Cambridge, MA. This then is the third and final of my blogs on Dominus Iesus as the September 5 anniversary of its release approaches. My first was a general comment; the second focused on theology after the declaration, and this one is about dialogue after Dominus Iesus. First, though, I wish particularly to recommend to readers to review the comments on my previous entry, on dialogue, the experience of life in interreligious marriage and social contexts, and even on theology as the domain of the 1%, while the 99% of Catholics have to deal with these issues in other ways. This last comment is actually very apt, since the declaration in its technicalities was indeed aimed primarily at theologians. In any case, I recommend reading all the comments.
As for dialogue, in this brief space I will make a series of brief observations, again written at blog-speed, and then welcome your further comments. First, we do well to distinguish “institutional dialogue” — carried on by religious leaders and their delegates, as official events much like acts of diplomacy — from “lived dialogue,” experienced in various degrees of informality as part of people’s lives. “Institutional dialogue” proceeds at its own glacial pace, depending on numerous factors. How Catholics dialogue officially with people of other faith traditions is often mirrored in how the Church imagines its conversations with Christians of other denominations, and even how the Vatican contemplates its ability and willingness to dialogue with Catholics in the Church. All of these dialogues have been dampened, it seems to me, by Dominus Iesus, which signals a Church leadership less interested than in previous decades in exchanges across all these boundaries. Reaffirming boundaries comes across as the priority; and when dialogues of sorts occur, they are driven by cultural and political factors, as when we might read of a meeting with Muslim leaders, etc.
When it comes though to “lived dialogue,” it seems to me that the role of Dominus Iesus is more limited. We all live in religious diverse societies, our individual lives and social networks have permeable boundaries, and for the most part, we are “works in progress,” simultaneously rethinking who we are, how we relate to others. If we are Catholic, we are also all negotiating how we are going to be Catholic — with what mix of beliefs, practices, experiments, border-crossings — and thus too, how we learn from our religious others and where we draw the line on that learning and its implications. We may be practicing yoga, but not submitting to a Hindu guru; we may learn from reading the Bhagavad Gita, but not worship Krsna; we may find Hindu insights helpful in rethinking gender and the divine, but not actually pray to a Goddess. Similarly, many of us are learning from Islam or Buddhism, or Native American traditions. On one level, Dominus Iesus is simply not the kind of document, and simply does not have the spiritual or moral effectiveness, to get us to stop being religiously interactive, all the time.
All of these personal experiments, of course, involve both introspective and social elements. Much goes on inside each of us, but increasingly it is the case that we are also talking to neighbors, colleagues at work or school, perhaps too spouses or partners or children, who are committed to other religions. This is dialogue, and it happens largely in atmospheres of equality and with varying degrees of openness, attentiveness. This fact of dialogue can also be writ large, since issues of public import — e.g., the proposal to build an Islamic Center in lower Manhattan — necessarily get us into conversations with our religious neighbors. For the most part, Dominus Iesus has little influence on the course of such conversations. Dialogue is not going to stop, and no one is going to be able to stipulate what gets dialogued about or what is learned in the dialogue. The sun rises whether I think it should or not.
However, in keeping with what I said in the first of these blogs, once we start reflecting — as we should — on the meaning of what we are doing in our inevitable interreligious exchanges, Dominus Iesus can be a very important and instructive reminder of who we are when we say we are Catholics who, even in our very diversity, still accept the wholeness of the faith, keeping together Jesus + Christ + Word + Kingdom + Church + Mission + Dialogue. We need to live experimental lives, and we have a right to our personal successes and failures in dialogue; we need also to correct ourselves along the way, seeing what we’ve forgotten or left out. While it is very easy today to shut out the Vatican entirely and close our ears to words from Rome, I think it would be a mistaken to stop remembering Dominus Iesus and the cautions it put in place. It is possible to go too far in learning from another religion, it is possible to become merely confused in our openness; and while it may be good for some of us to convert to the other religion, this should not be done casually, and the declaration reminds us how much is at stake if we go to the mosque on Friday instead of Mass on Sunday, or pray to Siva instead of Jesus. And when a whole community is touched by the "living dialogue," Dominus Iesus becomes all the more relevant as a reference point for the discernment that must still take place in that local church community.
And finally, it is still important after Dominus Iesus, even if to some extent despite it, to keep trying to foster local dialogues among people of faith, dialogues that are planned and grass-roots efforts, even if not “institutional dialogues” as indicated above. Ours is not the only tradition with firm and fundamental beliefs, condescending attitudes toward outsiders, rigid leadership, and sad histories of unhappy relations with the other, steps forward and backward mixed together. All of us, whichever religion we belong to, need to engage in the spiritual practice to talking to — and listening to — our religious neighbors. Much of this can be spontaneous and part of everyday life, but there is also an urgent need for study groups, shared scripture study, days and festivals of interreligious harmony among the religious sites in a town, interfaith boards in cities, etc. We ought neither hide nor glorify Dominus Iesus when we work for such happenings. We might even ask our neighbors, “If your community was to write a document like this, what would be the foundations, guidelines, and uncrossable borders that shape your talking to us?” (Of course, some documents like this already exist — think of the Muslim scholars who wrote A Common Word and opened a powerful Muslim-Christian dialogue, or the Jewish-Hindu declarations of common understanding that came out of 2007 and 2008 meetings in Jerusalem and New Delhi.)
Anyway, let us think of taking time on September 5 to re-read Dominus Iesus, start to finish. We might learn from it even now, even we still doubt parts of it. And let’s pray for deeper spiritual openmindedness in us the readers, and in those who wrote it too.