OUR FORMATION IN THE CONTEXT OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

Simon Kaipuram, CM[*]

Introduction

“There can be no peace between nations and peoples, unless there is peace between religions”, says Hans Küng, a well-known present day theologian. Religion is a powerful force which can bring about peace and harmony or cause division and fragmentation. It may not be an exaggeration to say that much of the bloodshed that took place in the history of humanity had religious reasons behind it. We have been continually facing terror and destruction unleashed by religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, particularly in Asian countries, and more so in recent times.

 

So, understanding among religions is imperative in our world today, especially for our survival in Asia. It is in this context that we have a related theme for this meeting – inter-religious dialogue. May I begin by wondering if we could really use of the word ‘dialogue’, as the word normally denotes a cordial and open-minded discussion between two groups. We may ask if we Catholics have ever approached other religions unprejudiced and with open-mindedness. When one party in the discussion considers itself inherently superior to the other, the so-called ‘dialogue’ is bound to be one-sided. Are we really intending a genuine dialogue?

 

The theologians around the world had expressed their shock and resentment at the treatment the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith had meted out to late Fr. Jacques Dupuis. The Jesuit theologian had worked and taught many years in India, and what he did in his teachings and writings was to apply one of the fresh insights of Vat II concerning the spiritual value of other religions in the Indian context. Fr. Dupuis was accused of ambiguity, something very close to heresy.

 

Where I find more ambiguity is in the Church’s own position regarding our relationship to other religions (‘non-Christians’), resulting in a peculiar situation that while some Christians champion inter-religious dialogue, others vehemently oppose it. Thus, on the one hand we have the good old documents of Vatican II like ‘Gaudium et Spes’, Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate’. After acknowledging the riches of other religions, NA continues:

 

“Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds, nevertheless, often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (no.2).

 

On the other hand, no one can sincerely deny the arrogance and superiority shown by us in our approach to other religions, as these are seen as imperfect and pointing in the wrong direction, ultimately worthless as far as salvation is concerned. In spite of the fact that the famous dictum ‘extra ecclesia nulla salus’ is now considered almost defunct, our mind-set has been firmly stuck with it. How else would we explain the recent Vatican decree (of 24 Jan) revoking the excommunication of the schismatic members of ‘Lefebvre Group’ who had rejected, and still do, most of the reforms introduced by Vat II, especially the idea contained in the passage cited above?  The group which was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II some 20 years ago firmly believes that the Roman Catholic Church is the “only ark of salvation”.

Ironically the decree revoking the excommunication came on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. (The Council was announced on the 25th of January 1959).

So when Fr Dupuis’ position is judged ambiguous, the group which is defiantly opposed to the reforms of Vat II is reinstated.

Another reason why I have problem with the word ‘dialogue’ is that for some it is formal, representing confrontation and academic exercise. At times dialogue would have the meaning of ‘point-scoring’ attempts between religious groups who try to show their superiority. Many Christians, including Catholics, have the mindset which reasons in the following manner: “since mine is right, yours cannot be right”. This claim of exclusiveness and the arrogant assertion of one’s own truth as the ‘one and only truth’ creates insurmountable hurdles in a dialogical situation.

 

Again, who are we to dialogue with? From our part we Catholics posses a perfect hierarchical organizational structure, owing to which a small body of believers (clerics, religious or laity) entering into dialogue with another religion anywhere in the world would represent the view of the Church or the ‘Church teaching’ (and not conforming to this can invite chastisement). But then what about other religions, like Hinduism? Is there a forum within Hinduism with which we can enter into a dialogue? Which body represents the teachings of Hinduism? Is there any authority in that religion which issues documents similar to our ‘Nostra Aetate’, so that we can dialogue with them? As a matter of fact, there isn’t. The so-called protectors of Hindu interests and Hindutva are in a minority and do not represent the pan-Indian phenomenon called Hinduism. The only possibility therefore is to understand and respect the local traditions and ways in which Hinduism is lived.

 

Moreover, a more crucial question is: Have we Christians reached an agreement among ourselves regarding the points that could be taken up for dialogue? Sometimes the gap between the Christian denominations and even between the groups within the Catholic Church itself is much wider than the one found between Christians and others. Thus even if a small group favours understanding and respect for other religions and tries for peaceful co-existence with them, the aggressive evangelism and bigotry practiced and the utter disdain shown by some Christian / Catholic groups towards other faiths can defeat the entire exercise.

 

So, I use the word ‘dialogue’ in a much wider sense. Thus in the first place, I feel that an ‘encounter of religions’ or understanding ‘religious pluralism’ would be a much better way of designating the exercise we go through. I am sure our students, all Asians, would find themselves more at home, when we begin to understand the value and worth of other religions and approach them with an open mind, without ignorance and prejudices.

