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Pluralism conference report

 National Catholic Reporter
 The Independent Newsweekly

September 12, 2003

Pluralism conference report; A conversation with Fr. Roger Haight; The Sant'Egidio conference; Slovakia preview


At a four-day summit of religious pluralists, or theologians who believe that all the world’s great religions are valid paths of salvation, I was especially struck by affinities between the Christians and Muslims. Although much conflict in the world today can be analyzed in terms of clash between these two traditions, it was clear to me in new ways how much they also share.

Among other things, both Christianity and Islam police orthodoxy in ways that other religions often can’t, or won’t. While that capacity to enforce boundaries can afford cohesiveness and a strong sense of identity, it also means that creative thinkers inside both traditions sometimes face special pressures.

The September 6-9 summit, the first of its kind, amounted to a “who’s who” of the pluralist world. It was held in Birmingham because that’s the home of English philosopher John Hick, 81, the father of the movement. In books such as 1986’s God Has Many Names, Hick argues that since Christianity does not produce more kindness and goodness than other religions, it’s untenable to regard it as a superior revelation.

Catholic luminaries such as Paul Knitter of Xavier University and Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight and Chester Gillis, both of Georgetown University, took part, as well as Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and Sikhs. All told, some 40 scholars from 16 countries participated.

In theological debate, pluralism is usually contrasted to “exclusivism,” the view that only one religion saves and followers of others are excluded, and “inclusivism,” the view that only one religion saves and followers of others can be included. The official

Roman Catholic position is generally held to be a form of inclusivism — salvation comes from Jesus Christ, but non-Christians can receive its fruits, though in a less comprehensive way.

The charter for Catholic concerns with pluralism is the September 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which insists that followers of other religions are in a “gravely deficient situation” in comparison to Christians who alone “have the fullness of the means of salvation.”  Critics worry that pluralism produces relativism, meaning skepticism about objective truth. They say that pluralism implies at least a reinterpretation, if not an outright rejection, of elements of the Nicene Creed — such as that Jesus is the “only Son of God,” not one savior among many, and that he came for the salvation of all, not just of Christians.

The German Evangelical Church (EKD) recently issued a set of “Guidelines for Interreligious Dialogue” strikingly similar to Dominus Iesus, reaffirming the definitiveness of the revelation in Christ.

The Birmingham summit was my first experience of John Hick “in the flesh,” and whatever one makes of his philosophy of religion, it should be said that Hick is an unfailingly gracious man. Knitter, now retired from Xavier and more or less the master of ceremonies in Birmingham, is likewise a gentle and endearing soul. If one were to evaluate theological movements on the basis of congeniality, it would be tough to fault this one.

Of course, that’s not how it’s done.

In fact, pluralism arouses resistance from religious institutions. If all religions are equally valid, it’s hard to know why I should be especially committed to any one of them except for psychological or biographical reasons. It’s no surprise that pluralists face a backlash. To judge from Birmingham, that’s especially the case for Christians and Muslims.

Hick’s own biography offers an example. In 1987, while teaching at the Claremont Graduate School in California, he was rejected as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the United States after a wrenching four-year debate. Haight is presently facing a Vatican investigation for his 2000 book Jesus Symbol of God (Obris), in which he presents a Christology “from below,” stressing the humanity of Jesus, as a way of opening Christianity to the pluralist view.

Muslim participants had their own cautionary tales. One concerned Nasr H. Abu Zagd, an Islamic theologian who until recently taught at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Institute. A shariah court found him guilty of apostasy for suggesting that the Koran was fallible, one legal consequence of which is that he is regarded as a non-Muslim. His wife was ordered to separate from him since under Islamic law a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-believer. The couple went into exile, and is today in the Netherlands.

The account tracked with the experience of Muslims in Birmingham. A Malaysian theologian said she couldn’t be identified as a participant in the summit because of pressures she would face back home. An Iranian scholar said he’s teaching at an American university because his views are unwelcome in Iran.

