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Farewell Marcel Poorthuis: Spiritual hospitality as the tent of Abraham

Published: 18th May 2022 Last updated: 18th May 2022

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Professor Marcel Poorthuis looks back on nearly forty years of work in service to the church and academy, with his specialty being interreligious dialogue, and "no, it certainly wasn't a period in the desert," he grins. In fact, he is optimistic about the growing understanding between faiths. Society, especially in times of corona, can still learn a lot from religious rituals, he argues, especially when it comes to death and mourning.

'I first worked for ten years as a researcher in the field of Judaism with the Catholic Church. After 1992, I chose my specialty of interfaith dialogue at the university. There was a lot of space in the faculty for research and I was able to learn Syriac, Arabic and Coptic in addition. Luxurious. Philosophy and philosophy are of great importance to a university. All faculties have to deal with it, economists for example have to think about: where does desire come from? What is debt? It's not just about money. I would be very much in favor of those subjects being built into the university institutionally, all students a minor in philosophy and philosophy.' 

What is the state of interfaith dialogue now compared to when you started this topic?

'A lot has changed! If you go into a bookstore now in the religion department, you will find so much more variety, also about Islam, Buddhism; the horizon has clearly widened. Also the interest, the knowledge, has become much greater. And so has understanding. Of course, study takes place among a top layer, but still, there is more dialogue. Also among the leaders of the religions, they are more open to each other, than say twenty years ago.'

Much more understanding of faith

At the same time, there is loud criticism and dislike of Islam among the general public. 

'You see that Islam often serves as a scapegoat for social ills. Wilders used it first, and when it lost its appeal there, it became the Poles. It's all transient. Integration is going well, especially young women from Muslim backgrounds, here at university for example, are working so hard that they build excellent careers in no time. I was never impressed by Paul Scheffer's book Land of Arrival, in which he wrote that integration had failed. It takes three generations, he said later, I think it goes even faster, look around. In our book From Harem to Fitna we show that Scheffer owed his success to the fact that for the first time the left also dared to be critical of Islam. It was really just the familiar prejudices. Even Jan Blokker spoke of Muslims as 'the fifth column'.'  I always say: most victims of Islamic terrorism are Muslims themselves, so you can't identify extremism with Islam.'

Does secularization in the West contribute to less respect for religion in general?

'I particularly come across many young people who are totally illiterate in terms of religion. But that is precisely why I am optimistic in terms of progress in dialogue: they are incredibly curious and interested and do not suffer from their parents' frustration with stifling forms of religious education and aversion to institutional belief. It is unfortunate that the conversation between parents and their children about religion has stalled. Greater understanding of religion can help combat all those biases. In our age of globalization, we cannot do without an understanding of pluralism and knowledge of the other. Although I think multiple religious belonging, that you can get something out of all religions, falls short. You can't just step in and out of a religion.'

Society needs religious rituals

How do you see the faiths coming closer together in concrete terms?

When you talk about the three book religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I think of the example of Abraham, who was known for his hospitality: his tent was open to four sides. Guests were fed, he hung water bags in the trees, which was life-saving in the desert. You can also understand that tent spiritually, as space and hospitality for all beliefs. Not that the other person must then become a Christian, you accept him and being different, as you accept a guest as a guest. But you receive them like Abraham, and like Sarah of course, who baked three kinds of cakes.' 

In your farewell address you talk about the importance of religious rituals.

Yes, we can learn a lot from that. Look at the problem that Muslims, but also Jews, have in Dutch hospitals when a doctor tells them that a patient has finished treatment. With them a doctor is seen as an employee of God, but he is not allowed to sit on the chair of God and decide about a life. Life is not only a medical matter, but also a spiritual one. Our secular society may think that is outdated, but this example teaches us our one-sidedness. And also to look in the mirror: that we think according to the concept of usefulness: what do we gain? Rituals are not "useful. That some things cannot be rationally understood and that the core of religion transcends utility and pragmatism.  

Dogmatic freethinkers

And then you see that religious rituals are a godsend. They fill space, are performed collectively, connect in time with people who have gone before you in space with people around you. Only they are not high on the individualist agenda. And there is a lot of resistance to them like to boy circumcision and ritual slaughter, discussions that come up every two years. The argument here is often that they are no longer useful. Then I say: dipping your hand in the holy water barrel is also not intended to clean our dirty hands and the Eucharist is not celebrated because we are hungry. 
Rituals from Islam and Judaism, for example around mourning, can help us in coronation time. Not because they are expressions of emotion, but because they stir up emotions so that mourning can be experienced together. And what I have recently learned: they also ensure that a period of mourning comes to an end without you feeling guilty about it: they offer you the possibility of returning to life.'

Yet many will say they have no need for this, for the first time there is a secular majority in the Netherlands, it was revealed last month.

'Of course, and there are also people - a minority for that matter - who I would call dogmatic freethinkers, fundamentalists in aversion to faith and intolerant of believers. But still you see a massive need for spirituality, faith and ritual. Christianity should try to be welcoming and open. After all the negative coverage around the Catholic Church and sexual abuse, I understand that many people, especially young people, feel like they don't want to belong to the losers and the wrong club. We have to deal with that. But I also see people who come back to the churches and say: how beautiful that Mass actually was.' 

Poorthuis is thinking about a new project on medical ethics together with Jewish and Muslim scholars on issues concerning the beginning and end of life. But first he wants to 'blow out' a bit and he does so on his jazz saxophone. 

Prof. Dr. M.J.H.M. Poorthuis studied theology at the Catholic Theological University Utrecht and music at the conservatory at the same time. He started his career at the secretariat of the Dutch Catholic Church. Poorthuis obtained his doctorate in 1992 with a thesis on the commentaries of the French-Jewish philosopher Levinas on the Talmud. From 1992 to 2010 he worked as associate professor at the Catholic Theological University Utrecht and then as professor of interreligious dialogue at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology . He is the author of more than 250 publications.

(By Tineke Bennema)