Interreligious Dialogue: A Risk or an Opportunity?
Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran

Canisius Lecture – Boston College

2 April 2009

          The plurality of beliefs and religious memberships in western societies is one of the distinctive features of the beginning of the 21st century.    Certainly, Christianity remains dominant but it is not a point of reference. Generally speaking religion became for many an option and the fact of being a member of a church an irrelevant question: believing without belonging. Centuries of rationalization have led Westerners to ignore their Christian roots.  The Enlightenment, Scientism and the Marxist and Nazi Totalitarianism of the last century have contributed to place the human person at the center of reality.  In so doing, man has had the illusion to be the measure of everything.  The consequence has been that many of our contemporaries have been convinced – and are still convinced – that what human reason cannot explain or justify, simply does not exist.  The supernatural has been in principle, eliminated.  Nothing exists outside of what I can see, hear or verify.

But here comes the paradox.  Before the eclipse of the religious dimension of life, we are witnessing a remake of religious landscape on a more individualistic and emotional mode.  Because of four factors:

1. The sects

2. The new Catholic communities coming from the Charismatic movement

3. The success met by the traditional asiatic religious traditions and I am thinking of Buddhism

And the lasting presence of Muslims representing all forms and types.   They represent between 3% and 5 % of the European population.

Acts of terrorism justified by a small group of rebellious Islamists, material and cultural poverty, the hazards of the environment, have generated a pervasive feeling of precariousness.  So many of our fellow men and women have come to ask themselves the fundamental questions which are listed in the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on Relations of the Church to non-Christian religions (Nostre Aetate):  “What is the meaning and purpose of life?  Where does suffering originate?  How can genuine happiness be found?  What happens at death?”.  Perhaps we have forgotten too quickly that man is the only creature who questions about the world and wonders about himself.

So many speak about the resurgence of religion. In reality it is not a return to Christianity, but a resurgence of religions in their diversity. There is no religiously homogeneous society:  Americans know that better than any others.

As I mentioned before the active presence of numerous Sects which are attracting ordinary people by the simplicity of their message and the warmth of their community life; the seduction that oriental religions exercise on the secularized European citizen.  (Buddhism, for example, has become the third largest religion in France and Islam are factors which  have contributed to this change of approach to religion.) Islam in particular (the 2nd largest religion) has become in Europe and Muslims has sought greater visibility for their religion.   They ask for places of worship, the possibility of wearing distinctive religious garb; in a word, they are asking for room for God in public dialogue. So in a way we can say that we are condemned to dialogue with other religions.  They are the expression of the quest of men and women of all times and all cultures to find answers to the unsolved riddles of human existence.

I. What is Dialogue Then?  

I found a definition in Dictionnaire des notions philosofiques (PUF 1990 vol 1, p. 642): “There is dialogue when individuals or human groups are in disagreement on a point that they deem essential, and try to resolve their differences, exchanging arguments and objections instead of relying on violence.”

Applied to interreligious dialogue this definition helps us to understand that, in the context of religion, it is not a question of being kind to others, or pleasing them.  It is not even a negotiation. In negotiation I find a solution to problems and the matter is closed.  In interreligious dialogue I take a risk.  Certainly I am not going to give up my own convictions.  But I let myself be called into question by the religious convictions of another; and I accept taking into consideration arguments that are different than my own or those of my community.  In such a situation it is important to state that it is not religions that dialogue among themselves but rather believers that do it.  Believers are the subject and the destination of dialogue.  Dialogue does not necessarily mean agreement. It supposes that everyone can affirm what he himself believes.  The primary purpose of interreligious dialogue is to know the religion of my neighbor, not to convert the other, even if this dialogue creates a climate propitious to conversion.