On the Christian side, a German scholar who works at a Catholic mission institute said he and his colleagues are all “cryptic pluralists,” but can’t say so out loud for fear of being fired. An Asian Catholic described the loyalty oath his bishop had forced him to sign, under Vatican pressure, for inviting a well-known pluralist thinker to speak to the church group he serves.

Tensions over pluralism, of course, are not exclusive to Christianity and Islam. A Jewish scholar pointed to Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was threatened with a heresy trial for offering a positive view of other religions in his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference. In the end, Sacks revised the book. A Buddhist said that while Western converts sometimes act like the tradition has no doctrine, in fact Buddhists in Japan and China have complex systems of belief and are just as chauvinistic about them as anyone else.

At the same time, it was clear that the pressures endemic to Christianity and Islam sometimes puzzled other participants. One Indian Hindu, after listening to several such accounts, shook his head and said of religious systems in the West: “We can’t understand what you’re doing.”

Strategies adopted by Christian and Muslim pluralists for re-interpreting their own traditions are likewise similar. Just as Christians craft new readings of traditional doctrines such as Christology and pneumatology, Muslims look for ways to open up the Koran.

For example, Abdulkarim Soroush, a Shiite Muslim from Iran, said theologians committed to a “reformed Islam” are drawing on the distinction between portions of the Koran revealed in Mecca and those in Medina. In Mecca, Soroush said, Mohammed was strictly a prophet, and these texts are positive about other religions. In Medina, Mohammed ran a state, and the revelation became more legalistic and harsh towards “non-believers.”

Traditionally, Soroush said, Islamic jurists have favored the Medina texts. Reform-minded theologians argue that the Medina revelation represents only one possible application of Mecca’s religious and moral principles, which should be seen as more fundamental.

Remarking on these parallels, Haight said on the summit’s final day he had learned from Muslims that “Christians are not the only ones with strict structures of religious authority,” and that “Christianity and Islam can learn from each other how to use tradition to open up authority structures.”

* * *

Most experts in inter-religious dialogue say that if relationships are to mature, they have to grow beyond the “tea and cookies” stage into the capacity to challenge one another. The problem is that issuing challenges tends to make people mad in a way that tea and cookies rarely do.

 A clear example in Birmingham came with the summit’s last panel, composed of three rabbis: Marc Ellis and Michael Kogan of the United States and Dan Cohn-Sherbok of England. Up to that point, most participants had used their five-minute speaking blocks to outline how pluralism could be accepted from within their traditions.

Ellis, however, flung down a gauntlet.

He denounced what he called an “ecumenical deal” in Jewish/Christian dialogue, which in his opinion works like this: Jews agree to forgive mainline Christian churches for anti-Semitism, and in return Christians agree not to push Jews on Israel’s conduct in Palestine. Criticism of Israel is interpreted as a reversion to anti-Semitism. The end result, Ellis said, is that out of guilt over the Holocaust, Christians end up being silent on another historical crime.

One consequence of this “ecumenical deal,” Ellis said, is that Jewish dissenters such as himself are frozen out of the dialogue. One example, he said, is that he had been asked in advance of the pluralism summit not to address the Palestinian problem.

“This deal is upheld by Jews such as Eli Wiesel and by mainstream Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches,” Ellis said. “Some people in this room are among the architects of the deal.”

Sparks flew.

Kogan later said that had he known in advance the Palestinian problem would be on the table in Birmingham, he would not have come. “Unless we’re also going to deal with the caste system in India, and the oppression of women in Arab states, and the problems of the American Indians, etc., to focus exclusively on the sins of Israel seems to many Jews to be scapegoating,” he said.

Kogan insisted on focus.

“We can’t get hijacked by social and political issues. This isn’t a deal, but a matter of what we choose to cover and not to cover.”