 

Secondly, I believe that the best form of dialogue would be a good understanding and love of the Christian values and a life of witnessing to it.

 

Having said this, where do we begin the formation of our students in understanding and appreciating religious pluralism and a life of witnessing to the Christian values?

 

A.  They are the Youth of Today:

 

I admit our scholastics are in a much better position today than I was at this stage, as far as modern amenities, communication facilities and information technologies available to them are concerned. However, the problems that beset the youth today anywhere in the world, and in the third-world countries in particular, are clearly noticeable among our students too.

 

  1. Science vs Religion:

 

Despite the fact that some of the path-breaking scientific theories had their origin in the works of monks and clerics in the Christian monasteries, deeply religious people who could combine a faith in the creative mind of God on the one hand and the intricate working of world’s material components on the other, our youth today tend to dichotomize spirit and matter and relegate science and scientific achievements to the levels of the latter.  Removing the ‘mystical’ and the ‘spiritual’ from the world of phenomena and dealing with science as though it only has to do with ‘the material’ aspects of reality is detrimental to a holistic view of the universe, an important requirement for understanding religious mentality in human life.

 

  1. Religion vs. Spirituality:

 

A recent survey published in the weekly magazine called ‘The Week’ has found that the youth of today in general prefer ‘spirituality’ to religion. The distinction is not new; it was proposed by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist in the beginning of 20th century, and it has been around in the United States since then, and has now become the trend in our country too. The dichotomy here has to do with a negative outlook of religion as a rigid entity, insisting on certain dogmatic assertions to be followed by its adherents, and spirituality as a free enterprise allowing the minds to go after the ‘superior power’ behind the perceptible. Christianity in general, and Catholic Church in particular, have been modeled on the imperialistic and triumphalistic mentality of the colonial world, and so the ideas of conquest, confrontation and one-upmanship inherited from the secular world have permeated our religious outlook. The result is the gradual alienation of the youth from traditional religion and their finding fulfillment in the ‘spiritualities’ easily available today. We need to ask if our students really find satisfaction in the way our religion has been presented to them, let alone presenting it to others in a dialogical situation.

 

  1. Symbols vs. Idols:

 

Myths and mythologies are typical of religious literature of the world, and characters therein are meant to be symbols that evoke ideals for emulation. While these symbolic characters provide ample examples for combining religious and social/ethical life, the role models and heroes the youth of today are generally after are the ‘idols’ from the world of sports, screen and show business who probably have done little or nothing to improve the quality of our life, especially of the poor. Paul Ricoeur, an eminent philosopher and linguist, is credited with the valuable statement ‘idols to die but symbols to live’. It is not the question of rejecting what is new and trendy. Knowing what to preserve, whom to imitate and what to discard may be a significant achievement in our life. Misguided priorities in the life of a scholastic who follows the patterns of the youth in the world will provide him with little assistance when it comes to a healthy dialogue and contribution in a discussion involving religion.

 

  1. Globalization of Religion:

 

We are familiar with the phenomenon called economic globalization, the evil effects of which have been raising their ugly heads during the last one year. While giant industries and financial institutions which face bankruptcy are queuing up before governments to be bailed out of their crunch, we wonder who will bail out the poor from their predicament. Multinationals have succeeded in creating artificial needs in people’s lives where no such needs actually existed. Local necessities and other ground realities were paid little attention to when greed combined with aggressive advertising ruled supreme. The result is for everyone to see.

 

Michael Amaldoss, an eminent Indian Theologian, points out that globalization in religion is equally bad. True, our religion has an international stature, and its values have perennial significance. No one denies the contribution of Christianity in binding together the humanity under the banner of love and concern. The youth of today must be told to bear witness to that Christian experience, and not merely to some dogmatic assertions. The meaning of Jesus Christ has to be explored in the context of the religious pluralism of our regions rather than apply conclusions arrived at somewhere else in a different time and context. Ground realities must be given due consideration before making dogmatic assertions. Thus they should be invited to recognize, respect and accept the rich experience of God others have in their own religions.

 

B.  They are the Christian Youth of Today

 

It is becoming increasingly clear to us formators today that the candidates who are with us have often little or no religious or faith-formation in their families. Religious life and experiences gained in childhood in the Christian families help build convictions and mould ways of life which are authentic. Religious education given in hostels or apostolic schools or even in the initial stages of formation is no substitute for what they gain by living in Christian families. I believe what is primarily important in religion is the experience of Christian living. True, such experience is had within the framework of certain traditions and beliefs. We might later question those traditions and practices as we grow up, but the religious experience leaves an indelible mark in our life and character.

