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Professor introduces Gonzaga students to dialogue with other faiths

While some interpretations of religion may entrench believers, John Sheveland said a mainline approach seeks strategies to break barriers to help people see each other as part of the same body. 

John guides juniors in a class on inter-religious dialogue at Gonzaga University to understand today’s religious-based violence in light of Christian and Buddhist thought.

John Sheveland
John Sheveland

He focuses on the two faiths as examples of how religions address problems and offer solutions.

From doctoral studies in theological anthropology at Boston College focused on comparing classical Christian and Hindu authors, John has background in inter-religious dialogue related to many faiths.

In a workshop with The Ministry Institute on Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Ministry Institute, 405 E. Sinto, he will address “How Do We Dialogue with Other Faiths?”

 “In Catholic thought we use relational anthropology, noting that religion is not just individual but that individuals live profoundly in relationship.  It’s a communitarian construct,” John said.  “Human beings are social animals who are meant to be in relationship with God and with neighbors.

“In the Catholic church we often use the word, ‘solidarity,’ related to justice,” John explained.  “Solidarity asks for deeply empathetic identification with others, especially victims of injustice.”

Solidarity is based on understanding that the whole community is degraded if one person is degraded. 

“Empathy is more than sympathy.  It means we identify with the other.  It means your experience as a victim is my experience.  There is also ownership of one’s complicity in injustice, which gives tools for acting to remove the injustice,” he said.

After childhood in Los Angeles, he moved with his family to Portland for junior high through college years, majoring in history at the University of Portland.  A freshman class in world religions changed his direction, so after graduation he went on to studies for a master’s degree, which he completed in 1999 at Yale Divinity School in Hartford, Conn.

He worked three semesters at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles before he came as assistant professor in religious studies at Gonzaga University in September 2006.

Of the 60 junior students he has taught in three semesters, one was Buddhist. 

“We focus on one faith, Buddhism, in order to go into it in more depth than would happen in an overview of several religions,” John explained.

Discussions wrestle with how to respond to religious extremism that leads to violence or hatred.

“Islam, for example, means ‘peace.’  It is not an inherently violent faith.  Muslim extremists distort Islam,” he said.  “We also look at Jewish extremism that leads to violence and at Christians who might think their religion calls them to bomb abortion clinics.  For those on the religious fringes, hate and violence are part of their identity.  They have a distinct ideology.  Every world religion has such faulty expressions.”

Even among Buddhists, he added, were Japanese Zen Buddhist samurai warriors who tied their ideology to their religion.

He observes that for fundamentalists in any religion, their religion is a security blanket. 

“What extremists believe and do is not a product of their religion, but of their psychological makeup,” he said.

When they tie their religion to an ideology, others may be drawn in or be complicit in their actions, as many Catholic and Protestants were in “superimposing the cross over the swastika” literally and figuratively in Nazi Germany.

“Ideologies co-opt religion.  So people became convinced that Jews were the reason Germany lost World War I or for the economy tanking,” John said.

Both Christianity and Buddhism have correctives that can counter such complicity.

The Christian understanding of the body of Christ and the Buddhist understanding of true love and compassion can help believers discipline their understanding of people outside as well as inside their faith communities.

“The notion of the body of Christ is prophetic at this moment in our society when some count and others don’t, when some are marginalized and some are doing well.  Jesus was concerned about the poor, those disenfranchised by the power structures and hierarchies,” he said.

Understanding that the body of Christ includes everyone, he said, can change how people view each other.

Similarly, the Buddhist concept of loving compassion can help people transcend bias and prejudice, learning to love beyond the boundaries humans erect.

John, who attends St. Aloysius and St. Peter’s parishes in Spokane, also teaches an upper division class on Buddhism.  Next semester, he will teach a graduate class on theological anthropology of Christianity on “understanding the human person as a creature of God, forgiven in Christ, belonging to Christ and seen as Christ.

For information, call 323-6784 or email sheveland@gonzaga.edu.