Theology and Aboriginal Religion: Continuing "The Wider Ecumenism"

By Starkloff, Carl F., S. J. | Theological Studies, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Theology and Aboriginal Religion: Continuing "The Wider Ecumenism"


Starkloff, Carl F., S. J., Theological Studies


THE THEOLOGY OF INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE has tended to concentrate heavily on conversation among the "world religions"--Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. In recent years, however, the voices of aboriginal or indigenous religions have entered into this dialogue. Many representatives of these communities have come to see their practices and beliefs as forms of organized religion deserving equal recognition in the dialogue, and not simply as disparate elements of spiritual experience that might be appropriated by Christianity. The present article continues this dialogue, although there is an additional tension permeating it, since in fact so many practitioners of aboriginal religion are also Christian or at least influenced by Christianity. My own position is that authentic Christianity can be a "fulfillment" of aboriginal spiritual aspirations. However, whether the discussion pertains to the separate existence of aboriginal religions or to aboriginal experience as a component of Christianity, I advocate here that Christian theologians must address and respect representatives of the aboriginal or "tribal" religions as equals in the discussion. I also propose a theological method that is grounded in aboriginal culture and tradition and levels the playing field for dialogue between "mainstream" theologians and representatives who are marginal to both church and society. Following an interpretation of the kind of "memory" required for this work, I discuss elements from Bernard Lonergan's methodology as well as a form of spiritual discipline taken from the thought of Paul Ricoeur. Finally, I propose a "symbolic theology" that might set the stage for thinkers coming out of an aboriginal thought world.

I have employed the term "wider ecumenism" in the article's title in tribute to one of the finest missiologists of the 20th century, still among us today--Eugene Hillman, C.S.Sp. Although others have used this term, it was Hillman who, in the late 1960s, examined it in detail in his book, The Wider Ecumenism. (1) He sought to develop a theology of dialogue not only with the great "world religions" but also with aboriginal religions with which he was so familiar from his years in Africa. In this early and venturesome exploration, Hillman took as his mentors Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and especially Edward Schillebeeckx. He cited the latter on the subject of "natural religion," which the great Dominican declared to be a fiction: "In the concrete all religion presupposes an at least anonymous supernatural revelation and faith." (2) Based on this understanding, Hillman's books and articles are devoted to leading Catholic theology into fresh and creative engagement with indigenous peoples. He too was attempting to level the playing field by altering power relationships. (3) In line with his pioneering work, my article elaborates a developmental methodology that will include indigenous theologians in theological conversation with mainstream theologians and with the official Church. Since most of my own context is my experience among the native peoples of North America, I beg the reader's indulgence for autobiographical references that reflect on earlier developments in methodology.

THE PROBLEM OF ETHNOGRAPHIC MEMORY

It has been remarked that hindsight is always 20-20. Certainly, it is easy to criticize the work of predecessors (as one must do), and even easier to believe (as one should never do) that the critic would have proceeded in a far more enlightened manner. Being painfully aware of this propensity, I begin my article with a critical summary mostly of my own development over a period of 35 years, leaving me free to claim that I have indeed acquired greater enlightenment during that period.

Of great value in this process is Clifford Geertz's strikingly "postmodern" reflection, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist. Written late in his career, it illustrates the confusing historical problem of critiquing past events. …

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