By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
course, that’s not how it’s done.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
* * *
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.
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
Ellis, however, flung down a gauntlet.
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.
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
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.”
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.
insisted on focus.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
* * *
is the revised statement of principles as adopted by the participants in the
Interreligious dialogue and engagement should be the way for religions to
relate to one another. A paramount need is for religions to heal antagonisms
The dialogue should engage the pressing problems of the world today,
including war, violence, poverty, environmental devastation, gender injustice,
and violation of human rights.
Absolute truth claims can easily be exploited to incite religious hatred
The religions of the world affirm ultimate reality/truth which is
conceptualized in different ways.
While ultimate reality/truth is beyond the scope of complete human
understanding, it has found expression in diverse ways in the world’s religions.
The great world religions with their diverse teachings and practices
constitute authentic paths to the supreme good.
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.
All persons have freedom of conscience and the right to choose their own
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."
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.
he see evidence of movement in that direction?
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
fear is that educated Catholics will walk if there isn’t space for an open
attitude to other religions,” he said.
the end, Haight believes, the kind of inclusivism represented by Dupuis doesn’t
do the trick.
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.”
* * *
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
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.”
Israeli/Palestinian problem drew a couple of creative ideas, one set to become
reality, the other still in the “maybe” phase.
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.”
* * *
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
issues more internal to Slovakia will also loom large during the papal trip.
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.
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.”
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.
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
© The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E.
Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.