The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas
Friday, April 4, 2008
The Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas
The Russell Berrie Foundation
The Center for Interreligious Understanding
UNIFYING THREADS AMONG WORLD RELIGIONS:
THE COMMON GROUND IN SEARCH FOR WORLD PEACE
Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl, S.T.D.
Archbishop of Washington
Thank you for the invitation to give the Pope John Paul II Annual Lecture on Interreligious Understanding sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation in collaboration with the Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Angelicum University. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the theme of unifying threads among world religions as a common ground in search for world peace.
It is an honor for me to join this prestigious gathering at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome and to work with the Center for International Understanding. In a particular way, I want to recognize Rabbi Jack Bemporad for his gracious invitation which he thoughtfully extended in the context of a celebration we were both at honoring the interfaith work of His Eminence, Cardinal William Keeler, former Archbishop of Baltimore.
Rabbi Bemporad and I have had the opportunity over a number of years to work together on efforts to advance Jewish – Catholic understanding. During my tenure as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Pontifical North American College here in Rome, I had the honor of working with Rabbi Bemporad and the then-Rector, now Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, in the dedication of the Holocaust memorial at the College. Later, we dedicated a like memorial at Saint Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh, when I served there as Bishop.
With great affection I also reflect on my years at the Angelicum University and the great joy it is for me to be here today at this distinguished center of higher education where I was privileged both to study and to teach.
In expressing appreciation and gratitude for the work done here at the Angelicum in conjunction with the Center for International Understanding, I want to highlight that my observations will reflect my role as a pastor and teacher, and not as an expert or policy advocate. I am a member of a Church that brings a very strong history of thought and action on the moral dimensions of international issues. I hope to reflect a vision of a Universal Church with a global reach, a national voice and a local presence.
Coming out of that background, I wish to offer some reflections on a timely and perhaps challenging topic — the essential role of faith in public life and human affairs. Religion is often seen and sometimes blamed as the source of international conflict and violence — in Iraq, the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere. Faith is too often abused and misused for political, nationalistic or territorial purposes. However, it would be a terrible mistake to rule out or neglect the constructive role of faith in our national and international life.
What I am describing here could be called “pluralism with common roots.” This pluralism acknowledges and respects the realities of a world and nation made up of people of different faiths and no faith at all. Yet it does not rule out or marginalize the fundamental moral convictions written on the human heart, embedded in our human nature, taught by authentic religion and reflected in our faith traditions.
So the thesis of my brief presentation is a rather overarching one, but I believe it is vital to understanding and shaping human relations. I suggest that we consider some of the unifying threads or commonalities across world religions as a foundation for a common ground and principles that contribute to genuine pluralism in our search for better human relations and, ultimately, world peace.
I ask us to consider the fact that in every world culture, including our own, there are some basic foundational, atavistic if you will, values that are a starting point for any serious effort to express coherent public policy internally within a nation and externally in relationships with other states.
If we are able in this highly pluralistic world to identify threads of commonality and basic convictions and principles shared by each culture (and expressed in the culture of a nation state), we are in a better position to establish grounds for relationships that ultimately rest on more than temporary or immediate national interests, narrowly understood.
A starting point for our conversation this afternoon includes two thoughts:
A recognition of the reality of religious faith and its importance in molding culture, laws and, therefore, state action; and
The identification of threads of common values across world religions on which consensus can be built or common ground established.
In the history of the United States, we see an enduring and persistent experience of religion and its rightful and proper place in shaping public life in the United States.
Among the earliest European colonists to arrive in what is now the northeastern United States were the pilgrims who landed on the coast of Massachusetts. Before they left their small ship, the Mayflower, and ventured to shore to establish what would be for them a new experience in living, they reached an agreement known historically as the Mayflower Compact. In 1620 these intrepid women and men seeking a life of freedom determined that they would recognize two principles by which their freedom would be guided: the laws of God and the common good.
They began this first written articulation of a political philosophy in the English Colonies with the phrase, “In the name of God, Amen.” At the heart of this formula is an understanding that God and God’s law — however it is known — is normative for human action. In addition, the Compact acknowledges that in the application of this basic principle and its translation into positive civil law the common good would also exercise a normative function.
