of Christian-Jewish relationships, the improvement in dialogue between the two and the need to make further progress in that dialogue. He believes that much dialogue has “consisted only of cautious attempts to find common ground, to determine and emphasize the things we share,” risking an unintended syncretism and a failure on the part of both Christians and Jews to develop greater understanding of the “distinctive flavors” of the other’s faith. He talked about some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague the efforts of both Christians and Jews to grow in their relationship with each other.

Ultimately, Rabbi Cohen believes that “only the concept of a God who is so great that covenant can be created with more than one people and in different ways, is the road to better interfaith understanding.”

I began my response to his lecture by talking about why I believe greater understanding between Jews and Christians is important. I then shared some observations about some of the points he raised in his talk, starting with observations about Christian perceptions of Judaism and, more briefly, raising a couple of thoughts about Jewish perceptions of Christianity. I ended with some observations regarding both Christians and Jews that affect how we view each other, including my strong agreement that we cannot (using his words) “be so bold as to think that our God is so limited that God chooses only the Jews or has replaced the Jews with the Christians.”

Because Rabbi Cohen’s lecture is a part of a larger writing project in which he is currently engaged, I can not post a text of his lecture. However, I have posted on my website the text that formed the basis of my response. You can find that text here.

Following our talks, there was a lively questions and answer period. One of thing on which we all agreed is that these sorts of conversations are important and that we need to find ways to bring them to larger audiences.

Faith in a Multifaith World

Earlier this week I participated as a moderator on one of the panels in a two-day symposium sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning on Christian Faith in a Multifaith World. (The Jay Phillips Center is a joint project of the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville and it does some marvelous programming.) The symposium marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.

The panels included Christian-Hindu Encounter, Christian-Buddhist Encounter (the panel I moderated), Christian-Muslim Encounter and Christian-Jewish Encounter.

Although I could not attend all four panels, I found much in those I attended that was worthwhile – and worth further reflection. Here I’ll just share one or two observations from one of the speakers, with the hope that the video of the symposium will soon be available. (Ultimately there will be a book containing the presentations.)

Ananatanand Rambachan began his presentation on the Christian-Hindu Encounter panel with the important observation that interreligoius relationships do not occur between religious traditions but are initiated and sustained by persons who embody the traditions to which they are committed. That means that developing meaningful relationships with people of other traditions is important so that we can engage in dialogue without feeling the need to conceal our core theological commitments and values. I was reminded when he was speaking of Pope Francis’ emphasis on a culture of encounter. True encounter opens us to the integrity of the other.

The second observation of his that struck me was that the Christian and Hindu common affirmation of the truth of a universal God who is the source of all existence is not a theological footnote. Rather it is fundamental for Hindu-Christian relationship and we need to contemplate its implications for how we see each other. He added (a line I loved): The tent of Abraham is too small for God. We might reflect on the ways we try to limit God.

I hope these two observations give a small sense of the richness of the symposium. For some other nuggets from the event, see my friend Richard Burbach’s post here.

Never Again?

Yesterday I attended a lunch sponsored by the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning, a joint center of the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University, which I’ve mentioned before.  The lunch featured Dr. Victoria Barnett, Director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, speaking on The Implications of the Holocaust for Multireligious Conversations.

Dr. Barnett used the activities of the National Conference of Christians and Jews during the time of World War II as a vehicle for talking about both some of the difficulties involved in inter-faith conversations and the different levels at which such conversations take place.  Particularly thought-provoking was her discussion of the tension between the particulars of an event (such as the Holocaust) and the more universal questions raised by the event (such as the human capacity for evil, complicity in evil, etc.).  While the most effective conversations connect the particular and the universal, it is easy for one to become subordinate to the other.  When the particular is too quickly brushed aside in favor of a rush to the universal, we risk turning the victims into symbols and minimizing their suffering.

There is much from her talk I will continue to process, but I was most troubled by something that took place following Dr. Barnett’s main talk.  During the question and answer period, one of the attendees referenced a recent Atlantic magazine article titled Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?  In the course of the colloquy over the question asked by the article, a Jewish woman shared something that made me physically as well as mentally shiver.  She relayed that she had been studying in a graduate program in Europe last year.  She described how, on separate occasions, both she and her partner had been physically attacked because they were Jewish, to a degree that, in both cases required hospitalization.  She also relayed that, with another Jewish person, she had been traveling by train to meet some colleagues in another city and “made the mistake” of speaking Hebrew on the train.  A short time later, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Next stop, Auschwitz.  All Jews get off the train.”  That was enough to make her come back to the United States.

I think it is impossible to deny the increase in anti-Semitism, both in the United States and abroad.  A recent report released by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks around the world.

