Sunday, February 7, 2016

Some thoughts on “inter-religious dialogue” and on wandering into another religion

           These thoughts came to me during this evening mass. Although I was attentive to the mass my mind went wandering from time to time. After the mass I tried to gather the ideas together. This essay is a fruit of that gathering.
Now, what I shall say here should not be taken as an official and approved stand for the faith. I am not even sure if I am toeing the Church line here. So do not consider this essay as being in “the correct” and “mainstream” Catholic faith. Again, I may be wrong. But allow me to risk a sharing.
I am reminded of a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “Lord of the Rings”. It goes this way:

Not all that glitters is gold
He who wanders is not lost.

I know how tough it is, today, to be a Catholic in front of other religions. I admit that there is, indeed, a kind of “uneasiness”. I also know that for some of us other religions are attractive.
In my younger years, during college, I was not so much absorbed by the required readings in classes. I preferred reading about the other religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. One of my teachers, Fr. Roque Ferriols, S.J., did his doctoral dissertation on Sri Aurobindo. I was fascinated by that Hindu thinker and I read some of his works. I was also fascinated with the Hare Krishna people and I had my own copy of the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries of a certain Krishna devotee, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Then I moved to reading books on Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. There was a small library in the college campus, the EAPI library, and it had many books on Buddhism.
Now I am a Vipassana meditator. Vipassana is a meditation method discovered by Gotama Buddha and this method spread throughout Southeast Asia. I learned the method taught by S.N. Goenka. I still sit regularly, twice a day. Many Vipassana meditators agree that the method has helped them overcome many negative impulses. Many have slowly regained joy and peace and harmony in their lives. I myself am very thankful for having studied this. In my own way I am in “inter-religious dialogue” with Buddhism through Vipassana. The teacher, S.N. Goenka, insists that the method is universal and non-sectarian. In his talks one hears Buddhist lessons; but the method itself is truly non-sectarian. (S.N. Goenka himself is from the Hindu tradition, he being a leader of his Hindu community in Myanmar.)
I continue to stay Christian and Roman Catholic. Like all Catholics I believe that Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh and is the unique mediator between God and humanity. Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all humanity.
I understand how it feels to avoid making us, Christians, “superior” to people of other religions. We are not “superior” to anyone. Nobody is “inferior” to us. In fact we and everybody else are in the same boat—experiencing hunger, thirst, sadness, joy, hope and anxiety. We are all in one human condition and we all have deep questions in life.
I understand how the many past centuries of Christian domination, mainly carried by European colonialization, have wounded many peoples and cultures. When we encounter people of other religions we do not want them to think that we are promoting more wounds.
But then we might have a temptation. What is this temptation? In the effort to avoid offending people of other religions we might want to set aside Jesus Christ. We might want to say that he is not the Saviour of all. We might want to accept that other religions have their own mediators and that Jesus Christ is “only for the Christians”. Yes, the temptation is to compromise our faith because we do not want to offend others.
We do have the tendency to be exceptional. A long time ago we were exceptional because we were “exclusivists”. We said that we were superior to others and our Christianity was “true” while other religions were “false” and even “evil”. Slowly, in the history of our theological thinking, we had “inclusivists” saying that other religions were ok and had a positive value but they still “lacked” the fullness of what we have in Christianity. So some inclusivists said that people of other religions were already Christians but they did not know it. Inclusivist thinking can make us feel uneasy too because ingrained in it is still a form of “superiority” thinking. It can even be imperialistic because it makes all accomplishment possible in Christianity.
The trend today is somehow marked by the assumption that each one can have his or her own mediator or Saviour. One trend says that all religions revolve around a kind of “God”—a “Theo—who encompasses everyone. Attractive as this may sound, it does not resonate well in dialogue. A Christian holds that God is Trinitarian. A Muslim holds that God is so “beyond” and cannot be placed in a category. A Buddhist of the Theravada school will not even say there is a God. But there is also a trend that says that each one takes care of his or her own religion and let nobody interfere in the affairs of others. And so the universal status of Jesus Christ is then compromised. Jesus Christ is doing fine but he should work only inside the Christian compound. Again, this is not what our faith tells us and it is not how revelation occurred.
