Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017
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RITUAL PARTICIPATION AND INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE:
Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations
Marianne Moyaert and Joris Geldhof, editors
 
The publisher of this collection of essays states that this is “The first book to focus on the lived dimensions of interreligious dialogue through ritual participation rather than textual or doctrinal issues. . . .” For that reason, it is an especially important resource for those interested in and/or involved in what the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) refers to as “The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute” (Dialogue and Proclamation,42).
 
In 1991, when this document was published, its authors almost certainly did not intend to imply that “sharing spiritual riches” involved participating in the rituals of other religions. In fact, just two years earlier, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation” in which it expressed grave reservations about employing Eastern (non-Christian) methods of meditation. The CDF believed that making use of methods of meditation from another religious tradition was, at the very least, questionable, and certainly not recommended. That being the case, it is hard to imagine that two years later another Vatican dicastery, the PCID, would look benignly on participation in the rituals of another religion
 
Over the past quarter of a century, however, there has been a growing recognition that participation in the prayer and ritual of another religious tradition does not necessarily involve a betrayal of one’s own. As one author writes,
 
The contemporary multicultural context in the West . . . is very remote from the polarized universe which the medieval jurists . . believed that they inhabited. . . . ours is a context of hybridization and a widespread and seemingly unstoppable desire for experiment, entanglement, and intersubjectivity. At times this is shaped by relativism and theological insouciance, but it is also, on occasion, driven by a sincere human need to cross boundaries for the sake of solidarity and in the belief that the Other offers the soul something of genuine worth. The Other cannot be automatically dismissed as adversarial [Timothy Winter “Receiving the Stranger: A Muslim Theology of Shared Worship,” p. 89].
 
Many of the authors who contributed to this volume argue in favor of the possibility of at least limited participation in the rituals of another religious tradition, provided, of course, that the other religious tradition is open to such participation. One of the authors, for example, goes so far as to make a case for an open Eucharist and in so doing, appeals to Swami Abhishiktananda’s statement, “A restricted Eucharist is false. ‘Leave your offering before the altar!’,…Whoever ‘loves’ his brother has a right to the Eucharist” [Richard Kearney, “Towards an Open Eucharist,” p. 143]. However, the main concern of the authors who contributed to this volume is neither to promote or suppress such participation, but  to identify and weigh the issues that are involved in—as some authors refer to it—“inter-riting.” While it may be going too far to say that they arrive at a consensus, a frequent refrain is that it is simply not possible to make a general rule either for or against such participation. As one author writes, “A gray area surrounds the question of who can pray together with whom and how; who can share the religious devotions of others and how. No general rules can be deduced from individual examples” [Maria Reis Habito, “Bowing before Buddha and Allah? Reflections on Crossing over Ritual Boundaries,” p. 42].
 
The book is divided into four sections: Philosophical, Theological, and Phenomenological Observations; Muslim and Christian-Muslim Perspectives; Christian and East-Asian Religious Perspectives; and Jewish and Jewish-Christian Perspectives. The seventeen authors who contributed to this volume are from Indonesia (1), England (1), the United States (7), Belgium (2), Holland (4), and New Zealand (1)
 
Some of the contributors concentrate on the philosophical and theological issues involved in crossing over ritual boundaries; others describe and reflect on the actual experience of such crossing. The latter emphasize the important role played by intention, setting, and context. One author who participates in Hindu rituals and who applies to his praxis the same kind of discretion that Paul proposes to the Christians in Corinth who wonder if they can eat meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) writes,
 
. . . although I have often taken prasad in various forms in Hindu temples in the United States, I have almost never done so in India. There is no universal principle by which I can explain this, and no reason I could see to adopt a different intention in participating in the act on one continent from another. But within the Christian community in India, for many believers to whom I have close connections, this activity is perceived (if not actively condemned) as a kind of betrayal. . . . My interreligious practice has been guided by a mix of intuitions that include intuitions of loyalty and authority which I find difficult to put into words, and which appear, in some sense, to have geographical limits” [S. Mark Heim, “On Doing What Others Do: Intentions and Intuitions in Multiple Religious Practice,” p. 21].  
 
Another testifies,
 
Since I took refuge in 1983, I am no longer a “non-Buddhist”, but a practitioner of both traditions. This means in practical and ritual terms that when I attend Catholic Mass (which I do almost every week), I fully join every movement of the body, spirit, and mind culminating in the Eucharist, for me the most intimate moment of receiving the body and blood of Christ, both on the personal and on the communal level which are completely one—the body of Christ. When I come home to my Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, I bow when entering the main hall, participate in the chanting of sutras and the prostrations that start and end the prayer service, and join in the meditation. For me, bowing, and especially the prostrations before the altar, regardless of whether there is a Buddhist statue present on it or not, are expressions of boundless gratitude, of humility, and of the prayer that all may realize their true Self and be free from suffering. Do I address this prayer to God or to Buddha? This question makes sense on a level where God and Buddha point to different conceptual realities. I do not claim that they are the same. But on the level where I enter prayer, embody it, and offer myself up with my whole heart to the universe, my only answer to the question would be, “I truly don’t know. I am before a Mystery beyond human words and concepts” [Maria Reis Habito, “Bowing before Buddha and Allah? Reflections on Crossing over Ritual Boundaries,” pp. 37f.]
 
