Engaging pluralism theologically in Melbourne

Melbourne, Australia—I am nearing the end of my third month-long visit to Melbourne and the Australian Catholic University, where I once again been a visiting research scholar and a kind of academic consultant in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. It is August 16th, I know, but this morning here, below the Equator and in late winter, it was 38 degrees.

I doubt if Melbourne is quite as cosmopolitan as Cambridge, where I live and teach at Harvard, but I have been struck, on this trip in particular, at how diverse the city is. One hears many languages on the street, and sees people clearly from different parts of the world. Yesterday I visited the Victoria National Gallery — to see, of all things, some of the treasures of Russia’s Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s impressive collection; today I walked to the nearby Ian Potter Gallery, and toured once more some of the Indigenous Australian art – both traditional pieces and very contemporary fusions of Indigenous styles with images and colors First Nation peoples have encountered in today’s Australia. Everywhere on the streets in the city, one runs into Chinese students (and not just because I am staying near Melbourne’s Chinatown). Yesterday was India’s Independence Day, and at Federation Square by the Yarra River at the heart of town, Bollywood films have been playing on a large screen all weekend. Australia is on the move, a new reality gathering momentum in the great reality that is today's Australasia.


St Francis Church downtown, where I’ve gone for Mass several times in the past week, has on its staff priests of the Blessed Sacrament congregation. I haven’t talked to them directly, but they are of at least several nationalities, including (by accent) Irish, Australian, and (I think) Vietnamese, and the congregation is quite international. St Patricks’ Cathedral seems a bit cooler and less diverse, but I was impressed by the consciousness there too of diversity of religions and cultures. The celebrant’s quiet and prayerful meditation this morning on Jesus as the Bread of Life (inspired by today’s segment of John 6) included his thoughtful comments on how Christ mysteriously works among people who never come to Church, and among people who do not know Christ in any direct way. He asked the pious congregation (at the first Mass on a cold morning) to be confident that Christ is at work in the lives of everyone they meet on the streets. A long reflection in the Sunday bulletin, written by Fr. Mark O’Connor, fms, the Director of the Archdiocesan Office for Evangelisation, was dedicated to the theme of “seekers and dwellers,” remarkably drawing on the philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age to point that that while some in the Church simply “dwell” and rarely reach out to others, there are also, thankfully, those who are seekers, ever questioning, looking out beyond what Pope Francis called our “comfort zones,” and in a more natural and ready dialogue with spiritual seekers of every kind: proclaiming Christ, Fr. Mark writes, includes an awareness that wherever we go, Christ is already there. Everyone is already welcome in the Church: welcome words indeed, at the Melbourne cathedral.

It is no surprise then that the Australian Catholic University is also conscious of the growing diversity of Australia, such as is already changing how we think of our Catholic philosophical and theological traditions. ACU is, as a university, in a period of expansion. 25 years old, the university is experiencing growing pains to be sure, but is seeking an international presence, with programs now in Rome and Paris and Leuven, and plans for other relationship in Europe and then in North America.

I am glad to be witnessing in particular sensitivity to the interreligious diversity that marks Asia today. No formal relations have been established yet with Catholic entities in India or China or the Philippines – though I hope such are on the way – but there are at ACU initiatives in dialogue that are growing. While I’ve been here, there has been under way a program introducing world religions to school teachers, with professors both of and from outside great religious traditions offering overviews and the basics to an audience of about 150 each Wednesday evening. The entire past year, a colloquium in comparative theology has been meeting monthly, with papers that engage Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and Australia’s own indigenous traditions. I was happy to be invited to give the paper at the July colloquium, on “the way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis) as an important venue of interreligious exchange in our era — a two-way street on which people of different faiths appreciate each other all the better because of apprehending the beauty of each other’s traditions. I am looking forward also, this coming week, to a meeting with the Ecumenical and Interfaith Council (EIC) and Catholic Education Office of the Archdiocese, to discuss possibilities and problems arising in making an understanding of the many religions a regular part of pastoral and educational practice.

Most notably – and as the main reason for my visit to Melbourne – was this past week’s “Winter Workshop” in comparative theology, a workshop hosted at ACU by its Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, and drawing in participants from the array of ACU campuses – Melbourne and Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra and Brisbane. The first morning’s opening welcome by Naomi Wolfe (Aboriginal academic in the Faculty of Education and Arts) reminded us of the native peoples who have lived on the site of Melbourne for a very long time, and who now also welcome us and our traditions to our meeting here. We were interreligious from the beginning and the ground up. A variety of Catholic and Christian participants then gave papers, of course, but also Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist scholars, and we learned from all kinds of comparisons and methods of comparison, dealing with the major religious traditions that flourish in Asia, and to indigenous traditions in music and the arts. Consider just this partial set of paper titles: “The Sacred that Appears by Itself – A Comparison Across Three Traditions,” “If Evagrius Ponticus met Arya Chandrakirti and Shantideva,” “A Case Study in Comparative Theology: the Encounter of Western Christianity and Indigenous Australian Spiritualities,” “The Jewish Experience of the Shema in the Light of the ‘Our Father’ (Lord’s Prayer) and al-Fatiha,” “A Comparative Approach to Job’s Virtue of Patience in the Islamic and Christian Traditions,” “Hidden with Christ: a Christian Experience of ‘No-Self’ and Some Insights from Buddhist Epistemology,” “Nagarjuna, al-Ghazali and Occam: Three blind mice, see how they pun!” So many dimensions, and more, opened up in such a short time! You can find a pdf of the program here.

I was honored to speak first and last at the workshop, and could testify to how much I learned from the many themes and methodologies brought to bear. I was happy to stress, in my remarks, how extraordinary and welcome it is that ACU, as it establishes its academic credentials and makes itself known throughout the Catholic world, is also serious about the universality marked by the catholic/Catholic tension of any serious Catholic enterprise that honors the 50 year heritage of Vatican II and particularly Nostra Aetate. Most universities, in the West, have had to add the interreligious element to long established Catholic identities, by a kind of grafting. I would like to think, witnessing the lively diversity of Melbourne and its churches and the simultaenous growth of ACU as an important Australasian presence, and participating in important ongoing conversations in dialogue and comparative theology these weeks, that the inclusive “seeking” dimension of today’s church is intimately organic to ACU’s fundamental DNA.

I head back to still summery Cambridge and the Harvard academic year in a few days, but will bear with me pleasant and hopeful memories of ACU’s real and, I hope, growing contribution to the church’s interfaith future down here in Australia.


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