Thursday 10 March 2016

“Dialogue is at the heart of the Christian mystery”

Full transcript of my interview with Fr. Darren Dias, a Canadian Dominican priest and expert in inter-religious dialogue.

What exactly is your involvement in inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue?
I am primarily involved in inter-religious dialogue. I am on the Hindu-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada, it's the first type of dialogue the Canadian Bishops have sponsored outside of the monotheistic faiths. There was already dialogue with Jews, a very old dialogue of the Church, and Muslims, and now Hindus.

I also teach at the University of St. Michaels College, in the faculty of Theology, where my area of interest and research is religious pluralism, that is, what is the significance of the simultaneous presence of multiple religious traditions in the World.

Does your Indian background have anything to do with being on that commission?
It may do. I am not a specialist in Hinduism, there are those on the dialogue who are more so, but certainly culturally, because my grand-parents are from Goa, I can relate to Hindus that would come from India also. So that may be one of the reasons. The other reason also is my area of interest.

Because of course that would be very specific and very different from dialogue with Muslims and Jews...
That's right. The first, Ecumenical, would be dialogue with just Christians, and there we have a common faith in the One Lord Jesus Christ, so there is a basis already for Dialogue. With Jews, of course, because Christianity grew out of Judaism, we have a common Scripture, what we call the Old Testament, common notions around God and the divine. We also have a basis for dialogue which is Theological.

Likewise with Muslims we share faith in the One God, we are monotheists, so we have at least that type of basis. What does monotheism call us to live ethically, morally, so there is a basis there.

When you move outside of Christianity and the monotheistic religions, into dialogues with Hindus and Buddhists, its different, because we have less in common theologically, we have less of a shared European and Middle Eastern tradition. So that makes the dialogue a different kind of dialogue. It may start on Human questions, anthropological questions, social challenges. So I think it's true that the non-Christian and non-monotheistic dialogues present a new way of dialogue with the Church.

In terms of the Canadian society, are relations between Hindu and Christian communities generally peaceful and fruitful?
Yes. Canada is a fairly multicultural and multi-religious society, it is predominantly still Christian, at least nominally, and people practice their faith without any sort of problem. It’s a peaceful coexistence.

Religious dialogue with Hindus is very new. We have often gotten together, people of different faiths, on social or political issues, but the religious factor wasn't really entering into the discussion, so it is a new thing. Having said that, there are always, and this is unfortunate and its a problem around the world, incidents of intolerance. We have certainly had an increase of intolerance towards Muslims in the past months, we have had anti-Semitic actions in the country, now they are rare, but still significant. So it still shows that we have a lot of work to do, and that although some might say that tolerance is the lowest common denominator, we still have work to do in the area of tolerance, even a country as open and tolerant and diverse as Canada.

I've heard that it’s not clear cut that Hinduism is a polytheistic faith, that it might not be as simple as that. How would you describe it?
I think that one thing that Christians and certainly Roman Catholics have an advantage with is that when we enter into dialogue we are appointed by the bishops and we can say that we speak from a certain position and we have a shared understanding on these things. To say the same about other religions like Hinduism, and it is the same for Judaism or Islam, there is no central authority, there is no central body to say this is what we believe and this is how we understand ourselves. So our dialogue with Hindus is different because we dialogue with different expressions of Hinduism, and within Hinduism there is such a great diversity of belief, there is such great diversity in the way Hindus would articulate their beliefs, that it would be hard to answer your question, certainly as a Christian, but also within the Hindu tradition there would be many ways of expressing it. Some might say that in fact there is one source of being, and therefore they are not actually polytheists. Even the categories of polytheism and monotheism might be Western, Judeo-Christian categories that Hinduism does not fit into. That is part of the work of dialogue, to reach across those boundaries that make categories difficult to discuss.

No salvation outside the Church? What does this mean exactly?
No Salvation outside the Church is a common adage. It was certainly in the literature of the Roman Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council, but it hadn't been used, even in the 19th Century, very often. We know that in around 1949 there was a famous case with a Boston priest named father Leonard Feeney who interpreted that quite literally. And both the bishop of Boston and also, eventually, the Holy See. The CDF and the Pope were involved with this discussion, which is to say that even in 1949 we did not take this literally.

