At the American Academy of Religion meeting last week, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies sponsored a panel honoring the work of Jim Fredericks, pioneer in Buddhist-Christian dialogue and all-around wonderful human being. After several papers were presented, discussing various aspects of his long career, Dr. Fredericks stood up to offer a response.
He took a moment before speaking, and then he said simply, “Aren’t we lucky?” “Aren’t we lucky?” I admit, my first reaction was to think, “What are you talking about?!” This was just a little over a week since the election, and I was still processing the Trump victory—and I wasn’t feeling at all “lucky” about what that is going to mean for our country. How could Fredericks stand up in front of us and call us “lucky”?
He went on, of course, and explained himself. We are so very lucky, he said, that we live at a time when the kind of deep engagement the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies promotes is not only welcome but encouraged by most mainline Churches. Fredericks is a Catholic priest, and he remembers a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church that was, in large measure, suspicious of interreligious engagement and hostile to it—and certainly closed to the possibility that Christianity might have something to learn from other religious traditions about God and God’s relationship to the world.
One of the main themes of Fredericks’ work is interreligious friendship—and this is something he not only writes about, but lives; and he has deep respect for his Buddhist colleagues and friends with whom he has spent so much time in conversation over the past decades. I think it was in this spirit that a little later on in his response he said, “We should do this work with so much joy, such joy.” And the authenticity with which he spoke was palpable. When you approach interreligious dialogue from the disposition of interreligious friendship, of course there is joy: joy in making new friends, joy in learning more about them, and joy in learning something new about yourself as well. In the midst of this large conference, over-scheduled from the early morning to late evening, where there always is too much going on, too many people to see, and too much stimulation, this was a profound moment for me—a moment when I was reminded of why I do what I do, and why I really do love it.
So, I have to say, of all the paper presentations I heard at the AAR, all the conversations I had, all the new ideas to which I was exposed, it was Jim Fredericks that left the lasting impression. He reminded me that gratitude should be at the heart of my disposition toward the world: gratitude that I have a calling that I love, meaningful and important work to do, and the ability to cross religious boundaries in friendship and respect. This boundary crossing has the potential to change hearts and minds in a world that desperately needs more civil discourse, more respect and understanding of differences, and more hands extended in friendship. I am grateful to live in a time and place where such work is encouraged, and where I am surrounded by other colleagues who value this work, too.
And, equally as importantly, he reminded me of the joy such engagement brings. I know there are lots of things in the world right now that cause us deep sorrow: so much suffering—human, animal, and global; so much injustice; so much hatred and violence; and so much disrespect and hostility. It’s enough to make your head spin and your heart ache. But, that is not all there is—that is never all there is; and the joy that is in the world—the joy that comes from good work done well, the joy that comes from strong friendships and deep bonds of trust, the joy that comes from fresh signs of hope and grace, must be recognized, honored and nurtured. That joy, that love, can change the world.
Yes, we are lucky–very lucky, actually; and last week, I was to glad to be reminded of it.