Edward Foley is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A member of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order since 1966, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1975. Foley is an award-winning author, and currently has 22 published books to his credit; one of his most recent works is Theological Reflection across Religious Traditions: The Turn to Reflective Believing, published by Rowman & Littlefield in the spring of 2015. He is a member of the Collegeville Institute’s Seminar on Integration in Theological Education. Betsy Johnson-Miller spoke with Ed Foley about the concept of reflective believing, and the role this practice plays in interreligious dialogue.
For those of us who are unfamiliar with the practice of reflective arts, how would you define reflective believing?
Reflective believing is my language for that process through which people take time to ponder their deepest beliefs—whether those are overtly religious or not—and consider how those beliefs influence their personal actions and relationships with others. Sometimes the process of reflective believing can be “comparative,” that is, reflecting on my belief system in comparison to what others might believe.
You connect reflective believing with dialogue across religious traditions. What does this look like, and why is it important?
As I mentioned above, reflective believing as an interreligious dialogue is reflection in a comparative mode. This comparison is not designed to change another person’s belief—it’s for the sake of understanding. In English-speaking North America there is incredible diversity in what and how people believe: a diversity that’s only going to increase. Often the religious “other” can be perceived as suspect or even dangerous, when in fact they are often just different from ourselves. If we are going to live together in harmony and work toward the common good, for example, as Pope Francis has articulated—defending human dignity, building peaceful coexistence between people and protecting creation (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 257)—then we will need to grow in understanding and respect for each other. Comparative reflective believing is one way to reach such understanding.
You use a variety of metaphors in the book to explore reflective believing such as gift and journey. Is there one that is particularly rich for you?
I was so taken with the image of rhizomes when I came across it in philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, that I borrowed it for this book. The image is so fresh and thus seems to expand the mind more than some of the more tradition metaphors that I employed. I particularly enjoyed its paradoxical potential for rethinking growth—growth that does not necessary sprout up and out in horizontal and arboreal ways, but sometimes creeps along under the surface, spreading out in multiple directions in unorthodox and unexpected ways.
In your chapter on the power of language, you say that “theological speculation and belief sharing can be understood as different language games with different rules.” What does that mean, and how does it play out in reflective believing?
That distinction comes from my experience of teaching graduate ministerial students over the past four decades or so. Adjusting to theological education often means an adjustment to a new form of language and logic—one I characterize as “theological speculation.” There is another kind of thinking and learning that goes on in ministerial institutions—one that focuses on doing the practices of ministry and then reflecting upon that doing.
Theologians, and theological education, in the West has tended, for some time, to emphasize the importance and even theological superiority of “speculation.” The pastoral sphere has been viewed largely as “receptive” of ideas from fields like systematic or biblical theology, but not generative of ideas of reciprocal importance. In other words, pastors are generally thought to receive theology instead of creating it. Rather than trying to treat these in some kind of hierarchy, I thought it was more constructive to think of each—borrowing the concept from Wittgenstein—as different “language games.” Each is valuable in its own right, contributing to the other, without diminishing the other, in the same way that valuing the English language does not diminish the value of Mandarin or German or Tagolog.
Your third chapter is called, “Goal Setting for Reflective Believing.” Why is it important to consider reflective believing together with goal setting?
It became vividly clear to me in the reading and consulting that led up to this project that one can do “reflective believing,” or (its predecessor) “theological reflection” for a variety of reasons. Because there are so many reasons for engaging in the reflective arts (I listed almost 40 of them in the book), it is useful to examine one’s reasons for engaging in the reflective arts in order to find the most appropriate and effective path. If you want to remove a nail from a piece of wood your best choice is not a screwdriver, and if you want to drive a screw into a board your best choice is not a hammer. The tool one employs has an impact on the result. Goal setting is simply another way to alert the reflective believer to the importance of exercising wisdom in choosing a path to reach that goal.
Why are stories so important to the process of theological reflection across religious traditions?
Stories are incredibly important for so much of human communication. Story telling is a virtually universal form not only of sharing memories or ideas or experiences, but for trying to make sense of life. I might not share sacred texts with another, nor have apparently similar rituals, or even creeds or doctrines, but we both have stories of how we came to belief, and how our beliefs have shaped our lives. Story telling is a very accessible form of common ground.
If you had to choose, what is one thing you would suggest that we keep in mind when trying to communicate with someone from a different religious tradition?
Keep in mind that they are more like us than unlike us; that we share humanity; that we have more in common than we think. Thus, as created in the image of God just like us, they are worthy of respect and honor. Every life is sacred ground.