So after the Second Vatican Council that phrase "Outside the Church, no Salvation", has disappeared from all official literature because, in fact, the Church teaches that there is goodness and truth outside of Christianity, there are seeds of the Word, there is the Divine presence in other religions, so there is indeed salvation outside of the Church.

There are still those in the Church who would say that inter-religious or ecumenical dialogue should essentially be about trying to convert non-Christians and bring the separated Christians back to Rome…
But then it would cease to be dialogue, it would become evangelization, it would become mission, and they are strains in Christianity, which is an evangelizing religion, but even in that evangelizing mission, John Paul II wrote that dialogue is a part of the evangelizing mission of the Church, so that as much as we are called to evangelize, in the sense of explicitly making others Christian, we are also called to dialogue, that is to learn not only about people of other religions, but in our dialogue we learn about God and about who we are.

With all the emphasis on dialogue, however, is there not a crisis in the Church view of evangelization? Certainly some in the Protestant world decry the fact that the Catholic Church seems to have given up on active missions to evangelize non-Christians.
That might be a misperception. Certainly the Church has gone through various phases of its evangelizing mission, the first generation, that is, the Jewish Church that evangelized the gentile world, is different than it was in medieval time when the Church sought to Evangelize Europe, and it is different with the sixteenth Century, with the so-called discoveries, when missionaries would evangelize, along with the colonization, so you have a mission which is linked to colonisation, and that lasted right up until the 18 hundreds and early 19 hundreds. So every era there are exigencies which make Missionary activity different. Today the situation is such that we would not evangelize in the same way that we did in a previous generation, that would be suicide for the Church. However, it doesn't mean that the Church ignores its evangelizing mission, but it probably does it and understands it in different ways.

There is no such thing as a forced conversion these days, but there was in the past.

So I think that our Evangelical brothers and sisters would remind us that we still are constituted by a Mission, the reason that there is a church is for the mission. The Gospel mission. There is no doubt. How we witness to the Gospel is different in every era, and I think part of our witnessing today is to enter into dialogue with those who are different from us, and I think that is actually at the heart of what the Gospel is about. So that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ there is a divine and human dialogue, the Word becomes flesh, so that at the very heart of the Christian mystery there is dialogue and for us to be performative of dialogue really behoves us, then. Dialogue helps us to discover the fundamental attributes of what it means to witness to the Gospel.

Again, this might be a misperception, but the idea we have over here is that Canada is an extremely liberal country. In that issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc., which are contentious in the USA, seem to be settled in Canada. Is Canada mission territory?
Well, everyone is in need of mission, in a different way. Everyone is in need of witness to the Gospel.

While the United States professes a separation of Church and State, I think they're religion and State are still fairly linked. Canada does have a pretty healthy separation of Church and State, and there is a real separation.

I think Canada is socially conscious on many issues. So, whether it is socialized medicine, or education which is a public system of post-secondary education, or even refugees, immigration laws, compared to the US, where they have a private medical system and very expensive post-secondary education, so in that sense it is a very socially conscious and collective country, compared to a more individualist consumerist society, in the US. But certainly there is always work to be done in every society.

I think Canada might be a little bit different, because how the Church, or religious groups, would seek to influence public policy, would be through society and the promotion of values, and in the promotion of human or Christian values, people can buy into them even if they are not, lets say, Christian. I think in the USA it is often about influencing law-makers. Its really about the state and how the State controls things. The distinction I am making then is how to evangelize a society through society itself, through culture, or how you might evangelize society through the mechanisms of a state, and I think those are two very different approaches.

Recently the Vatican commission for religious dialogue with the Jews published a document giving weight to the idea that there is no need to evangelize the Jews because they already live in a salvific covenant with God. This is in no way a consolidated idea within the Church, what is your take on this?
That document which came out in December 2015 is an important document. It is a reflection on the past 50 years of relationships with the Jews and in some ways it enumerates the great strides that have been made. It addresses some of the areas which are of ongoing concern and one of the things that it did address is that it said quite explicitly that the Roman Catholic Church no longer has any institutional mission to converting the Jews, and that is based on a scriptural, Pauline notion that God does not take away his promises, and so the promise that he made to the Jewish people remains.

