By AGNES MARTINKO
"People of faith can and should allow that faith to enter their contributions about issues of public concern," said the Rev. John I. Jenkins in his lecture, "Revelation, Tradition and Progress," a segment in the "Belief in America" series at Chautauqua Institution.
The president of the University of Notre Dame explained that at the pulpit, speaking to one's own congregation, a priest is trying to articulate a common shared faith. But, outside of the church, a person should realize that not everyone shares those beliefs and feelings.
If a person is participating in public debate, Father Jenkins said, that person must be clear to his- or herself about the authority from which he or she is speaking. If it is divine revelation, the fact that not all listeners might subscribe to this idea must be recognized.
The Christian faith, Father Jenkins said, has been handed down from God's revelation in the person of Jesus. There is "Tradition" -- the preaching, examples and institutions that came from Jesus Christ through the apostles and have been passed on in Christian communities.
Then there is tradition (lower case) that reflects the various practices, examples, institutions and writings that come from the lives of Christians throughout the ages.
What to do
If a person wishes, in a public debate, to make claims arising from a faith tradition, it is incumbent on that person to make clear the basis of the claim. If the basis is faith alone, it may be a reason for that person to act, but not necessarily for others. It is most important that respect is shown for others who don't share that particular faith tradition and that they are not demonized.
Prominent and contentious debates in America sometimes touch on religious belief. Religion plays a role in framing issues and influencing people's views, he said.
"The contributions of religious faith have been enormously positive. However, it is sometimes harnessed for destructive purposes, divisiveness, narrow-mindedness and bigotry, but it has been salutary in the recognition of the dignity of individuals, in curbing violence, and in ending the exploitation of the vulnerable," Father Jenkins said.
It is not just those with faith who can make constructive contributions. Through engagement with the wider culture and grappling with difficult issues, the tradition itself gains a better understanding of the message it proclaims, he said.
"When we pass on our faith, we do not pass it on in the way we received it," he said. "We have digested it and applied it to new uses."
Father Jenkins said, "Those of religious faith have a positive contribution to make if they have confidence in their convictions and show respect for those who do not share them. And if they have faith in the gospel message but have humility in their understanding of it, they can play a critical role in the world."
Father Jenkins, third-oldest in a family of 12 siblings, attended a Jesuit high school in Nebraska. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Notre Dame, where he focused his studies on ancient and medieval philosophy. He now teaches these subjects, as well as the philosophy of religion, at the university.
After graduating, he earned a master of divinity degree and licentiate in sacred theology from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. Father Jenkins also holds two degrees in philosophy from Oxford University.
Father Jenkins was the religious superior of the Holy Cross priests and brothers at Notre Dame for three years and then was elected vice president and associate provost of the university. He became its l7th president in April 2004.
In a morning devotional service at the amphitheater at Chautauqua, the Rev. Dr. Donald B. Cozzens, former rector of St. Mary's Seminary in Cleveland and now visiting professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland, spoke. Father Cozzens discussed the differences between the words "faith" and "belief."
"Beliefs are our attempts to name and share our faith experiences," he said. "They are the source of our religious identity but remain limited and culturally conditioned."
To better unite "faith" and "belief," Father Cozzens recommended substituting the word trust for believe when saying the creed. "Faith is fundamentally a graced relationship with God, with our world and with each other," he said.
Father Cozzens quoted American philosopher William James: "There is an unseen order, and our supreme good is to be found in living in harmony with this order."
Father Cozzens continued, "Faith implies humility, respect and reverence of heart. It implies that we admit and embrace our finitude, our human limitations and our profound connectedness in the midst of our profound diversity.
"Authentic faith," Father Cozzens added, "always unites rather than divides. No one people, no one nation, no one religion can, alone, further the reign of God in history."
The Rev. David McBriar, ecumenical officer of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., spoke at another gathering at the Methodist house. He talked about his wide experience in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. He said he thought that it was a positive sign that another Abrahamic group took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, and it ran during the "Belief in America" sessions. The ad was sponsored by TIKKUN: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, the Network of Spiritual Progressives and The Shalom Center.
Father McBriar talked about the ecumenical progress that has happened over the past 50 years and especially under Pope John Paul II. McBriar said he believed that true dialogue respects the truth of the other, which he calls the "sacrament of otherness."
"We must maintain our diverse truths," he said, "for to dissolve into one would be banality."