The Service of Faith in a Religiously Pluralistic World (part 5)

Keynote address by the Very Reverend Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus | October 3, 2006

Part 5

The forty years that have passed since these insightful words were written have only intensified their depth, relevance and challenge.
At the Thirty-fourth General Congregation in 1995, the Society of Jesus emphasized both what is good in the world’s cultures and the need for proper enculturation in the proclamation of the gospel: “Our service of the Christian faith must never disrupt the best impulses of the culture in which we work, nor can it be an alien imposition from outside… Our intuition is that the Gospel resonates with what is good in each culture.” The Congregation acknowledged past mistakes by describing how Jesuits contributed to the alienation of the very people they wanted to serve and how Jesuits failed to discover “the values, depth and transcendence of other cultures, which manifest the action of the Spirit.” However, it refused to let past mistakes forestall future efforts. Rather, its document on culture addressed the problems just mentioned in the long quotation from the “Church in the Modern World.” The Congregation stated, “The Gospel brings a prophetic challenge to every culture to remove all those things which inhibit the justice of the Kingdom.”13

Thus, it is important for all members of the university community to dialogue with one another about the cultural dimensions of your educational efforts in order to determine your response to the dominant culture of the United States. What are the best impulses of the American culture in which you work, “the values, depth and transcendence” in your own culture, which manifest the action of the Lord’s Spirit? What are those things that inhibit the justice of the Kingdom of God from being manifested to all God’s beloved daughters and sons? The same questions can be asked about various cultural entities that contribute to Xavier’s life.

The cultural contexts and the importance of dialogue become obvious in discussing a topic like diversity. Many of our unexamined assumptions and biases become evident when we begin to consider the differences that exist among us. In recent years, I understand that much ahs been said about the need for gender diversity in your faculty, your administration and your student body. We should never forget that the first pages of the Bible show the Lord bringing diversity to his creation by distinguishing day and night, land and sea; as expression of God’s richness, no one tree is the same as any other tree, no one animal a mere clone of another. In a very special way, each human person is called by its name. Unfortunately, instead of considering diversity as an expression of the infinite bounty of the Creator, we too easily use difference as a reason to hate one another. Color, gender, culture, and nationality as religion can be used to fight against one another. In the last pages of the Bible, all the differences contribute to building up the new City of God among us. Our task will be to integrate the diversities in the unifying vision of the Creator for his new heave and new earth. However, not all diversity, not all the differences come from the Creator, and these need to be overcome or eliminated. Gender and racial diversity should enrich humanity; but diversity in health condition is to be overcome; the diversity between good will and ill will should not be tolerated. The existence of great diversity in religion is a fact that is not always God-given, unlike gender and racial diversity.

As you evaluate your university’s diversity, you might ask yourselves what you accomplish with your diversity, what end you expect to attain. You strive for diversity and celebrate it with your publicity when you achieve it. However, this is only the beginning of appreciating your diversity. What structures of dialogue would help promote serious conversations that might affect the very kind of women and men you are as teachers and as students? How can dialogue of life, action, religious experience and theological exchange assist and deepen your experience as educators so that you might admit and take advantage of ethical, racial, gender and religious differences among you?

How can you take greater advantage of the rich religious resources that form part of the cultural heritage of your city? As Xavier University sees itself as the meeting place for groups in the area concerned with racial and civic justice, how can this Catholic and Jesuit university see itself as the meeting place for the religions of the area? What greater claim could Xavier have for the service of faith that to have tapped religious diversity to engage in conversation intellectually, morally and spiritually!

The service of faith in Jesuit higher education, then, helps members of the university community develop a profound understanding of and commitment to their own religious tradition. This process necessarily includes openness to and learning from other religious traditions and appreciation and critique of culture. Religious diversity and cultural values are interdependent and overlapping—not independent—dimensions of our lives. Indeed, interreligious dialogue is one of the most powerful responses to the global cultural malaise. It will take the cooperation of the world’s religions to address adequately dehumanizing cultural forces.