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The Pope, the Imam, and Religious Pluralism

When I was fourteen, growing up in southern Indiana in the wake of the sixties, and fired by a desire for spiritual pursuits, I took lessons in Transcendental Meditation. It was a practice that seemed to go well with my Cat Stevens albums and puka shell necklace. From this distance it’s easy enough to make light of TM, a simple mantra mediation, but it was an early stage of a serious journey for me, one open to a variety of religious traditions. I might have remained more consistently committed to this pursuit had not some well-meaning, though on the whole rather narrow, coreligionists emphasized the necessity of remaining within Catholic observance. It may be counter-intuitive that it was, later, in a Catholic seminary where I spent my undergraduate years that I learned styles of thought that would open into more robust modes of interreligious understanding. But then, God’s way don’t always conform to intuition.

So I was heartened to read “A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement signed by Pope Francis and Ahmed elYayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar. One passage that has garnered some extensive commentary includes the statement, “The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.” It’s striking to see the Bishop of Rome, leader of the holy and apostolic Catholic church, sign onto a statement to the effect not only that religious freedom is a necessary good, but also that a pluralism of religions is actually willed by God.

Among the commentators who have weighed in on the statement are those who assert that the passage in question, given its context among sentences concerning the freedom of religion, is nothing more than a restatement of the church’s position on religious liberty. Some have even explained the statement by invoking the old theological distinction between God’s “perfect will” (what the divine calls us to as part of his supreme plan) and God’s “permissive will” (what God allows for the sake of free will, but does not desire). Within this explanation, the diversity of religions accords with God’s permissive will but not his perfect will. However, the document could have made the point about religious liberty without alluding to the plurality of religions as actually willed by God.

More critical voices maintain that the document indeed says that the plurality of religions is a positive good and in accordance with divine will, and that the Holy Father should not have signed it. I should like to entertain the possibility that these latter commentators are right about the first point though wrong about the second. If this statement represents in some real way a turning point in church teaching, it is not out of step with some of the best theological reflection of the last decades. “God’s real self-communication in grace,” Karl Rahner emphasizes in his Foundations of Christian Faith (1978), “is coexistent and coextensive with the history of the world and of the human spirit, and hence also with the history of religion.” In other words, the divine self-disclosure has always been occurring and continues to occur (thus, it is coexistent with the world), and it happens throughout all of creation (meaning that it is coextensive with the world). There are no doubt times and places where humans’ responses become particularly intensive, such as during the events surrounding Jesus or the Buddha, but the divine self-offering is always there. Or rather, it is always here, active and with us, constant and non-coercive.

It seems to me that, throughout our millennia on the earth, humans have responded in a variety of ways to the divine call to communion. Some of these ways have caught on among larger groups and become habitual. Often these groups begin as gatherings occasioned by the work of a charismatic leader. Once the leader is gone, the followers continue to gather, telling stories of their experiences with the beloved leader or prophet, carrying out rituals of remembrance that also call them into continued devotion facing into the future. They develop ways of talking about their core beliefs. They articulate ideals about how to live out lives worthy of their calling. These rituals, beliefs, and values become the basis of a given religious tradition, with all of the advantages and dangers inherent. On the side of advantages is support for spiritual development and participation in communal actions. On the side of danger is the calcification of the religion’s ways into empty observance, at times even a hardening of religious structures that enable an elite to abuse those they claim to serve.

In this reckoning, God does not invent any religion, but rather constantly calls creation into intimacy and flourishing of life. Religions are among the human responses. I have known many people who live perfectly well outside a religious tradition. In other words, many seem not to need an official institutional framework. Others of us benefit from the framework. Certainly, my own Catholic tradition has been helpful to me, but it’s been a struggle as well. It has helped me to understand that, as Father Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as it has also helped to focus my often disparate energies. On the other hand, some of the church’s older and more reductive teachings have not always worked well to encourage my own maturation. But the church’s active thinkers—not only theologians, but also artists, poets, philosophers, historians, and everyone else given to reflection—are always at work on better ways to talk about our faith experience.

The Catholic church, like any living tradition, must remain under constant revision; otherwise, it ceases to be a source of life. Part of what keeps our tradition alive is active dialogue with other traditions. Many even find it not only helpful but necessary to belong to more than one religion, as Paul Knitter indicates in the title of his book Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian (2009). In his Being Religious Interreligiously (2004), Peter C. Phan finds within Catholicism a “creative tension between ‘both-and’” thinking that resists “succumbing to the reductionistic ‘either-or.’” Thus, for Phan, an inclusive, interreligious reach is woven into Catholic sensibility even if some resist the possibilities of fully inclusive participation.

As Jesus says in the Gospel of John (3:8), “The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes. So it is with everyone begotten of the spirit.” I believe that the Pope and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar are reminding us of exactly this. We would do well to recall that our religious life is not about merely following rules or making sales (as if Jesus were a commodity we’re called upon to promote) but rather maturity of spirit in love, openness to mystery, facing into uncertainty. The best evangelization is about helping each other along our individuated paths.