The Gathering at Assisi

Francis X. Clooney, SJ on the meeting. Austin Ivereigh wrote a series of posts on the inter-religious gathering at America’s In all Things blog.

Benedict’s speech is here. As Clooney writes, Benedict is insistent that in spite of the use of religious language and motivation to support and rationalize violence, especially terrorism, religion is a force for peace. Benedict said,

The fact that, in the case we are considering here, religion really does motivate violence should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons. In a way that is more subtle but no less cruel, we also see religion as the cause of violence when force is used by the defenders of one religion against others.

These are important words given the tendency by adherents of many religions, Christians, Muslims, Jews, among them, to deny their religion’s complicity in violence.

Perhaps most interesting was the inclusion in this third Assisi meeting of nonbelievers, agnostics. Benedict said of their presence:

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.

Clooney raises several questions about the meeting. First, he is critical that the group did not pray together in any way. As he writes:

as spiritual seekers will also insist, the path cannot be traveled if praying-together be entirely ruled out (as seems to have been the case in Assisi 2011). Our crises are spiritual as well as intellectual, and even on intellectual grounds, deeper truths can sometimes be glimpsed only through spiritual windows, when they are open. How we can best pray together across religious borders – differently with different believers, one might guess – is open to study and discernment, but the answer is not “pray by yourself.” It is not enough to take the train together (from Rome to Assisi) or to give or listen to speeches in the same place. Pray together we must.