David B. Burrell: Crucible of friendships

When Christians, Muslims and Jews talk together, they discover that it’s less important that their faiths are different than that they are all people of faith, says David B. Burrell.

The Rev. David B. Burrell is professor of ethics and development at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi, Uganda. He is also Hesburgh Professor Emeritus in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, where he has served on the faculty since 1964. He became a Holy Cross religious in 1955, and in 1965 received his doctoral degree from Yale. He was ordained a priest in 1969.

David BurrellHis published works include “Aquinas: God & Action;” “Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas;” “The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God,” translated and annotated, with Nazih Daher; “Friendship & Ways to Truth;” and “Deconstructing Theodicy.”

In an interview with Faith & Leadership, Burrell talks about Notre Dame’s legendary president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and other leaders with whom he has worked, and his experiences “cross-hatching” friendships among Christians, Muslims and Jews. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: You have known the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh for many years, and held the Hesburgh Chair of Philosophy and Theology at Notre Dame. How would you describe his leadership style?

Father Hesburgh is an intelligent, intuitive person who takes every opportunity to learn something from the person to whom he’s speaking. That’s the key to good leadership. Not that you have something to give, but you have something to gain from the people you meet.

When entertaining people as president of Notre Dame University, he always managed to get a seat next to a distinguished dignitary and find out what that person was doing. He would not tell the person what he, Father Hesburgh, was doing. He’d find out what the person was doing. “Oh, you’re a nuclear physicist? What’s the most important issue in nuclear physics these days?” Ted has a mind that is always searching and sifting.

Second, Father Hesburgh is always a priest. He never stopped being a priest in whatever he did. He is always concerned about the life of the people with whom he is working. He tells a story of the early days of the Commission on Civil Rights. Northerners and Southerners were meeting at a location in the South; they were making no progress whatsoever. Father Hesburgh looked around the room and said, “How many fishermen are here?” All the hands went up. He said, “We have a place up in northern Minnesota. I’ll get the university plane; we’re going up there tomorrow.” The Southerners and Northerners got together on this [civil rights issue] because they were all fisherman. Father Hesburgh had that gift.

He also recognized that Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., was not exactly the center of the universe. In his early days [as president] he was much criticized for always being elsewhere. He probably spent more time in New York than he did in South Bend. Notre Dame was largely known for football. As president of the university, he knew that to make an academic reputation he had to be in various places.

Q: What is your take on Pope Benedict’s leadership?

When Pope Benedict visited the United States, the Holy Land and West Africa, he made a wonderful impression. There are a lot of things he isn’t, but what he is he is, and he’s upfront with it. You know? Pope Benedict is not a good organizer. He obviously is not well-served by his staff. He has made gaffes with Muslims and Jews, most recently in his appointments of people who denied the Holocaust, for God’s sake. That was bad staff work. He should have enough sense to recognize that he has to amass a good staff.

To me, Pope Benedict has been given to the church so that we will realize that the next Pope cannot be Eurocentric. He might come from Europe, but he can’t be Eurocentric. The future is in the church in Africa and South America.

Q: You studied under the Rev. Bernard Lonergan, the Jesuit philosopher and theologian, in Rome. What did you learn from him about how to teach and to lead?

He used to divide the world between those who seek understanding and those who require certitude. Fundamentalists need certitude, right?

His point was that we all need certitude, but you’re going to get certitude much better if you’re searching for understanding than if you’re only holding onto what’s there.

Q: Talk about your experiences with leadership as department chair at Notre Dame.

I’ve compared it to washing dishes. In academe, people have their own things to do; they’re going to be reluctant to assume [additional] responsibilities. One of the things [leadership can do] to help is to make a clean shop for their work.

There are issues of vision with leadership, as well. You have to convey to people by your own person and by your own writings that you are breaking new ground.

Q: How does being a member of an order, such as the Congregation of Holy Cross, shape leadership?

That’s a very good question, because conflict is one of the things that people in administrative positions deal with all the time. A religious community is like a family in this regard. Our founder was very oriented toward Holy Cross being a family of men and women, priests, brothers and sisters. You learn to live with one another even though you disagree with one another. Agreement is not necessary; respect for others’ opinions is necessary.

Right after graduate school, I came back to Notre Dame to teach and was deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. A number of the members of my religious community were not very happy about that, but they never tried to interfere. They respected that it was my thing to do. We do that in a religious community.

