This morning’s main contributors to the European Intensive Programme in Dublin, Frans Wijsen from Nijmegen and François Bousquet from Paris, seemed to present quite divergent approaches to interreligious encounters. However, it is my impression that they complement one another, and in doing so they nicely illustrate the tension between religious studies from a non-confessional viewpoint and a theological approach by a Roman Catholic theologian who claims to be such.
Frans Wijsen, referring to the example of research done on interreligious worshipping in Friesland, used Norman Fairclough‘s critical discourse analysis to provide a non-confessional academic approach to interreligious encounters. In this approach, which takes for granted that language has a performative role with regard to reality, with which it entertains a dialectical relationship, distinctions are made, on the one side, between micro (what individual people say), meso (how people relate to institutional positions) and macro (how people express interest in reproducing or changing existing societal status quo), and, on the other side, between the levels of description, interpretation and explanation. This allows researchers to study, without entering into the confessional entanglements of theologians, how people continuously, in the communication with others re-invent and re-construct identities.
François Bousquet took the very different viewpoint of a clearly declared Roman Catholic theologian, who analyses how the concept of “revelation” invites and requires debate. The Word of God, according to Luther, is both judgement (in the sense of the “unambiguous light shed upon all things”) and promise (in the sense that realities today are to be grasped from the perspective of the future). This dynamism of revelation requires a space of debate for what could be called the emergence of religion. In these conversations, that express the incarnation, the Word is exposed and vulnerable (crucified), but also salvific. F. Bousquet writes: “God is not a human superlative, but the Other who is truly other, and who is to be seen and imitated in those two areas of otherness that escape human control: other people and the future”. Christians, therefore, cannot but engage in debate and vulnerable conversations, spaces of discernment.
At first sight, both these approaches seem to be totally different and even opposed. F. Wijsen, in his studies, refuses the confessional theological approach of F. Bousquet. To me, however, the combination of both approaches appears crucial. I think F. Bousquet speaks to Roman Catholics to remind them that their faith and the expressions they give to it, are fragile and vulnerable, that they have a path through history, in which they always anew and faithful emerge. Revelation cannot be a stopword for fundamentalist understandings of religion, cannot close the debate that faith requires to discover itself. F. Bousquet speaks to Roman Catholics – and God knows that we need this voice in the Roman Catholic Church -, but in his approach there lies a hope that theologians in other religious traditions will also emphasize the importance of vulnerable debate. F. Wijsen’s approach studies, from the outside, so to say, and with a scientific method (that some would question, of course, but that I think is very valuable) the debate that arises in concrete circumstances. The critical discourse analysis will lay bare the dynamics of change in the vulnerable interreligious encounters. People, as individuals, as members of institutions and as interested parties in social and societal changes, enter into interaction with one another and re-invent the identities and the realities that characterise them. This re-invention does not need to be lack of faithfulness to one’s traditions, but it opens new windows on these traditions. And, here, I think, the theologian can learn: how do people, in these vulnerable encounters reframe their own tradition? Does this provide new insights and new contextual approaches?
I think that both F. Wijsen and F. Bousquet have to be respected in their differences. Only when these differences are maintained, can the interaction between their respective approaches come to fruition. The theologian needs the more “objective” (in the sense of non-confessional) approach to be able to recognize the otherness that is key to his or her tradition and understanding of revelation: the debate, also that between different religions, allows for the other God to appear in the otherness of other human beings and of the future of the promise. The qualities of the debate, studied through methods as critical discourse analysis, highlight the necessary vulnerability of religious traditions.
I find the interaction of both this approaches, precisely in their methodological difference, very refreshing to theologians and to Roman Catholic theologians in particular.