 

As far as their faith formation now is concerned, what we need to insist on is that they understand the holistic and spiritualistic nature of human existence. The materialist and consumerist values that are fast spreading through print and electronic media must be countered by such awareness. Our religion provides ample opportunities for such awareness. The faith-formation of our students can be carried out within the framework of our creed, practices and rituals. Thus respect of our own religion is imperative. However, we need to ensure that our young people are not to have a blind and exaggerated faith which shuts them out from seeing values and ray of truth in other faiths practiced by others all around them. They must be rooted in their traditions, but be critical of them where and when necessary.

 

In his novel titled ‘The Name of the Rose’, Umberto Eco, the well-known Italian Novelist and Semiotician, criticizes those with exaggerated love of Truth. He says such people make others suffer with them, often before them and at times instead of them. Heretics might be born of extreme piety and inordinate love of religion. Devil need not be the prince of matter, as is believed, but arrogance of the spirit. An open and even-minded approach to other religions will help our students to find the bright side of other religious traditions.

 

C.  They are Asian / Indian Christians

 

An impartial look at the history of the Church would show us that it has been primarily concerned with the purity and integrity of faith. The Councils of Chalcedon, Nicea and Vat I were mainly preoccupied with apologetic concerns, defending the Christian doctrines against heresies and schisms. The only other religion on the scene at the time was Judaism, which is believed to have rejected Jesus and put him to death. Thus we made it a point to make an ardent prayer for the Jews during the Good Friday Liturgy. We still do.

 

The Protestant Reformation ushered in fresh troubles for the Church, necessitating another Council (of Trent) which made more definitions and asserted many of our beliefs with dogmatic certainty. Note that during all this period our faith was governed by its own logic and without any interfaith reference. It was completely an inward-looking approach.

 

The Second Vatican Council changed all that. When the Church opened its windows to the outside world we realized Church exists in the world and its members live among people of other faiths. We noticed there was a gross neglect from our part of the religious pluralism existing in the world.

 

Referring to India, I would say the problems that plague Christianity here are well known and need not be repeated here. What is evident is the rise of Hindu nationalism, backed by some political parties, which is wary and suspicious of Christian intentions. The word ‘proclamation’ used insistently by the Popes as well as Church Documents like ‘Dominus Iesus’ and ‘Ecclesia in Asia’ has been understood as meaning proselytism. The Indian theologians would insist that in our present context what should be the priority in missionary life is a life of Christian witnessing, and not proclaiming or preaching Jesus Christ as the unique saviour of all.

 

We need not be serious thinkers and analysts to understand why Christianity which claims to be 2000 years old in India has never crossed the 2.5% of the Indian population. If we claim that the Spirit of God works only through the Church, why was there no rush from the part of others to join us? The composition of the Christian population in India clearly indicates that a good percent of those who joined us did so out of gratitude for the manner in which missionaries treated them and gave them human dignity. But what about vast majority of Hindus, who while they respect our traditions and faith, are quite content with the faith they are born and brought up with? What is obvious is that there has been a stubborn, mostly silent resistance to the appeals as well as the claims of Christianity. A recent survey indicates that today all the religions are prospering, and if the pattern of growth is any indication, Christianity is not going to replace them.

 

Let us face the reality. The Church comes across to the Hindus in a very negative way. For them we, together with Islam, hold a denunciational theology, i.e., the kind in which other’s religion is devalued and one’s own religion is shown as eminently superior. The aggression on Hinduism from the part of the two religions of Semitic origin (Christianity and Islam) has led to the self-awakening among the Hindus sharpened by certain revivalist movements. Thus Christianity and Christian institutions have been seen by them from a negative stand-point.

 

The Hindu view of Reality is cyclic in all its aspects. From the beats of a drum to the movement of the limitless universe, everything in the physical world is guided by a rhythmic cycle – everything gets repeated. This cyclic pattern in the physical world is replicated in the moral world which provides stage for human actions and for reaping the fruits of those actions. The linear concept of history, held by the Christians, with a one-time beginning, one incarnation or salvific act and moving towards one single end at the end of history, is outside the scope of Hindu mentality.

 

The Hindus easily absorb Jesus as one of the many Gods, incarnations or avatars. They may take Jesus as an ishtadevata or household god or a way of seeing God; what they do not find acceptable, however, is the idea that allegiance to Jesus should be exclusive and that the only way of salvation is through him.