The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world surged nearly 40 percent last year, according to a report released Wednesday by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel (described here).  “The attacks were ‘perpetrated with or without weapons and by arson, vandalism or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries and monuments as well as private property,’ the authors of the report, based at the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, said.”

Are we concerned?  If not, we should be.  And are we who call ourselves Christians (and, let’s face it, much anti-Semitism is a product of how the Christians historically read the role of the Jews in the death of Christ) speaking up to denounce such acts?

Jews and Christians and Their Views of Each Other

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, senior rabbi at Bet Shalom Temple in Minnetonka, who is often a speaker on interfaith dialogue, has been working on a book on Stereotypes and Misconceptions Christians and Jews Hold About Each Other.  Last fall, I invited him to come to speak to the law school community on the subject.  During that visit, he only addressed half of his project: stereotypes and misconceptions Christians have about Jews.  Today we had him back for a lunchtime presentation on the second half: stereotypes and misconceptions Jews have about Christians.

The following are some of the misconceptions Rabbi Cohen identified as ones Jews have about Christians. (He had 11; I’ll just mention 5.)  He was very clear that not all Jews think all of these things, but that these is some prevalence to these views.

1.  That Christianity is monolithic.  Just as Christians often fail to appreciate the enormous differences within Judaism, Jews often do not appreciate that there are differences, not only between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics, or between Southern Baptists and UCC folks.  He feels the need to sometimes remind members of his congregation that you don’t understand “Christianity” by watching a few TV evangelists on Sunday morning.

2.  That Christians mean the same things as Jews do in using certain terms.  A good reminder for all of us that words we take for granted like “Bible”, “Messiah”, “sin” and “salvation” mean different things to people of different faith traditions.

3.  That Christians only care about heaven and hell and not about his world.  Rabbi Cohen noted that his response is to point out how many soup kitchens and other works of mercy and charity are performed by Christian churches.  The commitment of especially the Catholic Church to social justice is, he believes, apparent to anyone who looks objectively at their actions.

4.  That the New Testament is nothing more than anti-semitic blaming of Jews for killing Jesus.  This is one I sense Rabbi Cohen loves to talk about with Jews, as he has become convinced from his own experience of the value to Jews of studying the New Testament.  He believes it is source from which Jews can better understand their Christian friends, what first century Jews were like, how a young Church develops, and so on.  This is a subject I’d love to hear him elaborate on.

5.  That the Holocaust is totally the fault of Christianity because it took place on a Christian continent and the Church did not prevent it from happening.  This strikes me as one of those over-generalizations that have some germ of truth.  It clearly is a misconception to place the blame of the holocaust on Christianity.  However, it is also clear that the Catholic Church could have taken more decisive action in challenging the Nazi regime, something it itself has acknowledged.

There was much more in his talk, but this gives you a few highlights to think about.  I am grateful to my friend for taking time with us.



The Church in the Modern World: Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue

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.

More Lent Reading: Sharing Sacred Space

I just finished reading Benoit Standaert’s book Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter.  Unlike some of the spiritual reading I am doing this Lent – reading that is not directly related to anything I am currently working on – this is a book I read in anticipation of teaching World Spiritualities at St. Catherine’s University during the upcoming J-term 2016. Leaving aside my motives for reading it, this is a wonderful book.

Early in the book, Standaert shares the “central intuition” that guided his efforts in writing L’Espace Jesus, only the third and last part of which appears translated here in Sharing Sacred Space.  He write

Any encounter with the great religions of the world is doomed to fail if its staring point is dogma as formulated and transmitted in a given culture, or if it is based on some historical expressions, which are also culturally conditioned.  If we want to provide a level playing field for all the participants, we have to come up with some other approach.  In order to make it possible for us to meet one another as equals, I have made use of the category of “spiritual space.”

Believing that each of the great religious traditions exists in a specific spiritual space, Standaert’s starting point is the concept of “Jesus space.”  By starting there, he believes it will be “possible to move beyond the confrontational impasse that is created when we limit ourselves to dogmatic comparisons or historical reconstructions.”  His discussion proceeds from the premise that “Christians do not have a monopoly on the meaning and richness contained in and radiating out from Jesus space.”

In successive chapters of Sharing Sacred Space, Standaert addresses the encounters between Jesus and Judaism, Jesus and Islam, Jesus and Buddhism and Jesus and Unbelief.  In them one finds, not a treatise on the different faith traditions, but the fruits of his reflection on the relationship of each to Jesus and Christianity.

There is much I could write about the various chapters, but I will limit myself to observing how helpful I found his discussion, in the chapter on Jesus and Judaism, of the major trajectories of Jewish belief from the times of Herod the Great and the beginnings of the Christian movement to the present.  Standaert is absolutely right (and my buddy Rabbi Norman Stein has made the same point) that “for many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha” and “they know absolutely nothing about the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.”  How can we possibly engage in meaningful dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters if that is the case?

