The Church’s Evangelising Mission in the Context of Religious Pluralism
Religious pluralism is nothing new. Early Christianity from apostolic times onward had to situate its message first in relation to Judaism, from which it emerged, and then in relation to the other religions that it encountered along its way. What is actually new is the acute awareness attained by our world of the pluralism of cultures and of religious traditions, and of the right that each has to its own difference. There is no need to develop here the many reasons for this realization. They are well known, and are political and economic ‘and indeed human, cultural, and religious — in nature’.
Our concern is to ask what this new awareness of the surrounding religious pluralism has to tell us about Christian praxis. What attitudes toward the ‘others’, whatever they may be – Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or others – does Christian faith lived in such an environment require of us? It seems clear that a new attitude on the part of the Church toward the religions is linked to the recognition on its part of the positive values that can be found in them. No wonder then that there is something new in the contemporary discourse on interreligious dialogue.
Three things will retain our attention here: 1. Is interreligious dialogue part of the evangelizing mission of the Church? 2. What is the theological foundation for interreligious dialogue? 3. What challenge is implied in the practice of interreligious dialogue, and what fruit can the Church derive from its practice?
I. Interreligious Dialogue in the Church’s Mission
1. Interreligious Dialogue is Evangelization
Interreligious dialogue was hardly spoken of before the Second Vatican Council. Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, published during the Council (1964), helped give it a powerful impulse forward. The Pope described the Church as destined to extend the dialogue of salvation that God has sustained with humankind over the centuries. He traced four concentric circles of such dialogue on the part of the Church: dialogue with the whole world; dialogue with members of other religions; dialogue with other Christians; and finally, dialogue within the Church itself. These same four concentric circles are taken up – moving in the opposite direction – in the conclusion of Vatican II’s Constitution Gaudium et Spes (92).
Let us note, however, that while encouraging interreligious dialogue, Paul VI did not take a position on the exact place that such dialogue might occupy in the Church’s mission. The reason is that the Pope’s own diagnosis of the value of these religions remained quite negative. Indeed in his later apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), Paul VI still retained a negative evaluation of other religious traditions (53): they represented the ‘natural’ religiosity of human beings, whereas Christianity was the only ‘supernatural’ religion. Consequently, the ‘others’ were seen only as ‘beneficiaries’ of the Church’s evangelizing mission, still conceived primarily in terms of the ‘proclamation’ of the gospel and of the Church’s activities related to it. Paul VI, who had become the Pope of dialogue with Ecciesiam Suam did not mention dialogue at all in the later document.
Nor did the Council make any statement to the effect that dialogue belongs to the mission of the Church. Throughout the Council documents, the evangelizing mission remains strictly identified with announcing or proclaiming Jesus Christ to ‘non-Christians’ in order to invite them to ‘conversion’ to Christianity. The Council positively commends interreligious dialogue (cf. Nostra Aetate 2; Gaudium et Spes 92); but as important as dialogue might seem, it is never said to belong to the mission of the Church as such. However significant and commendable it may be in terms of its relationship to evangelization, dialogue represents only a first approach to the ‘others’, to which the pre-conciliar theological term of ‘pre-evangelization’ could still be applied.
The foregoing may serve to show that viewing dialogue as something intrinsic to ‘evangelization’ marks a significant qualitative change in the postconciliar theology of mission. It is part of the working out, during the post-Vatican II years, of a broad and comprehensive notion of ‘evangelization,’ of which dialogue represents together with other elements – a constitutive dimension. The decisive step forward in official teaching took place with some documents in the 1980s and 1990s.
Before proceeding further, some clarifications of a terminological nature must be provided. The definitions proposed here are largely borrowed from the document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’ (1991), published conjointly by the Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The term ‘evangelization’ or ‘evangelizing mission’ of the Church ‘refers to the mission of the Church in its totality’ (8), in the various elements of which it is composed. ‘Dialogue,’ an integral part of that mission, indicates ‘all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment ... in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’ (9). ‘Announcement’ or ‘proclamation’ is ‘the communication of the Gospel message, the mystery of salvation realized by God for all in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is an invitation ... to entry through baptism into the community of believers which is the Church’ (10). Given these definitions, it becomes clear that ‘dialogue’ and ‘mission’ should not be opposed as though they were mutually in opposition, or even adequately distinct from one another, because dialogue is an integral part of the evangelizing mission to which proclamation also belongs. At the same time, while dialogue is already in itself evangelization, evangelization cannot be reduced to dialogue. The two elements are different in scope: as a specific element of evangelization, dialogue does not seek the ‘conversion’ of others to Christianity but the convergence of both dialogue partners to a deeper shared conversion to God and to others; by contrast, proclamation invites others to become disciples of Christ in the Christian community.
