BY SARAH BANIA-DOBYNS
As the fall issue of Conversations suggested (Conversations 46 Fall 2014), Pope Francis’ invitation to the Catholic Church to re-examine and reflect upon its mission is also an invitation to Jesuit universities to revisit how they are living out their missions. Indeed, Francis’ singular focus on the gospel message of mercy and justice, as well as his ongoing discernment with each action he takes, is a living example of how Jesuit universities can become grounded in mission within their specific contexts.
One way the pope continues to demonstrate his commitment to mission is through increased interreligious dialogue. However, what is significant about his interreligious work is not just its proliferation and consistency, but also his ability to balance the interests of those with whom the Catholic Church is in dialogue with the gospel mission. It is this ability, which I call an “interreligious stance,” that is an approach from which Jesuit universities can learn.
Adopting an interreligious stance means starting from one’s own context while being open to other faith traditions, shown through genuine interest in other traditions and being able to respect and be enriched by difference. This article will address how Jesuit ideas about interreligious dialogue can foster such a stance which can, in turn, deepen the integration of the Jesuit mission in an academic environment.
Jesuits, Jesuit Universities and Interreligious Dialogue in Context
Pope Francis’ work in interreligious dialogue is, of course, not a new idea. The Jesuits’ General Congregation 35 (2008) advanced the practice as a means of achieving General Congregation 34’s ideas (1995) of ending prejudice and bias, particularly in focusing on cooperation with other religious traditions (General Congregation 35, Decree 5, para. 2). Many Jesuit universities have responded to the Society’s initiatives by integrating a commitment to interreligious dialogue into their offices of mission, identity and ministry (cf., but not limited to, Boston College, Marquette University, and Creighton University).
Nevertheless, Pope Francis’ approach to interreligious dialogue is new. In a recent interview, the pope stated that interreligious dialogue could “help bring peace and end all forms of ‘fundamentalism, terrorism and irrational fears’.” He further emphasized the role of interreligious dialogue in preserving religious freedom and human dignity, as well as not resigning ourselves to intractable conflict in the Middle East (“Pope Francis: Interreligious dialogue can end forms of fundamentalism,” November 28, 2014).
The pope’s language is noteworthy: not only has he taken on the language of peacemaking, but he also is using the language of international human rights. Phrases like “human dignity,” “religious freedom” and ending “terrorism” all illustrate his ability to take the context of the contemporary world into account as he engages in dialogue. In other words, he does not attempt to live the gospel mission without first recognizing the others he is in conversation with as unique persons in a unique historical moment.
The pope’s practice of interreligious dialogue responds to the gospel mandate to work for peace and justice with the marginalized, while his deliberate discussion of human rights acknowledges secular society’s values and language towards the same ends. This is an example of the importance of taking one’s context into account, which is a lesson that is also an aspect of Ignatian spirituality. Ignatian spirituality meets each person where he/she is, both practically, in the sense that the Spiritual Exercises can be done in everyday life, and spiritually, in the sense that God is to be found in all things, even and especially in the mundane.
Similarly, when General Congregation 35 exhorts educational institutions to “conscientize” students on value of interreligious collaboration and respect for others of different religious traditions, the document clearly states that this process is meant to happen in each educational institution’s local context (General Congregation 35, Decree 5, para. 9.8). Among the AJCU schools, the Jesuit, Catholic charism gives members a shared mission. Yet, each member institution has a unique history and context, which is in part made by the relationships with local non-Christian and non-Catholic communities.
Practicing an interreligious stance: some practical suggestions
How, then, can Jesuit universities begin to practice an interreligious stance in their conversations regarding mission integration? First, and most importantly, I have emphasized the importance of putting context first. Yet, this raises this question: do we know our contexts? Besides being reflective about the Jesuit, Catholic mission and ethos of our institutions; knowing our contexts also means learning our local histories and geographies. For example, to what extent have we considered the tenor of relationships between the schools’ early Jesuit founders and members of the community where they were located? Further, what are relationships like today between Jesuit universities and their surrounding communities, especially members of those communities who belong to other faith traditions?
Keeping the importance of context in the foreground of conversation, I would propose the following for Jesuit universities interested in developing an interreligious stance into their work in mission integration.
- Hold conversations about the university’s history and local geography surrounding the campus, focusing especially on the role of non-Christian faith communities and their relationship to the university.
- Practicing ‘scriptural reasoning’: Scriptural reasoning is the practice of members of different faith tradition reading their religious texts alongside each other.
- Developing a more interreligious curriculum: Qualified, committed individuals could advise faculty regarding materials that could encourage engagement with non-Christian traditions in ways that would enhance existing course objectives.
- Initiating research projects based upon community needs and grounded in learnings based on dialogue with other religious traditions.
These suggestions are by no means meant as a blueprint. For those universities that have already incorporated interreligious dialogue into their mission, identity and ministry statements, these suggestions may provide some additional ideas for further deepening their ongoing conversations regarding mission integration. On the other hand, there are many Jesuit universities where conversation about interreligious dialogue is beginning to flourish, but such conversations still remain on the periphery. For these institutions, these suggestions may provide some foundations upon which to build conversation.
Sarah Bania-Dobyns is part-time faculty in Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University, where she presently incorporates the practice of ‘scriptural reasoning’ into her classes. Previously, she worked for the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.