The Bodh Gaya Declaration

Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue always emerge from social and political, not theological, convictions, as the Manhattan Declaration showed in its capacity to apply the fig leaf of ecumenism to the private parts of shouting matches about American culture. But the Vatican, with its universal jurisdiction, can always outdo American Christians who can be so parochial about the size of the Big Apple. Pope Francis has his sights set on a collaborative endeavor with Buddhists:

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops’s Conference of India and Religions for Peace, held the Vatican’s fifth Buddhist-Christian Colloquium February 12-13, 2015 at Bodh Gaya, India. Bodh Gaya is the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and was chosen for a dialogue since it has temples and monasteries from many different types of Buddhists.

The theme was “Buddhists and Christians Together Fostering Fraternity” and the goal was to build a foundation for interreligious peacebuilding. Sixty leaders of both religions from eight countries took part in discussing the following topics: “We belong to One Human Family,” “From a Culture of Diversity to a Culture of Solidarity,” “Fraternity, a Prerequisite for Overcoming Social Evils,” “Fraternity wipes away Tears,” and “Together Fostering Fraternity: The Way Forward.” This is an example of how the pope’s new “dialogue of fraternity” seeks a higher level of relational engagement in order to address social ills.

Participants agreed that it is not religion per say that causes conflict, but individuals who exploit religion for personal, commercial and political gains. They agreed to return home and pursue the following in the spirit of fraternity:

• Strengthen interfaith connections in communities, neighbourhoods, educational institutions, and places of worship
• Build programs of interreligious awareness and peacebuilding for children, youth, and families in educational institutions and workplaces
• Forget and forgive the past negative history of conflict and violence and move forward to build peace-loving people in solidarity
• Train younger generations in formation houses to overcome prejudice, study other religions, and build solidarity
• Build interreligious fraternity (brotherhood/sisterhood) to support and revitalize family life in order to make society prosper.

… Now, Pope Francis is expanding the dialogue further by emphasizing the need to develop a sense of “fraternity” as a foundation for the dialogue of action that addresses the social ills of our world. True solidarity in such action must be based on fraternity in its original sense of “brotherhood/sisterhood.” The papers presented on this third day discussed two topics: the notion of “Fraternity among Human Beings” in Christianity and Buddhism, and “Building a Fraternal World” together.

The final day of the dialogue was devoted to exploring social issues in the United States that the participants felt need to be addressed today, and how Buddhist-Catholic collaborations of fraternal interreligious social action could be advanced in the United States. The participants had a private audience with Pope Francis who encouraged them to “plant seeds of peace” in their cities. In their Joint Statement, the participants agreed to return to the US and explore together the following kinds of joint interreligious social action initiatives:

• Addressing global climate change on the local level
• Creating outreach programs for youth
• Collaborating in prison/jail ministries and restorative justice matters
• Developing resources for the homeless such as affordable housing
• Educating and providing resources to address the issue of immigration
• Collaborating to create projects with local Catholic parishes and Buddhist communities to address neighborhood social issues
• Developing social outreach programs for value education to families

… I conclude with the words of Pope Francis about this new dialogue of social action: “This interreligious experience of fraternity, each always respecting the other, is a grace.” (Press Conference on Board the Flight from Colombo to Manila, January 15, 2015)

I hope Susan, James, and Mermaid know that bickering with Presbyterians at Old Life does not count as interreligious dialogue. Statues of Buddha can be purchased here.

Ecumenism vs. Going It Alone

The discussion of Larycia Hawkin’s situation continues.

Rod Dreher thinks Wheaton is right to protect its theological borders since it has refused employment to Roman Catholics:

Wheaton does police its margins carefully. Catholics are not allowed to teach there, not because Wheaton’s leadership think Catholics are bad people, but because they do not believe a faithful Catholic can affirm the institution’s standards. If I were a professor, as an Orthodox Christian, I couldn’t teach there either. Do I think that is excessive? Probably. But I admire Wheaton’s willingness to take a hard stand, even when they are mocked by outsiders. It requires the kind of courage and confidence that one doesn’t often see among Christian churches and institutions these days, and that will be desperately needed in the years to come, by all of us.