This theme is repeated over and over in the founding documents of our nation: We are a free people who recognize the sovereignty of God and God’s law in our personal and societal life. This assertion can be found variously expressed in a whole series of documents that include: The Fundamental Orders of 1639, which was an effort to create a written Constitution setting permanent limitations on government power; the Virginia Bill of Rights; the Declaration of Independence; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which guaranteed the inhabitants of that territory the same rights and privileges enjoyed by the citizens of the original 13 states through the colonial charters; and, most importantly, in the Constitution of the United States.
These convictions have long been a cornerstone of the American experience. They find expression in the deep-seated declaration that we have “inalienable rights” derived from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” (Declaration of Independence).
Although Thomas Jefferson’s exact position on some issues is complex and still debated, he, too, affirmed a similar insight. In A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson reaffirms that individual human rights and the rights of society rest on this same foundation. They derive moral value from the same essential reality, basic human nature. The philosopher-president tells us that “the great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader” of the human condition and cannot be read differently by the same person when he or she speaks privately versus when he or she acts publicly.
It is striking to observe how comfortable the framers of the foundational documents for the United States were with the recognition of a relationship with God as an integral part of personal and political experience. They were at home with knowledge of the existence and role of a natural moral order that necessarily made an impact on, and should guide the formulation of, civil law.
A concomitant part of the understanding of religion as foundational to the American political experience was the recognition that the basis of all human law was God’s immutable natural law.
John Locke arguably was the greatest influence on the political thinking of the American colonists. His philosophical reflections on the origin of the state, the function of government and the natural law were commonplace in the thinking of colonial leaders. In his Two Treatises on Government in 1769, Locke unknowingly produced a textbook for American revolutionaries, asserting that governments must respect the laws of nature. These laws, known as the natural moral law, are written on the heart of each person. This insight has been a foundation of our nation for more than two hundred years.
It is here that religious faith and human reason intersect. While this confluence of rational analysis and trust in revealed truth is expressed in many different ways, there is a common thread of compatibility that runs through many of these articulations. Through centuries of Christian tradition, the coalescence is stated in terms of an appreciation of our human nature understood in the light of human reason that is, at the same time, compatible with the revealed truth of our created relationship to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks not only of the foundational nature of the natural moral law but also of the commandments themselves, as privileged expressions of the natural law.
As reflective of the thesis that there are threads of common values across different religious traditions that can form a common ground for moral consensus, I want to call attention to the various ways in which the idea of a natural law is expressed with some definable convergence in both Jewish and Catholic thought. My point is that both currents of thought come out of diverse religious traditions yet still have a significant and identifiable commonality, if not in terminology and language, certainly in essence.
One of Judaism’s contributions to moral thinking, I believe, has been its anthropocentric emphasis without, however, devolving into the assertions of human wisdom alone. Jewish moral thinking, unlike that of many ancient religions, has never identified morality with a purported and arbitrary “will of the gods.” At the same time, it has not presented itself as a mere codification of human prudence. It is, instead, an expression both of God’s sovereignty and his goodness, his wisdom as well as his mercy. This has been communicated in a way that is reflective of an appreciation of both human wisdom and God’s revelation. The Book of Proverbs comes to mind in this context.
A second great contribution of Judaism in the area of moral thinking is its presumption of a created and well-ordered structure in the universe as a basis for universal moral beliefs. It is true that in Talmudic thought there is little evidence for a “natural” law as developed in Catholic thought or for any “law beyond the Law.” However, inasmuch as Judaism begins with a benevolent God who, in the ancient vision of Isaiah the prophet, is the creator and sovereign Lord and who inscribed into creation an ordered structure that is under his guidance, an argument can be made at least for a kind of “natural framework” for the Talmudic law.
Today the Catholic Church continues to understand the created cosmos as a structured and knowable reality that includes the human heart and our tendencies to do good and avoid evil. The natural law, we believe, can therefore be discerned by well-intentioned people everywhere, though it enjoys a privileged expression in the Ten Commandments which still constitute the pedagogical backdrop to the entire section on morality in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The natural law is universal and unchangeable because it is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law of God, that is, God’s wisdom directing rational creatures to their proper end in a way suited to the privileges and responsibilities of beings with intelligence and free will.
This notion of natural law remains faithful to its Jewish roots as an understanding of law that is both divinely revealed (for instance, in the Ten Commandments) as well as anthropocentric both epistemologically, able to be known by any person of good will, and teleologically, universally directed to human fulfillment and happiness. The Catholic notion of natural law, in addition, remains faithful to the Jewish insight into the hierarchically-ordered universe that is a concrete expression of God’s own intellect and goodness, and therefore a reliable foundation for the natural moral law.
