What would our Catholic Church look like if an unyielding search for justice and harmony characterized its mission in the world?
What if the church’s priories shifted, so that living in solidarity with the laity, especially the poorest, among them became the primary goal?
How would Catholicism appear to the world and to other religions if simply living out the gospels became the primary mode of evangelization?
What if bishops looked to their theologians as their ‘teachers’, incorporating them into deliberations on theology and pastoral care?
How would Catholic authority be transformed if building consensus became a primary means of finding direction?
What if leaders knew, in the final analysis, authority had to be earned from their people?
This would be a new kind of Catholicism.
I take my cue for asking those questions from the title and contents of a book by Thomas Fox – Pentecost in Asia.
There Thomas describes how the facets of this ‘new way’ boil down to one word – dialogue. Thomas writes of how the bishops of Asia listening to their people and assisted by their theologians have powerfully and clearly insisted that the church in Asia can only be truly ‘catholic’ if it is in authentic dialogue with other Asian religions and with the many poor and marginalized.
If that is true of the local Asian churches, then why would it not be true of the universal church. Pentecost, which launched the ecclesia surely continues to send ripples through the ecclesial universe of this third millennium – and mainly through the energy of dialogue.
The world that we Christians are called to serve, challenge and transform is a world in dire need of this dialogue. This need is rooted in two evident qualities of our present global reality: ours is a pluralistic and violent world.
Pluralism – the vast variety of people, cultures and religions have, of course, always coloured the fabric of human history. But, to-day, because of the push-button speed of communication and travel, those differing colours have become all the more evident. This is true of the multiple colours of religions. The abundant, persistent, exuberant diversity of religions is confronting and perplexing us as never before. And they are no longer on the other side of the world. They are on the same street as ours and emerge from the house next door.
This many-ness of religions is not going to go away. And if that is the case, the simple and immediate conclusion is that Christians have to learn to co-exist – to live with and be good neighbours to people who are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus etc. But being good neighbours to each other means more than tolerance, more than accepting this pluralistic state of affairs. it means learning about each other, appreciating and valuing each other.
All that requires dialogue.
But co-existence is not enough. Why? Because our world is not just a pluralistic world; it is also a violent world.
It isn’t just what erupts from the barrel of a gun, or the impact of a missile; it’s about military and terroristic violence. And all too often, religion is used to fuel such violence.
If the use of religion is a ‘misuse’, then the religions of the world have to do some thing to prevent it, and to do so together. We have to prove that religions together are a much more powerful tool for peace than they are a weapon for war.. But such cooperation can only be realised through dialogue. The well-known dictum of Hans Kung rings true: “There will be no peace among nations without peace among religions. And there will be no peace among the religions without dialogue”.
But what do we mean by dialogue? That is an important question, since dialogue is a term that gets thrown around facilely and sloppily.
Dialogue is a relationship among different parties in which all parties both speak their minds and open their minds to each other, in the hope that through this engagement all parties will grow in truth and well-being. Dialogue is always a two-way street that can lead all who travel it to greater understanding and cooperation. All participants in a dialogical encounter have to be ready both to listen and to speak; to teach and to be taught. A true dialogue is always ‘give-and-take’ – one gives witness to what one holds to be true, and at the same time accepts the witness of the other holds true and dear. Everyone seeks to convince and is ready to be convinced. And if in the dialogue, I come to see and feel the truth of your position, then I must also be ready to clarify, correct and even change my views. Dialogue is always challenging. But it can be exciting!
It is just this kind of dialogue that one of the most cautious and conservative of the mainline Christian churches has being trying to foster over recent decades. I am talking about my own Catholic community! From the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic church has held up inter religious dialogue as an ideal and an obligation.
That attitude is written into some of the Vatican 11 documents and in subsequent official declarations.
But, sadly, for most of our history, the churches have understood this universal relatedness as a one-way street. We Christian-Catholics have brought the truth and salvation to others; we give and the others receive. That was the understanding of ‘mission’.
‘Mission’ now means and requires, not only ‘teaching all nations’, but also learning from them. Only then can we all cooperate in the work of overcoming violence and bringing justice to the poor of our planet, which suffers from environmental devastation.
Dialogue has to become a meaningful and challenging ‘new way of being Church’
But many challenges remain – this is only half the story of what is new in the field of inter religious theology. This new understanding of what it means to be ‘church’ contains some deep and unsettling challenges; challenges which are not being sufficiently taken up or even recognised.
Briefly stated: there are definite tensions and even contradictions, between the new ecclesiology that extols dialogue as the ‘new way of being church’ and the traditional Christology that extols Jesus as the one and only savior – the bearer of God’s full, definitive and unsurpassable revelation. These tensions/ contradictions have to be faced and resolved otherwise Christians’ dialogue with other religions will not be honest and may even turn out to be exploitative. How can Christians carry out a dialogue with other believers that is genuinely a two-way relationship if they believe that God has given them the one true source of salvation and the full, final, normative truth over all other truth?
It would seem, therefore, that within the mainline Christian churches, there is a tension between the practice of dialogue and the theory of traditional Christology. This is one of the most serious and pressing challenges facing he Christian churches to-day.
It is a challenge hat calls all theologians to the task of how to resolve the tensions that naturally arise as the church moves through different times and different cultures between the practice of Christian living and the theory of Christian believing.
This calls theologians to work out a Christology, an understanding of Jesus the Christ, that will preserve his distinctive message without subordinating the distinctive identities and message of other religious figures. This will require a Christology that enables and requires of Christians an ongoing, full commitment to the Gospel of Jesus, and at the same time, a genuine openness to the truth that may be challenging us in other religious traditions.
Some such challenge – to be committed to one’s own identity and, at the same time, to be truly open to that of others -faces all religious communities. Soon and In the coming years, I hope that all Christian theologians can offer some good example of how that challenge can be met.
That good example is, at present, coming out of Asia!