(Written somewhere over the Atlantic, on the way home to Boston from London - after 3 weeks of travels.) Let me sketch for you a little overview of my travels, so as to draw from the experience a more general conclusion — one that ties in very well, I think, with the Sunday Gospel for June 17. (See below.)
First, I spent the week after Memorial Day in Atlanta, at another of those seminars — I’ve been part of two before — sponsored by the American Academy of Religion and the Luce Foundation, on theologies of religious pluralism and comparative theology. I am on the teaching team, with a range of fellow professors, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Christian and Buddhist, and the participants, a religiously diverse group of about 20 younger professors. This was the first summer of the new group, with lots of input from the teaching team, amidst lots more stimulating discussion. I was pleased, though not surprised, to find that the conversations on the theology of religions, dialogue, teaching, comparative study, were all at a increasingly sophisticated level. The caricatures of the closed-minded believer and relativistic academic did not find a home in the room, since our scholars are believers and our believers have open minds and fearlessness with respect to the basic questions of what it means for religions to be in regular interaction, and for the dynamics of learning today to include both our learning from others, and learning about ourselves in the process. Lots of good theology is under way, in an interreligious group that very much wants our varied religious community to keep the faith and also open minds.
Second, I was at the Catholic Theological Society of America that met in St. Louis the second weekend of June. Many fine presentations were made and conversations enjoyed - see the program here - but I noticed particularly the dialogical events. One session was on Christian theologies responsive to Islam; a comparative panel showcased three instances drawn from popular religion that show the rich and unpredictable ways in which the realm of practice makes room for learning otherwise impossible; another highlighted three medieval Christian views of Judaism and Islam, with a expert Jewish respondent; one comparative session addressed the topic of ritualizing the body in a comparative perspective, while another reflected on dialogue itself as a sacramental reality, and yet another offered Jewish and Christian views of sacrament; and I presented portions of my book draft of the Song of Songs and Hindu mysticism at the group dedicated to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (since I draw deeply on his work, countering the erroneous notion that he is a theologian reserved for the most conservative Catholics). The overall effect of these panels was to make very, very clear the creative ways in which Catholic theologians of at least three generations are engaged in theology that is fresh, interreligiously aware, and maturing today.
Third — and hence this flight across of the ocean right now — I was in London, to give lectures one day at Heythrop College, the Jesuit school of theology which is part of the University of London, and another at Lambeth Palace, the residence and office of the Archbishop of Canterbury (with whom I was pleased to spend some time after the day’s event was over). At Heythrop, I was part of a seminar on comparative theology, the discipline of theological learning across religious boundaries that I see as my way of doing theology. At Lambeth, the turn was more toward the dynamics of theology in the Hindu and Christian traditions today, the possibilities of learning across these particular boundaries, with an eye to the practical implications for the UK’s religiously diverse society. Both days were seriously academic events seriously attentive to our obligation to balance open-mindedness and a willingness to learn, with accountability to the communities to which we belong, and to those whom we study and discuss. It was particularly encouraging to find that both days attracted old and young participants, professors and pastors.
In each location — Atlanta, St. Louis, London — many of the participants were Catholic, engaged in dialogue and reflection on it, testing the boundaries, finding our way forward, wanting to remain committed Catholics, yet open at the same time. It is change in the Church, change from below, from the middle, from above, from this side and that side, myriad small changes making a monumental difference.
I recount these events in brief form because they have produced in me — aside from a weariness with travel — a renewed sense of the growing set of possibilities that are occurring in the interreligious realm: deeper and richer learning across religious boundaries, a learning that is both intellectually acute and yet too overflowing into an array of practical dialogues and changed, more open ways of living.
And here is the generalization: I know that many in the Church are worried about the direction we are going. We often engage in intense argument about the heritage of Vatican II, soon to be 50 years old. There is a fear among many of us that the hopes of the Council were brief and fleeting, as an older, more fixed and fearful model of Catholicism reclaims its hold on reality. But the small instances I have recounted suggest that there is no going back: the Council, the work of the Spirit among us, opened windows in the Church that no one will be able to close again.
And here’s where the Gospel for June 17th comes in: This is how it is with the kingdom of God. It is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come. (Mark 4)
If the seeds are planted in good soil, then the harvest — including the fruits of interfaith learning — will surely be bountiful, even if the farmer forgets his works. The Kingdom, manifest too in the event of the Council, was not a transitory event. The work of God grows up from those general insights and words and prayers of nearly 50 years ago, bearing fruit even in our deeds today. The interreligious openness inspired by the Council is something to which we Catholics contribute on and off, doing our best and then going astray, forgetting, perversely attempting to deny or reverse what the Spirit did in us, what we did in the Spirit. This Gospel reminds us, gracefully, that there is no going back. The Church’s new harvest will be fruitful in myriad ways in our myriad experiences and deeds. No one has the power to turn back the clock, any more than the farmer can unplant the grain in the field. If the Church is irreversibly committed to witness to Christ in the world, it is also irreversibly committed to positive and constructive interreligious learning, in which it receives as well as offers wisdom and goodness.