If we leave aside terminology such as “natural law” which for a variety of reasons might become the focus of prolonged discussion, we can still find common ground in the concept of the compatibility of faith and human reason.
Within Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, expressed in a variety of different ways, there is no fundamental conflict between the truth of human nature as grasped through reason on the one hand, and through faith on the other. Indeed, as we are reminded by Pope Benedict XVI, reason itself must be seen as a gift from God, and not simply as a human achievement.
It is precisely because of the common ground that many of the great religious traditions share when reflecting on the inherent value of the individual human person and that person’s relationship to God that must be reflected in our societal structures, that we can speak of common unifying roots to a pluralism in individual expression. Because of this commonality in the understanding of our relationship with God and therefore with one another, expressed both in revealed truth and through the light of human reason, we can look to religious faith as a starting point and foundation on which to establish a common ground in search for world peace.
In recent decades, we have experienced a growing debate on the proper role of religious conviction in the public forum. This, in turn, impacts on the formation of public policy and, by extension, the shaping of foreign policy. In this context we can see the significance of religious conviction and the importance of determining a commonality of basic human values supported by the dominant world religious traditions in the shaping of relations between and among nations.
The past 30 years in particular have seen substantial and far-reaching changes in U.S. society which have reshaped our self-perception as a people, the understanding of our political and social institutions, and the lifestyle choices and actions of many of our neighbors.
Despite the significant forces of secularization at work, there is increasingly a realization in our country that a purely secular philosophy often is not able to provide the moral guidance we as a society so desperately need. Science and technology can provide us with the knowledge and ability to do many wonderful things. They have, in fact, extended our human capacity to accomplish things far beyond the dreams of even a generation ago. But while technology and science tell us what we can do, they do not answer the question of what we ought to do. This limitation poses key questions that this generation must face: What should we do? What should we not do? Is what we can do always what we ought to do? What new responsibilities to care for one another and our world flow from our new technological capabilities?
I fear that we are at a moment in history where we are passing from one cultural structure, where moral and ethical principles rooted in religious faith have been both accepted and seen as normative, to one that often marginalizes religious faith as nothing more than personal preference or opinion. By marginalizing faith and its contribution to forming and sustaining common moral values, our society risks weakening the ethical direction and guidance that it needs to employ our expanded human capacities with wisdom, compassion and responsibility.
Yet even as society increasingly relies on science and technology to set the norm for the evaluation of human experience and, therefore, human relations, the role of religious faith as an alternative and complementary source of perspective is being highlighted. It is almost as if the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of reliance on secular knowledge alone that there is a sensed and increasingly articulated need for a restoration of balance by a more conscious consideration of religious conviction as a motivating force of human activities.
The fundamental values espoused by many people in our nation were rooted in religious faith. Their origin can be traced to religious experience. Among these values are our understanding of the right ordering of human relations, the purpose of public policy and the foundation of basic human rights. The same can be said for other national communities formed by other religious traditions.
Within this overarching framework on faith and public life, I think that there are some unifying threads across world religions that can provide us with a common ground in our search for better human relations among nations and, therefore, greater and lasting peace. These shared human convictions, which are also grounded in antecedent religious experience, provide us with a foundation that crosses political boundaries and ultimately is rooted in the mind and heart, in the human nature of each of us.
When speaking about unifying threads or commonalities across world religions, there is a distinction which may be helpful as we begin to explore them. Some unifying threads are grounded in our human nature and others are rooted in specific religious experiences. These two sources converge and are interrelated, but they still can be considered separately in ways that preserve their distinctive character.
The starting point for much of the convergence we see in the practical forum of daily living is rooted in our common humanity or, as the Greek and Roman philosophers would say, our common human nature. Our intuition that human beings share an intrinsic dignity and fundamental equality is grounded in the essential core of who we are. This commonality has profound implications for three major dimensions of our life together, the moral, the legal and the cultural:
Moral — how we relate to one another;
Legal — how we structure our relations; and
Cultural — how we contextualize our relationships.
Across cultures we have a common need to explain and give direction to our daily experience of life. These “directives for living,” these distillations of moral and social imperatives, become starting points for interfaith dialogue and common action.
Part of the experience of life for each of us is the innate longing of the human heart that relates us to something larger, to a reality beyond ourselves. This longing draws us to the reality of transcendence, of otherness.