Interestingly, however, the most passionate reaction came from Christians.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel of the University of Glasgow argued that relationships across religious boundaries aren’t ready for the kind of “tough love” Ellis proposed.

“When it comes to inter-religious criticism, historically it served only one purpose, which has been to denigrate the other and claim one’s own superiority,” Schmidt-Leukel said. “For now we should stay with the prophetic function of criticizing one’s own tradition. We might find forms of inter-religious criticism, after friendship develops.”

Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight asked aloud if the pluralist approach inherently implies bracketing some criticism in order to advance understanding.

Ellis wasn’t buying it.

“When you’re silent, you actually denigrate us,” he said. “It’s patronizing.”

Wesley Ariarajah, a former official of the World Council of Churches, largely agreed with Ellis.

“We dare not say there’s anything wrong for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism,” Ariarajah said. “The Jewish community is so well-organized to put out dissent they don’t get the criticism they need to become a more mature religious community.”

Ariarajah said that as an Asian, he is frustrated that so much in the Jewish/Christian relationship pivots on 20th century European history, especially the Holocaust.

“We need a relationship between two mature communities, not so over-burdened by European history. The dialogue has to relate to Christians in all parts of the world.”

Michael von Brück, a German Protestant theologian, said there are other “ecumenical deals.”

“Catholic dissenters accuse us Protestants of the same thing,” he said. “They complain that we dialogue only with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and freeze them out. In effect, they say that we Protestants are no longer protesting, and we should be ashamed.”

* * *

Here is the revised statement of principles as adopted by the participants in the Birmingham summit.

1.      Interreligious dialogue and engagement should be the way for religions to relate to one another. A paramount need is for religions to heal antagonisms among themselves.

2.      The dialogue should engage the pressing problems of the world today, including war, violence, poverty, environmental devastation, gender injustice, and violation of human rights.

3.      Absolute truth claims can easily be exploited to incite religious hatred and violence.

4.      The religions of the world affirm ultimate reality/truth which is conceptualized in different ways.

5.      While ultimate reality/truth is beyond the scope of complete human understanding, it has found expression in diverse ways in the world’s religions.

6.      The great world religions with their diverse teachings and practices constitute authentic paths to the supreme good.

7.      The world’s religions share many essential values, such as love, compassion, equality, honesty, and the ideal of treating others as one wishes to be treated oneself.

8.      All persons have freedom of conscience and the right to choose their own faith.

9.      While mutual witnessing promotes mutual respect, proselytizing devalues the faith of the other.

Readers who compare this list with the preliminary draft I published last week will notice that it’s been softened in some key respects. This was a subject of debate at the summit. Some felt the tweaking was needed in order to speak outside the circles of the already convinced, while others saw it as a frustrating retreat on key ideas.

* * *

Sources in Rome say that Haight was notified of a review of his work by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, and shortly thereafter the Congregation for Catholic Education ordered him suspended from the Jesuit-run Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Haight is currently on a sabbatical year at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University).

Haight responded to a critique from the CDF of his 2000 book Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis). Meantime theological debate over the book continues in the Catholic world. Some find it an exciting new Christological approach, while others feel that in trying to make room for the pluralist hypothesis Haight goes too far in jettisoning or reinterpreting core doctrines.

While the CDF has given no public hint of how things will fall out, most observers expect a strong intervention. In February 2001 the Vatican issued a stern notification warning of eight "ambiguities" in the 1997 book Toward a Theology of Religious Pluralism by Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, whose inclusivist position is considerably more moderate than Haight’s.

I had the chance in Birmingham to sit down with Haight, awaiting the final outcome of the Vatican review of his work. Does Haight believe that Catholicism will ever come around to his view?

"I have no expectation that pluralism will become the official understanding of the Roman Catholic church," Haight said. "What I’m trying to do is carve out space for it to be accepted as an orthodox Catholic view, even if it’s a minority position."