The postconciliar documents of the magisterium in which a broad concept of the church’s evangelizing mission is clearly developed so as to include in it, as constitutive and integral elements, both full human promotion and liberation, on the one hand, and interreligious dialogue on the other, are the document ‘Dialogue and Mission’ of the Secretariat for non-Christians (1984), the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), and the document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’ (1991) already mentioned. In the 1984 document of the Secretariat for Non-Christians the Church’s evangelizing mission is presented as a ‘single, but complex and articulated reality’ (13), of which the ‘principal elements’ are listed. They are the following: 1. the witness of life; 2. ‘the concrete commitment to the service of humankind and all forms of activity for social development and for the struggle against poverty and the structures which produce it’; 3. liturgical life, prayer and contemplation; 4. the dialogue in which Christians meet the followers of other religious traditions in order to walk together towards ‘truth and to work together in projects of common concern’; 5 finally, announcing [ kerygma ]and catechesis [ didachè ] The totality of Christian mission embraces all these elements’ (13)1. ‘The significance of this text is considerable: interreligious dialogue on the part of the Church is already evangelization; Christians and others are together on their way toward the truth.
The document ‘Dialogue and Mission’ further explains that interreligious dialogue as a specific task of evangelization – which ‘finds its place in the great dynamism of the Church’s mission’ (30) – can itself assume various forms. There is the dialogue of life, open and accessible to all (29—30). There is the dialogue of a common commitment to works of justice and human liberation (3 1—32).
There is intellectual dialogue in which scholars engage in an exchange about their respective religious legacies, with the aim of promoting communion and fellowship (33—34). Finally, on the deepest level, there is the sharing of religious experiences of prayer and contemplation, in a common search for the Absolute (35). All these forms of dialogue are, for the Christian partner, so many ways of working for the ‘evangelical transformation of cultures’ (34), so many opportunities of sharing existentially with others the gospel values (35).
The encyclical Redemptoris Missio says of the relationship between dialogue and proclamation:
These two elements must maintain both their intimate connection and their distinctiveness; therefore, they should not be confused, manipulated ( nec immodice instrumentorum instar adhibenda ) or regarded as identical, as though they were interchangeable (55).
That dialogue cannot be ‘manipulated’ means emphatically that it cannot be reduced to an instrument for proclamation; it has value in itself as an authentic expression of evangelization. In interreligious dialogue the Church seeks to discover the ‘seeds of the Word’, and a ‘ray of that Truth which enlightens all human beings’, that are found in the persons and in the religious traditions of humankind. The Church is stimulated ‘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’ (56).
The document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’2 echoes the encyclical when it states: Inter-religious dialogue and proclamation, though not on the same level, are both authentic elements of the Church’s evangelizing mission. Both are legitimate and necessary. They are intimately related, but not interchangeable.. .. The two activities remain distinct, but ….one and the same local Church, one and the same person, can be diversely engaged in both. (77)
However, the document also observes that dialogue, while representing an authentic expression of evangelization, does not exhaust it but remains oriented toward proclamation. The scope of both activities is different. That of interreligious dialogue is ‘a deeper conversion of all towards God’; as such, it possesses ‘its own validity’ (41). Proclamation, on the other hand, ‘aims at guiding people to explicit knowledge of what God has done for all men and women in Jesus Christ, and to invite them to be disciples of Jesus through becoming members of the Church’ (81). The document states:
‘Dialogue ...does not constitute the whole mission of the Church… it cannot simply replace proclamation, but remains oriented towards proclamation, in so far as the dynamic process of the Church’s evangelizing mission reaches in it its climax and its fullness’ (82).
Both elements are conceived as in a dialectical relationship within the same evangelizing mission, which represents a dynamic process: proclamation and its sacramentalization in the life of the Church represent the peak of the evangelizing mission. The ‘orientation’ of dialogue toward proclamation in fact corresponds to the ‘orientation’ ( ordinantur ) of the members of other religious traditions toward the Church, spoken of in Lumen Gentium 16. They are ‘oriented’ to it because to it is entrusted ‘the fullness of the benefits and the means of salvation’ ( Redemptoris Missio 18). Similarly, dialogue remains ‘oriented’ toward proclamation through which the ‘others’ are invited to share that fullness in the Church.
If the question is raised whether and to what extent these three post-conciliar documents go beyond what the Council had said previously, the following may be said: Vatican II encouraged dialogue with the other religious traditions, but did not declare it to be part of the Church’s evangelizing mission. The latter point is indeed stated clearly by the subsequent three documents. Moreover, all three documents develop a ‘broad’ concept of evangelization that is not yet discernible in Vatican II; they assert, albeit in different ways, that dialogue cannot be reduced to an ‘instrument’ of proclamation, but has value in itself. In these and other ways, they constitute, with different accents and nuances, a step forward in the Church’s doctrine on evangelization, dialogue, and proclamation.
