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Dialogue and Proclamation III

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.

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Robert:For what it is worth, here is one way of framing the issue that your raise that I have found helpful. When Jesus says "I am the bread of life," that could mean that Jesus alone defines what the bread of life is (exclusivism) or exemplifies the bread of life (inclusivism). The latter position might lead to a translation like, "The bread of life, it is I." It would imply that one would have to understand the meaning of "the bread of life" before one could identify it with Jesus, and so it would mean that knowledge of the bread of life is possible without first knowing Jesus.While some would certainly disagree, I do not see how the second position threatens the mission of the churches. It still leaves the churches with the great task of bringing the bread of life to the world.I do think your question regarding the meaning of Jesus as the "definitive symbol of God's salvation," is THE question for Christians to answer always and everywhere. Moreover, I find many of the answers offered today by Christians to be either arbitrary or incoherant. Thus, more discussion would be a very welcome gift to the churches.

Sorry, I am still under-caffeinated. The third line above should read, "or it could mean Jesus exemplifies the bread of life (inclusivism)."

Fr. Imbelli,I got the impression that Peter Phan thinks that the Rites Controversy was wrongly decided. I wonder if you have a similar impression.

Tradtion-bound? True, but how? Do we get it from Iraeneus who made fun of charismatics, Augustine who mocked Donatist martyrs, Nicea in which an emperor forced the vote, Origin who removed his own testicles.........? You get the picture. Makes sense that Clement would recognize the seeds because of the light he followed. But on that basis we might need to excommunicate the author of Dominus Jesus.Too often the dogmatic approach is fostered because the more important charity approach is wanting. When Catholic seminaries are more intent on developing dogmatic peacocks than hearts glowing from love. Jesus at the Well offered, of all people, a Samaritan woman, life that would never make her thirst again. And Paul talks about love making us real. (Today's second reading.)Grounded in Jesus Christ for sure. Praying together with other faiths in no way denys that. Perhaps all dialogue and interchange shuld center around the 13th chapter of Corinthians.

I don't know where precisely the quotation from Clement about "semina Verbi" comes and so I have not been able to look at the context, but it may be worth noting that Clement followed the opinion of Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus that Greek philosophers had borrowed freely from the Old Testament.

(Quickly, in the same issue I was quite moved by Paul Lakeland's apologetic for Roger Haight (pace Bishop Curry.)Dialogue's ethics I submit demands a sense of equality and listening in the participants, a respect for the frames they broing and time, time and more time to arrive at appreciative depth.I also think we just beginning to scratch trhe surface of the process - a necessary process indeed.

Dear Mr. Gannon,I'm afraid I may have misled you (and others).In my eagerness to invoke Clement of Alexandria,I attributed to him the "semina Verbi" phrase which Justin Matryr employs.I believe Clement shares the sentiment; but whether he uses the phrase I must inquire of those more expert in the fathers than I.As for your first comment on the "Chinese rites:" my impression is that most lament it as a missed opportunity.

Peter Phan does cite Clement Strom. 1.15 thus: "Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta [Buddha], whom they honor as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity." I have my doubts about the translation "on account of his extraordinary sanctity." This version seems to attribute to Clement the judgment that Boutta manifested extraordinary sanctity. The key word is "semnotes" which is more readily interpreted to signify exalted status, the status of one revered. I would render "because of his extraordinarily exalted status" , or "because of the reverence they accorded him". Clement is not judging that the Buddha was a saint but rather explaining why certain people accorded him divine honors.

Congr favorably quotes the Orthodox thinker Paul Evdimokov who says: "we know where the Church is, but it is not for us to judge and to say where it is not." Congar also refers to the Catholic theologian (and Cardinal) Walter Kasper who, in replying to the question of where the kingdom of God is now, "suggests that, according to Jesus' own words, it is not possible to poit to it and say: It is here or it is there. It is rather in the midst of us in an inexpressible way (see Lk 17: 21). It is found everywhere where men trust God and his love, even if they do not explicitly speak of God or Jesus (see Mt 25:35 ff.). That is why, he concludes, the kingdom of God is a hidden reality of which it is only possible to speak in parables."I'm no authority, but I would suggest that these passages imply that we Catholics be alert to what the men referred to here say in their rites and in their pedagogy, in their art and in their hymns or songs of praise. Since everything good is ultimately from God and glorifies Him, would it not make sense to say that we can and should deepen our appreciation for the manifestations of His goodness and greatness as well as we can. To be sure, there is need for learned guidance to help us in this boundless task. But the task is therre for us. It strikes me that to seek to evangelize the people of another culture without being eager to discern how God has hitherto been working in them is, at best, obtuse.

I'm not aware of Clement using the exact phrase, but the sentiment is pervasive in his thought. Fr. Merton in 1962 made an observation similar to Fr. Imbelli's:"The voice of Clement is the voice of one who fully penetrates the mystery of the pascha Christi, the Christian exodus from this world in and with the Risen Christ. He has the full triumphant sense of victory which is authentically and perfectly Christian: a victory over death, over sin, over the confusions and dissensions of this world, with its raging cruelty and its futile concerns. A victory which leads not to contempt of man and of the world, but on the contrary to a pure, serene love, filled with compassion, able to discover and to 'save' for Christ all that is good and noble in man, in society, in philosophy and in humanistic culture."It seems to me that Clement deeply appreciated the wonderful possibilities of AND limitations to the "semina Verbi" he discerned in somewhat surprising places.

Richard Smith:With all due respect one would like to have a text, not of Merton but of Clement himself.A quick look at Justin yields the following in Apologia Maior 44.9: " the seeds of truth seem to be in all (men)". But in the context he is making the same claim that Clement and other early Christian writers made, following the lead of Philo and Josephus, namely that the Greeks had been taught by Moses. This defensive attitude toward Greek philosophy and Greek thought generally is actually the very opposite of the idea that the word of God may be found outside the tradition of revelation recorded in Scripture.

Thanks, Bob- and everyone--this is helpful!Cathy

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.