In other words, Haight hopes that the inclusivist/pluralist debate can be like the 16th century argument between the Jesuits and the Dominicans over grace — two views that can both be accommodated within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Does he see evidence of movement in that direction?

“I think of the Modernist crisis in the early 20th century, when so many things were declared unacceptable that later were approved at Vatican II,” Haight said.

I flippantly asked if that made him George Tyrell, the English Jesuit who was considered one of the fathers of modernism, but Haight rightly waved it off as a loaded question.

“I also look at American Catholicism on the ground, with a Catholic population more and more educated in the faith,” Haight continued. “We have an extremely polarized right and left, and a great body in the middle. Many, for example college and university students, are used to pluralism, and are asking how they can square it with the Catholic faith.

“I try to put critical words on their experience, and keep this experience in touch with the tradition,” Haight said. “Very few reflective young Catholics aren’t asking questions about other religions.”

I asked Haight if he could see any value in the concerns expressed by the Vatican.

“They’re saying that one has to attend to the tradition, to the community,” he said. “I try to do that in what I write. I proceed very, very carefully and responsibly to address issues that cannot go unaddressed.”

Haight insisted that this work is a service to the Church.

“My fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open attitude to other religions,” he said.

In the end, Haight believes, the kind of inclusivism represented by Dupuis doesn’t do the trick.

“It’s not finally open to the other religions, because it postulates the superiority of Christianity,” he said. “It doesn’t allow God to do God’s will in the other religions autonomously, apart from Jesus of Nazareth.”

* * *

While the pluralists were meeting in Birmingham, an inter-religious dialogue much more closely tethered to the official centers of authority in the world’s great religions was unfolding in Aachen, Germany, under the aegis of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

Some 10,000 people took part in more than 30 panels over three days, and thousands more followed the event on the Sant’Egidio web site: www.santegidio.org. The official theme was “Between War and Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue.”

Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, the Catholic bishop of Aachen, set the tone on the opening day by declaring, “God is not Catholic, nor Orthodox, nor Protestant; neither is God Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist; God is God for all.”

Pope John Paul II sent a message, urging the representatives of the great world religions to intensify their dialogue for peace, recognizing that “differences do not compel us to conflict but to respect, to loyal collaboration and to the construction of peace.”

The Israeli/Palestinian problem drew a couple of creative ideas, one set to become reality, the other still in the “maybe” phase.

Fr. Elias Chacour, director of the Prophet Elias College in Israel announced that his institution on Oct. 21 will open the first mixed Israeli-Palestinian university in the world. Instruction will be in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and courses will be offered in computer science, chemistry and communications.

Rabbi David Rosen proposed that Sant’Egidio organize a conference among Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders in the Holy Land to try to reach a joint accord on the status of Jerusalem, given that disputes over the city are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the subject of the alleged harmony of Eastern religions, a Tendai Buddhist leader from Japan, Kojun Handa, decribed how hard it was to organize an inter-religious summit on the holy mountain of Hiei, near Kyoto, in the spirit of the 1986 prayer for peace hosted by John Paul II in Assisi. Handa works on dialogue between Japanese and Chinese Buddhists, long complicated by Chinese bitterness over the brutal Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Handa said he hoped Chinese Buddhists may be able to attend futute Sant’Egidio meetings.

Perhaps the greatest drama in Aachen was generated by Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kalilinigrad, the number two figure in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Given the “big chill” in Catholic/Russian Orthoidox relations in recent years, Kyrill’s mere presence would have made news.

Kyrill went considerably further in his remarks.

“This is a season in which dialogue, beyond the incomprehensions of the past, is possible,” he said during a panel with Cardinals Walter Kasper and Roger Etchegaray, along with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius IV Hazim and Catholic Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni.

“People say that the Orthodox are closed to dialogue, but if that were true, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Kyrill spoke more positively about the idea of a meeting between John Paul II and the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, than at any time in recent memory, though he continued to insist that first the pope must put a stop to Catholic missionary work in Russia.