Perhaps the most common and visible expression of this innate recognition of the transcendent and its utter “beyond us” character is the sacred space carved out in many lives, cultures and communities in the form of synagogues, churches, chapels, mosques and prayer rooms. These sacred spaces and their artistic elements have transcendent qualities that extend us beyond our own limitations.
Concomitantly with the sense of transcendence comes the awareness of the spiritual dimension or spiritual quality of human life. Love, justice and truth express spiritual dimensions of human existence that transcend the material world.
The recognition of transcendence, transcendent values and elements of spiritual life brings me to a second unifying thread among world religions: the recognition of convergence in what each of us sees as divine revelation as well as religious teachings of individual faith communities. There are clear differences among the diverse religions of the world, yet there are also many significant commonalities. Thus, not only do we find convergence in how we try to live our lives, but we also find convergences in some very significant foundational teachings rooted in our distinctive faith identities.
Years ago, Jaroslav Pelikan, the recently deceased Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and the editor of The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, produced a six-volume series of sacred writings. His volumes contained the core of the received teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Based on his broad research and study of world religions, Professor Pelikan observed: “A modern reader who puts two or more of these sacred books side by side will repeatedly find large areas of similarity, especially in their prescriptions for the life of virtue and justice. The grounds of hope for world peace and for harmony within one neighborhood or nation lie in such similarity…”
In the great Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is the recognition of God’s intervention in time and history, and of His Word as the guide for life and as the defining measure of meaning for human experience. Within the ethics of these monotheistic communities, faith and reason work harmoniously in developing the laws of human behavior. Jews, Christians and Muslims share an important tradition that unites these two great sources of moral reflection.
Among the unifying threads that are not strictly based in human nature, but are reflected in the great world religious traditions, one can identify the following: God’s intervention in time and human history; God’s love; God’s concern for the poor and the weak; God’s redemptive power; salvation, though expressed in various forms; resurrection, also expressed differently in different traditions; and eternal life in some form. All believers are called in their different ways to live lives of faith, hope and love.
The understanding of our common humanity, the recognition of our relationship to the transcendent as a concomitant part of human existence, and the realization of the spiritual dimension or quality of human life are all unifying threads or basic commonalities among all world religions.
This is especially true of the way in which Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe that it is God’s revelation which best describes human nature and the ethics which proceed from it. To Christians, Jews and Muslims, human nature is defined by its being the very image of God. Humans are sharers in God’s life through knowing, loving and choosing freely to follow the divine will.
Consequently, the common ethics of the Abrahamic religions are based on an understanding of human nature which defines us as imitators of and co-creators with God, whose divine life is found in every one of us. In this way, much of classical Christian, Jewish and Muslim ethical teaching is centered principally on the pursuit of virtue that leads to righteousness, only thereby influencing the common good.
In short, one of the great contributions of the monotheistic religions of the West is to ground a common ethics on the dignity of the human person as an individual. Within the intellectual ferment of all three of the traditions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, there have been efforts, more or less successful in any given moment, to balance the obligations of the community with those of individuals who make up the community. History, I believe, clearly shows that when this necessary and delicate balance is lost, terrible situations can result. For example, to base the value of the individual merely upon a membership or role in a given community is to overturn a fundamental principle of Western moral and religious thought. The totalitarian societies of the twentieth century brushed aside this principle to such an extent that all individual rights were compromised.
In a recently published work, Thomas Aquinas on the Jews, Insights into his Commentary on Romans 9-11, Father Steven C. Boguslawski, O.P., underlines the historic implications, particularly for the Jewish people, that grow out of some of the emphasis in religious thought beginning in the sixteenth century. He points out that, “In the history of confessional doctrines, the concern for individual justification gradually eclipsed the corporate implications of the Christ-event (for Jews and Gentiles alike) articulated in Romans.” He goes on, “I contend that the post-Reformation emphasis on the individual’s justification by faith (subjectively experienced) coalesced with the earlier phenomenon of anti-Judaism to denigrate definitively the corporate role of the Jews and to reinforce theological supersessionism: namely, that Christian believers supercede Jews as the verus Israel” (p. 126-127).