So we can say that interreligious dialogue is an occasion to deepen my own convictions. As Christians we confess that Jesus Christ is the single mediator between God and Man (1 Tim 2:5).   We are not asked to find the lowest religious common denominator.  Or to say that all religions teach more or less the same thing (that would be relativism). No, it is rather an occasion to state that all believers, and all those who are looking for the Absolute, have the same dignity.  Dialogue supposes equality between partners but not equality between doctrines.  For us, Jesus and the founders of other religions cannot be put on the same level: He is the One who has revealed in a unique and definitive manner who is God: no one has ever seen God; it is the only Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart who has made Him known. (John 1:18).

But according to our Christian faith, we also recognize that God is present in every person since the first moment of life, much before anyone belongs to a religion. “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation… whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel.”  (Lumen Gentium, 16)  So we can say that every human being is fundamentally structured by this presence and this calling.

Then we can understand better what the Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio , affirms (n. 56):

“Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity. It is demanded by deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where he wills. Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover the ‘seeds of the Word,’ a ‘ray of that truth which enlightens all men’; these are found in individuals and in the religious traditions of mankind. Dialogue is based on hope and love, and will bear fruit in the Spirit. Other religions constitute a positive challenge for the Church: they stimulate her both to discover and acknowledge the signs of Christ’s presence and of the working of the Spirit, as well as to examine more deeply her own identity and to bear witness to the fullness of Revelation which she has received for the good of all.”

If the Holy Spirit is at work in every human being, if in every human being there is the light of Christ, the consequences are no less than amazing.  It means that all the positive that we discover in other religions is not only darkness but shares in the great Light that enlightens all the other lights.All that is true in a religion awaits its completion in Christ.  And at this point we have to read St Justin in his first Apology: “Those who have lived in conformity with the Word are Christians.”  Pope Benedict XVI two years ago in an audience on March 22, 2007, commented:  “Every person as a rational being shares in the Logos, carrying within himself a ‘seed’, and can perceive glimmers of the truth. Thus, the same Logos who revealed himself as a prophetic figure to the Hebrews of the ancient Law also manifested himself partially, in ‘seeds of truth’, in Greek philosophy.”

And then the same the Pope mentioned another quotation of Justin in his Second Apology (13:4):  “Whatever things were rightly said among all men are the property of us Christians”.  You have recognized the concept of Logos Spermatikom.   So we turn to read Nostra Aetate again:  “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in this religion.  She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and concepts although deferring in many ways from her own teaching, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.” (2)

The other religions represent for us Christians a challenge to be met.    They compel us to recognize the signs of the presence of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit.  We are compelled to witness to the integrity of revelation.   So the question arises:

II. What are the Conditions of Dialogue?

1.  The partners must have a clear-cut idea of their spiritual identities.  They have the duty and therefore the right to proclaim their own beliefs and at the same time, respect the beliefs of the other.  There can be no charity without respect of the otherness of the ideas of the other believers.  Religions must be a source of Peace  The catechesis in our parishes, the teaching in our seminaries and universities, must be more and more profound in order to transmit to the younger generation the specificity of their faith. Dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity.

2.  Regular meetings must be organized in order to learn more about the religious beliefs of the others, thus dispelling fear of the other, because ignorance begets fear. We must be honest with our partners; we cannot hide our differences.A Christian who has discovered that “Jesus is the unique mediator between God and Man” (1 Tim 2:5) cannot keep to himself such good news!  Let us listen to Pope Benedict “Such great gifts are never destined to one person.  In Christ the great Light is born.  We cannot put it under the bushel basket on the lampstand.” (Discourse to the Roman Curia 21-12-07)

3.  To consider the other not as a rival, but as a fellow seeker of God.  To respect the otherness of the other, his beliefs, his culture and his convictions, means that I consider that he has the same dignity, the same rights as I do.  Sometimes people say, “error has no rights”.  But “error” is an abstraction; it is not a person.  A person keeps his fundamental rights even when he is wrong.   Sometimes when taking part in roundtables or academic meetings we are listening to a succession of monologues. No one really listens to what the other is saying.  To welcome the other is also to listen to him in silence because we our convinced that other religions do possess a ray of the Truth which enlightens all human persons.  All this avoiding the pitfalls of confusion and relativism.  Then interreligious dialogue is an exchange of gifts which is occurs through four different modalities of human activity:

1. dialogue of life: good neighborly relations with non-Christians which encourage the sharing of joys and troubles;

2. dialogue of works: collaboration with a view to the well-being of both groups, especially people who live alone, in poverty or sickness;

3. dialogue of theological exchange which permits experts to understand in depth the respective religious heritages;

4. dialogue of spiritualities which makes available the riches of the life of prayer of both groups to anyone in either group; Interreligious dialogue therefore mobilizes all those who are on their way towards God or towards the Absolute.

III. Then comes my last consideration. Interreligious Dialogue is a decisive contribution to the harmony of our societies.

Believers who carry on the kind of dialogue I tried to illustrate do not pass unnoticed since citizens who adhere to religion are the majority. There is a religious factor that is at the heart of social life. By their number, by the length of their traditions, by the visibility of their institutions and their lives, believers are easily identified.  They are appreciated or they are opposed, but they never leave one indifferent.   Civil authorities cannot ignore them.  Moreover they can benefit from them by the number of values which can help greatly to the common good:

1.    respect for the dignity of the human person and his rights

2.    sense of brotherhood and mutual assistance.

3.    human maturity which helps to avoid being enslaved by consumerism and profit alone.

4.    a know-how of living “diversity in unity” as we can see from worshiping assemblies.

IV. Conclusion

To conclude then, I return to the title of my lecture: Interreligious dialogue, a risk or an opportunity?  Of course you have guessed my answer: It is both.

Interreligious dialogue is a risk because when I ask a follower of another religion, Who is your God? How do you live your faith in your everyday life? I leave myself open to the same question coming to me soon after, and I shall have to give an account of my own religious convictions.

Interreligious dialogue is also an opportunity because I am invited to reflect about my own religion keeping my Christian identity. We must always remember that it is not religions which carry on dialogue but rather the believers, concrete men and women belonging to specific communities.

I should say that in a way believers in today’s world are heralds of a two-fold message:

1.    Only God is worthy of adoration.  Therefore all idols made by men (wealth, power, appearance, hedonism) constitute a danger for the dignity of the human person, God’s creation.

2.    In God’s sight all men and women belong to the same race, to the same family and are all called to encounter him after death.

So we can say that believers are prophets of hope.  They do not believe in fate.  They know, that gifted by God with a heart and an intelligence, they can, with His help, change the course of history in order to shape their lives according to the project of the Creator, that is to say to make of humanity an authentic family.

For us Christians, we look at Jesus as a model in our efforts towards dialogue.  First of all, he is aware of “being sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). But, this has not kept him from welcoming to all those he met along the road, especially those rebuked and foreigners.  Misunderstanding and rejection never prevented him from announcing the Good News, not even death.

Furthermore, if God is in himself dialogue (Father, Son and Holy Spirit); if the Christian life is a dialogue between God and each one of us; if we recognized that God is at work in every human person, then we can understand that interreligious dialogue is a consequence of such reality and we can understand better what Pope Paul VI affirmed in his Encyclical Letter, Ecclessium Suam: “”The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make.” (n. 65)

Interreligious dialogue is our responsibility. As marked out by Benedict XVI, “We are called to give a new impetus to interreligious and intercultural dialogue by means of our common research and by highlighting and disseminating everything in our respective spiritual heritages that helps to strengthen fraternal ties between our communities of believers. I insist once again. Interreligious research and dialogue are not an option but a vital need for our time. (Address to the Members of the Foundation for Intercultural and Interreligious Research and Dialogue, 1 February 2007).

As we celebrate the Pauline year, let us rightly remember the words of that man of dialogue who Paul was when he wrote to Timothy: “God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of Truth. (1 Tim 2:4)