Why dialogue if you already have the truth?

This post was originally published at sASK-a-Theologian.

I have recently come across questions about dialogue in the Catholic tradition in at least three different contexts. First of all, Pope Francis’s prayer intention for January 2016 was interreligious dialogue. This got a lot more play than is normal for a Pope’s monthly intention because it was also the first time the Vatican accompanied the announcement of the Pope’s prayer intention with a video. Many Catholics expressed concern about this choice of intention. “Why dialogue with false religions?” they asked. “Shouldn’t we be evangelizing people instead? Isn’t dialogue an admission of relativism? Aren’t we saying, or at least implying, that all religions are equally true?”

Second, at our most recent diaconate formation weekend, we were studying apologetics. When the instructor gave an argument in favour of the idea that the Church Jesus founded could be identified with the Catholic Church (and therefore that Protestants are mistaken about the role of Peter and the papacy), someone in the class asked, “But isn’t Brett involved in ecumenical dialogue with Evangelicals?” Though it was coming from the opposite direction, this question stemmed from the same premises as those with concerns about the Holy Father’s prayer intention for January: dialogue somehow implies a kind of relativism where we are unable to assert the truths of our Catholic faith.

The third context was the death of Archbishop Daniel Bohan. One of the things that stood out in the tributes to Archbishop Bohan was that he was a man of dialogue. He had served on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome. He was the Bishop co-chair of the national Canadian Roman Catholic – Evangelical Dialogue. And he had worked to cultivate good relations with our ecumenical and interreligious partners here in Regina, as was obvious by the attendance of many of these partners at his funeral Mass.

Interestingly enough, one of the other things that was emphasized at Archbishop Bohan’s funeral was his complete trust in the Lord. The homilist, Bishop Don Bolen, emphasized Archbishop Bohan’s trust in Jesus Christ throughout his illness, and that this trust was possible because it had been there for years throughout his life and ministry. For Archbishop Bohan, at least, being a man of dialogue did not mean that his faith in Jesus Christ was relativized or compromised. Like Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II and Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII!), Archbishop Bohan did not accept the suggestion that a firm and full Catholic faith is the opposite of dialogue.

And this should not surprise us, for it is simply the teaching of the Catholic Church. Our Church teaches, at one and the same time, that it is the one true Church, founded by Christ and endowed with the saving truth of the gospel, and that we are called to dialogue with other Christians, people of other faiths, and even people of no faith.

How can we make sense of this?

The first thing is to recognize that truth is not something which one simply has or knows, full stop. If God is truth, then truth is infinite. We may know many things that are true, and we may even know the most important truths of all, that God loves us and sent his Son to die for our salvation, but that does not mean either that we don’t have others truths to learn or that we have fully understood everything that these important truths mean for our lives.

In other words, having the truth does not mean having nothing to learn!

The truth is so much bigger than us that we can always learn more of it and work to integrate it more fully into our lives. This is true of us as individuals, but it is even true of the Church Jesus founded. Jesus says quite specifically that one reason he needs to send us the Holy Spirit is to gradually lead us into the truth that we can’t handle all at once. And so, despite having the basic truths of faith from the outset, the Church has always been a learning Church.

Part of learning is engaging with other worldviews and seeing how the claims of Christian faith relate to those worldviews. We can see this already in St. Paul. As a missionary to the pagan world around him, St. Paul is always trying to figure out how to speak to his audience – this is part of what he calls being all things to all people. And in doing so, he does not shy away from engaging them on the subject of their own religious traditions and how those relate to his message. And so he claims that the unknown God being worshipped at a shrine in Athens is, in fact, the God of Jesus Christ.

According to St. Paul, anyone trying to worship the true God is worshipping the God of Jesus Christ, even if those persons are mistaken about some aspects of who this God is!

This is true of people with non-Christian religious commitments, but it is also true of Christians themselves. If we are attentive in our spiritual journey, we will recognize that part of what God is doing is leading us to reject inadequate ideas about who God is. This is not to say that Christians and non-Christians are in the exact same position vis-à-vis the true God, it is merely to point out that none of us have fully understood God in such a way that we have nothing more to learn.

If the first thing we need to think about to understand the Church on this question is the nature of truth and our relationship to it, perhaps the second is what we mean by “religion.” We tend to think of “religions” as self-contained sets of claims about the nature of reality. Some of us tend to think that these sets of claims are mutually exclusive so that, if one of them is true, the others are false. E.g., If Christianity is true, Buddhism is false, full stop. Others tend to think that, perhaps because they tend to deal with such difficult, complex, and personal subject matter or perhaps because they all obviously teach some things that are true, all of these sets of claims are equally true. But both of these ways of thinking about religion are inadequate.