2. Dialogue and Proclamation
We have noted that dialogue and proclamation are in a dialectical relationship in the dynamic process of the Church’s evangelizing mission. Between them there is and there must remain a certain tension. The ‘Theses on Interreligious Dialogue’ of the FABC Theological Advisory Commission bases the polarity of dialogue and proclamation in the Church’s evangelizing mission on the universal presence in the world of God’s work of salvation (the Reign of God), of which the Church is the sacrament. In these Theses we read:3
The one divine plan of salvation for all peoples embraces the whole universe. The mission of the Church has to be understood within the context of this plan. The Church does not monopolize God’s action in the universe. While it is aware of a special mission of God in the world, it has to be attentive to God’s action in the world, as manifested also in the other religions. This twofold awareness constitutes the two poles of the Church’s evangelizing action in relation to other religions. While proclamation is the expression of its awareness of being in mission, dialogue is the expression of its awareness of God’s presence and action outside its boundaries. The action of the Church finds itself in a field of forces controlled by these two poles of divine activity. Proclamation is the affirmation of and witness to God’s action in oneself. Dialogue is the openness and attention to the mystery of God’s action in the other believer. It is a perspective of faith that we cannot speak of the one without the other (6.5).
The Spirit calls all peoples to conversion which is primarily a free turning of the heart to God and his Kingdom in obedience to his word. Dialogue as a mutual challenge to growth toward fullness involves such a call to conversion. Dialogue, however, does not aim at conversion, understood as a change of religion. But proclamation includes a further call to discipleship to Jesus Christ in the Church. It is not proselytism but a mystery of the call of the Spirit and the free response of the person. Because of this double movement of freedom in the Spirit, proclamation itself is dialogical 6.6).
It is not possible therefore to agree on this question with Paul F Knitter’s book, Jesus and the Other names4. Knitter proposes simply to identify mission with dialogue, from which proclamation must not be distinguished as a further element of mission. The received opinion according to which ‘dialogue is mission – insofar as in itself it constitutes an intrinsic dimension, a genuine expression, of evangelization’ is being reversed to become ‘Mission is dialogue’, whereby evangelization is simply reduced to dialogue and the witness to one’s faith that dialogue implies (pp.142-147). Proclamation as a distinct expression of evangelization is thereby done away with. In Knitters’s view, a ‘constitutive’ Christology, even if ‘inclusivist’, rules out the possibility of a genuine and sincere dialogue. On the contrary, once a ‘pluralist’ Christology which denies the constitutive character of salvation in Jesus Christ has been adopted, mission is reduced to dialogue and to the witness of one’s own faith entailed in it (pp.134-35). For Knitter, then, a constitutive Christology, even if it is inclusivist, renders the practice of inter-faith dialogue impossible; it likewise nullifies any effort to build an ecclesiology and a theology of mission oriented towards the Reign of God. It can neither honestly visualize mission as dialogue, nor foster readiness to learn anything genuinely new from the ‘others’ through the practice of dialogue. Knitter writes: ‘Simply stated, it is impossible to develop a Kingdom-centred understanding of the Church that will coherently and persuasively present the Church as the servant of the Kingdom on the basis of a Christology that inisists that Jesus is the only cause of and the unsurpassable criterion for the salvation to be realized in the Kingdom’ (p.135).
Against such opinion it must be said that a ‘constitutive’ Christology is not necessarily ‘exclusive’, and that a constitutive and inclusivist Christology is genuinely open to a Kingdom-centred theology of mission and to a sincere dialogue that leaves room for announcing the gospel. The universal saving impact of Jesus Christ, as ‘constitutive’ of the salvation of the world as it might be, leaves space for other ‘saving figures’ and other religious traditions, where God is present and at work through God’s Word and Spirit. The Reign of God is thus truly broader than the Church and destined to be built by Christians and the ‘others’; dialogue, which entails learning new aspects of the truth, is an authentic expression of the evangelizing mission. Dialogue does not, however, exhaust that mission, in which there remains space – where God so wills – for inviting the others to become disciples of Jesus in the Church. As Claude Geffré says incisively: a ‘constitutive’ Christology leaves room for other mediations and divine revelations. He writes:
Why should it be thought that only a radical theocentrism can meet the demands of interreligious dialogue? It seems that a deepened Christology can open more fruitful avenues, capable of doing justice at once to the demands of a true pluralism and to the Christian identity.5
Perhaps the best way to conclude these clarifications is to quote ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’, where it explains what ultimately constitutes the deepest motivation of the Church’s drive to announce Jesus Christ:
How could [Christians] not hope and desire to share with others their joy of knowing and following Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour? We are here at the heart of the mystery of love. Insofar as the Church and Christians have a deep love for the Lord Jesus, the desire of sharing him with others is motivated not merely by obedience to the Lord’s command, but by this love itself. It should not be surprising, but quite normal, that the followers of other religions should also desire sincerely to share their faith. All dialogue implies reciprocity and aims at banishing fear and aggressiveness (83).