But Noah Toly, one of the first Wheaton faculty wonders if the goal posts move when Wheaton talks about theological borders:

The standard to which Dr. Hawkins is being held is that of “theological clarity” in embodying the identity of the college and Statement of Faith. It is immensely important to recognize this. Faculty may hold various controversial positions within the bounds of the Statement of Faith. The more complex those positions, the more they demand a sort of clear articulation – otherwise, they invite misunderstanding. The standard of theological clarity is not, in and of itself, problematic. But the operationalization of that standard is fraught. (Adam Laats’ commentary on this is good, if slightly overstated.) Is the same level of nuance, subtlety, complexity, and elaboration required of everyone? Or, given the insistence that theological clarity is particularly important when we participate in various movements and initiatives, is the same level of nuance, subtlety, complexity, and elaboration required regardless of the political, social, and cultural affinities of those movements? Has the college itself transparently offered faculty and other constituents the same level of nuance, subtlety, complexity, and elaboration that now seems required of us?

Exactly. This is why I hope Wheaton does not eliminate Hawkins from its faculty. The college is mainly “evangelical,” but faculty have hardly agreed on the meaning of the institution’s minimalist statement of faith.

Dreher also invokes a piece by Alan Jacobs written almost a decade ago when Wheaton let go a faculty member who converted to Roman Catholicism. Jacobs wondered if Wheaton was wise to rely on its own brand of conservative Christianity:

…throughout much of American history and late into the twentieth century, evangelicals and Catholics had little to do with one another. They came, by and large, from different ethnic groups; they lived in different neighborhoods and even in different regions of the country; they went to different schools—in short, they were socialized into American culture in dramatically different ways. Throughout much of its history Wheaton College’s leaders would have reacted with horror at the thought of Catholics on the faculty—but they would have been highly unlikely to entertain that thought in the first place. Catholic scholars would have been equally unlikely to think of teaching at Wheaton. Duane Litfin is right to say that Wheaton is getting hammered for taking a position that, as recently as thirty years ago, scarcely anyone on either side of the Reformational divide would have questioned.

But times have changed. And here is where the correctness of Hochschild’s position comes in. He is not the only Catholic to look at Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and think, “Yes, that suits me very well.” Having served on hiring committees a number of times in Wheaton’s English department, I have seen dozens of applications from Catholic scholars who see nothing in Wheaton’s self-description that would rule them out.

But I sure wish Jacobs had considered where Roman Catholics may be coming from when looking at Wheaton’s doctrinal affirmation. After all, their bishops’ ecumenical discussions on justification have been with the most liberal sector of Lutheran communions:

Acting as it does as a summary and analysis of five decades of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, 2015’s Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist will undoubtedly be a helpful touchstone in future ecumenical discussions between the two traditions. For that reason, the representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Bishop’s Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) who authored the work are to be commended. The document is worthy of careful reading.

Of course, it is also important to note that the synthesis presented here represents an understanding of Lutheranism not necessarily shared by all churches who claim the name. The Lutheran side of these dialogues has been primarily represented by churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Other Lutheran churches, like those represented by the International Lutheran Council (ILC), may not agree in every respect with the Lutheran position as presented in these past dialogues, even as they praise other elements of the discussions.

Meanwhile, the bishop responsible for identifying doctrine infallibly helped to produce a video that has him walking along side religious expressions far more objectionable than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Do Jason and the Callers Think Much about Wadi al-Kharrar?

Recent discussion of John Paul II’s beatification resurrected parts of the pope’s career that I had completely forgotten, such as his 2000 trip to the place of Jesus’ baptism (Wadi-al-Kharrar). On that trip the pope said, “May Saint John Baptist protect Islam and all the people of Jordan, and all who partecipated in this celebration, a memorable celebration. I’m very grateful to all of you.” This was a year after John Paul II kissed the Qur’an during a visit to Rome by a delegation of Muslim leaders.

For some Roman Catholics like Robert Spencer, Islam and Christianity are fundamentally at odds and Islam is a threat to the United States. Others believe that John Paul II should never have been as friendly to other religions of the world:

I am an Orthodox Catholic (I do not consider myself ultra-conservative) and I cannot get beyond the incident at Assisi where the statue of Buddha was placed on top of the tabernacle (in the very presence of His Holiness), an act which Arch-Bishop Lefebvre called “diabolical.” Nor can I get the picture out of my mind of JPII kissing the Quran. And what about the joint prayer services with the pagans?

