Some of my favorite experiences in graduate school are the periodic instances in which a statement by a professor is greeted with a gasp of surprise from the class.
To give a little backdrop, I am currently getting my Master’s degree at the Catholic University of America in Theology. The program is combined with the national seminary across the street. I am normally the only woman in my class, and at times the only layperson in a room filled with young men studying for the Catholic priesthood. Seminarians come from across the country, and even some foreign countries, to learn from what is considered the perennial Catholic institution in the United States, founded by the bishops and given a pontifical charter.
These are the best of the best chosen to study under the best, so these moments show that the men who are committing their lives in a distinct way to the Church continue to be surprised by the faith that they have already come to know intimately. They have no choice but to take what the professor says seriously, but it is not always so simple to integrate into their already conceived notions of the faith.
At first, I found their surprise surprising, how could these guys, who were already so committed to the Church be taken by surprise? But it has since become a comforting and exhilarating experience. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “We really can name God, starting from the manifold perfections of his creatures, which are likenesses of the infinitely perfect God, even if our limited language cannot exhaust the mystery.” (48).
God, as an infinite being, can never be explained comprehensively by humanity, there is always a Mystery, always something new to discover. It is a concept I have long since adopted as central to my faith and more generally, my academic and professional career, but these little moments provided by a professor’s comment provide an essential reminder to those that will soon be the face of the Church.
Theology is not a completed endeavor. Plenty remains that is not known. For one, this means as an aspiring theologian, there is still work for me to do,but perhaps, and more importantly, with subtle reminders such as these, there can be some point of connection between the wider spectrum of theology and my own commitment to interreligious dialogue.
For the most part, my fellow classmates and seminarians don’t understand my desire to form bonds across religious traditions. However, the gift of continual discovery that they experience is exactly the experience of dialoguing with other traditions. The Catholic Church affirms the validity and benefit of dialogue in this respect. In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) released the document Dialogue and Proclamation which states, “The will to engage together in commitment to the truth and the readiness to allow oneself to be transformed by the encounter are other dispositions required […] While keeping their identity intact, Christians must be prepared to learn and to receive from and through others the positive values of their traditions” (47, 49).
The PCID is clear that Christians can and should learn from other traditions. Interreligious dialogue provides a unique opportunity to access the mysterious aspects of God that are not highlighted in our own tradition. Paul Knitter famously wrote a book entitled Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. While I may not take this line of reasoning quite so far, there is certainly something irreplaceable, and even poetic, about learning through dialogue. Every dialogue I take part in brings new insight and questions. The intellectual ventures on the borders of our religious institution can have significant ramifications throughout the tradition, and positive ones at that.
It has become obvious that many are willing to accept a stagnant version of the tradition, to rest on their laurels in a sense, and are even surprised to discover that it is anything but inert. They believe that the deposit of faith is perfectly complete, but dialogue brings a sure reminder of the arrogance of that belief. Dialogue brings an injection of vigor, a reminder of the fundamental mystery that is faith, and a dose of humility,which is necessary in all generations. It is an adventure that is essential to the very life of the faithful that needs to be encouraged in the Church.
Photo by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.