II. The Theological Foundation of Dialogue
1. ‘Mystery of unity’
To lay the foundation for the ‘relations between the Church and non-Christian religions’, and especially for interreligious dialogue, Vatican II’s Declaration Nostra Aetate stated that ‘Humanity forms but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all humankind’ (1). Dialogue is thus established on a double foundation: the community which has its origin in God through creation, and its destiny in him through salvation in Jesus Christ. Nothing is said about the presence and action of the Spirit of God operating in all people and all religions themselves.
It is well known that the Council only gradually rediscovered the activity of the Spirit, and the fruits of that rediscovery are found primarily in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes . It must also be recognized that the Council took note of the universal activity of the Spirit of God in the midst of all human beings in the earthly aspirations of all humankind, such as peace and brotherhood, work and progress, rather than in their properly religious aspirations and endeavours.
2. The Universal Action of the Spirit of God
That the Spirit of God is universally present and operative in the religious life of the ‘others’ and in the religious traditions to which they belong, just as among Christians and in the Church, would also be a post-conciliar rediscovery. The importance of such a vision for the theological foundation of interreligious dialogue cannot be ignored: it constitutes a second element of its foundation. But that vision gained ground only slowly. There are no traces of it in the official teaching of Paul VI. To make this clear it suffices to note that in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) which resumes the work of the synod of bishops on evangelization in the modernworld (1974), the Spirit appears only as driving the Church and empowering it for fulfilling its evangelizing mission (75), which as noted earlier, consists primarily and principally in the proclamation of the gospel.
The presence and universal action of the Spirit of God among the ‘others’ and in their religious traditions represent John Paul II’s most important contribution to the theological foundation of interreligious dialogue. There is no need to cite all the prominent texts. It suffices to mention the main ideas. The Pope says that the ‘firm belief’ of the followers of other religions is ‘an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body’ ( Redemptor Hominis 6). In the important speech given by the Pope to members of the Roman Curia on December 22, 1986, after the Assisi World Day of Prayer for Peace (27 October 1986), the Pope wished to justify theologically the ‘event’, held in Assisi two months previously. Hence, taking the theological foundation of dialogue which was presented by the Council – the unity of origin and of destiny of the human race through creation and redemption – he sees it as a ‘mystery of unity’ which unites all human beings, whatever the differences in the circumstances of their lives might be: ‘The differences are a less important element than the unity which, by contrast, is radical, basic, and decisive’ (3)6 He further insists: In the light of this twofold ‘mystery of unity,’ ‘differences of all kinds, and first of all religious differences, to the extent to which they diminish God’s design, are shown to pertain to another order… They must be surmounted in progress toward the realization of the great design of unity guiding creation’. Despite their differences, which are sometimes perceived as insuperable divisions, all human beings ‘are included in the grand and single design of God in Jesus Christ’ (5). ‘The universal unity based on the event of creation and redemption cannot but leave a trace in the reality lived by human beings, even those belonging to different religions’ (7). These ‘seeds of the Word’ sown among the others constitute the concrete foundation of interreligious dialogue encouraged by the Council.
To that ‘mystery of unity,’ the foundation of dialogue, the Pope added a second element, namely the active presence of the Spirit of God in the religious life of the ‘others’, especially in their prayer: ‘We may think’, he wrote, ‘that any authentic prayer is aroused by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every human being’ (11).
The text of the encyclical Dominium et Vivificantum (1986) on the Holy Spirit could be cited at length. In it the Pope extends his discourse with a far-reaching theological treatment of the universal presence of the Spirit throughout the entire history of salvation from the beginning and after the Jesus Christ event, well beyond the confines of the Church. Suffice it to evoke the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), where it is explicitly said that the presence of the Spirit extends not only to the religious life of individuals but also to the religious traditions to which they belong. ‘The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions’ (28).
Through these texts there gradually emerges the same teaching: the Holy Spirit is present and active in the world, in the members of other religions, and in their religious traditions themselves. Every authentic prayer (even if addressed to a God still unknown), the human values and virtues, the treasures of wisdom hidden in the religious traditions, and thus also the dialogue and authentic encounter between their members, are so many fruits of the active presence of the Spirit.
