A Letter on the Need for Authentic Inter-Religious Dialogue

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By Joshua Feibelman, Franciscan University

Way back when I was a wee lad, I learned the maxim that Catholicism possesses the fullness of the truth. This is a daunting claim for the Church to make. Yet, if we accept that Jesus Christ is the Truth (see John 14:6, John 18:38), that He established the Church as his instrument in the world, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (See Matthew 16:18), then perhaps the claim is a little more credible. When we speak of the fullness of the Truth, we mean that every bit of reality can find its meaning in light of Christ who is the Person of Truth. In addition, Christ entrusted divine revelation to His bride, the Church, deeming her the safeguard of these Truths. This is what it means to say that the Church possesses the fullness of the Truth.    

Despite the beauty and meaning of the claim that the Church possesses the fullness of the Truth, this claim can easily be reduced into a “readymade maxim” that is easy to use in response to an objection to Catholic claims. “We have the Truth and you don’t. Therefore, I’m right and you’re wrong.” So goes the typical line of reasoning. Unfortunately, such reasoning often finds its way into our intellectual and moral toolboxes. It has the power to shape our attitudes toward people who believe something different from us. It also has the power to shape the way we think about ideas that are not congruent with Catholicism. If we pause to think about it, this “tool” is really quite convenient, for it replaces the difficult work of explaining, supporting, and defending the difficult or counter-cultural teachings of the Catholic Church.  It’s a lot easier to say to an objector that “you’re wrong and the Church’s teaching is right” rather than tackling the issue at hand. Taking this as a first premise renders us unable to assume a perspective other than our own. Indeed, this type of response is mostly unhelpful. The best way to understand this circumstance is by imagining oneself on the receiving end of such a statement.  Regardless of the truth of any given claim, imagine being a Muslim or an Atheist who hears a Catholic say to them, “You are wrong about “x” because the Church would say the opposite and she alone has the truth.”  How would you respond to such a statement?  How would you even understand that statement? Most importantly, would you be open to what they had to say, or would you perceive them as arrogant and closed-minded? We must remember that those who do not share our Catholic convictions cannot possibly understand such a claim.

Over the last three years of college, I have been blessed to receive a formation in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.  But having been inculcated into this tradition, I am surprised at how often I encounter the “intellectual version” of the same Catholic maxim which states that “our Catholic ideas are right and your non-Catholic ideas are wrong.”  I find that among Catholic thinkers, there is a general struggle to descend from the high horse of Catholic teaching into genuine dialogue with ideas and religious traditions that diverge from our own.  We indulge in a sort of pervading attitude of dismissiveness at what others believe or practice or think.  As Catholics, I think we often lack a genuine openness to the ideas, traditions, and practices contained in other religions.  You may immediately respond by saying that we know we have the truth, so there is no point in investigating other religions.  And while I agree wholeheartedly that the Church does have the fullness of the Truth, I would counter that we should engage in such inter-religious dialogue for two very important reasons: 1) to establish authentic dialogue with individuals of other cultures and religious viewpoints and thereby make Catholicism present to unbelievers, and 2) to clarify misunderstandings about what Catholics believe as well as misunderstandings about the religious beliefs of others.     

Religion, which includes theological and ethical ideas as well as traditions, cannot exist apart from human individuals and societies composed of those individuals. I am not saying that Truth or reality, or God per se depend on the belief of individuals for their existence.  Rather, I’m saying that the organization of thought and life around such ideas (which is what I mean by religion) does not exist outside of individual persons and societies made up of those persons.  Unfortunately, intellectuals often forget about the persons standing behind religious ideas and traditions.  They treat religious ideas and traditions as if they subsist in a far off “World of Forms.”  Yet in reality, religious ideas become vital when they are incarnated in the lives of individual persons. This fact ought to change the way in which we approach dialogue with people who disagree with us.  Instead of seeing an intellectual encounter as a clash of abstract ideas, we should view it as a conversation between two persons who hold different ideas regarding what is true.  While the realities behind really true ideas do subsist on their own, abstracted ideas themselves always have a personal context.  The problem with the Catholic “fullness of the Truth” maxim is that it often creates an “I’m right, you’re wrong mentality.”  While “rightness” and “wrongness” are relevant on the level of logic and argument, this mentality is not conducive to authentic dialogue between persons.  Instead, we ought to approach with open ears and minds so that we can really hear what our interlocutor has to say in its entirety.  The mentality of “rightness and wrongness” naturally conditions us to anticipate certain statements during a dialogue that confirm our antecedent belief that we “have the truth” and while our interlocutor is “wholly in error.”  Closed ears would likely lead us to hack and cut our interlocutor’s ideas in order to fit him into the box of wrongness.  Closed ears also keep us from grasping the whole of his ideas and the logic behind them.  On the other hand, authentic listening allows for constructive dialogue.  When someone feels listened to and understood, that person is much more likely to listen to you in return.  For this reason, authentic listening typically provides an opportunity to share the inner logic of Catholicism to the other, thereby making the Truth of Christ and His Church present to them. 

The second reason to engage in inter-religious dialogue is to clarify misunderstandings about different religious positions.  It is very easy to paint a general caricature of a set of religious beliefs or traditions.  As Catholics, we have a tendency to fall into this temptation.  On the flip side, our own beliefs are often stereotyped in ways that are completely untrue and inaccurate.  It is through dialogue that such caricatures and stereotypes can be overcome.  For example, many would say that the Church and her teaching are antithetical to science. But the more I study the relationship between Church teaching and science, the more these things seem to be in harmony.  Or what about the belief that Atheists are amoral and have no meaning in their lives?  My own experience and dialogue with many atheists has shown this stereotype to be completely false. The list goes on, encompassing every religion, set of beliefs, and culture on earth. Stereotypes proliferate because it is much easier to dismiss someone and their ideas rather than engage. But stereotypes are antithetical to Christian charity and the diffusing of the Gospel.  Thus, by engaging with persons who hold different ideas and beliefs, we gain access to a two-way street. We come to better understand the beliefs of others who are unlike ourselves. But we are also given the opportunity to explain what the Church truly teaches and the reasons as to why she teaches what she teaches (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Throughout the world there are many religions. Yet an attitude of “I am right and you are wrong” is not conducive to sharing our Catholic faith.  This attitude also serves as a hindrance to a real interest in the persons who subscribe to religious beliefs that are different than ours.  Through encountering persons who hold different religious convictions, we engage the opportunity to understand their beliefs and traditions as well as the opportunity to share and clarify our own. In this way, we can most effectively present the Truths of Christ and his Church to others. Authentic religious dialogue is of the utmost importance for this reason.

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