Is there any solution? There are thinkers who burn their eyebrows and can help us find a direction. But let me put it this way. One day, at some point in a Christian’s life, this Christian might want to give up the faith. Perhaps Christianity disappoints. Maybe other traditions—religious or secular—become attractive. Much later this Christian—and Catholic—might want to deepen his or her life somewhere else. And indeed life may just go deep. But then much later, as it happens to many, this Catholic will feel like coming home—home to the faith, home to the Church, home to everything that ordinary Catholics do, like hear Sunday mass regularly. If the roots of faith before leaving are not deep enough, the coming home will not be easy. One gets engaged in an adapted religion and then will not know how to return home after some time.
This may happen to you. You might want to really take a distance from the Church and her faith. But allow me a word of advice: while you are still within, deepen your faith now. This will facilitate your return home. The poem of J.R.R. Tolkien tells it all, you may wander but you will not be lost. You will not be lost because you may find deep spiritual learning in the adapted religion. The Church never takes this against you. In fact the Church admits that other religions have sacred and true values.
You are not lost too because in case you want to return home you will have enough “tools” to help bring you home. Again, as early as now, deepen your Christian roots. The shift from one home to another may be excruciating but whoever wanders need not necessarily be permanently lost. The return may also be excruciating but whoever wanders need not necessarily be permanently lost.
Why do I say this? We do not want to be “exclusivists”, not anymore. We are not happy with “inclusivism”. Somehow we would, perhaps, prefer to wander.
One of the surprises of our Christian faith is that Jesus himself perfectly understands how normal it is to wander. Everyone has the right to seek for answers to deep life questions. If someone discovers a liberating path then why prohibit that person from pursuing it? Jesus knows this. Why do we say this? Well, remember that “the Word became flesh” (Jn.1/14). No, the Word did not stay fixed in some non-moving status where all is clear, changeless, distinct, lucid and definite. The Incarnation of the Word tells us that God is in solidarity with the human condition—including the possibility of wandering.
Yes, the Incarnation is an expression of the Word’s solidarity with us. Indeed, what is also beyond the Incarnation is beyond what we can say about. We rely on what the Incarnated Word revealed to us. Beyond that…is God’s mysterious ways.
Just think about this for a while. Other religions have their own values and practices. The Incarnated Word has not known them. Jesus did not show evidence of knowing Vipassana and the “five aggregates” of the Buddhists. Neither did he condemn these. They were simply outside the scope of his horizons as Incarnate Word. Jesus came for liberation; that which we call “redemption”. Other religious traditions have their ways of presenting paths to “redemption” and if one wanders into them and experiences liberation there, why should Jesus take that liberation away? There is no Biblical evidence (not that I know of) that will prohibit anyone from being liberated from the darkness that is cast in life even if that liberation is in another religion.
The Church herself has admitted that other religions have a positive status. Of course the Church puts other religious traditions under the same umbrella—which is “inclusivist”. But let us go to Christ first. Let us not forget his solidarity with all humanity. As Incarnate he has taken limits. The Church has received the mandate of mission and the Church too operates according to certain limits. The Church is not in the position to declare what is beyond the revelation of the Incarnate Word. How the Word in totality deals with other religions remains a mystery for the Church. Vatican II admits this. Meanwhile, the Incarnate Word finds it understandable that one can wander to seek for redemption.
You might want to wander away, one day. You might be disappointed with the Church. Remember that Jesus Christ does not oppose your search for liberation. If you wander and you think you will be happy there elsewhere, why take that against you? But as early as now while still within the confines of the Church, make friends with Jesus. Be intimate with him. Allow the Church to support that intimacy with her sacraments and observances.
When the hour comes that you feel like saying goodbye, you will wander but not be lost. You have a friend who, himself, knows what wandering is all about. You will then deepen your life in another religion. Your life might even improve; you might even be “enlightened”. You might even be able to talk expertly about inter-religious dialogue.
Out of gratitude, turn back from time to time and say “thank you” to Jesus, he who encouraged you to wander. Then, just then, a point might come when you will want to return home. The home you will return to will be the same. It will be the same Sunday Mass; the same sacraments; the same hierarchy; the same ups and downs. But it will be a nice home. Really.
February 7, 2016

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