The document ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’ (1991), following John Paul II, again invokes the ‘mystery of unity,’ the threefold theological foundation of interreligious dialogue, based on the common origin and the single destiny of the human race in God, universal salvation in Jesus Christ, and the active presence of the Spirit in all (28). The fundamental reason for the Church’s commitment to dialogue ‘is not merely anthropological but primarily theological’ (38). The Church should enter into a dialogue of salvation with all human beings in the very same way in which God entered into an age-long dialogue of salvation with humankind, a dialogue still taking place. ‘In this dialogue of salvation, Christians and others are called to collaborate with the Spirit of the Risen Lord who is universally present and active’ (40).
3. The Universality of the Reign of God
In pursuing the theological foundation of interreligious dialogue, emphasis must also be given to the universality of the Reign of God, in which members of other religious traditions are fully members and in which they participate together with Christians.
(This fourth element is not explicitly mentioned as such in the documents mentioned earlier. ‘Dialogue and Proclamation’, however, makes an implicit hint at it: ‘From this mystery of unity it follows that all men and women who are saved share, though differently, in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit. Christians know this through their faith, while others remain unaware that Jesus Christ is the source of their salvation. The mystery of salvation reaches out to them, in a way known to God, through the invisible action of the Spirit of Christ’ 29).
The Reign of God universally present in the world represents the universal presence of the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ. That all are co-members in the Reign of God means that all share in the same mystery of salvation in him. The importance of this for a theology of the religions and dialogue may be easily grasped.
The universally present and shared Reign of God constitutes the third element of the theological foundation of interreligious dialogue. All have access to the Reign of God in history through obedience to the God of the Reign in faith and conversion. The theology of the religions and dialogue must show how the ‘others’ are sharers in the reality of the Reign of God in the world and history, by opening themselves to the action of the Spirit. By responding in the sincere practice of their religious tradition to God’s call addressed to them, believers of other religious faiths truly become – albeit without being formally conscious of it – active members of the Reign. Through participation in the mystery of salvation, they are members of the Reign of God already present in history, and their religious traditions themselves contribute in a mysterious manner to the construction of the Reign of God in the world.
From that, however, there follow important consequences for interreligious dialogue. Dialogue takes place between persons who are already bound the ones with the others in the Reign of God inaugurated in history in Jesus Christ. The differences in their religious allegiances notwithstanding, such persons are already in communion with one another in the reality of the mystery of salvation, even if there remains a distinction between them on the level of the sacrament, that is, in the order of the mediation of the mystery. Communion in the reality is, however, more fundamental and of greater weight than differences on the level of sign. That explains the deep communion in the Spirit that interreligious dialogue is able to establish, if it is sincere and authentic, between Christians and other believers7, That also shows why interreligious dialogue is a form of sharing, of giving and receiving, why it is not, in a word, a one-way process: it is not a monologue but a ‘dialogue.’ The reason is that the reality of the Reign of God is already shared in mutual exchange. Dialogue makes explicit this communion pre-existing in that reality of salvation, which is the Reign of God that has come for all in Jesus.
Probably nothing provides interreligious dialogue with so deep a theological basis and a motivation so true as the conviction that despite the differences that set them apart, those who belong to the different religious traditions are walking together – joint members of the Reign of God in history – toward the fullness of the Reign, toward the new humanity willed by God for the end of which they are called to be co-creators under God.
III. The Challenges and Fruits of Dialogue
1. Commitment and Openness
The conditions for the possibility of interreligious dialogue have occupied an important place in the debate on the theology of religions. It was in order that dialogue be practicable that Paul F. Knitter advocated the paradigm shift from Christocentrism to theocentrism, that is, from inclusivism to ‘pluralism.’ Indeed how, as he thought, could dialogue be sincere and simply honest, if the Christian party engages in it with a preconceived idea, an already fixed bias toward a ‘constitutive’ uniqueness of Jesus Christ, universal Saviour of humankind? In the view of the ‘pluralists,’ a ‘constitutive’ and ‘inclusivist’ Christology, in which all of humankind is saved by God in the Jesus Christ event, leaves no room for genuine dialogue. Dialogue, it is observed, can only be sincere if it takes place on an equal footing between partners. Can the Church and Christians accordingly be sincere in their professed will to enter into dialogue if they are not prepared to give up the traditional claims about Jesus as ‘constitutive’ Saviour of humankind? The problem of religious identity in general, and of Christian identity in particular, is bound up with this question as is that of the openness to the ‘others’ required by dialogue.
First of all, one may not, on the pretext of honesty in dialogue, bracket one’s faith (practicing an epochè ), even temporarily, against the expectation, as has been suggested, of eventually rediscovering the truth of that faith through the dialogue itself. On the contrary, honesty and sincerity in dialogue specifically require that the various partners enter it and commit themselves to it in the integrity of their faith. Any methodical doubt, any mental reservation, is out of place here. Otherwise, one could no longer speak of interreligious or interfaith dialogue. After all, at the basis of an authentic religious life is a faith that endows that life with its specific character and proper identity. This religious faith is no more negotiable in the interreligious dialogue than it is in one’s personal life. It is not a commodity to be parcelled out or exchanged; it is a gift received from God, of which one may not dispose lightly.