And then, of course, there is the condition of the Church under his watch. Need I say more?

Of all the popes- saints before JPII, would any of these things have happened under their watches? Does it preclude his sainthood? Should it? I don’t know the answers. But these are valid questions that cannot summarily be dismissed as “ultra-conservative” as Mr. Weigel attempts to do.

Then again, the reporters who cover the Vatican provide useful insights into what may drive Vatican policy (though it does not appear to be informed by Peter’s warnings about false teachers). This is from an old story about Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit to the Land many call “holy”:

When Benedict XVI lands in Jordan on May 8, it will be his first visit to an Arab nation and his first to a predominantly Muslim country since Turkey in late November/early December 2006. As it turned out, the Turkey trip became a kiss-and-make-up exercise in the wake of the pope’s famous September 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, which inflamed sentiment across the Muslim world because of its incendiary citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor with some nasty things to say about Muhammad, the founder of Islam. The iconic image from Turkey was Benedict XVI standing inside the Blue Mosque, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, for a moment of silent prayer in the direction of Mecca.

Because the Turkey trip was hijacked by damage control, Jordan offers Benedict his first real opportunity to lay out his vision of Catholic/Muslim relations while on Islamic turf. That vision goes under the heading of “inter-cultural dialogue,” and it boils down to this: Benedict XVI believes the real clash of civilizations in the world today runs not between Islam and the West, but between belief and unbelief. In that struggle, he believes Christians and Muslims should be natural allies. As a result, he has deemphasized the fine points of theological exchange – how Christians and Muslims each understand atonement, for example, or scripture. Instead, his priority is a grand partnership with Muslims in defense of a robust role for religion in public affairs, as well as shared values such as the family and the sanctity of life. (Among other things, that means joint efforts against abortion and gay marriage.)

The price of admission to that partnership, Benedict believes, is for Islam to denounce violence and to accept the legitimacy of religious freedom. In that sense, he sees himself as a friend of Islam, promoting reform from within a shared space of religious and moral commitment. To date, however, he has not found an argot for making that pitch successfully to the Muslim “street.”

All of this, and you can find a lot more about the Vatican’s relations with Muslims, adds up to a relationship between Roman Catholicism and Islam that is decidedly contested, with popes doing damage control and pursuing inter-religious dialogue in ways that would have made liberal Protestants proud, and some laity incredulous that the Vatican could be so indifferent to the claims of church dogma, with others willing to bless the popes in ways that John Paul II wanted John the Baptist to bless Islam.

But one additional item caught my eye while trying to take the pulse of Vatican-Muslim relations. It was a comment on the proper way to conduct inter-religious dialogue:

I am all for dialogue between Muslims and Christians when it is honest and not based on false pretenses. There doesn’t seem to be any use to dialogue that ignores difficulties and points of disagreement rather than confronting them. . . . One thing that must be recognized is that for many Muslim spokesmen and leaders, dialogue with adherents of other religions is simply a proselytizing mechanism designed to convert the “dialogue” partner to Islam, as the Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb explained: “The chasm between Islam and Jahiliyyah [the society of unbelievers] is great, and a bridge is not to be built across it so that the people on the two sides may mix with each other, but only so that the people of Jahiliyyah may come over to Islam.”

In line with this, 138 Muslim scholars wrote to Pope Benedict XVI, inviting him to dialogue. The title of the document they sent to him was A Common Word Between Us and You. Reading the entire Qur’anic verse from which the phrase “a common word between us and you” was taken makes the Common Word initiative’s agenda clear: “Say: ‘People of the Book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate not aught with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.’ And if they turn their backs, say: ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’” (3:64). Since Muslims consider the Christian confession of the divinity of Christ to be an unacceptable association of a partner with God, this verse is saying that the “common word” that Muslims and the People of the Book should agree on is that Christians should discard one of the central tenets of their faith and essentially become Muslims. Not a promising basis for an honest and mutually respectful dialogue of equals.

Which brings us back to Jason and the Callers. What kind of ecumenical dialogue do they encourage when some think it is really a form of proselytizing? And what kind of conversation do they facilitate when the Protestant paradigm is off limits? Rhetorical questions, perhaps. But given the way they call others to communion, one suspects they can’t be all that pleased with the recent popes’ outreach to Islam. (Or maybe they are.)