Australia Diary III: Interreligious Encounters

Melbourne. My weeks in Melbourne are drawing to a close, and if you read my first and second entries, you will know that it has been a good and interesting sojourn for me. The weather has continued to be sunny and warm (60 degrees) in recent days, definitely a good model for winter. A strand of my visit has been Jesuit and Catholic – speaking at the Jesuit Theological College the other evening to Jesuit students and faculty, joining the Jesuits of Melbourne in celebrating St. Ignatius Day on Tuesday evening, participating in a teleconference with the four campuses of the Australian Catholic University on interreligious study and dialogue, attending with friends an evening lecture and discussion on human rights and the Church, several happy meals with Peter Poggioli, a classmate from high school (Regis, 1968) and, on chilly mornings, trekking for to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the early Mass.

The other strand was unsurprisingly the interreligious dimension. Since my ACU lecture on July 25, I have had the opportunity to accept some very interesting invitations: to the Beth Israel Temple for Sabbath prayer, and dinner afterwards with Rabbi Fred Morgan and his wife and friends; travel with a Hindu family to a large Vishnu-Shiva temple in the Carrum Downs on the outskirts of the city; a visit to the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) Temple for the Saturday morning worship and teaching; a first visit to a Scientology Church complex, for a tour of the facility and information on L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, and the work of the Church; a meeting with a most interesting small Hindu gathering of Srivaisnava (Tamil, south Indian) Hindus to talk about my study of some key texts of their tradition. I also had an hour’s conversation with ACU’s delegate for Australian indigenous traditions, Ms. Naomi Wolfe (academic coordinator of the Jim-baa-yer Indigenous Higher Education Unit), and was welcomed one night for the iftar meal that breaks the day-long Ramadan fast, as the home of Dr. Ismail Albayrak (Fethullah Gulen Chair in the Study of Islam and Muslim-Catholic Relations). I've already mentioned in a previous post my overnight visit to the Shiva Ashram at Mount Eliza, outside the city.


What to make of these brief interreligious visits? Not too much, first of all, since there is always more to be learned than one visit can provide; often too, one notices new and more complicated things only on a later visit. Second, everyone was most hospitable, eager to show me their religious sites and work, but also appreciative of my work and interests. I am grateful for the welcome, and courtesy on all sides. We all, I think, should find opportunities to visit the holy sites and rituals of traditions other than our own. Third, though, it is clear, even from the events I have listed, that “interreligious” is not one thing. Religions flourish in the particular, and we meet them best in small and local ways. Visiting the Jewish community at its Sabbath service is of course to share a moment of prayer that reaches deep into a tradition older than Christianity, and in the course of it, recognize prayers and rites that resonate deeply with Christian ways of praying. Welcoming the Sabbath with bread and wine is for a Catholic a special, insightful moment. Sharing a meal with a Muslim family was a privilege, true hospitality in a holy season.

Visiting Hindu sites is familiar to me, a part of my work and interest as a scholar, but visiting with a friendly and very learned family made the experience all the more meaningful. Hearing from Naomi Wolfe about her family and aboriginal tradition was new to me — but as we talked about the tensions between Christianity and native traditions — the oral and the written, the local and the newly-arrived, the effort to embrace the new while cherishing the old — it struck me that no Christian has a history without similar tensions. It is just that our encounters are centuries or millennia old, and we do not remember what we gained and lost as our older cultures became Christian cultures. Scientology was entirely new to me, and unfamiliar because it is not the modern heir of an old, recognized tradition. Much of its teaching, as far as I can tell and despite analogies with some strands of Buddhist analysis of experience, seems to grow out of the personal reflections and study of Mr. Hubbard; there seems to be no talk of prior prophets or of a revelation given to him. One may be unsettled by the vast systematic teaching of Scientology, its many programs and modes of outreach, and the very strong discipline of the community. And surely by now everyone knows about the doubts raised about Scientology in many contexts. But there were few elements in what I observed the other day that did not remind me of this or that disciplinary or moral teaching of one or another Christian Church, the Catholic included; even the idea of evangelical outreach cannot be unfamiliar to Christians. One can still ask, though, is the encounter with a new tradition such as Scientology an interreligious encounter, but one needs to know more than I do to answer such a question usefully.

In any case, my days have been full, and the Catholic and interreligious moments are all of a piece. But how is all of this “Australian,” or “Melbournian,” in any specific way? Seeing familiar and unfamiliar things in a new place changes things in a subtle way: how English is spoken, the kind of coffee to ask for (I now prefer "flat white"), the meaning of “winter;” how one experiences a Hindu temple or Sabbath day observance; what it means to be a Catholic, liberal or conservative, in a different kind of Christian/secular/pluralistic society. All this is slightly different. Yet too, it will also affect, in small ways, how I experience the same things Catholic and of other religions back in Cambridge, MA, where my Melbourne weeks will not be far from my mind. More when I am back on the solid terrain of Cambridge, MA.

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