 

Have we sincerely tried to be an ‘insider’ or have an ‘inside-view’ of Hinduism as a part of our willingness to dialogue with them? I do not think so. Instead, we want them to understand our faith and traditions unquestioned. A good example of this happens whenever a Hindu Excise Officer wants to know how much wine a catholic priest in India drinks everyday, or why we need alcohol in our worship in the first place!

 

Our young men should understand what genuine dialogue is. In explaining Christian faith, it is good to affirm commonalities before going on to clarify whether Christians have a different understanding. In a conversation with Fr. Dupuis, late Cardinal Franz König, the Archbishop of Vienna, says genuine dialogue is a matter of getting closer to the truth by asking questions and diminishing false truths. He acknowledges that in its history the Church has always been too afraid of questions, and therefore one-sidedly emphasized norms and regulations and failed to appreciate the dynamism of genuine questions and seeking new approaches to ancient truths. It thought it had fixed answers for everything, and questions were therefore unnecessary. The Cardinal says now we have become more humble. I hope he is right.

 

It is time we help our students to give serious consideration to the realities in our countries with their own scriptures, traditions, ethos and culture, making them to accept the fact that religious liberty is also a matter of social and political co-existence. Why is that we have failed to a great extent to convince the vast majority of Hindus of the unique and definitive nature of our faith? Even the reformist movement like the Brahma Samaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, which tried to inculcate some of the ideals and values from Christianity into Hinduism met with little or no success. The attempts of missionaries like Roberto de Nobili who tried to win the hearts of the upper chaste Hindus by a method of inculturation created only a ripple in the ocean of Hinduism.

 

We need to ask this question: have we unduly stressed the structural, institutional and visible church – elements which fostered the tendency to articulate the Church’s self understanding in absolutist terms? Such tendency was the result of the post-Tridentine anti-reformist thrust. The Vat II, on the other hand, wanted the church to be open to the ‘mystical’ element, in the church itself or in other religions. In the Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humane) no. 3 it is said:

 

“Everybody has the duty and consequently the right to seek the truth in religious matters so that, through the use of appropriate means a person may prudently form judgments of conscience which are sincere and true.”

 

The document further states that “it is through their conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of divine law.” (no. 3).

 

So while being committed to our faith we need not be threatened by other truths and saviour figures. Helping our students to journey together with others, joining a pilgrim group towards the fullness of Truth which enlightens all should be our aim. This brings me to my next point: the Vincentian formation.

 

D.  They intend to be Vincentian Missionaries

 

Honestly I am not sure if inter-religious dialogue is our part of charism. But I know the question is irrelevant. Living, witnessing and proclaiming the Good News among people in any part of the world is after all ‘Christian charism’ common to all, especially of missionaries.

 

St. Vincent was himself the product of the post-Reformation, post-Tridentine church. This was the time the Church was actually resorting to Inquisition, first in the Catholic countries and then in the colonial provinces like India. The Church had its hands full with ‘heresies’ from within and the Protestant factionalism from without, that its encounter with the so-called ‘non-Christian religions’ was given little thought. What the missionaries, in all their sincerity and zeal did was to establish Christianity wherever they went, patterned on the one they had in the West and facilitated by the presence Christian colonialists of the time. Consequently anything  they found differing from the faith they had carried overseas was looked at with suspicion and outrightly judged false.

St. Vincent and his early band of missionaries did what their context demanded of them. New situations call for new responses.

 

A new theme had been introduced in the church in the middle of the 16th century, and it continued down to the 19th century, i.e., conversion of non-Christians overseas as  compensation for heresies in Europe. This was also one of St.Vincent’s motives for sending the missionaries overseas.

 

From Paris, 31st August, 1646

To Jean Dehorgny, Superior in Rome

“I confess to you that I have much affection and devotion for the propagation of the Church in infidel countries as a result of the apprehension that God is gradually destroying it here, and that in a hundred years little or nothing will be left of it because of our depraved customs, because of these new opinions which are constantly spreading, and because of the state of things. In the last century by two new heresies the Church has lost most of the Empire and the kingdom of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, Scotland, England, Ireland, Bohemia and Hungary, so that all that are left are Italy, France, Spain and Poland – and there are many heresies in France and Poland. Now this loss of Churches over a century gives us reason to fear in the present wretched situation that in a few more centuries we will lose the whole Church in Europe. Given that fear, blessed are those who can cooperate in spreading the Church elsewhere”.

(Sd. Vincent de Paul, an unworthy mission priest.)

 

However, this is only one side of the picture. In founding the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity, one of Vincent’s aims was to provide a group of men and women who would work in foreign lands on behalf of the Church. He held a firm opinion on the necessity of such foreign missions. He believed that the life of a missionary, and not theological arguments, would win more hearts.