“Between the Vatican and Moscow there is no divergence in the system of values. But in real life the opposite sometimes happens. The principal painful point is missionary activity. None of the Russian Orthodox priests in the West have received instructions for converting the German people or the Italian people to Orthodoxy,” Kyrill said. “We know that no Catholic priest who works in Russia has received such instructions from Rome. But today the mission of the Catholic priests in Russia is a reality.

“There are other painful points that have to be healed, for passing to another level in the relationship. It would be a beautiful symbol if this new page in relations could be turned over together, by the Pope and the Patriarch, meeting one another in Moscow, or in Rome, or in another place.”

* * *

After almost three months, Pope John Paul II is on the road again. As this column appears, I’ll be in Slovakia watching the pope defy age and infirmity, traveling outside Italy for the 102nd time in his pontificate. You can view stories about this trip on the NCR Web site: http://nationalcatholicreporter.org/update/bn091203.htm

The pope’s physical condition is certainly part of the subtext to this trip, especially for much of the world’s secular press, since a visit to Slovakia in itself is not an especially “sexy” story. Over the summer John Paul has appeared tired and weak at many public appearances, struggling to make his way through prepared texts, often breathing and perspiring heavily. Vatican officials, speaking on background, have explained that the pope’s treatment for Parkinson’s disease was reduced to a bare minimum for a period of time to prepare him for a change in dosage. They say he should be in better shape by the time he leaves Castel Gandolfo for Slovakia.

On the other hand, his immobility continues to limit travel options. A top Vatican official recently told me that John Paul is covering the roughly 20 miles between Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican for his Wednesday audiences by car because it’s too complicated to get him into the helicopter.

It seems probable that future papal travel will be confined to spots that fall within a zone of two hours’ flight time or so from Rome. He’s scheduled to visit a Marian shrine in Pompeii Oct. 7. For 2004, there’s talk of trips to France, Switzerland and Poland, with a visit to an international Eucharistic congress in Mexico in October in the “maybe” column.

John Paul’s message in Slovakia will pivot on the Christian identity of Europe. An intergovernmental conference whose task is to revise and finalize a new constitution for Europe will begin deliberations in the Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome’s EUR neighborhood on Oct. 4. The pope’s ardent desire is that the constitution’s preamble contain a specific acknowledgment of the Christian roots of Europe. For now, the text is generic, referring only to “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.”

Other issues more internal to Slovakia will also loom large during the papal trip.

In July, the Slovak parliament voted to legalize abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy, but President Rudolf Schuster vetoed the bill. Currently, a rule by the health ministry allows abortion up to 24th week and the proposed law was an attempt to make that rule into law. Parliament is expected to take up the issue again in October, and the pope will certainly want to weigh in.

The Vatican is also pushing the Slovak government to sign a treaty that would recognize a right to “conscientious objection” for Catholics, not just on abortion but across a wide range of issues. Under the terms of the treaty, employees could refuse to work on Sundays and Christian holidays, gynecologists could refuse to carry out abortions or prescribe contraception, judges would be able to refuse divorce cases, and teachers to refuse to teach sex education.

Slovakia authorities say they expect the four-day visit to cost $2.1 million. Apart from Bratislava, John Paul II will visit Trnava in west Slovakia and Banska Bystrica and Roznava in central Slovakia. Trnava is the heart of Slovakian Catholicism, and is known as the “Slovak Rome.”

This will be John Paul’s third visit to Slovakia. His first was in 1990, shortly after the fall of communism, and the second in 1995.

One footnote: Readers of the “Word from Rome” who have ever attended the Sunday morning English liturgy at Rome’s Oratory of St. Francis Xavier at Caravita will be pleased to know that Jesuit Fr. Vlasto Dufka will play oboe for the pope when he visits the cathedral in Trnava. Those of us who remember the beautiful music Dufka created at Caravita know that John Paul is in for a treat.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

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