Dialogue between religions could be described as a fundamental challenge of our times. In the face of terrorist organizations claiming religious justification for their attacks on Western civilization, there is a strong temptation to subordinate all religions to a single global ethic of unity and peace, relativizing their diverse truth claims on the grounds that 'they can't all be right' or 'we can't decide between them'. Separation of Church and State, faith and culture, is promoted as the principle that should underlie the new world order. We need to think more deeply about this question.
There are ways in which dialogue can help each religious tradition to clarify what it means by the words it uses of God, and continually to re-read its own scriptures in the light of the questions asked of it by the other. Cardinal Ratzinger has given three rules for the kind of religious dialogue that might be capable of discovering common moral principles without engaging in unacceptable compromise. The first is 'No renunciation of truth'. No truth must be sacrificed for the sake of unity. Scepticism and pragmatism, he rightly points out, do not unite people anyway. We must cling to the truth we already have, but we must become capable of seeking more truth than we have, by looking beyond the alien appearances of another's religion to find 'the deeper truth hidden there'.
The second principle he enunciates is 'Criticism of one's own religion'. Religion, he says even my own religion can fall sick, can keep us from the truth. It must be constantly purified. While it is easy to criticize the religion of the other person, we must be ready to accept criticism of our own where it is justified.
The third principle is 'Proclamation of the gospel as a dialogical process', or, more simply, 'Proclamation as dialogue'. In other words, dialogue does not replace missionary activity or evangelism on behalf of one's religion. Instead, dialogue and proclamation should 'mutually interpenetrate'. The conversation between religious representatives should not be an 'aimless chat', but be directed at finding the truth (together). Each should be a receiver as well as a giver. 'We are not telling the other person something that is entirely unknown to him; rather, we are opening up the hidden depth of something with which, in his own religion, he is already in touch.'
From a Christian point of view there will be things that we know to be true and that we wish to share with an interlocutor, things that they are not aware of, or perhaps have misunderstood. The central truths of our faith such as the two natures of Christ and the three Persons of the Trinity fall into that category. We may correspondingly learn things that we ourselves did not know, and be forced to revise our view of the other religion with which we are in dialogue. We may fail to convince our friends of particular truths that have been revealed to us. But none of us can lose from the destruction of ignorance, and with it we return to our own faith enriched.
To privatize religious belief as one more lifestyle option open to the religious consumer may be to betray the very nature of religion. It is by taking religion seriously, in a common search for the truth, goodness and beauty no human being and no religion can exhaust or monopolize, that the key to peaceful dialogue must lie.
See Stratford’s booklet from CTS available online
Other articles on dialogue by Stratford Caldecott
His Seed Like Stars
Christianity and World Religions
The Deep Horizon
The Transcendental Disunity of Religions
The Mystery of Islam: Further Reflections
The Spirit of Tradition and the