The Wrong and Right Kinds of Interreligious Dialogue
To flatten this view of reality in favor of finding some unthreatening middle ground for interreligious dialogue would not advance the dialogue, because the interlocutor could no longer speak truly as a believing Catholic. Thankfully, we are past the days when the religious other was regarded as an enemy. Today we can acknowledge the real difficulty of dialogue with at least the presuppositions that we can be friends, that we can disagree about truth claims and still do good work in the world, and that after the dialogue session has ended we can arise from the conference table and go share a meal.
Whither interreligious dialogue? On the ground level, one answer is beginning to emerge: it is for the sake of developing friendships that lead to systemic commitment to address poverty, racism, war, and all the other afflictions that beset people. In the postmodern age, moreover, there may be a second answer: the defense of religions themselves as benign forces in the world. A significant minority of people in Britain, for example, are persuaded that religion does more harm than good. In the face of such criticism, the different traditions may find that they have more in common than they once thought -- commitment to sacred texts, worship practices, education, and so on. They may find that they need each other in order to suggest views of history different from those that would see all religions as sects that depart from that earlier mentioned transcendent orthodoxy.
The view of all the religions -- at least those more than a millennium old, let's say -- is that not all human history is an undisturbed line of progress of thought, in which we are emerging from shadow into light due to higher applications of reason. That view, which began taking hold in the West after the Enlightenment, really began to crumble in the lacerations of the early 20th century. Interreligious dialogue is emerging as a new method to address some of the same questions that gave rise to Modernity: namely, the question of how to keep people of different religions (especially Catholic and Protestant) from killing each other. The Enlightenment view of tolerance, following figures like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, offered a polite distancing from religion in order to cultivate civility.
The model offered through this age of interreligious dialogue is very different: deep immersion in a religious tradition in order to speak honestly to the religious other, similarly immersed in her tradition. It is impossible to say where that dialogue will lead; but it is possible to observe why it is better than the Enlightenment model of tolerance. That view suggests we move away from religion; and moving away from religion is moving away from the deepest, most passionate, most robust, most perplexing, most significant questions we face as human beings. It suggests that we ignore millennia of religious reflection, thousands of pages of meditation on how human beings have loved and suffered, and the examples of hundreds of saints and sages, in favor of a rather undeveloped sense of starting fresh with some vague hope of being reasonable together.
What makes interreligious dialogue exciting is precisely that it acknowledges the vast difficulty of encountering a deeply passionate religious other -- another whose passion is rooted in an altogether different vision of the world than mine, and with whom I am ready to risk the adventure of seeking truth together.
Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian, author, speaker, and retreat leader specializing in the ways that Church traditions speak to contemporary life. He has written extensively on the themes of young adult spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, theology in postmodernity, sexuality and marriage, and adoption issues, and is a frequent contribut to Patheos.