By the same token, just as sincerity in dialogue authorizes no bracketing of faith, even a provisional one, so its integrity in turn forbids any compromise or reduction of faith. Authentic dialogue does not accommodate such expedients. It admits neither the ‘syncretism’ that, in the quest for a common ground, attempts to surmount opposition and contradictions among the faiths of different religious traditions through some reduction of their content; nor the ‘eclecticism’ that, in the search for a common denominator among the various traditions, chooses scattered elements among them and combines these into a shapeless, inconsistent amalgam. If it is to be true, dialogue may not seek the easy way, which in any case is illusory.
Rather, without wishing to conceal any contradictions among religious faiths, it must admit them where they exist and face them patiently and responsibly. To conceal differences and possible contradictions would amount to cheating and would actually end by depriving the dialogue of its object. After all, dialogue seeks understanding in difference, in a sincere esteem for convictions other than one’s own. Thus it leads both partners to question themselves on the implications for their own faith of the personal convictions of the others.
If then it goes without saying that in the practice of the interreligious dialogue, Christians may not dissimulate their own faith in Jesus Christ, they in turn will acknowledge in their partners who do not share their faith the inalienable right and duty, while engaging in dialogue, to maintain their own personal convictions – even claims to universality that may be part of their faith. It is in this fidelity to personal, non-negotiable convictions, honestly accepted on both sides, that the interreligious dialogue takes place ‘between equals’ - in their differences.
As the seriousness of dialogue forbids toning down deep convictions on either side, so its openness demands that what is relative be not absolutized, whether by incomprehension or intransigence. In every religious faith and conviction, Christianity included, there is the danger, and a real one, of absolutizing what is not absolute. We must insist on the unsuitability of using the terms ‘absolute’ and ‘absoluteness’ for Christianity as a historic religion and indeed for the historic humanity of Jesus. While the humanity of Jesus is the personal human being of the Son of God, it remains by its very nature created, limited, contingent. God alone is the Absolute and must be called such.
Commitment to one’s own faith and openness to the ‘other’ must therefore be combined. A ‘constitutive’ Christology which professes universal salvation in the Jesus Christ event seems to allow for both. Christian identity, as it has been understood through the centuries, is linked to faith in the ‘constitutive’ mediation and in the ‘fullness’ of divine revelation in Jesus Christ, but they must be understood without either reductionism or exclusive absolutism.
2. Personal Faith and the Experience of the Other
If dialogue supposes the integrity of personal faith, it also requires openness to the faith of the other in its difference. Each partner in the dialogue must enter into the experience of the other, striving to grasp that experience from within. In order to do this, he or she must rise above the level of the concepts in which this experience is imperfectly expressed, to attain, insofar as possible, through and beyond the concepts, the experience itself. It is this effort of ‘com-prehension’ and interior ‘sym-pathy’——or ‘em-pathy’—that Raimon Panikkar calls the ‘intra-religious’ dialogue, an indispensable condition for true interreligious dialogue8. This has been described as a spiritual technique consisting of ‘passing over and returning.’ ‘Passing over’ means encountering both the other and the religious experience which that other carries internally, together with his or her worldview or Weltanschauung: A recent author describes it as:
To know the religion of another is more than being cognizant of the facts of the other’s religious tradition. It involves getting inside the skin of the other, it involves walking in the other’s shoes, it involves seeing the world in some sense as the other sees it, it involves asking the other’s questions, it involves getting inside the other’s sense of ‘being a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or whatever.’9
Under these premises, we must ask ourselves whether and to what extent it is possible to share two different religious faiths, making each of them one’s own, and living both at once in one’s own religious life. From an absolute viewpoint, this seems impossible. Even apart from any interior conflict that might arise in the individual, every religious faith constitutes an indivisible whole and calls for a total commitment of the person. It seems impossible that such an absolute engagement might be divided, as it were, between two objects. To be a Christian is not only to find in Jesus Christ values to be promoted or even a meaning for one’s life; it is to be totally committed and dedicated to his person, to find in him one’s way to God.
Does this mean, however, that the concept of the ‘hyphenated Christian’ is self-contradictory – that one cannot be Hindu-Christian or Buddhist-Christian, or the like? This is the issue of what is now called religious ‘double allegiance’, to use a more satisfactory expression. To assert the impossibility of double religious belonging would contradict experience, as such cases are not rare or unknown. Here it is well to recall that the theology of religions cannot be satisfied with a priori deductions from traditional doctrinal principles, but rather must follow a method that is primarily inductive, that is, take its cue from lived experience and then pursue its meaning in the light of the revealed datum. Indeed, there is no denying that a significant number of people, whose sincerity and trustworthiness is beyond suspicion, have made and are making the experience of combining in their own life of faith and religious practice their Christian faith and total devotion to the person of Jesus with elements from another experience of faith and another religious commitment. Both these elements can be combined in personal experience in various degrees and in different ways.