Each of the Abrahamic faiths also demands close adherence to God’s laws, understood differently in each community, but nonetheless accepted as God’s revelation. For Jews, this means observance of the 613 “mitzvoth” or commands of the Law of Moses. For Muslims, this rests primarily on the practice of the five “pillars” or essential duties of the faithful. For Christians, right living is found in the observance of the Ten Commandments and in the constant practice of the command of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you” – an all-encompassing moral law. In all three religions, ethical laws proceed in the first place from the human nature they describe, complete with its inherent dignity and responsibility for others.
It is just such unifying threads and basic commonalities that have enabled Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the United States to work together on the seemingly intractable Arab, Israeli, Palestinian conflict. They painstakingly build common ground based upon their beliefs in the dignity of the human person that flows from being created in the image of the One God, and in justice and peace that flow from the transcendent God who is Father of all.
In the last few weeks, a remarkable development took place at the Vatican which once again confirmed how establishing a “common ground” between religious communities can positively affect the world. At the start of March, a joint team of Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders announced the formation of what is now called the “Catholic-Muslim Forum” – a shared platform for examining issues such as mutual respect between all believers and the spiritual foundations of interreligious dialogue.
First and foremost, however, both Catholic and Muslim theologians will consider how love of God and love of neighbor – central tenets for both religions – can provide our two communities with a framework and a vocabulary in which to work out the problems we face together in today’s world.
As many of you may know, it was Muslim thinkers who last October sent Christian leaders worldwide a letter entitled, “A Common Word.” In it was a simple proposal in the form of a question: Could not Christians and Muslims begin to work together for humanity’s sake by finding a common starting point in love of God and love of neighbor? A similar initiative has been taken by the Muslim community in Great Britain which has asked Jews everywhere whether a new dialogue is possible which turns ignorance about others into knowledge of them and intolerance into true understanding. Both of these projects hold a bright promise: that a shared belief in each individual as worthy of the love and respect of both Creator and fellow creatures might help to awaken the world to acknowledge our common dignity, too long denied to too many.
Even earlier, in December 2003, an unprecedented gathering of 33 national religious leaders from Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions reached a remarkable consensus on a path to a just peace in the Middle East. The path set forth 12 steps for peace: four for the United States in coordination with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — the Quartet — four for the Palestinian authorities and four for the Israelis.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that they embarked on a public campaign to make peace in the Middle East a priority of U.S. foreign policy — a campaign that continues even in today’s difficult and polarized environment. Only faith and its transcendent quality could sustain such an effort with all its challenges and discouragements.
This interfaith effort, and others like it all over the world, reminds us of the contribution that religion can and must make to weave together the common threads of the human spirit into a rich tapestry of peace with justice for all peoples in all places. Religion cannot play that role if it is confined to a strictly private sphere and relegated to the margins of public life.
In addressing the relations between Jews and Christians, we must, however, remember that they benefit from a maturity that reflects decades of conversation, discussion and reflection following the promulgation by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).
This seminal document of the Second Vatican Council recalled the great heritage common to both and encouraged “that mutual understanding and respect that is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies, of brotherly dialogues” (4).
For more than 40 years, Jews and Catholics, in an increasingly widening circle, have accepted the challenge to come to a mutual understanding and respect. One of the great fruits verifiable in our world of interreligious relationships today is the progress made in these discussions, conversations, dialogues and the resultant collaboration on a host of efforts.
There is a sense in which the Jewish-Catholic dialogues can be a model for the Catholic-Muslim conversations. While the starting points in relation to each individual tradition are different, there remain basic fundamental areas of common ground. What is required is the patience and persistence to allow for that development of mutual understanding that generates respect and eventually levels of collaboration.
As I conclude, I am reminded of one of the memorable sayings of Pope Paul VI: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Peace among peoples and peace within a country are not abstractions. A just peace is the outcome of practical human actions, personal and political, that establish an order of right relations among people.
A few years ago, Pope John Paul II took the logic of Pope Paul VI’s statement a step further: If you want justice, then work for reconciliation. We must not only seek to have the right relationships among people, but these relationships must be built upon a common ground that we can all accept. If you want peace, work for justice; if you want justice, work for reconciliation. Religion has much to contribute to this noble work.
Ultimately for a truly lasting peace among peoples, there must be a generally understood and deeply held common grounding for the complex structure of human relations at the level of national states and in the relationships among states. The understanding of what we have in common, as articulated in the various religious traditions that sustain the deepest held convictions of many, can provide substantial and fruitful ground for us in our efforts to build a world that better reflects a truly good and just society.
Thank you for the opportunity to present these few thoughts and for your very kind and gracious attention.