Dr. Leo D. Lefebure of Georgetown University presented his recent work on spirituality on Tuesday, March 7th, 2017.

Location: ATFA, 11200 Waples Mill Rd. Suite 360 Fairfax, VA 22030

Dr. Lefebure presented on his recent work regarding spirituality and how he believes it is the key to future inter-religious relations.

The significance of inter-religious relationships is that they challenge our held perspectives, allowing us to see not only our fellow human in a different light but the world. Dr. Lefebure takes on the challenge and benefits of fostering inter-religious relations through a Catholic lens. Catholic stages of spirituality he presents can be used as a helpful framework when trying to overcome the hurdles of fostering and maintaining a healthy inter-religious dialogue. At every stage of spirituality when comparing religions there will always be differences and similarities, and full unity of belief and practice will never be an achievable goal but in creating this dialogue and acknowledging different perspectives we can further achieve a healthy community of world religions of mutual understanding and respect.

Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, spoke at Rumi Forum about the importance of spirituality in inter-religious relationships. Beginning with the oft-quoted command from the book of Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”, Dr. Lefebure acknowledged how inter-religious engagement allows us to deepen our own spirituality and connect more fully with our own faith. In the context of the quote, God instructs the Israelites to avoid vengeance or revenge, counseling them instead to be understanding and forgiving, even to strangers, for they “were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In addition to this biblical foundation, Dr. Lefebure explains that Catholic tradition provides guidance for fostering interfaith relations. Within this framework are three stages of religious connection that help to relate spirituality and religious practice to interfaith engagement. The first stage centers on turning away from sin, and often involves reconciliation, as believers are forced to acknowledge their faults and address failings in their relationships with others. Once this mutual trust and confidence is established inter-religious partners can begin to work together on acts of charity to illuminate their own faith values as well as the beliefs of others. This intentional action allows for a deeper unity between inter-religious partners and enables everyone involved to achieve a higher level of spirituality.

On the topic of the healing of wounds, Dr. Lefebure notes that Jesus instructed his followers not to make sacrifices before resolving all of the disputes that they had with others. Addressing and processing disputes and issues among our fellow human beings creates an environment that is more conducive to inter-personal and inter-religious partnerships.

Dr. Lefebure went on to discuss some pitfalls that can be barriers to productive interfaith dialogue. He says, “…we often unconsciously assume that our manner of thinking and living is universally valid.” The problem with taking our world-view for granted is that it can lead to misunderstandings without our awareness of what went wrong. But we must also be careful not to let these misunderstandings fester and result in biases or misconceptions that go on to shape generations.

He gives an example of the fraught relations between Christians and Jews throughout history and the tensions that often culminated in violence. But there is also hope for reconciliation – such as the example of Christians, particularly those who had family ties to Judaism, who worked to bridge these divides and bring harmony to their people. Over time, Catholic leaders began to acknowledge the Jews as the older sibling to Christians, representing a legitimization of the Jewish faith in the eyes of Christianity. But in order to fully repair the relationship, a process of repentance and forgiveness was necessary – a process that culminated with a visit by Pope John Paul II to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

A similarly problematic history exists between Christians and Muslims. Muslims were often seen as enemies and their faith has been distorted by Christian leaders. The Second Vatican Council worked to repair this damage by dropping any vilifying language and publicly announcing the respect of Catholics for Islam. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this commitment to shared values by becoming the first pope to visit a mosque.

Scholars of Christianity and Islam find many similarities between the two religions’ conceptualizations of forgiveness, justice and reconciliation. Both faiths entreat their followers to love and forgive their enemies, even in the absence of justice. At a gathering for world peace in 1986, Pope John Paul II addressed the group of faith leaders and noted that Catholics always enter into interfaith relationships with a sense of repentance, and with the acknowledgement that “Catholics have not always been faithful to this affirmation of faith. We have not always been peacemakers. For ourselves, therefore, but also in a sense perhaps for all, this encounter…is an act of penance.”

Once this penance is complete it is possible to move forward into the second stage; of illumination and of growing through charity. This can be accomplished by seeking to understand the ways that other religions cultivate charity and express the value of giving. In addition, it is crucial to create space for difference and to be generous in our acceptance of those who are dissimilar to us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that failing to make room for others is an attempt to remake God in our own image, rather than allowing God to remake us in his.

The final stage on the path towards religious connection is the stage of union; with other human beings and with God. This stage can often involve mysticism, or “the experimental, experiential knowledge of God”. A scholar of mystical Islam said, “in it’s widest sense, mysticism may be defined as the consciousness of the one reality, be it called wisdom, light, love or nothing.” Part of this stage of finding unity involves a spiritual connection that can often transcend any one religion. By rising above our own religious perspectives we can appreciate the beauty and spirituality that exist in other faiths and traditions, and find peace in the space where traditions converge and compliment each other.

These stages prepare us for productive dialogue and allow for a true and honest exchange. By recognizing our own small role in the larger reality, we can meet others where they are and have dialogue with open hearts and minds. Lefebure concluded his speech with these thoughts and a recognition that dialogue with those who are different from us also requires humility, and that the real power of religion comes from those who serve and who are humble, not as a sign of weakness but as a sign of strength.


Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of four books, including Revelation, the Religions, and Violence and The Buddha and the Christ. His next book will be Following the Path of Wisdom: a Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada, which is co-authored with Peter Feldmeier. He is an honorary research fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.