 

The first ‘foreign mission’ the Priests of the Mission undertook under the direction of St.Vincent was to North Africa. This happened in 1645. But why North Africa? In those days a lot of Christian captives had been taken by pirates to that region. It has been estimated that nearly thirty thousand men were held in Tunis and Algiers under most difficult conditions. Most were kept in prisons, packed into cells and chained two by two, and harassed by the jailors. Many were condemned to be rowers in the galleys. Many would die miserable deaths. Their only hope was to be ransomed by Catholic missionaries from Europe.

 

In 1643 King Louis XIII donated some money (10,000 livres) to St.Vincent for the sake of training missionaries to go and work among Christian captives. Two years later the pioneers of Vincentian Mission entered Tunis as chaplains serving the French Consul. The Priests endeared themselves to the captives and impressed even the Muslims. Then came the mission to Algiers.

 

The Mission of the Vincentians in Muslim North Africa demonstrates the fidelity of the Community to the ideals of St.Vincent. In the Islamic countries, especially in the Middle East, few converts could be gained, but there was ample opportunity to live the ideals of compassion and concern for the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Such life of witnessing is all the more the order of the day, as ‘conversion of souls’ meets with various forms of obstacles. An orientation to such a life of witnessing to the Gospel values is very important in formation.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Simple meetings and encounters enable transformations, in the same way that Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman was a life-changing one. By going to a place with which the woman was familiar (a well), and by asking something of her (water) Jesus opened up a dialogue across faith, across gender and caste. Together they a face a new truth – God is spirit and those who worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth (Jn 4,24). The location, whether Temple of Jerusalem or mount Gerizim, does not matter.

 

This story is an outstanding example of a dialogue in practice with respect, directness and expectation from both sides.

 

Dr. Radhakrishnan, a well-known Indian Philosopher and a former President of the Indian Republic rightly says: the role of a religion is to facilitate religious experience in its adherents. True religion is an insight into the Reality and experience of that Reality. It is a discipline or a way of life which helps human beings to make necessary changes in their life so that the spiritual and Divine in them can manifest itself. Thus true religion is not contained in dogmatic theology and a set of truths. The essence of religion is religious experience. A true religion must facilitate a religious experience which is not expressible in a set of codes or doctrines. It is an experience, an awareness which gives an inner satisfaction. This experience is religious because of its unique nature. This experience deals with higher and eternal truths, going beyond the tangible and finite.

 

It is this teaching that we get in the story of Job and his friends. The religion of the friends of Job is derived from reason, creed, tradition and institution, whereas the one of Job is derived from experience, contemplation, struggle and suffering. While the friends believed that they represented the true religion and indeed the ‘knew the mind of God’, they are in for a shock when God finally reprimanded them and praised Job instead, telling them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my friend Job has done”( Job 42,7). So who is really on the side of God, and who has the Truth in full measure?

 

I reiterate what I have mentioned earlier: our priorities are a good and open-minded understanding of other religions and a life of witnessing to ours.

 

I believe that salvation history does not begin with Abraham, but with creation. All through human history God has been seeking human beings He created, and therefore moments of salvation have been there throughout human history. In Jesus the divine revelation is definitive, but the full Revelation of God will be only the at end of time, when the Spirit will lead us into all Truth (Jn 16,13). Such an eschatological dimension of history will make us realize what we really are – pilgrims and fellow travelers together with all the others, facing a great mystery and moving towards it. In this journey we proclaim our faith by bearing witness to what we believe. We do that by our love and service to the poor. We shall not be too much preoccupied with what others believe.

 

I like the prayer for the dead in the 4th Eucharistic Prayer where we say: “Remember Lord, those who have died in the peace of Christ, and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone”.

 

In the parable of the Good Samaritan the one who is shown as an example of a good neighbour is a person of another faith who exemplifies neighborly love.

 

The concluding sentences of the prayer of the Vincentian Family are very significant in this regard:

“O God, eternal and all powerful, who filled St. Vincent and St. Louise with charity, listen to our prayer and give us your love. Following their example, make us discover and serve Jesus Christ, your Son, in our brothers and sisters, the poor and the unfortunate. At their school teach us to love in the sweat of our brow and the strength of our arms with humility, simplicity and charity. By their prayer, deliver our hearts from self-sufficiency and selfishness. Make us remember that we all, one day, will be judged on our love”.

 


[*] Fr. Simon Kaipuram CM is a professor of Sacred Scripture from the Northern Province of India of the CM in seminaries in India. He is residing at Aquinas College, at Gopalpur-on-sea.

 

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