Saturday, April 23, 2005

the Pope and interreligious dialogue

My buddy Mike wrote me an email that contains some very astute remarks about the Pope and interreligious dialogue. I began by writing Mike an emailed reply, then decided the reply was worth blogging.

Mike wrote (in part):

What really is the end game to interreligious dialogue? I am happy to have good relations with people of different beliefs. I am also happy to treat them with respect and civility. I also don't want to be outwardly mean to them because of their religious convictions.

But other than that - what is the purpose? Not that those traits are not worthy goals in and of themselves...

What happens when you agree to treat others well and with respect and not harrass them due to their religious beliefs?

There is nothing to happen really. If you believe in something, from a religious perspective (and presumably religious leaders do), you are assured that your faith is correct.

I think this is related to an interesting point brought up by Benedict before his election. The whole relativism thing. You can be polite and respectful, but in the end (if you are a true believer) someone is going to have to be right and someone is going to have to be wrong. If "your" way and "my" way have equal worth (and potentially and equal outcome) - then what is the point of having two different ways?

This is why when then-Ratzinger said that other faiths are flawed (I forget his exact language) I wasn't surprised. What else could he have said? If he had come out and said that Episcopalianism was just hunky-dory and all those Anglicans are just as likely to get to heaven as a Catholic - why be Catholic? (I'd choose cake over death myself...)

Your points are well taken.

Many people question what dialogue is all about. The fact is that there's no single agreed purpose for dialogue. The previous pope saw dialogue as part and parcel of an overall theme of his papacy: reconciliation. This is, in fact, how he was perceived by many of his non-Catholic interlocutors, which is what made a document like Dominus Iesus so disappointing to them. It was not so much that the document's content was new or shocking, but that it really seemed to be a major step backward for the Vatican to have released such a declaration after all of JP2's efforts as, among other things, "the Pope of Apologies."

On the more abstract level: interreligious dialogue can be a tool serving many purposes. As my former CUA classmate C pointed out, Muslims do talk about dialogue, but they understand it as a mere means to conversion. Something of this same spirit is present in the Dominus Iesus document, but not nearly so visible in the older Nostra Aetate from Vatican 2.

Interreligious dialogue as I and many others understand it, however, is more "irenological"-- i.e., more about the promotion of peace and religious harmony to quell religiously motivated conflict. Such conflict is, we have to admit, the sad norm in much (if not most) of the world.

However, one of the uncomfortable discoveries awaiting many people who come to the table of dialogue is that the interlocutor across from them isn't always intent on merely listening, but on forwarding an agenda. There are no objective standards to go by when it comes to the purpose of dialogue: there's no declaration from a cosmic referee that "Thou shalt only dialogue for peace." This makes life interesting. The potential for talking past each other is great.

A specific example of this disconnect is the mini-scandal behind the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions (see a Wikipedia entry here). Most of the religious folks who attended and participated in the Parliament were-- you guessed it-- religious liberals. What happened to all those religious conservatives who constitute the actual majority of religious adherents in the world? Where were they when this marvelous event was happening?

Actually, a few evangelicals who did attend the Parliament voiced their disgust re: the above. I think they were largely ignored, which is too bad. I'm no fan of exclusivism or hard-line religious conservatism, but the cavalier dismissal of religious conservatives in the context of interreligious dialogue is disturbing to say the least.

You're right, though, in saying that the adoption of a clear, specific position means that some will be "right" and some will be "wrong," and if one is to follow that line of thinking honestly and sincerely, then one inevitably has to declare openly that some are right and some are wrong. Every definite position contains its own exclusivism-- even religious pluralism can't escape this fact.

For myself, though, I question the necessity of traditionally exclusivistic declarations because of the ills they tend to produce. I also think that history is on my side in this: religious conflicts erupt in areas where one or both parties in a religious dispute have clear-- not muddied or syncretistic-- stances. Part of the reason Islam is so problematic today is that it has an obsession with religious clarity-- shari'a edicts are formulated to apply to every little aspect of a devout Muslim's life, almost down to the direction in which you're supposed to wipe your ass. A Muslim is rarely in doubt about what to do or think in a given situation. Scriptures are open to interpretation, but just as the Catholic Church has a whole wing devoted to Canon Law, so Muslim communities have their imams and other authorities to settle disputes and quell doubts.

It occurs to me that my scientific bias is showing. Science seeks answers, but it uses a methodology that accommodates-- even welcomes-- doubt. I appreciate this and want to see more of that attitude in religious discussion. In science, dogmas are to be challenged; hypotheses get revised; theories are trashed-- and this happens because the yardstick is conformity to objective reality. One thing the major religious traditions share with science is the conviction that there is an objective reality. But leaving room for doubt is, I think, vital for religions and interreligious dialogue, especially in an increasingly interconnected world. Technology is forcing us all to think pluralistically, like it or not. Tolerance is a good option in a pluralistic environment, but many people don't choose the tolerant road, preferring instead to continue the old game of declaring their in-group's superiority. I don't know how long we can keep doing this without something vast and terrible happening at some point. For right now, I suspect that if something were to happen, the source would be Islamic. But in the future, who knows?

Anyway, you've given me many things to think about. Thanks.


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