Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue

Article excerpt

Given the intrusive fact of religious diversity today, Christian believers not only need to account for diversity theologically, but they also need to address this diversity creatively and responsibly in their own lives. In doing so, Christians will need to cultivate within themselves personal qualities that in the past have not been recognized as valuable and, in fact, may even have been seen as vices. Recent work in the area of virtue theory may prove helpful in addressing this challenge. Virtue theory provides a language for talking about what is of vital importance in our lives. It is especially useful for discerning the role that character plays in equipping us to deal with life's challenges and promoting human flourishing.

The focus of this essay is not virtue theory as such. It will, instead, seek to reflect on a topic that has received scant, if any, attention: the role of virtues in helping us to live creatively and responsibly with people whose religious view of the world is significantly different from our own. Neither will this essay address the important problem of comparative approaches to the virtues.(1) Instead, it will draw attention to our need to identify and cultivate virtues that equip us for living well in a world where people of differing religious outlooks increasingly find themselves neighbors.

More specifically, the essay inquires into virtues that can be especially beneficial to Christian believers in an environment of religious pluralism. Instead of offering a new interpretation of an existing virtue (such as tolerance, whose value in regard to religious diversity has already been recognized), I want to identify what I believe to be a new virtue: interreligious friendship. Friendships that reach across the boundaries of doctrine, experience, and value that separate religions should rightly be recognized as virtuous for Christian believers today. Those who follow religious paths other than my own may, in fact, agree with me that interreligious friendships should be extolled as virtuous. However, these religious believers may have very different ways of thinking about virtues and about friendship. Conversely, non-Christians may decide that friendships with believers other than their co-religionists are not virtuous at all.

I. Virtues

Over approximately the past fifteen years, ethics and moral theology have undergone a renaissance driven by the rediscovery of the centrality of an ethics of virtue as distinct from the quandary ethics that has been the legacy of the European Enlightenment.(2) Quandary ethics is concerned with justifying acts either by rules or by consequences, while generally remaining unconcerned with the character of the moral agent and the nature of human happiness. The Roman Catholic manualists shared in this modern eclipse of the virtues by departing from the legacy of Aristotle and Aquinas and treating virtues as sources of obligations rather than resources for living well. The return to virtue ethics has shifted attention from rules, consequences, duties, and obligations to a concern for the cultivation of human character as it contributes to the flourishing of human life.(3)

Most figures who are prominent in the discussion of virtue theory would agree with Lee Yearley's definition of a virtue as "a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment and leads to a recognizable human excellence, an instance of human flourishing."(4) In keeping with this definition, a virtue should be thought of as a "recognizable human excellence." Any inquiry into the nature and import of the virtues necessarily leads us into the arena of human character and its contribution to the realization of what is of value in life. Therefore, virtues should not be confused with emotional states that pass away quickly. The virtues are enduring elements of what constitutes us as specific individuals. Beyond these brief statements, I would like to underscore three other important aspects of the virtues. …

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