Br. Jason Welle is a Franciscan Friar of the Assumption BVM Province, centered in Wisconsin. After growing up in a small town in Central Minnesota, he completed a BA in English, Religion, and Middle Eastern Studies at St. Olaf College (’01) and an MTS in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame (’03). He will complete his MDiv at the Catholic Theological Union in May and be ordained a deacon in June. He currently resides in Chicago and eagerly awaits a full-time pastoral assignment for his deaconate.
When I pondered the series title, “Plurality 2.0,” I found myself wondering, as have other bloggers, “what was Plurality 1.0?” Our Franciscan order celebrates 800 years this year since Pope Innocent III gave oral approval to our way of life in 1209, so I wondered if Saint Francis of Assisi might be an example of Plurality 1.0. We often laud Francis as an example of openness and tolerance during a time of violence, animosity, and theological contempt between different races and religions. He traveled to Egypt during the fifth crusade and crossed the battle lines unarmed, asking to speak to the Sultan, an encounter enshrined in the minds of friars interested in interreligious dialogue. Having received the hospitality of the Sultan, Francis returned to Italy a changed man and we see these changes in our rule of life.
In the Rule of 1221, Francis describes two ways that missionaries can live spiritually among the Muslims: first, by being subject to their Muslim rulers, not engaging in arguments or disputes but acknowledging that they are Christians; second, by announcing the Word of God and calling Muslims to baptism, when the friars saw that it pleased the Lord to do so. Most commentators suggest that Francis favored the first style of mission, and this non-proselytizing witness of presence has marked the way most friars have lived among Muslims across North Africa and the Middle East in the following centuries. The two styles of mission were elided in the editing process before the Rule received official papal approval in 1223. Still, the Rule was the first of any Catholic order to contain a chapter specifically addressing mission, entitled, “Those Going among the Saracens and Other Nonbelievers.”
Herein lies Plurality 1.0. Francis had been transformed by his encounter with the Sultan, finding a new respect for Muslims that he probably had not anticipated. Still, Francis remained somehow constrained by the thought categories of his day, enshrined in the Rule’s reference to “nonbelievers.” When we read the Rule today in our communities, I realize that we have made the transition from Pluralism 1.0 to 2.0. I recently joined some Turkish friends for dinner, and the friars I live with playfully quipped that I was going out “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers.” Playfully quoting the Rule, they demonstrated their complete support for my desire to work for interreligious understanding, conscious of the fact that these Turks are neither Saracens nor nonbelievers. They referred to a text that sounds thoroughly medieval (in the worst sense of that word) to recognize the value in the heritage of our order alongside its changing face. The classical language remains but the hermeneutic has undergone a radical shift.
For me, Pluralism 2.0 involves two things, both involving language. First, it means a collective reinterpretation of our traditional language. Our heritage is rich and deep and we must not abandon it entirely, but we must find a way to speak and hear the well-worn words with different ears—and be conscious of the ears listening to us when we speak them! My brothers would never joke about the “Saracens” amid persons who might suspect the term was an affront. They used it precisely to subvert the dehumanizing tradition of such a term, because they knew the high regard with which modern friars regard faithful Muslims. The term both reminds us where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Second, Pluralism 2.0 means groping for a new language to describe the contemporary world. In a rapidly-shifting global network, a world in which many people feel frightened, fragmented and rudderless, religious people must provide some sense of trust and confidence. The complexities of our fast-paced world often defy comprehension and a sense of security; those committed to pluralism must find new ways of speaking, language of beauty and yet of seriousness, language that engages immediate challenges yet gazes to the infinite horizon.
I think of Robert Lentz’s icon of Francis meeting the Sultan (on right), an embrace that certainly didn’t occur as such, historically speaking. The icon roots us in the mystery of our past, facing the imaginal worlds of the future. That’s Plurality 2.0.