Dialogue and Proclamation III
Robert P. Imbelli January 28, 2007 - 9:14am
In a previous post under this title I referred to the Vatican II-inspired dialogue among Catholics and adherents of non-Christian religions. I cautioned, however, that this crucially important and relatively new undertaking strive to respect the full range of Vatican's II's theological and pastoral vision.
In particular, I suggested that legitimate appeals to Vatican II's "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions," Nostra Aetate, not be divorced from the full-orbed interpretive context provided by the four great conciliar Constitutions whose golden thread is the affirmation of the unique salvific significance of Jesus Christ and his paschal mystery.
In a comment to the post, Cathy Kaveny inquired as to what application, if any, I would make to Peter Phan's article on "Living amid Religious Pluralism" in the most recent Commonweal. For the sake of any who would like to continue the conversation, here are a few thoughts.
In the article Peter Phan drew upon several statements from Asian Bishops' Conferences which underscored the importance of different modes of dialogue: the dialogue of life, of action, of religious experience, and of theological exchange.
One point I would underscore in this helpful differentiation is that the participants be "rooted in their own religious traditions" (as one of the documents insists). If this is lacking, then the ensuing "dialogue" risks becoming a mere sharing of views or personal preferences.
What follows from this is, perhaps, to make less of a distinction than the article may imply between "religious experience" and "theological exhange." Certainly, inter-relligious dialogue cannot and should not be restricted to professional theologians. But no "experience" is innocent of theory, of the lens through which we receive and interpret "experience." Hence, the dialogue of life must be informed dialogue.
A second point I would highlight is given in a quote from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. "Christ is the sacrament, the definitive symbol of God's salvation for all humanity." Father Phan goes on to comment: "do the Indian bishops provide a ground for saying that non-Christian religions are also in a certain sense 'ways of salvation,' without thereby jeopardizing the universal relevance of Christ and the church?"
The pressing theological issue, of course, is to elucidate and develop further these contentions. What does it mean to speak of Jesus Christ as "the definitive symbol of God's salvation for all humanity?" And how does one articulate this "without jeopardizing the universal relevance of Christ and the church?" (emphasis mine).
A final point. The article ends with an evocation of the early father of the church, Clement of Alexandria who famously spoke of seeds of the Word (semina Verbi) outside the formal boundaries of biblical revelation. Jacques Dupuis, in his Christianity and the Religions, draws creatively on the pioneering insights of Clement.
I would merely comment that Clement can recognize such "seeds," because of the light reflected by the full revelation of God's Word in Jesus Christ. Without such illumination we still dwell "in darkness and the shadow of death."
Thus, or so it seems to me, there is no neutral "Comparative Theology," standing, Hegelian fashion, above the traditions. There is a Catholic Theology of Religions, and, I suppose, a Jewish Theology of Religions, perhaps a Muslim Theology of Religions, and a Buddhist Theology of Religions. Dialogue among these traditions is an imperative today. But I think it always tradition-bound. I can, of course, be instructed by others' reflections.
About the Author
Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.