Interreligious Friends after Nostra Aetate (Book Review) by Janice Poss

JaniceBook Title: Interreligious Friendship after Nostra Aetate
Editors: J. Fredericks and T. Tiemeier
Series Title: Interreligious Studies in Theory and Practice
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2015

“… the Jew prayed words of blessing … over his Roman Catholic friend. …Willebrands could not find … words to say to Tanenbaum at that moment. Of course, as is usually the case in friendships, words are not really necessary to express one’s deepest emotions.” – James L. Fredericks, p. 5


In 1965, at fifteen, I strategized to become a top women’s fashion designer.  I felt it accessible to me!  The Second Vatican Council’s documents had been published. Nostra Aetate was among them, I was clueless, I could have cared less about anything coming out of the Vatican –especially with a Latin title having no meaning for me — except a bejeweled embroidery that might have inspired a contemporary dress or jacket.  Nothing theological or churchy was in my purview as I exerted my independence from parental authority and had one foot out the door from being a practicing Catholic.  I had had enough of the disciplinary, androcentric, ‘Father’ God who was mean, hypercritical and presupposed that anyone practicing any religion other than Roman Catholicism was doomed forever to hell.  Salvation was not for everyone.

Nostra Aetate[i] changed all that, but I was unaware of its existence. Access to this information, we must remember, was intended for very few, meaning a primarily male clerical audience. Today any document can be accessed on the Vatican’s website.  Reading it now – despite the obviously androcentric language of fifty-one years ago – I see its value, although I was not waiting around for the Vatican to give me ‘permission’ to think pluralistically.  I already knew the goodness of my friends of other faiths.  I have always used a hermeneutic of suspicion of all authoritarian dominance as a rule of life.

Foreseeing the coming internationalism, the old-fashioned name for globalism, and a spiritual Native American influence coming out of the fashion centers of Europe, my artistic work was inspired and informed by these two concepts.  Through the art of Crow, Navajo, and Hopi, I discovered a holistic worldview — spirit embodied in all things which for me was the way to view creation — integration.  Mother Earth and Father Sky helped them work together taking what was needed, giving back what was not.  The animals and mountains breathed spirit into their cosmology which became the lens of my interreligious formation.  Through this respect for nature’s incarnation, I experienced another way of being that made more sense than the narrow, fearful, Roman Catholicism by which I had been indoctrinated.  The doctrinal, myopic understanding of God and creation gnawed at my gut; I knew there had to be more than one religious reality.

I now understand, can articulate and share that theological knowledge in the retrieval of my ‘home’ faith. Yes, I returned unconventionally through Buddhism to a Catholic world I did not know— post-Vatican II, more open, loving, intellectually stimulating and diverse than the one I had left over twenty years before. It was slightly more gender friendly, yet we know, but still has some ways to go, yet sexism is being actively addressed and that is hopeful.  I learned my faith all over again through the priests, sisters’ religious and others who became my friends, who empowered and healed my deep spiritual and psychological wounds.

bookSo for me this co-edited book is a long time in coming.  Commendably, it tells the active backstory of the process of theological thinking, collaboration and relationship that begins, develops and grows over time.  Whether we are influenced, as in Francis Clooney’s story by a text, ideas from students, or conversing with another about transformation in reading Hinduism through Indian teachers; enjoying a meal together with our ‘Sensei’ and his ‘Fujin’ in their Japanese homeland as in James Fredericks teaching parable about his encounter with Zen Buddhism through a Catholic lens; raising children, doing scholarly full-time work and wondering whether those children are getting the right message in the shared tale from Tracy Tiemeier and Mugdha Yeolekar of mixed religious backgrounds; or a back and forth between soul mates working out equal women’s roles in religion, through shared encounters with Tibetan Buddhism, Judaism or a panoply of diverse Christianity in Rosemary Radford Reuther’s  dialogue with Rita Gross; all are about acceptance of the other and an openness to be vulnerable in the wonder of difference which awakens new aspects in oneself, we understand how these special friendships are multifarious, coming in all shapes, sizes, numbers, and reasons.

The old fear of crossing boundaries into the territory of the other reminds me of three other fears which we are examining today in a healthier, relational, and authentic way: a) racism, b) gender-sexism, and c) homophobia. How can we not be friends in the world of theological studies and practices across all these borders?  How can we not live what we are all preaching?  Are we not hypocritical if the relationships we foster through common and uncommon discussion of where our faith stands and unstands :in the place of no place to stand” being unfaithful to our own traditions?  In our unstanding, we take a stand, a stand to unstand and shake the very ground(s) of our being(s) to waiver in the uncertain certainty of our suchness, as such!

As far as we have come with these stories about the encounter with the ‘other’, our neighbor, the book raises even more questions, as Clooney states.  My concern in reading these articles is the silent assumption.  The writers write from their own perceptions. How can the true voice of other be heard within pleasant, memory reflections about shared time?

