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Theological Notebook--Michael Buckley on "Religions"

An interesting bit today from John Allen's "The Word From Rome" column on Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley on Religions:
Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley is a distinguished American Catholic theologian, and a former top theological advisor to the U.S. bishops' conference. Over the years, he has occasionally stirred controversy; his 1986 appointment to the job with the bishops' conference was challenged in light of a 1977 statement Buckley signed questioning the ban on women priests, though the bishops hired him nevertheless. Despite such hiccups, Buckley is respected and admired, even in the Vatican. Some years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger named him as the lone American theologian in a behind-closed-doors symposium on the Petrine ministry.

Buckley was in Rome this week for a pair of lectures, one at the Centro Pro Unione, and another at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University. Both revolved around the question of atheism. Cardinal James Francis Stafford, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary and a man known for the depth of his intellectual interests, attended the lecture at the Centro.

In that address, Buckley addressed the relationship between the rise of atheism in the 19th century and the scientific study of religion.

In essence, Buckley argued that by the 19th century, "religion" had come to mean something very different than it did in the medieval period for thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas. For Durkheim and Freud, "religion" was a cluster of beliefs, symbols, and rites, essentially a subset of the artifacts of human culture. Religion was a genus, of which the various "religions" -- Christianity, Hinduism, and so on -- were species.

From this point of view, "religions" are a little bit like Pepsi and Coke -- specifications of the generic category "soda." (The analogy is my own, not Buckley's). They become separate and mutually exclusive "brand names."

For Aquinas, on the other hand, the idea of "a religion" would have made no sense, Buckley said. Aquinas regarded religion not as a set of beliefs and practices, but as a moral virtue "by which one gives God what is due to God, and lives in appropriate relation to God." Symbols, hymns, rituals and doctrines are not "religion," they are the acts or objects of religion, with God as its ultimate end. This virtue of religion is universal, even if people and cultures have different ways of cultivating it.

Buckley argued that the scientific study of religion thus settled the issue in favor of atheism from its opening move. When one sees "religion" as instructive not about God but about human culture, he said, the question of God's existence is already asked and answered.

"God is either incomprehensibly absolute in his being and in his goodness and so adored in his self-communication, or God is not at all," Buckley said.

From a certain point of view, all this could seem a typical academic exercise -- fascinating, but void of practical consequence. In fact, however, Buckley ended with a provocative set of questions applying his analysis to the most hotly contested theological debate in Christianity today, which is what theological sense to make of other religions.

"Could religion -- even understood as this congeries of individual units specified by the sacred -- be a productive theological category?" he asked. "Cannot the Christ of Christianity … illumine rather than universally be set in competition with what is discovered in the scientific study of religion?"

Buckley noted that the Vatican II document Nostra aetate, on other religions, noted that over centuries the various cultures of humanity cultivated a deep religiosity. "Do Christian theologians -- precisely in their recognition both of the normative character of God's revelation in Christ, and also of the 'lives of these people with a profound religious sense' -- have nothing to learn about God from the centuries of that experience?" he asked.

"Such theological attention and inquiry could well be extended to the world religions of our own time," Buckley said. "Medieval theology could search the newly discovered books of Aristotle and Averroes and use neo-Platonic Dionysius to learn something of God. Is there nothing for us to learn about God from contemporary Islam? If in Hinduism, human beings have for millennia 'contemplated the divine mystery,' does this contemplation have nothing to say to our theology?"

Buckley said that Christ must be the "hermeneutic" for the evaluation of other religions.

"One of the deleterious effects of the study of religions," Buckley said, "has been to treat these communities and traditions of wisdom and prayer as if they were univocal species of the one genus 'religion,' mutually exclusive species among which one must make a choice, territories in competition with one another." Buckley said he wondered if in that respect, we have become victims of our language.

Then he came to his tentative, but still bold, conclusion.

"It is not at all evident that -- with appropriate modifications, but without any of the artificial harmonies that bespeak a soft relativism -- one could not fully participate both in a Catholic and in a Quaker community," Buckley said, "nor even confess oneself a Christian who has also assimilated much of the teachings of early Buddhism."

Buckley said this is not an "unreasonable hypothesis," noting there already are, for example, Jesuit Zen Buddhists. At the same time, he said, it's not a matter of "anything goes," and that what's needed is serious Christian reflection rather than a "sloppy relativism."

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