The attempts to understand reality that we call “religions” are neither mutually exclusive, nor equally true. Within them there is room for both broad agreement and contradictory statements that cannot both be true. And so we see that, on the one hand, some version of the Golden Rule is very widespread throughout human culture and religion (humans can recognize such basic truths without divine revelation), and, on the other, that Jesus either is the unique mediator of salvation to the world or he is not.

But while these two examples fit very easily into “broad agreement” and “contradictory” there are many things that are much tougher to slot. Let us look at one example.

Both Christianity and Buddhism are concerned with the question of desire. Both affirm that dealing with desire is fundamental to the question of human happiness. On this they are agreed. But they disagree as to how best to deal with human desire. Buddhism, broadly speaking, aims at the extinction of desire. If we do not desire, we cannot suffer. Christianity, for its part, aims at desiring what is truly good, locating our suffering not in desire itself, but in disordered desire.

What we have here is something very interesting: two different ways of understanding the world that have significant overlap, but also real difference.

And it is precisely here that dialogue is so effective. Dialogue is not about simply determining which of us is right and which is wrong, as if one of us has everything in the bag and the other is completely out to lunch. Nor is it about pretending that it is irrelevant which of us is right or wrong or that there is no correct answer to religious questions. Dialogue is the very careful work of finding out just what it is that the other believes to be true and comparing that to what I believe to be true.

In such a process, remarkable things can happen.

  1. We can find out that, on certain fundamental questions, we are essentially in agreement, even if we had been led to believe that we must disagree. This is what happened when Catholics and Lutherans starting dialoguing, instead of fighting, about the doctrine of justification.
  2. Or we can find out more about what our own tradition teaches because our dialogue partner was so well placed (because of their own tradition and background) to put a question to us in just the right way. It is easy to imagine that a Christian could gain genuinely Christian insight into the problem of desire in dialogue with a Buddhist.
  3. We can find out that we really do disagree with the other person, but that we had not correctly understood the nature of that disagreement in the past. Very often one of the chief outcomes of dialogue is accurately locating disagreement. A priest friend of mine tells the story of when a Muslim dialogue partner of his became frustrated and announced, “That is the problem with you Christians, you think you can understand God’s will!” For my friend, this was a real breakthrough. They had come to the heart of their disagreement. They still disagreed, only one of them could be right, but now they could focus their attention on their actual disagreement.

It is, perhaps, this last outcome that highlights that the relationship between dialogue and truth is not one of compromise, but of support. Too much time and energy is lost in this world by people arguing about things when they don’t even really understand the nature of their disagreement. This is true of interreligious and ecumenical arguments as well. Dialogue is the best way to make sure that, when we do argue, we are arguing fruitfully.

Dialogue does not even work if we do not bring our truth claims to it honestly and openly. Rather, by openly confessing our beliefs and allowing others to openly confess theirs, and then by asking careful and honest questions we come to see our differences in their true light and proportion. Those differences may end up being smaller than we expected, or they may end up being larger. The point is we will better understand what they actually are.

This is valuable no matter what the end goal of a given dialogue may be. This is true of any human relationship (think of trying to resolve family disputes, for example), but it is also true of ecumenical and interreligious relationships. It is important, then, to mention that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue have different goals.

Ecumenical dialogue is dialogue between separated Christians. The goal is the unity of the Church, the Body of Christ. Our partners here do not need to be evangelized (except in the sense that we all need to be evangelized continually). It is a prerequisite for ecumenical dialogue that one’s partners are already followers of Jesus. Nevertheless, we are called to challenge our non-Catholic Christian brethren with the fullness of the Catholic faith. And we are called to be open to challenges that they put to us from their particular perspective. Done well, we will be able to identify both our agreements and our disagreements with more honesty and accuracy. Once these are clearly identified, we can use the agreements as tools to help us resolve the disagreements. While there is not space to list them here, it is important to recognize that the agreements recognized and reached by ecumenical dialogue in the last 50 years is remarkable. Furthermore, we understand our remaining differences with much more clarity than we did before we engaged in dialogue. There is little excuse for Christians who make straw man attacks upon the beliefs of their fellow Christians these days.