Some attention must be paid to the various possible meanings of the concept of double belonging. To be a ‘Hindu-Christian’ can mean combining in oneself Hindu culture and Christian faith. Hinduism would then not be a religious faith, strictly speaking, but a philosophy and a culture, which, with the necessary adjustments, could serve as a vehicle for Christian faith. Then the problem of the ‘Hindu-Christian’ would be that of the ‘inculturation’ of Christian faith and doctrine in a Hindu cultural context. In this case, obviously, the concept of a Hindu-Christian will offer no difficulty in principle. But does this explanation fully correspond to reality? Hinduism, while it is not primarily and uniformly doctrinal, nevertheless involves, in the concrete lives of men and women, a genuine religious faith. For that matter, the distinction between religion and culture is difficult to manage, especially in Asian traditions. Representing as it does the transcendent element in culture, religion is scarcely separable from culture.
Can one nevertheless combine and make one’s own Hindu (or Buddhist) faith and Christian faith? In this regard, we must exercise discernment. Surely there are elements of other faiths that are in harmony with Christian faith and can be combined and integrated with it? These will serve to enrich it, if it is true that other faiths contain elements of divine truth and revelation. There may be other elements, however, that seem to formally contradict the Christian faith and cannot be assimilated.
In any case, with the cautions that we have indicated, in order to be true, interreligious dialogue certainly requires that both partners make a positive effort to enter into each other’s religious experience and overall vision, insofar as possible. We are dealing with the encounter, in one and the same person, of two ways of being, seeing, and thinking. This ‘intrareligious dialogue’ is an indispensable preparation for an exchange between persons in interreligious dialogue.
3. Mutual Enrichment
The interaction between Christianity and the Asian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, has been conceived differently by various promoters of interreligious dialogue. Aloysius Pieris sees the Christian tradition, on one side, and the Buddhist tradition, on the other, as ‘two religious models which, far from being contradictory, are in fact, incomplete each in itself and, therefore, complementary and mutually corrective.’ They represent ‘poles of a tension, not so much geographical as psychological. They are two instincts emerging dialectically from within the deepest zone of each individual, be s/he Christian or not. Our religious encounter with God and human beings would be incomplete without this interaction.’10 Pieris calls these two complementary poles the agapeic (Christianity) and the gnostic (Buddhism). A parallel between the two historic founders, Jesus-the-Christ and Gautama-the-Buddha, naturally suggests itself. The question being raised is that of a possible complementarity between the saving values represented by both that can be found in the religious traditions bearing their name. Pieris understands it as complementarity between Buddhist gnosis and Christian agape, or, more precisely – exchanging the words – between the ‘agapeic gnosis’ of Christians and the ‘gnostic agape’ of Buddhists.’ The mutual complementarity between the two traditions – their differences notwithstanding – is based on the inadequacy of the basic ‘medium’ of each one, which leaves them open to mutual fulfilment.’
John A. T. Robinson, for his part, speaks of two ‘eyes’ of truth and reality: Western Christianity represents one eye, Hinduism the other; more generally, the West stands for the first, the East for the second. Robinson sees the polarity of the two ‘centres’ as that between the male and female principles. He too calls for a mutual complementarity between the two centres.’13
John B. Cobb, in turn, advocates a ‘mutual transformation,’ beyond dialogue, between Christianity and Buddhism; such a mutual transformation will result from the osmosis between the complementary approaches to reality, that is, between the worldviews characteristic of both traditions.14
Raimon Panikkar’s focus is somewhat different. He insists that the various religious traditions differ and must keep their distinct identity. He rejects a facile ‘eclecticism’ which would destroy the respective identities; faith cannot be ‘bracketed’ (epochè) to ease the dialogue. But, while the ‘cosmotheandric mystery,’ the object of faith, is common to all religious traditions, ‘beliefs’ differ in each. Between these ‘beliefs’ Panikkar advocates a ‘cross-fertilization’ – which he terms ‘syncretism’ – for the sake of mutual enrichment.