For example, was Mrs. Abe a part of the carefully constructed conversations between Masao and Jim? Did she partake in them? Surely, she was not silent during these special mealtimes.  Tracy and Mugdha approach this idea better by their paper’s shared dialogue, but then the children play the silent role. What did the toddlers actually learn, were they directly asked how and what they were feeling or knowing in their experience? This might have helped their doubts.  Rosemary expressed the back and forth technique they used in formal dialogue, but what did Rita and Rosemary talk about outside of conference and paper presentation structures? Friendship is an exchange of sharing and getting to know better the other more intimately. Is it possible in a book of this nature? I wonder? Francis Clooney offers us no dialogue whatsoever; we have no idea specifically how he was changed by his encounter, other than the distance created by the Indian caste system which perhaps created another barrier and the negative response he had at studying Hinduism as a white, male Catholic priest. How have these friendships transformed the way these teachers teach?

This book demonstrates the ephemeral fragility of our relationships, the losses of Sri Ramaurthy Sastri, Masao Abe, and Rita Gross.  These losses will not be restored.  These special relationships are personal, more than personal because they were shared in time by like-minded souls searching and questing for answers around the globe from various belief systems having in common our human condition, all having human death at their end, but which each in their own way help us along the road explaining and expanding our worldviews creating a better place in hope for all human sharing in public and in private.  We are each bodhisattvas clothed in Imago/Anima Dei/Dea on the path/journey of individual sentient redemption making Nostra Aetate an integral part of religion’s solution rather than the problem.[ii]


[ii] Tracy and Jim were my professors during my early theological studies.  They formed and moved me to places I had never been. At a Buddhist/Christian Dialogue conference in 2005, I heard Jim speak for the first time and was mesmerized by our like-minded understanding of the alienation that globalization was having on culture at that time.  I went on to study comparative theology and hermeneutics with him.  Through an interreligious lens, Tracy taught me systematics. We are involved in interreligious dialogue in Los Angeles.  They are my ‘Sensei’, and my good friends. No words needed.


Janice Poss is a Ph.D. student at Claremont Graduate University in Religion and Women’s Studies, holds MA.Th. from Loyola Marymount University and BA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sits on the parish council at her church and whose interests are in theological, philosophical and spiritual aspects of religion as they are expressed aesthetically in the visual arts.

Categories: Books, Catholic Church, Friendship

Tags: , ,

7 replies

  1. Thanks for this book review, Janice. Great where you say:

    “I was not waiting around for the Vatican to give me ‘permission’ to think pluralistically. I already knew the goodness of my friends of other faiths.”

    Yes, and I’d say that’s what FAR is all about too, and why the group is so important to me. Mahatma Gandhi once said — “Truth is one, paths are many.” I totally agree!!


    • When we realize that truths are as pluralistic as ever, but there are shades of universals that can be nuanced, then we can settle into our true selves and be whole.

      Yes, FAR definitely brings us our own authority.

      I tell so many women, we name our own authority in whatever we feel in our hearts because often those are where the truths reside.

      Thanks, Sarah


  2. I remember Vatican 2 and this idea which was radical at the time, but I don’t think the church hierarchy has necessarily kept up with the world. Remember Protestant, Catholic, and Jew arm in arm against racism and the Vietnam war? That was a big break from Catholic and Protestant school children laughing at each other and in many case Jews nowhere to be seen.

    It is my view that there are philosophical views of the great patriarchal religions (who else get invited to dialogue?) that are different. Perhaps the question should be a different one: what perspectives within the traditions promote the flourishing of the world. The answer would probably be those that are this world affirming, rather than focused on another world such as heaven nirvana or whatever.


    • I wasn’t so involved in religion back then, but my wish is to open the conversation to not just the Big Three or Four, but to also the intersection of the Goddess and Wicca and every other belief system as they all have value to offer our pondering of the mysteries in so many ways that expand our own connections to them. That expansion is that flourishing and affirming of which you speak, I think.

      To me, the connections to others lead us into that understanding definitely here on earth and, I think, that counts for a lot.


  3. I was fortunate to spend my childhood years in a neighbourhood that was well mixed. The family upstairs was Jewish. Irish Catholics lived next door. And there was an exotic mixture of Protestants throughout – both Black and White. In the 1940’s, there were probably some hidden faith beliefs as well. I remember my mother going to a monthly “ladies group” and she wasn’t knitting. And she made sure I received as good an education as my brother. It seems very true that hate and divisions need to be taught to children otherwise they will see “just people”. I wonder how the generation exposed to a Donald will make out. Perhaps books like this, and teachers who appreciate the richness of diversity will counter-balance the muck being spread these days.

    Thank you for your work and thoughts on this, Janice.


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