The New Covenant, as we Christians call it, with Jesus Christ, does not abrogate the old covenant with the Jews. So I think that it affirms what is a common theological principle, or idea, that these two covenants are related and intertwined, but that the Jews, because they have an ongoing relationship with God, would not need missionary activity, they would not need to become Christians, so the Church does not have a missionary outreach to the Jews in the way that it had had in the past. For example, there were some religious communities which were founded exclusively for the conversion of Jews.

I actually think that what is very significant in the publication of that document is that a group of Orthodox rabbis also published a document around the same time, I think it came out a few days before, and this was a first in modern history, for the Orthodox Rabbis to really respond to the invitation of the Roman Catholic Church to dialogue, and I think that is really an important step. That our dialogue is a real dialogue, it is not just the Church producing documents, but we see an effect in other religions, which respond to the invitation to enter into some kind of deeper relationship with us.

So in that document, which was a very fine document issued by the dicastery on religious relations with the Jews, I think the more significant thing is that Orthodox rabbis, for the first time, have responded.

Concerning the polemic at Wheaton College about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, how do you see this issue?
I am less familiar with the details of the Wheaton situation, though I know about it. So I will answer in two ways.

What I think is very troubling about the Wheaton situation is what is the role of academic freedom? How do theologians have freedom to make statements and to explore research without being disciplined? So one thing is a collegial concern for academic freedom.

I think that Pope John Paul II, in Algeria, when he was on a visit, was quite clear to say to the Muslim Youth that we worship the same God, and we both, all religions, not just Muslims, but all religions, have a temptation to make God in their own image. And one of the things that dialogue does is remind us that we have to avoid the temptation to make out of God something that we want. We see this with extremists, with so-called Muslims, some would say they are not even Muslims, the ISIS people, creating God in their own image. And this leads to intollerance and violence. The alternative to dialogue is violence. So like when children don't have words to express themselves, they express themselves physically, violently, and this is what could happen when we make God into our own image, into something that will further our own agendas, then there is no more room for dialogue and violence ensues.

As a Dominican you are heir to a long tradition of dialogue…
That's right. The order was founded by St. Dominic in the early 13th Century, and Dominic, at the time, faced the great Albigensian heresy in Spain and France, and he observed the way the Cistercians had been trying to evangelize, to bring back these heretics. Now the heresy was a problematic heresy because it denied the very goodness of Human creation and it denied the effect of the resurrection, that is what dualisms do, when they are too spiritually or non-materially oriented, they negate and they denigrate creation, so it was a very problematic heresy.

The Cistercians went out to convert the heretics, to bring them back to the Church, but they were not successful. And one of the things Dominic realised was that some of the criticisms of the heretics, that the Church had become too worldly and they were too involved in power and they were too wealthy and they weren't following the Evangelical precepts, he realized in his dialogue with them that some of the criticisms were true, so he adopted a very simple, austere and poor lifestyle, and then began to enter into conversations with them about theology.

His method was to speak to people, so he spoke sometimes throughout the night to heretics to try and bring them back. So his approach was quite dialogical, we would say today, and it was never heavy handed, and never forced.

An example of how dialogue can also be mission...
That's right.

How well do you know your Goan heritage?
My father was born in Goa, as were my grand-parents, and they moved to Toronto, so I knew my grand-parents, and obviously I knew my father. So I would have heard many stories, and certainly culturally we observed many things, religiously, food, certain customs. But I don't speak the language, which is Concani, because Salazar did not permit the use of the local language. So we lost a lot because of the Portuguese colonization, we lost a lot of the culture, and it was a 450 year colonization. So we have our own Goan culture, but we also have influences of the Portuguese, but beginning in the 40s many people began to leave Goa, so we are a diaspora people, like the Jewish people. There were not a lot of opportunities in Goa in the 40s and 50s and so people began leaving, so there is a culture of the migrant people which is different from the Goa of today, because with the liberation in 1960, and the return to India, the culture changed again.

I have only been there once, and it would have been very different than my parents or my grand-parents' generation, and yet that is a Goa that I don't actually know, because it doesn't actually exist anymore.

But was there a big diaspora in Canada?
There is, yes, in Toronto. There is also a diaspora in London and here in Portugal, of course. I suspect that the Goan population is larger outside of Goa than in Goa.

So there was a community aspect to your experience in Canada?
Yes, there was. There were a few clubs and associations, and there still are. So that is how things are transmitted in Toronto, Montreal and London.

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