1. Transcendentalists: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, together with poet John Godfrey Saxe, 1816-1897 (whose poetry, in his own day, sold better than Hawthorne’s and Tennyson’s), best known for his poem on the Indian parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, with its sarcastic conclusion. See also Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”.
Before we start reflecting on the Transcendentalists (with the respective chapters of Syman and Goldberg — see the readings offered in my Dropbox folder), we need to examine our motivations for engaging in this study. Each participant will of course have her or his special motivations, but we all have an underlying ecclesial sense of what we are doing here, within the context of the other, more specifically theological courses offered at JST.
One principle I wish to emphasize is the dialogical nature of the Church’s relationship with other religions. For the Second Vatican Council (see the Declaration Nostra Aetate), the Church indeed relates to the religions as socio-cultural realities, and not only as individuals, either to be evangelized or to be tolerated as ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the truth of the Church’s teachings. Recent Catholic thinkers have in fact returned to this conceptual isolation of individual, other-faith persons, but this concept contradicts a theological principle: the inseparability of an individual’s faith from her/his faith community. It is not true, as I once heard a cardinal affirm, that only Muslims, as individuals, are part of God’s plan for humanity, and not Islam. It should be obvious that there would be no Muslims without Islam and no Hindus without Hinduism, etc.
Another part of the ‘reform of the reform’ in act today is the return to a diplomatic paradigm in the Church’s approach to other faiths. Since (as an eminent professor emeritus of Regensburg University has repeatedly affirmed) “there can be no inter-religious dialogue in a theological sense,” the chief use for our conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims et al. is to protect Catholic interests in those countries where the others are the majority and the Church represents a minority (often in single-digit percentages). My objection to this reduction of dialogue to diplomacy is that it ultimately secularizes the inter-faith relations of Christians with others; it also implies that the goal of the conversations is to reach some sort of compromise amenable to the interests of all concerned. The risk I see here is to hide the authentically spiritual dimensions of our own faith and the support that our faith itself (faith as spirituality) offers to our dialogic relationship with others. My question is this: do persons of other faiths want to meet with us as diplomats? And: do they not rather have every right to expect us to engage in the conversation as spiritual persons, that is, as persons who practice and intimately experience what they believe in?
The last question is especially important in our meeting with religious/spiritual persons from India or formed on the basis of the vast, spiritual culture of India, ancient and contemporary. We are also challenged to understand the motives of those who speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (motives for which, for my part, I have the deepest respect). Keep in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his own inner life in almost the same terms as our spiritual-not-religious contemporaries. Speaking again for my own part, I certainly do not want to be or even seem “religious but not spiritual”, which I think I would appear to be, were I to take the diplomatic approach to others’ faiths that is currently being promoted among Catholics.