Interreligious dialogue, on the other hand, does not aim at the unity of all religions. There are fundamental claims between religions that are simply incompatible. Either Jesus is Lord or He is not. But interreligious dialogue is of the utmost importance in a world where we must live and work alongside people of many faiths and even of no faith to build a just and better world. This is not merely because people of different faiths are sometimes in conflict with one another. It is also because many of the problems we face as a society require the cooperation of everyone. Such cooperation is much more likely and fruitful if we know how to honestly seek out what we have in common and if we clearly understand where we differ.

It must be admitted that “dialogue” has sometimes been a code word for relativism. Some people actually do believe that we must erase or ignore our own deepest convictions in order to live peacefully and justly with others. And sometimes such people use the language of “dialogue.” But true dialogue does not whitewash our convictions, it proceeds from them. It does not ignore our differences, it helps us to locate them so that we might address them with honesty and integrity. It does not dispense with the truth, it helps us to understand it more and more deeply.

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He is a father of six (so far) and husband of one.

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  • http://tetsun.wordpress.com Therese

    “…having the truth does not mean having nothing to learn. ” Well said.

  • http://incarnationalcatholic.wordpress.com Fariba

    Wonderful! The Church may have the truth but all Christians are united by a common baptism, all religions are united by a common law. We may have the truth but we must recognize the truth. Dialogue helps us better recognize and appreciate the truths of our faith.

  • Chris

    Thanks Brett for a great post which I am in agreement with.

    I wonder if Buddhism and Christianity are really that far apart on desire ? I don’t think Buddhism has anything against desire for what is good eg desire for prayer, to give alms, to enjoy the beauty of nature or beautiful temples or nutritious vegetarian meals. But much of our desire is negative and Christianity also has a strong tradition of ascetics, to reduce desire.

    I am not sure there are any religions which make a claim fundamental to their faith that Jesus is not Lord (except possibly Satanism). I think one can hold that and still be a faithful Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu etc.

    God Bless

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      It is certainly possible that there is room for much more agreement than seems possible on the surface. Which is exactly why dialogue is so valuable! Let’s actually do the work and find out!

      Thanks Chris.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    Brett, thank you for this very thoughtful and detailed post. One point you touch on is a question that has been in the news recently, with contretemps at Wheaton College over whether Christians and Muslims worship the same god. It seems to me that the answer to that question really depends on your understanding of dialogue and the underlying theory of religious truth.

  • Julia Smucker

    This is excellent, Brett, and makes me think of so many things at once. There is a passage toward the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle that illustrates one of your points here, where a man who had thought he was searching his whole life for the pagan god Tash discovers he had really been searching for Aslan all along. As Aslan explains to him, this is not because he and Tash are the same, but because they are opposite; that every good rendered is a service rendered to Aslan, and every evil a service to Tash.

    I’ve sometimes distinguished between “evangelical” and “ecumenical” mindsets (for lack of better terms, although in this context that might blur the distinction between ecumenical and interfaith dialogue too much). In drawing these distinctions I’ve tended more toward the idea of reciprocal learning – a big change from the naïve certitude of my youth – but I believe evangelization and dialogue should not be mutually exclusive. It can be a tricky balance to navigate, and you’ve provided some helpful guidelines for doing so.

    I’ve also encountered that same misconception you describe, in both directions, including the use of “dialogue” as a code word for relativism. I find it especially disconcerting when some in ecumenical circles start veering toward indifferentism, while failing to realize that it’s the death of dialogue. If all our truth claims are equally true, or if there is no truth, or if it doesn’t matter what the truth is or what our differences are, then what’s the point of even talking about it, let alone trying to learn anything from each other? But as you say, real dialogue is much harder than ignoring or making light of the differences, and yet much more fruitful in the long run.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      “I find it especially disconcerting when some in ecumenical circles start veering toward indifferentism, while failing to realize that it’s the death of dialogue. If all our truth claims are equally true, or if there is no truth, or if it doesn’t matter what the truth is or what our differences are, then what’s the point of even talking about it, let alone trying to learn anything from each other?”


  • Chris

    “That is the problem with you Christians, you think you can understand God’s will!”

    This strikes me as a very apt critque of the Catholic tendency to think we are much more certain about God’s will than we actually are. Rather more “Insha’Allah” (if it be God’s will) would be a be a good thing.

    God Bless

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/category/brett-salkeld/ brettsalkeld

      And yes, not only agreements, but salutary cautions can be fruits of dialogue.