O Woman, great is your faith

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O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.

Matthew 15: 28

The encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite Woman in today’s gospel draws us into the difficult and vital question of interfaith and inter-religious dialogue. Matthew’s gospel makes clear that Jesus has been sent, first, to the children of the House of Israel. And yet, it is a pagan woman who shows great faith in him. There is a place at the table of God’s Kingdom even for “the dogs.” This encounter makes clear that there is great faith possible on the part of those who are not children of Abraham, and that it is that faith that affords access to the Kingdom.

Yesterday while driving to the airport, we saw on the car ahead of us a bumper sticker which read: “My religion is kindness.” While kindness is a disposition which all of us are called to develop, it is not a religion. In a secular age such as ours, we can readily believe that religion is merely the ethical, and that any of its more transcendent claims are but illusion and prejudice. It may well be true that the distortions and perversions of the spiritual in us are what lead to many of the horrors that we inflict on each other. Yet, the solution to this abiding problem does not lie in reducing human life to its pre-transcendent capacities. This difficult story in the gospel, as well as the rather ugly prospect of the call of God to the Hebrews to take their land by force, must be allowed to discomfort and challenge us.

As St. Augustine reminded us, the human heart is terminally restless.  We can live the tension of that restlessness and its desire for truth and ultimate reality or we can choose to dissolve the tension by repressing our longing for the sacred. We can settle for kindness rather than love.

What, then, does the gospel teach us about how to encounter the strange and the foreign in the realm of religious belief. It seems to say, among other things, that we are to attend in such a way that we are open to an encounter with the “thou”, the faith of the stranger. The Canaanite Woman has a stronger faith in Jesus than those to whom he has been sent. How can we learn faith from those whose beliefs are different from ours? How is their faith manifest in the way in which they live their lives? What can we learn about the human person as spirit by the ways that persons of different religious traditions give form to their ordinary lives? How can we come to know and see Jesus more fully in the non-Christian believer?

When I was a boy, I was told, at times, by well-meaning teachers that non-Catholics could not be saved. Every day, however, I saw in my father, who was not Catholic, a person whose faith, hope, and love seemed to me to exceed that of those making this claim. Without the theology of the Second Vatican Council, I knew from experience that the love of Jesus could not be confined to one group or belief system. Yet, I also realized that I received something in the tradition in which I was being formed that my father longed for and lacked. Long before being able to reflect on it, I knew that somehow the truth of things in this regard was paradoxical. Without ever fully understanding, we are called to encounter and engage each other as bearers of the mystery of faith in all our differences.

The “question of the other” – the resistant voice that contests the movement to mastery on the part of the same – cannot be domesticated by a theoretical system. Ironically, this point is never properly addressed by a normative pluralism, which prides itself on openness to the other. Being based on a type of philosophical universalism that, however benignly, would seek out common values and essences rather than allow for the highly complex ways in which people of faith seek to identify themselves, pluralism fails to take seriously the variety of religions and the differences between them. At issue is not just the truth about the relationship between God, the world and humanity on which Christian faith takes its stand but the integrity of other religious traditions as well. While there is always a risk that theology may trespass beyond the boundaries of what can legitimately be said, the questions that people of faith put to each other deserve an honest response and serious engagement – as the framers of Nostra Aetate realized. This changes the context for doing theology – not just theology of religions. Thus, David Tracy goes so far as to say: “On strictly theological grounds, the fact of religious pluralism should enter all theological assessment and self-analysis in any tradition at the very beginning of its task.” For Tracy, the enterprise of theology in a multi-faith context demands that Christian faith be articulated as it emerges through a critical dialogue with other traditions. To invoke the language noted above, the aim is to learn how to become a learner, how to listen attentively for the Word of God wherever that Word may be spoken. In this sense, all theology, the work of religious intellect, is dialogical; it depends on an engagement with the other.

Michael Barnes, S.J., Interreligious Learning, p. 17

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