Q: Why do you think people today find it so difficult to disagree respectfully with one another?

My theory is that it’s only your friends that you can disagree with and still continue to walk with. A religious community is a crucible of friendships. The cross-hatching of friendships.

Q: In recent years, your work has primarily been in Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations; how does one explore what it means to be a faithful member of one religion in relationship with others?

You have to trust that the Holy Spirit is leading you. Jesus says at one point: They’re going to challenge you. They’re going to test you, but don’t worry about what you’re going to say because that will be given to you by the Holy Spirit. You have to be confirmed in your own faith, but you also have to see that there are places where your faith and tradition are missing the ball. Maybe you can gain something from befriending people in other traditions.

The interfaith thing was a huge opening for me, an opening to a whole world. Very definitely.

Q: What hope do you see for friendship between Christianity and Islam?

The Muslim scholars that came up with the “A Common Word” document remind us that if you add up Muslims and Christians you have more than half the population of the world. We’d better get our act together or we won’t have peace.

Here’s how I picture it happening. You’re an American or European family with small children. A Muslim family moves in next door. They have small children. Each family is concerned about how they will raise their children in the faith in a permissive society. Everybody’s concerned about that. You realize that you and the Muslim family can collaborate on this. It becomes less important that your faiths are different than that you’re both people of faith. That’s how I think it really works.

Q: You have lived among Jews and Muslims in places like India, Jerusalem and Cairo. How has that affected your view of the world?

It always expands your horizons; you can no longer have stereotypes of the other people. Most of the time when we meet a stereotype, it evaporates. Some people say we come to realize how much others are like us. That’s true, but we also realize how important it is that they’re different from us. Similarity and difference make the world go around, after all, both similarity and difference.

When I went to Bangladesh, I was stunned with the palpable sense of the presence of God that I found in ordinary people. How does that express itself? [People say,] “We’re going to have lunch tomorrow, Insha’Allah -- God-willing.” You meet the same thing in the west of Ireland; it’s not just a Muslim thing, it’s also a Christian thing.

Muslims as a group are immensely hospitable. You tend to notice characteristic virtues in other people. You have to ask yourself, why aren’t we that hospitable? Jesus says, you know, whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. You want to imitate the people whom you admire, right?

Q: You’ve suggested that interfaith dialogue has been going on for a thousand years and that Thomas Aquinas was shaped by interfaith dialogue, and introduced you to the subject. How so?

I (originally) studied him as a philosopher and theologian from a western perspective, and I get to Jerusalem and I realize, my God, you know, this guy cites Jewish and Muslim thinkers to get his position clear. So it came to me living in the Mediterranean world where there was so much exchange in Aquinas’ time.

Q: Could you talk about the inadequacy of two-party discussions?

Well, dialogue is fundamentally conversation. You can’t converse with the wall, you know? You don’t talk about Jewish-Christian, Muslim-Christian dialogue as though it is between the religions, for God’s sake. It’s between people, always.

Q: You have commented that anytime you start to say the Christians or the Muslims, you’re in trouble.

Absolutely. You have to use the indefinite plural. When we try to use gender-inclusive language, we teach the students to say not “the teacher, he or she,” but “the teacher, they.” The indefinite plural does a good job for you. It contains a lot of difference inside it. You say Muslims do this? Well, which Muslims?

Q: Why is two-party discussion always inadequate?

Bipolar relationships tend to get stuck on things. In marriage, when another conversation partner comes in you find yourself telling your spouse things you haven’t told her without that third party present. A third party coming in is that kind of catalyst.

Q: How has your preference for three-party discussions influenced your work?

It started with Jewish and Christian stuff I got into, because Jews are the most obvious “other” in the Christian world. I began to have an intimation that we were circling around the same issues. As the politics and the state of Israel got worse and worse, Jewish-Christian dialogue degenerated to talking about everything but the elephant in the living room. That’s no fun. When you bring in a Muslim intercessor, it challenges each of you to be honest with each other.

Q: What can theologians and pastors bring to large questions, like how to have peace in the Middle East?

In this area, we do the same things that we do as pastors all the time. You don’t like that person? Well, why don’t you like that person? Haven’t you thought that this is a child of God? Maybe that person has something decent to say to you. You’re always trying to break down people’s stereotypical fears. That’s what we always do, that’s it.