I’ve talked before here and elsewhere on the importance of interreligious dialogue.  This book is an importantone for those wishing for that dialogue to bear fruit.

Practicing Generosity

Last night I participated in “an evening of interfaith conversation” at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. Although the conversation formed part of a summer course for MAT students on World Spiritualities, the evening was open to others and we had quite a large turnout.

There were three of us speaking: me, Buddhist teacher Joen Snyder O’Neal and Rabbi Barry Cytron. Each of us spoke about our own spiritual practices in addition to commenting on some specific questions put to us by Prof. Bill McDonough, the organizer of the discussion.

I always benefit from these discussions and there was much in the remarkes by both Joen and Barry I found illuminating. But I was particularly struck by a couple of things Joen said as part of her discussion of the Buddhist practice of generosity, a practice important to all faith traditions.

First, she said that while it is valuable to give “things” to other people, the practice of generosity should include giving others non-fear. She spoke of living our lives in a way that others experience non-fear. That asks more of us than simply sharing with others the “things” that we have. It invites a way of being that gives something very precious to another.

Second, she observed that we usually have five or six thoughts of giving every day and we dismiss them. E.g., “I should call X who is sick.” The generous thoughts arise, but we don’t act on them. Her advice to her students, she said, is to, at least once each day, act on one of those impulses. Don’t dismiss it. It may seem small, but you can imagine what an effect it would have – on us and others – if we all took that advice.

Enriching One’s Faith With Practices From Another Faith Tradition

The May 2013 edition of U.S. Catholic Magazine has a nice piece written by Heather Grennan Gary titled Spiritual exercises: Can other religious practices strengthen your Catholic core? I have to confess that I was interviewed for the piece so many months ago that I had forgotten about it until I got the e-mail that it had been published!

Gray interviewed several Catholics, in addition to me, who in various ways incorporate into their prayer practices drawn from other faith traditions.

One of the segments of her piece talks about how to assess resources from other traditions. “The essential question Catholics need to ask when it comes to assessing a resource from outside their tradition, suggests Paulist Father Thomas Ryan, is what effect it will have on the coherence and integrity of their faith.” Fr. Ryan makes a point I often make when I am talking about Growing in Love and Wisdom, cautioning against rejecting outright non-Catholic resources:

“I do think there is a difference between syncretism and enrichment,” he says, pointing to a key theme that runs through Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Dominum et Vivificantem (1986) and Redemptoris Missio (1990)—that the Holy Spirit is present and active everywhere in the world, not just within the church. “The seeds of the Word are out there. We ought to have our antennae up for what might be edifying and beneficial.”

I also agree with Fr. Ryan that “the interplay between religious traditions [is] one of the particular graces of our age, providing Catholics with regular opportunities to be challenged and inspired to live and understand their faith more fully—and to challenge and inspire others to do the same.”

To get a sense of how several Catholics have incorporated practices from other traditions into their own, take a look at Gray’s article, which you can access here.

Contemplative in Action

Knowing of my interest in interspirituality and interfaith dialogue, my friend Richard gave me a wonderful book titled Monks and Muslims: Monastic and Shi’a Spirituality in Dialogue. The book contains papers from a 2011 conference during which Christian monastics and Iranian Shi’a Muslims shared thoughts on the subjects of revelation, prayer and witness.

I’ve benefitted from reading a number of the paired papers I’ve read thus far – and will doubtless share some thoughts about them in a future post.

However, I didn’t need to read past the introduction to the book to find something that struck me powerfully, something that helps explain the value of Christian/Muslim dialogue. The introduction quotes an excerpt from Frithjof Schuon attempting to answer the question of why monasticism is not part of the Islamic tradition, a tradition that “possesses mysticism, ascetic discipline, and a cult of saints?”

His answer to that question will resonate deeply with those who, like myself, are possessed of an Ignatian spirituality, which emphasizes being “contemplative in action.” He writes

One of the raisons d’etre of Islam is precisely the possibility of a “monastery-society,” if the expression is allowable: that is to say that Islam aims to carry the contemplative life into the very framework of society as a whole; it succeeds in realizing within that framework conditions of structure and of behavior that permit of contemplative isolation in the very midst of the activities of the world. …The famous “no monasticism in Islam”…really means, not that contemplatives must not withdraw from the world, but on the contrary that the world must not be withdrawn from contemplatives; the intrinsic ideal of monasticism or of eremitism, namely asceticism and the mystical life, is in no way affected.

Ignatius envisioned his followers as “contemplatives in action,” alert to the presence of God in all aspect of their lives, in constant relation to God wherever they were. This ideal is no different for Muslims than it is for Christians.