Faith in Jesus motivates me to seek respectful, harmonious relations with followers of other religious traditions
Leo D Lefebure tells Victor Edwin SJ
Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. He is a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of numerous works, including most recently, True and Holy: Christian Scripture and Other Religions (Orbis Books 2013). He is the co-author of The Path of Wisdom: A Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada, which received the 2011 Frederick J. Streng Book of the Year Award from the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies of North America. He is also the author of The Buddha and the Christ and of Revelation, the Religions, and Violence, which received the Pax Christi U.S.A. 2001 Book Award and which was translated into Indonesian and published in Jakarta. He is an Honorary Research Fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a Trustee Emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. He was a participant in the Catholic-Muslims Dialogues in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic Regions of the United States, as well as numerous other dialogues with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. He was in Delhi recently on the invitation of Islamic Studies Association. He spoke to Victor Edwin SJ for Salaam. Here are the excerpts…
Edwin: This is your third trip to Delhi. You have travelled to a number of places, visited different religious institutions, and met people of different religious convictions. This is the first time you have addressed the students of Jamia Millia Islamia. What are your memorable experience with the student community and the faculty?
Leo: This was my fourth trip to India and my third trip to Delhi. I was most impressed by the interest of the students of Jamia Millia Islamia in interreligious concerns. For each of my talks, the room was packed, extra chairs were brought in, and there were still students standing. Each time the students listened very attentively. The most memorable experience was with one particular male student who was very assertive. After my first talk, this student claimed that until the Renaissance people believed that scriptures were revealed by God; beginning with the Renaissance, he claimed, people thought religions came merely from human evolution. I responded that this secular perspective became influential only after the Renaissance, during the European Enlightenment, especially in thinkers such as David Hume. I tried to explain that it is not universally held by contemporary scholars of religion. Nonetheless, before my second talk, the same student approached me and asserted once again the same claim as if he had not heard my earlier response. After my second talk, the student questioned Dr. Wasey about my citing the word “Saracen,” which had been used in earlier Catholic documents regarding Muslims but which is no longer used. Dr. Wasey told the student that he had misunderstood me, that my remarks were objective, and that every Muslim student present was privileged to have heard my remarks. I was very moved by Dr. Wasey’s endorsement of my remarks.
Edwin: How did they respond to the idea of dialogue?
Leo: For the most part, the students did not respond to the idea of dialogue. My first talk was on methods in the comparative study of religion, including both religious studies, comparative theology, and theology of religions. Most questions involved methodology in the academic study of religion. My second talk was on changes in Catholic attitudes brought about principally by Pope Paul VI. Most questions after the second talk were not from students but the conference attendees and faculty members. The same assertive student approached me after my second talk, prepared to continue challenging me. A young Muslim woman came up and cut him off, telling me at length how much she enjoyed my talk and apologizing for other Muslims who were critical of me; the young man listened in silence and then walked away.
Edwin: What could be the special contribution of India to Christian Muslim dialogue in the larger world context, in your assessment?
Leo: The greatest contribution that India could make would be to promote reconciliation between India and Pakistan and to help resolve the situation in Kashmir. This would have world-wide repercussions and would be a marvelous model of dialogue and inspiration to others.
Edwin: Coming to your academic expertise ... you are a trained theologian in the area of Catholic-Buddhist dialogue. What led you to enter into the world of Islam and reflect on Christian Muslim relations?
Leo: In the late 1990s a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops invited me to be a resource person for the Midwest Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims. I was already involved in this dialogue and was teaching at Fordham University in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. After the tragic attacks, I gave numerous talks on Islam to audiences in the New York metropolitan area and participated in a number of dialogues with Muslims. I also joined the Mid-Atlantic Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims, presenting papers on violence in the Bible and the Christian tradition to both the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic dialogue. Then during the 2007-08 academic year, I taught a Muslim-majority student body at the campus of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar.
Edwin: What are your dialogical activities with Hizmet Movement and Rumi Forum?
Leo: The Rumi Forum, which represents the Hizmet Movement in the Washington, DC, area, used to participate in dialogue at Georgetown University. I was a regular participant in this dialogue, where I got to know a number of the leaders of the Rumi Forum. I have spoken at the Rumi Forum, attended functions that they have sponsored, and witnessed the whirling dervishes dancing both in a room of the U.S. Congress and in a synagogue in Washington, DC. In my travels, I have lectured at Fatih University in the western suburbs of Istanbul, and I have met Hizmet representatives in Melbourne, Australia, in Kiev, Ukraine, in Kolkata, and in Delhi. I am not currently involved in a formal dialogue with Hizmet, but I have informal contacts on a regular basis.
Edwin: What motivates sustains and energizes you for the mission of dialogue?
Leo: My faith in Jesus Christ motivates me to seek respectful, harmonious relations with followers of other religious traditions. Tragically, religious traditions all too often are in conflict in many regions of the present world, and many Americans harbor negative views of other religious traditions, especially Islam. I find energy and support from the many wonderful colleagues whom I have met in interreligioius activities.
Edwin: You are a professor of theology and religions in the Jesuit-run Georgetown University. How does your university promote Christian Muslim dialogue?
Leo: Georgetown University is one of the leading schools in the U.S. for studies of Islam and Arab Studies. Georgetown has a School of Foreign Service, which addresses Muslim-Christian issues through the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Georgtown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs has a unit that studies Islam and Politics. Georgetown is the home of the Building Bridges to Solidarity project, which was founded by a former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. Georgetown is also the home in North America for A Common Word between Us and You, a leading Muslim initiative in Muslim-Christian relations.
Edwin: You are a Emeritus trustee of A World Parliament of Religions. How does this institution promote dialogue in the world?
Leo: The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions organizes the largest world-wide interreligious gatherings, which met in Chicago in 1993, in Capetown, South Africa in 1999, in Barcelona in 2004, and in Melbourne, Australia in 2009. CPWR also sponsors ongoing contacts among persons interested in interreligious activities and in nonviolent conflict transformation: https://www.parliamentofreligions.org
Edwin: As a Catholic believer what have you learnt from 'dialogue with people of other religions and people who do not subscribe to any specific religion'?
Leo: I have long been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue, where I have learned much about the Jewish roots of Christian faith and also much about the tragic history of Christian anti-Judaism and the necessity of transforming Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. Changes in this relationship have important ramifications for every other interreligious relation. I have learned much about Buddhist perspectives and meditation practices, which have greatly enriched my life as a Catholic. I am now involved in a Christian-Vaishnava dialogue, where I am learning more about this strand of the Hindu tradition. I have not been involved in formal dialogues with people who do not subscribe to any specific religion, but I have learned much from the writings of thoughtful non-believers.