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DIALOGUE-PURPOSE Sep-28-2005 (790 words) With photos posted Sept. 27 and 28. xxxi

Enchiladas make best milieu for interreligious dialogue, says priest

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A U.S. theologian said the best milieu for interreligious discussions with his Buddhist friends is over a hot plate of cheese enchiladas.

Father James Fredericks, professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said people often talk of interreligious dialogue as being based on big spiritual mysteries, "like the Holy Spirit or some transcendent reality, but no, the foundations of interreligious dialogue in Los Angeles are cheese enchiladas."

Sharing a meal is not only "the basis for dialogue, it's the fruit of a dialogue" that even involves the Catholic food service workers at the university's kitchens "who, in loving service, do the best job they can to cook these enchiladas for these monks from Sri Lanka," he told Catholic News Service Sept. 27.

Father Fredericks was one of dozens of experts invited to speak at a Sept. 25-28 conference marking the 40th anniversary of "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's declaration on interreligious dialogue.

The gathering, which brought together more than 350 people from more than 20 countries, was co-sponsored by Georgetown University in Washington, the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Interreligious dialogue needs to be nourished by friendship and even "playful activity without an agenda," said Anantanand Rambachan, a professor of Sanskrit at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn.

He said "interreligious dialogue is an adventure of ideas without winners and losers" and cautioned that real dialogue does not result in either "conversion or convergence."

Some speakers said that often Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are suspicious that the Christian desire to engage in dialogue is motivated by a conscious or unconscious desire to convert the other or to "correct" them in their beliefs.

One Muslim scholar said even though he had very positive experiences with Protestant missionaries in Pakistan in the early '70s, it was more or less assumed that "the dialogue going on was an instrument of evangelization."

Ghulam-Haider Aasi, professor of Islamic studies at the American Islamic College in Chicago, said even though a person could never be sure of the other's true intentions in dialogue "we must give the other the benefit of the doubt" and "not dwell on suspicions."

"We Muslims must not (shun) dialogue," whatever its underlying motivations, he said.

One Buddhist professor said the genuine aim of interreligious dialogue should not be about hammering out theological agreements at the cost of changing or compromising religious beliefs.

Asanga Tilakaratne, head of the Department of Buddhist Philosophy at the Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies in Colombo, Sri Lanka, said dialogue should seek to create an atmosphere that allows people to live and work together in genuine respect for the other's faith tradition.

"Interreligious dialogue is not meant for theologians to find a mixture or a chop suey" of doctrine or theology.

Interreligious dialogue is meant for "the people who pull in the fish nets together" and need to create or strengthen an environment of understanding and acceptance, he said.

Many speakers said interfaith dialogue should first and foremost be concerned with everyday life.

Muslims and Christians must "pull their resources together to resolve real problems and not questions about the heavens," said Father Justo Lacunza Balda, head of the Rome-based Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.

Religious leaders may get "too comfy and cozy" in their theological discussions while "the real world outside falls apart," he said.

In his address to the conference, Father Fredericks said the church should make dialogue "a ministry, a form of the church's service to the world" and "a central, pastoral activity so the church becomes what it is called to be: a sign of the unity of the human family."

The purpose of dialogue should be "to create bonds of solidarity between the church and other religious communities," he said.

Father Fredericks said Christians engaged in dialogue should be prepared to set their theologies aside during encounters with other faiths.

"We shouldn't jettison our theology, but we should see that we are seeing the other through our own theology" and that this could "interfere with our ability to hear what our partner is saying" and distort or prevent understanding of the other's beliefs, he said.

Dialogue also involves a Catholic explaining his or her faith tradition accurately and fully; speakers and participants were adamant that one should not offer a "watered down" or politically correct version of Christianity to other religious believers.

Father Fredericks said his Buddhist friends "never told him he had to give up" or "amend his theology for dialogue," but wanted to learn about what Christianity teaches.


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