Although not directly referring to Habito’s mention of a “Mystery beyond human words and concepts” to explain why it should be possible to participate in the rituals of two religious traditions that are rooted in such different ways of conceptualizing the Ultimate, one of the authors calls into question her appeal to apophatic theology to support her commitment to the religious rituals of both Catholicism and Buddhism. He writes,
 
While it is true to say that God’s reality goes beyond human understanding, the justification for interreligious and even multireligious prayer can hardly be based on adducing a common understanding of a reality that is beyond human understanding; such a reality could not be the basis for co-intentionality as normally understood, for the only predicate is that it is beyond human understanding, which does not allow us to conclude that the same reality is predicated by both parties. It may well be that it is, but that which is within human understanding seems to suggest otherwise and, while that is not determinative of the matter, if arguments are going to convince communities, they have to be robust and contain conceptually defensible positions [Gavin D'Costa, “Interreligious Prayer between Roman Catholic Christians and Muslims,” p. 96].
 
I wonder, however, if it is proper to speak of a “common understanding of a reality that is beyond human understanding.” The whole point of  appealing to apophatic theology to support interreligious ritual participation is that God/Ultimate Reality is beyond understanding.
 
In a footnote to the passage just citied, D’Costa notes that “Too much literature in this field depends on shaky referential commonality.” Again, I would argue that the “commonality” we are dealing with in regard to interreligious ritual participation is the conviction that all language, all concepts, all symbols, all rituals are limited human attempts to give expression to that which is ultimately ineffable. A Christian theologian might insist that some, at least, of these concepts, symbols, and even rituals are divinely revealed. The fact remains, however, that revelation is received by particular human beings, with their particular concerns and questions, and their particular and limited ability to understand and express what has been revealed.
 
In that same footnote, D’Costa points to an essay by Steven T. Katz that he says provides a powerful critique of arguments in favor of crossing ritual boundaries that are based on the incomprehensibility of the Divine [“Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven T. Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 22-74)]. That is not the way I understand Katz’s position. The main point of his essay is to disprove the thesis that “all mystical experiences are the same, or reducible to a small class of phenomenological categories” (p. 40). Towards the end of the essay, he writes that “The Buddhist experience of nirvana, the Jewish of devekuth, and the Christian of unio mystica, the Sufi of fana, the Taoist of Tao are the result, at least in part, of specific conceptual influences, i.e., the ‘starting problems’ of each doctrinal, theological system” (p. 62). These “starting problems” are also what shape the rituals by which each religious tradition offers its adherents as a way to draw near to or be receptive to what the tradition holds to be of ultimate worth, but is beyond anything that we could adequately express in thought or word.
 
I personally found the essays that offered personal testimonies of and reflections on interreligious ritual participation to be the most engaging. In addition to those I have already referred to, I would include the testimony of a Jesuit priest who regularly participates in rituals at Muslim shrines in Indonesia:
 
[In my] visits to Muslim shrines, which sometimes involve a certain degree of ritual participation . . . I still pray as a Catholic, because I could not do otherwise; however, particularly at these moments, my spiritual world ceases to be the earlier familiar “Catholic” one. Instead, while maintaining all traditional “Catholic” spiritual practices and sensibility, it is becoming more “Catholic” in the original sense of the word: that is, more universal, inclusive, and expansive, without being necessarily fuzzy or indiscriminately porous.” [Albertus Bagus Laksana, “Back-and-Forth Riting: The Dynamics of Christian-Muslim Encounters in Shrine Rituals,” p. 118].
 
I also appreciated the insistence of a Hindu author that the Hindu worshipper does not make a simplistic equation of the uncreated and infinite God with a created and finite object. To refer to Hindu worship as a form of “idolatry” shows a complete misunderstanding of it. The author refers to the joint declaration of the Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit meeting that took place in Jerusalem, February 17-20, 2008, and that rejected a polytheistic, idolatrous perception of Hindu worship. It stated, “It is recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’. The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation” [Anantanand Rambachan, “Offering and Receiving Hospitality: The Meaning of Ritual Participation in the Hindu Temple, p. 134].
 
On the day I wrote this review, April 1, 2017, the Gospel text for the Mass of Saturday of the fourth week of Lent was John 7:40-53. In that passage John refers to the refusal of the Pharisees to recognize Jesus as the Messiah and their disparaging dismissal of the suggestion of one of their members, Nicodemus, that they follow the law and not condemn a man before hearing him and finding out what he is doing. The passage ends with the verse, “Then each went to his own house.”
 
I believe the reflection on this passage that appears a book of Lenten meditations—even though the reflection addresses differences and divisions within the Christian community rather than between religions—might also serve as an appropriate conclusion to this review:
 
 . . . Christians have often been divided in our interpretations and opinions of Christ. Historically, believers have again and again latched onto one or other aspect of the Christ-mystery and divided into opposing camps, each waving its flag again the others at least verbally. Sometimes, alas, such differences have bred violence.
            Conviction is important, but Christian conviction lives within a framework defined by the great commandments of love for God and neighbor. . . . it has a responsibility to three principles: first, respect for the unique inspirations and gifts of particular individuals and schools of belief; second, recognition that every set of inspirations and gifts has limitations to be owned humbly by those who hold them; and third, acceptance of the overriding reality of the Body as the one Christ embracing all this messy humanity in our very messiness and transforming us into a communion of faith in mutual honor and love.
            Apart from the larger concerns of reconciling ecumenical and interfaith differences, perhaps we as believing individuals could draw closer to living this responsibility if, unlike the parties in today’s gospel, we did not each go home to our own homes and slam the door behind us, grumbling all the while about “those others” outside. Perhaps we could instead open the doors and invite others in for a conversation in quest of mutual understanding and respect.[1]
 
And maybe even do more than engage in conversation.
 
Note
[1] Genevieve Glen, Daily reflections for Lent: Not by Bread Alone 2017 (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), pp. 68f.
 
 
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