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Wisdom Newsletter - August 2018
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Newsletter June, 2019

In this issue:

1. Pope Francis Receives Review of
“Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue”

During a recent audience with Pope Francis, Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein had the pleasure of sharing with Pope Francis a summary of the recently published Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue: Religious Thinkers Engage with Recent Papal Initiatives. The book, edited by longtime supporter and friend of Elijah, Harold Kasimow and by Rev. Alan Race, collects various statements and addresses of Pope Francis in the field of interreligious dialogue and then offers a spectrum of responses to the Pope’s work from religious scholars of all major faiths. Alon Goshen-Gottstein shared an Italian version of the review of this Palgrave Macmilan, 2018 publication with the Pope. As one can see from the images, this gave the Pope great pleasure, especially as he seemed to be unaware of this publication. We are delighted to share with readers of Wisdom the following review, which will also appear in Modern Believing.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Harold Kasimow and Alan Race for taking up the project of presenting and assessing Pope Francis and his contribution to interreligious relations. The gratitude is all the more profound given that the project was initiated when the Pope was only in office four years. One might have considered more time was needed to appreciate Francis’ contribution to the field. The volume makes it amply clear that the decision to engage his interreligious thought, an exercise undertaken by multiple religious thinkers representing all religions, as well as a humanist voice, at this point in his papacy was justified. Not only are the fruits of this volume rich. As we learn by reading the essays, the Pope’s theological contribution must be brought into light and articulated, given that his fundamental approach is more pastoral, practical and relational than it is theological. Given that, a theologically informed conversation, carried out from multiple perspectives, serves the dual purpose of elucidating Francis’ thought and also of examining, critiquing and enriching it through study and dialogue informed by multiple religious perspectives.
The first part of the book presents most of Francis’ teachings, as articulated up to early 2017. It is worth asking why some situations, such as his first Papal trip abroad, to Israel-Palestine, are not reflected in the book. Bringing all these resources together allows us to see how Francis functions in multiple settings and contexts – in relation to different religions (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist) and in specific moments and contexts, such as in contexts relating to violence and genocide, to prayer and more. The sum total adds up to a coherent picture, that might otherwise escape the casual observer of Francis as the world’s most visible pubiic actor in the domain of religion. Several  characterizations emerge, and these are also important for how he is appreciated by the volume’s contributions. Francis is a man of encounter and dialogue. Personal relations are primary, and hence the call to listen and share. Such listening is deemed to be reciprocal, with possibilities for mutual enrichment woven into the fabric of dialogue. A common humanity undergirds his philosophy, which is then extended even more broadly to caring for the common home that we all share, the earth. The Pope has internalized the core teachings of his predecessors, notably Nosta Aetate, but also various messages of intervening Popes. Yet, his own approach is less theological and theoretical, and more based on relations and opportunities. Two moments are telling. The Pope is asked to justify his unplanned visit to a Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka. His disarmingly simply answer is that he was invited by the Buddhist leader, so how could he refuse (p. 30). Potential theological objection and prior planning are cast aside in favor of the immediacy of the moment. Another striking moment is his recollection of a statement of Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras to Pope Paul VI,  a founding moment of Christian ecumenism. Athenagoras suggests sending theologians of both Christian communities to an island, so they can debate among themselves, while the leaders get on with their business of advancing relations. Francis goes to the trouble of verifying this quote and recceiving Patriarch Bartholomew’s confirmation. (p. 42).
Contributions of authors to the volume can be divided into three types. One type is the attempt to see the Pope along the lines and in similarity with a founding figure of the author’s religion. The finest example of this approach is provided by Nikki Singh who offers a dialogical portrait of Pope Francis as a means of elucidating the figure of Sikh founder Guru Nanak. The comparison is illuminating in that it works both ways, with each figure being appreciated anew in light of the other. A similar, though less extensive, effort is found in Anantand Rambachan’s presentation of the similarity between Francis’ message and that of Swami Vivekananda. A Slight variation on this approach is found in Dennis Hirota’s presentation of Shinran in light of Pope Francis. The essay seeks to establish the grounds upon which a joint reading of the two individuals and their message can serve to help advance theological thinking and positioning of this form of Japanese Buddhism. Pope Francis, then, can serve as a light for internal understanding and advancement.
Another set of contributions is more critical, in raising one fundamental challenge that other religions have with Catholic theology of religions. Often captured in terms of inclusivism versus pluralism, the problem also relates to the tensions between interreligious dialogue and missionary activity. This problem is raised by Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh contributors. It is thus the single broadest concern of the volume. The question highlights the tension between Francis as a man of dialogue and listening and the (inclusivist) theological foundations of the Church that have allowed him to attain his position of openness in relation to other religions. The problem is the veritable crux of Catholic theology of religions. Given Francis’ particular style of relationally informed dialogue, does this offer what Jeffrey Long considers the hope of overcoming the drive for proselytization, founded upon an inclusivist view of other religions? Reading Francis and his respondents, one wonders whether this is really the most pertinent question for Francis. The authors who raise it do so largely from a broader context of theology of religions and the history of Christian relations with other faiths. Perhaps in this, as in some other issues, one should not push on Francis for clarity. Perhaps his relational approach will of itself establish new patterns, and applying in a persistent manner the theoretical challenges that have informed the Catholic conversation with other religions to date is asking the wrong question.
A third group of responses offers critical perspectives on Francis’ thinking. It allows us to appreciate him as the theologian he does not set out to be, and at the same time points out some weaknesses in his thinking or learning-base. Helene Egnells’s reading of Francis in line with feminist approaches allows us to appreciate some of the uniqueness of Francis’ thinking, highlighting participation, process and relationship building,  and how these might be appreciated in light of feminist thinking. Several thinkers critique Francis’ notion of identity as well as his reliance on “the people” as theological yardstick. The two may not go hand in hand. Does Francis’ view of dialogue rely on the kind of strong identity that only clerics have and can it be reconciled with more complex types of identiy, including hybrid identities, as these are found on the ground? Another type of criticism concerns the use of specific tropes in an uncritical way. Edward Kessler (p. 92) points to the problematic appeal to the Pharisees in the Pope’s teaching. Leo Lefebure points to the problem of the use of the term fundamentalism, and even more so to the fact that implicit in Francis’ theory of dialogue is the exclusion of certain religious voices (pp. 308-9).
The reader of this volume comes away enriched not only by a better appreciation of how rich and variegated the Pope’s contribution to interreligious relations has been but also by the critical as well as constructive examination of Francis’ thought against the thought of other religions and their key thinkers. One imagines this is precisely the kind of conversation Francis himself would have liked to see emerging around his work.

2. Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders Chair
Receives New Appointment

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, Chair of the EBWRL, has received a new appointment by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. He will soon be assuming a new position as Archbishop for the United Kingdom. For the past decade he has served as currently assigned as the Director of the Berkeley, California-based Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, a member of the Graduate Theological Union. As a deeply engaged member of Elijah, this position, that will draw on his pastoral skills, will also allow Metropolitan Nikitas to contribute more actively to the concerns of interfaith relations in the United Kingdom and beyond. Metropolitan Nikitas expresses his feelings at this point in time, as follows:

"My Church has called upon me to assume a new ministry, as the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain.  It is both an honor and a challenge for me.  I only hope that the lessons I have leaned from my years in Hong Kong as a missionary, my work in the academic realm in Berkeley, and my involvement in interfaith dialogue and cooperation through the Elijah Interfaith Institute will give me the necessary resources to both build the Church and also strengthen the bonds between all the faith communities.  The time has come to stop looking for what separates us - rather, to look for what unites us.  After all, we must all work for a better world where peace, respect and the human being are our priorities.  I look forward to working with the religious leaders of the UK."

3. Elijah releases new video – Memory and Hope in Hinduism, 
A Conversation with Prof. Anantand Rambachan

Prof. Anantand Rambachan of St. Olaf College , addressed the subject of "Memory in the Hindu Religious Life" for the 2018 Elijah Interfaith Summer School and Interreligious Leadership Seminar.   
As part of our series on “Memory and Hope in World Religions”, we are pleased to release the video of his conversation on this topic.



As in all religious traditions, “memory” is a central component of Hindu religious life. Prof. Rambachan addressed the subject for the 2018 summer school.

Subjects covered by the video include:

  1. The importance of memory in transmitting the sacred texts. Although sacred texts are now available in printed form, the memorisation of the text was considered both more reliable than the written form but also a more powerful form of transmission. Chanting and reciting a text provides an additional level of sanctity. The hearing of it is more meaningful than reading it.
  2. Rituals and memory. The application of the Hindu calendar both relies on and reinforces memory. Days of the week evoke particular memories; anniversaries serve as ways of remembering teachers and ancestors.
  3. Remembering teachers. Teachers are both honoured and remembered. Their particular teachings are reinforced through the obligations to remember and the associated rituals.
  4. Remembering God. In a similar way, God is “remembered.” Memory is connected with gratitude. The mantra, wherein God’s name is recited or chanted, is passed on from teacher (guru) to student, making the relationship with the guru and the relationship with God inextricably linked. The gratitude to the teacher for passing on wisdom is elevated to a gratitude to God – a daily remembrance.
  5. The tension between Hindus and Muslims in India today, and, historically, in the creation of Pakistan, is based on memories of the past that require healing. These collective experiences and collective memories seem to be beyond the scope of Hindu traditions to heal. Anant recommended the need for dialogue, going beyond any one particular religious tradition, as the hope for healing the hurt. The willingness to speak and to listen to the religious other is essential.

The theme for the 2019 summer school is "Friendship Across Religions." Click here for more details and to register.
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