Nostra Aetate: Beyond Interfaith Dialogue to Interfaith Collaboration
by James Buchanan, Executive Director
Xavier University, The Brueggeman Center for Dialogue
In 2015 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. This is not only one of the foundational documents of the post Vatican II Catholic Church but of all interfaith relations. In fact, it is considered by many as the most significant interfaith document ever written. Nostra Aetate was a paradigm shift for the Catholic Church which has become a paradigm shift for all of the religions because it paved the way for 50 years of interfaith dialogue. The document itself is disarmingly simple. It consists of five short sections which together total only 1054 words. But it is 1054 words that would slowly but surely begin to change the course of the Church, of the interfaith world, and of our local communities. It opens with the following statement: “In our time, when day by day mankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the Church examines more closely her relationship to non-Christian religions. In her task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship.” What we have in common religiously are the deep questions about life: “What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”
Theologically within a generation a multitude of interfaith dialogues had emerged around the world. Christian-Jewish, Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Muslim, Christian-Hindu, and Christian-Confucian dialogues became the one of the new directions for theological reflection. A new generation of scholars such as Mircea Eliade, Huston Smith, Willian Cantwell Smith and others became influential as History of Religions and the study of Comparative Religions emerged as serious disciplines in our universities. Writers such as Paul Knitter, Raimon Pannikar, David Tracy and others began to incorporate interfaith dialogue into their theological work. Institutions such as the Center for the Study of the World’s Religions and the Pluralism Project emerged with a new emphasis upon interfaith dialogue and understanding. National and global organizations such as the Council on Christian Jewish Relations, the International Council on Christians and Jews, The Parliament of the World’s Religions and many others now bring together thousands of leaders from the world’s religions to foster dialogue and understanding. Important documents such as Dabru Emet and A Common Word are calling the other Abrahamic traditions to dialogue in new ways. Interfaith dialogue and understanding is now an integral part of much of the theological education worldwide and is present in a variety of ways and forms in many of our communities. All of these and more trace back directly or indirectly to Nostra Aetate.
The challenge that Nostra Aetate presents in our time is that we build on the fifty years of dialogue with a shift to yet another new paradigm. It is critical that we, not only as faith communities, but as interfaith communities begin to work together to systemically change the fragmented, dis-integrating fabric of the communities we share. It is critical that the faith communities work together to provide a new interconnective tissue that binds us together and begin to shape a common good that challenges the forces of individualism, hyper-consumption, environmental degradation and social and economic inequity that plague our communities. The new paradigm is one that builds on dialogue but moves to actual, fully engaged interfaith collaboration. Interfaith collaboration can become a new and powerful form of social capital that works to transform our communities in ways that working as individual faith communities we would never be able to achieve. We need to provide a new foundation that can become the “guiding hand” that renews our communities. The challenge of the next 50 years is that we move beyond interfaith dialogue to interfaith collaboration.
Dialogue is and always will be the foundation upon which we must build community. Religiously, the hard truth is that no matter how long we continue engaging in interfaith dialogue we will never settle issues of covenant and new covenant, succession of prophets, trinity, soteriology, monotheism and polytheism, birth and rebirth and so on. Does that mean we should not continue to engage in dialogue? Of course not. We need to not only continue but to deepen our understanding and acceptance of the other.
There are so many issues in our communities about which we agree and which need our combined effort to address. There is strength in numbers and there is strength in people of faith who can overcome their theological differences to work for a common good. All of our faith communities are touched by issues such as the struggles of the refugee and asylee population among us. We are all touched by the bigotry of Islamophobia highlighted in a previous issue of the InterfaithCincy newsletter. We are all touched by the social and economic inequity that continues to spread among our marginalized communities like an epidemic. We are all touched by the environmental challenges which, while impacting our lives, will have dramatically more dire impacts on the lives of our children.
We have more issues in common and more values in common than those things that divide and separate us. Our hope for this website and the projects that it might help to spawn is that it will enable us to build on the existing dialogue and collaboration such that the interfaith community might become a foundational part of the social capital that shapes our future. Regional organizations such as the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati and the AMOS project have led the way but the challenges that face our region far exceed their ability to address. Cincinnati is uniquely positioned to become a model city in terms of interfaith collaboration. We have vibrant faith communities and we have faith-based universities and colleges all of whom are poised to work together toward a greater common good.
Dialogue in itself is not sufficient. Celebration as a form of acceptance of the other is not sufficient. Civility and tolerance in-themselves are not sufficient. We can only truly test the strength of dialogue and build upon it through the hard work of interfaith collaboration