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Respectful Dissent: A Priest Teaches World Religions
Fr. David Endres, assistant professor of Church history at The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, wrote this essay about a class he taught at Bishop Fenwick High School in Franklin (OH) for this month’s Homiletic & Pastoral Review magazine, where it appeared as “Father, Aren’t You Afraid I’ll Become Muslim?”: The Challenge of Encountering Non-Christian Religions. The following excerpt is reproduced with permission.
When I was asked to develop and teach a course in world religions for Catholic high school seniors, I wondered about the wisdom of offering such a course and whether I could, in good conscience, teach a class on non-Christian religious traditions. “After all,” I thought, “the students don’t know their own faith well enough, why spend time on other religions?”
As I explored offering the course, I took some solace in finding that well-known writer and apologist Fr. John Hardon, SJ., had taught comparative religions at the university level and had written on the world’s major religious traditions. There were also contributions on the topic from philosopher/theologian and apologist Peter Kreeft of Boston College, and Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger.
Believing myself to be in good company with others exploring the relationship of non-Christian faiths to Christianity, I began to understand that the difficulty would not be in offering a course in world religions per se, but in finding the proper approach. My goal was to respect other religions without passively or actively communicating to my students an acceptance of ideas, traditions, and interpretations contrary to Christian revelation.
As I began teaching the course, the reason behind offering a world religions course to Catholic young adults became more apparent: to help them understand Christian Catholic distinctiveness, what separates our faith from others. By studying other traditions, we attempted to highlight the “what” and “why” of our own beliefs, growing in our appreciation of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
When we studied Islam, we delved into the passages in the Qur’an that mention Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and various other prophets and holy men and women significant to Christians. We probed the text to see what exactly these non-Christians believed about them and contrasted that with what we believe. For instance, if Jesus is viewed as a prophet within Islam, why do Catholic Christians teach that he is not a prophet, but the Son of God? If Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross, why do Catholic Christians believe that, not only did Jesus die on the cross, but that his willingness to be crucified makes salvation possible? These are among the questions that were discussed to bring greater focus to what we as Christians believe.
It is a common idea in our religiously and ethnically pluralistic society to hold that all religions are the same—that all religions either have the same basic source or the same terminus. Many say that religions are like streams which converge into one great river, or are like many paths up the mountain which join at the summit. This form of religious relativism seems to have never been stronger.
Admittedly, some students at the conclusion of my course still held to the belief that there is more in common between religions in the world than real differences. Yet, those who honestly compare Christianity with non-Christian religions must acknowledge that many of the claims made by various traditions are mutually exclusive—not all can be right, not all are fundamentally the same, not all belief is unified. Simply put, there are rival conceptions of the divine.
Photo by Kruno Knezevic for stock.xchng.
Fr. David J. Endres, former chaplain and religion teacher at Bishop Fenwick High School and currently assistant professor of Church history at The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West, where he also directs field education. He holds a doctorate from the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America, an M. Div. from the Athenaeum, and a B.A. from Xavier University.
Homiletic & Pastoral Review was the first magazine for Catholic clergy in the United States. Founded in 1900, it is now published by Ignatius Press and presents articles on Catholic teachings, morality, and pastoral practice as well as homilies, book reviews, and other stories of interest to clergy and lay people around the world.
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