Benedict XVI on the Dialogue of Religions

In my view, Benedict XVI provides much-needed clarity about inter-religious dialogue and its goals. In an earlier article on The Catholic Thing, I wrote of Joseph Ratzinger’s view of the dialogue of the religions. Here, I turn to consider Benedict’s view of inter-religious dialogue in his 2012 Christmas address.

Although he was committed to dialogical relations among the religions, Benedict explicitly excludes religious relativism, indifferentism, and syncretism from his understanding. He, accordingly, sees this relation as a truth-seeking enterprise rather than just about “learning to accept the [religious] other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking,” as he puts it. Furthermore, following St. John Paul II (in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris missio), he rejects the supplanting of evangelization with inter-religious dialogue, and, therefore, prioritizes the call of Jesus (John 1:39) – “Come and see!” – of proclamation and evangelization.

According to Benedict, a dialogical relation among the religions is multi-dimensional. First, it is about learning to co-exist, about being together, that is, about peace and justice, “shared responsibility for society, for the state, for humanity.” To achieve that end, Benedict affirms the necessity of a dialogue among the religions. Second, although a hermeneutic of justice and peace is a guiding principle of this dialogical relation, says Benedict, it “is bound to pass beyond the purely pragmatic to an ethical quest for the values that come before everything.” He adds, “In this way what began as a purely practical dialogue becomes a quest for the right way to live as a human being.”

For Benedict, the starting point of the dialogue has two generally accepted rules for interreligious dialogue so that we “learn to accept the other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking.” The first is that: “Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission; accordingly, both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.” Specifically, he means that at this point no explicit attention is given to answering the question: “Why am I a Christian, and not a Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Jew, and so forth?”

In other words, as Benedict puts it, the justification and truth of “fundamental [religious] choices themselves are not under discussion.” To rise to that level of discussion, which we must, would involve what Paul Griffiths calls the “necessity of inter-religious apologetics” (see the “NOIA” principle in an Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue).

Still, he says, “the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. In the process, this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered. If both sides set out from a hermeneutic of justice and peace, the fundamental difference will not disappear, but a deeper closeness will emerge nevertheless.”

Benedict accepts these rules that guide interreligious dialogue, but he thinks them too “superficial” (his word) because they exclude the question of truth as well as evangelization. A dialogical relation operates in the realm of pre-evangelization because it “does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding.” “But all the same,” Benedict adds, “the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth.” Otherwise, merely accepting fundamental differences, in short, one’s religious identity, says Benedict, “effectively blocks the path to truth.” The fundamental religious choices would consequently appear arbitrary, as having nothing to do with rationality and the truth about reality.

Hence, Benedict affirms a second principle, that “Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth.” One might add to the above-formulated rules the realist presuppositions of a theory of knowledge: truth exists, and we can know it and be justified in our claims to know.

Furthermore, given the necessity of inter-religious apologetics, this also presupposes two precepts of would-be knowers, namely, knowing the truth, and avoiding error. Moreover, summarizing his Christian theory of knowledge as it pertains to the truth-seeker, Benedict concludes, “Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.”

Finally, this process of searching for the truth eventually brings us in our dialogical relation to evangelizing a truth-seeker, and turning him from his truth-twisting ways. This seeker is “listening and following behind Jesus, which is not yet discipleship, but rather a holy curiosity, a movement of seeking.” Then, adds Benedict, “Jesus turns round, approaches them and asks: ‘What do you seek?’ They respond with a further question, which demonstrates the openness of their expectation, their readiness to take new steps.”

In short, this process is “effective in situations where man is listening in readiness for God to draw near, where man is inwardly searching and thus on the way towards the Lord. . . .As he walks with Jesus, he is led to the place where Jesus lives, to the community of the Church, which is his body. That means entering into the journeying community of catechumens, a community of both learning and living, in which our eyes are opened as we walk.”

Benedict XVI’s theology of inter-religious dialogue, therefore, does not stop at the necessary recognition of the other, but also encourages the dialogical relation to remain on the path of seeking and finding the truth in Christ and His Church.

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.