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Dialogue and hospitality

DeVan Ard | Thursday, December 2, 2010

Last week these pages included coverage of the “Contending Modernities” research initiative and its opening conference in New York. But the conversation that “began” there is hardly new to Notre Dame. The address given by Fr. Jenkins was part of a longer contribution to interreligious scholarship and dialogue led by another Notre Dame theologian, Fr. David Burrell. A self-described “Mediterranean person,” Fr. Burrell is an emeritus Professor in Theology and Philosophy, and he served at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem for over 25 years. He was recently the central figure of a small colloquium held in the Catholic center at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL.

Over a year ago, before I came to Notre Dame, I had been told to meet Fr. Burrell. My flight into Chicago from home made the quick jaunt to Evanston easy, so I dropped by the colloquium. It was organized by Garrett Methodist seminary, and it allowed any interested to listen as Burrell shared his thoughts on the foundations of interfaith dialogue. In conversation with him were a professor of Jewish philosophy from Northwestern and an Islamicist from Loyola Chicago. Their discussion was thoughtful and serious, but the terrain was well-trod — medieval discussions of creation, differing conceptions of the Messiah and views of post-secularity (post-Christianity?)

Fr. Burrell is a warm and gregarious man with a seemingly endless reserve of stories from his work across the globe: Jerusalem, Bangladesh, and Uganda are just three of the places I remember. A brief personal statement at the beginning of the colloquium’s bulletin narrates the development of the “triadic” thinking (Christian-Muslim-Jew) from his earlier focus on Christian-Jewish exchange. It charts a course through Rome, Cairo and South Bend. Burrell, as a world-class intellectual and Holy Cross priest, troubles the old distinction between experience and textual authority (see Chaucer’s Wife of Bath). So the colloquium was instructive, as a fellow Notre Dame student pointed out, not only because of what he had to say, but how he said it; how, after a long history of interaction with Muslims and Jews, one speaks to another faith.

I came away with no solutions, and there are always limitations to such discussions. But if my time listening and talking to Fr. Burrell taught me anything, it is the need for unceasing hospitality. I see continuities between Burrell and another priest, Louis Massignon. Also an active scholar, Massignon established a mission to Muslim Egypt in the early 20th century that exemplified the welcoming-without-knowing essential to radical hospitality. Massignon was instrumental in the writing of Nostra Aetate, which gives shape to the Church’s interaction with other faiths. This kind of hospitality, which cannot anticipate because it does not fully know, also marks the season of Advent just begun. We celebrate the coming of a Messiah strange and, perhaps, unthinkable. But such hospitality can only be cultivated with long and intentional engagement. So may the research initiatives begin anew even as we recognize the history of dialogue and hospitality here at Notre Dame.

 

DeVan Ard is a graduate student in theology. He can be reached at dard@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.