Finding Jesus at Georgetown

Why both incarnation and interfaith have a place in Catholic schools.

A few weeks before my graduation from Georgetown University, a Jesuit priest posed a question to me and a few of my friends, who were seated around a dining room table in his campus apartment: “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned at Georgetown?”

Mulling over his question as my friends responded, I brushed away lessons about international relations and Middle East history that I learned in the School of Foreign Service, where I studied, and I barely considered the things I had learned about Islamic prayer and spirituality during my activities as the president of the Interfaith Student Council. Instead, I arrived at this answer: “I learned about Jesus,” I said, almost chuckling inside. “I learned why the Incarnation — God’s becoming human in the person of Jesus — is significant.”

This answer would probably surprise William Blatty, a Georgetown alumnus who recently charged that the school has lost its Catholic and Jesuit identity, that it does not put Jesus and his message first. This answer would also likely surprise the freshman version of myself, who struggled with her Catholic identity — and with the idea of Jesus altogether — and found a home in the scriptures and rituals of religions like Islam and Hinduism. Over my four years as a student, thanks to the help of people of many faiths on campus, I came to re-embrace my Catholic identity and dove into learning more about my religion — which had Jesus at its core — all while remaining connected to the diverse believers and beliefs on campus.

Mr. Blatty’s petition to strip Georgetown of its distinction as a Catholic school does not explicitly mention the religious diversity that is fostered on campus, but his statements asserting the university’s “failure to ensure that all official actions and commitments be authentically Catholic” and its “failure to invite respect of Catholic doctrine and morals” make his preference for religious homogeneity transparent. Others have been even more explicit about their disapproval. Friends and administrators who work on fundraising efforts have told me that some alumni refuse to donate money because of the school’s increased commitment to interfaith dialogue.

Though Blatty and others might believe that a university dedicated to Christ should step away from interfaith encounters, my experience at Georgetown convinced me of the opposite. As I learned about Jesus, I understood that engaging with people of all faiths — and even supporting them through the institution of a Catholic school — is at the heart of the Christian life.

The lessons I learned about Jesus while at Georgetown occurred in many places: in courses on the early Church, the Second Vatican Council, medieval women mystics, the Qur’an, and the Bible; in daily Mass in a small crypt chapel and on retreats in wide open fields; and, most importantly, in interactions and conversations with friends, chaplains, professors, and priests.

I learned the theology, of course: that, most simply, Christians believe God took on flesh and became intimately involved in the human experience, not to condemn humanity, but to embrace it and bring it to God’s self. In the person of Jesus, God Incarnate, there is the mutual exchanging and sharing of divinity and humanity. As I’ve written elsewhere, this belief is not so much about a historical event, but rather an acknowledgement that where we find the human, we also find God. To put it another way, as St. Irenaeus, an early Church theologian, wrote, “the glory of God is the living man.”

This belief has crucial implications for Christians and can be found as the foundation for the Church’s teaching on everything from artistic renderings of God to issues of economic justice. As Christians, we are challenged to approach everything as St. Ignatius, the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, the order of priests that established Georgetown, did.  Because of his firm belief in Jesus, Ignatius was able, as he wrote, to “find God in all things,” to see God working in every aspect of creation, and especially in humanity. It is this “Incarnational vision,” as I call it, that I learned at Georgetown.

This vision has clear implications for Christians’ relationships with people of other faiths. If our Incarnational view encourages us to see God in all people — and all aspects of the human person, even when those parts seem unlikable — that vision must extend, naturally, to their religious beliefs and practices. I don’t mean that we as Christians must be relativists who never make judgments about what is good or bad. Rather, we need to approach things with the “Jesuit plus sign,” as a Georgetown Jesuit once put it.  St. Ignatius wrote in his spiritual exercises that we should always take what others say and give it the best, most positive interpretation. An Incarnational view helps us see the best — the God — in others.

It was quite easy for me to learn about God and see God’s glorification at work in the different religious communities on Georgetown’s campus, which is home to the largest campus ministry in the country. It employs five full-time chaplains and over two-dozen who live in dorms, all of them coming from diverse religious affiliations. I not only encountered God in the Jewish and Mormon chaplains who stopped to talk to me on their way to a meeting, but also at Muslim prayer and Hindu puja services, where God is worshipped in ways very different to the Catholic Mass. I saw God when Orthodox, Buddhist, and secular students collaborated to provide sandwiches to those experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood.

Watching these conversations, rituals, and activities through Christ-colored glasses, I saw that divinity and humanity appeared mingled, stirred up together so that one was indistinct from the other. Just as it should, my incarnational vision was able to see that God was up to something in the chants of “ohm” and “salaam,” and in the bowing and burning incense of other religions.

This is why embracing religious diversity — creating a home for the glorification of God — is necessary for a Catholic and Jesuit university like Georgetown. Our rootedness in a belief in the Incarnation impels us not to close ourselves off from non-Christian religions, but rather throw open the doors (of our chapel as well as Muslim prayer room) to welcome in God-tinged humanity.

As a good Catholic school should, and just as Mr. Blatty would want, Georgetown gave me the opportunity to know Jesus better. But it also taught me that God is glorified, to use Irenaeus’ phrase, in the living Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or Catholic.

 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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