Panikkar has returned to this topic several times. Recently he has described what he regards as the profile and the horizon of interreligious dialogue for the future. Moving now beyond the problematic of ‘cross-fertilization,’ he calls for a further stage in which, transcending the static doctrinal identity of their respective traditions, the dialogue partners will be able to contribute mutually to a deeper self-understanding
What can be concluded regarding the fruits of dialogue, if we base ourselves on the principles enunciated above? We must first remember that the principal agent of interreligious dialogue is the Spirit of God who animates people. The Spirit is at work in both traditions involved in the dialogue, the Christian and the other; thus the dialogue cannot be a monologue, i.e., a unilateral process. It is also the same God who performs saving works in human history and who speaks to human beings in the depths of their hearts. The same God is both the ‘Wholly Other’ and the ‘ground of being’ of everything that is; the transcendent ‘beyond’ and the immanent ‘deep down’; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Self at the center of the self. The same God is present and acting in both dialogue partners.
The Christian partners will not only give but will receive as well. The ‘fullness’ of revelation in Jesus Christ does not dispense them from listening and receiving. They possess no monopoly on truth; they must rather let themselves be possessed by it. Indeed, their dialogue partners, even without having heard God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, may be more deeply submitted to this truth that they are still seeking, but whose rays shine on their religious traditions (cf. Nostra Aetate 2). One can in all certainty say that, through dialogue, Christians and others ‘walk together towards truth’ (‘Dialogue and Mission’)
Christians have something to gain from dialogue. They will benefit in two ways; on the one hand, their own faith will be enriched; through the experience and testimony of the others, they will be able to discover at greater depth certain aspects, certain dimensions, of the Divine Mystery that they had perceived less clearly and that have been communicated less clearly by Christian tradition. On the other hand, they will gain a purification of their faith. The shock of the encounter will often raise questions, force Christians to revise gratuitous assumptions, and destroy deep prejudices or overthrow certain overly narrow conceptions or outlooks. The benefits of the dialogue constitute a challenge to the Christian partner at the same time.
The fruits and challenges of the dialogue thus go hand in hand. However, above and beyond these sure benefits, we must say that the encounter and exchange have value in themselves. They are an end in themselves: while from the outset they presuppose openness to the other and to God, they also effect a deeper openness to God of each through the other.
Thus dialogue does not serve as a means to a further end. Neither on one side nor on the other does it tend to the ‘conversion’ of one’s partner to one’s own religious tradition. Rather it tends toward a deeper conversion of each to God. The same God speaks in the heart of both partners; the same Spirit is at work in both. It is the same God who calls and challenges the partners through one another by means of their mutual witness. Thus they become, as it were, for each other and reciprocally a sign leading to God. The proper end of the interreligious dialogue is ultimately the common conversion of Christians and the members of other religious traditions to the same God — the God of Jesus Christ — who calls them together with one another, challenging them through each other. This reciprocal call, a sign of God’s call, is surely mutual evangelization. It builds up, between members of various religious traditions, the universal communion which marks the advent of the Reign of God.
Jacques Dupuis SJ Lecture to Annual General Meeting of the Catholic Missionary Union on Monday 20 September 04 at St Vincent’s, Carlisle Place, Westminster
1. See Secretariatus pro non-christianis, <>, Bulletin, n.56; 19 (1984/2) 126-141
2. Pontificium Consilium pro Dialogo inter Religiones, ‘Dialogue and Proclamation,’ Bulletin , n. 77; 26 (1991/2) 210-250.
3. Text in FABC Papers, no.48 (Hong Kong, FABC, 1987): 16.
4. Paul F. Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books, 1996): 125-64.
5. Claude Geffré,
>, Revue de l’Institut Catholique de Paris, 38 (1992/1): 63-82; cf. 72; Idem, «Le fondement theéologique du dialogue interreligeux », Chemins du dialogue 2 (1993): 73-103.
6. See Commission Pontificale ‘ Justitia et Pax’, Assise. Journée mondiale de prière pour la paix (Octobre 27, 1986), 1987: 147-155.
7. Cf. Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), ‘The Depth-Dimension of Religious Dialogue, Vidyajyoti 45 (1981) 202-221.
8. Cf. R. Panikkar, The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York, Paulist Press, 1978).
9. F. Whaling, Christian Theology and World Religions. A Global Approach (London: Marshall Pickering, 1986), 130-131.
10. Aloysius Pieris, ‘Western Christianity and Asian Buddhism: A Theological Reading of Historical Encounters, Dialogue n.s. 7 (1980/2), 49-85; here citing 64; Id, Love Meets Wisdom. A Christian Experience of Buddhism (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 1988).
11. Aloysius Pieris, ‘The Buddha and the Christ: Mediators of Liberation,’ in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, John Hick and Paul F. Knitter (eds.), 162-177; Id., An Asian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1988).
12. Aloysius Pieris, ‘The Buddha and the Christ: Mediators of Liberation,’ quote p. 163; Id., Love Meets Wisdom. A Christian Experience of Buddhism (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books 1988):11O-135.
13. John A. A. Robinson, Truth Is Two-Eyed (London: SCM Press, 1979).
14. John B. Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).
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