Rabbi Stern’s recent comments on Pope Benedict and the direction in which he is taking the Catholic Church gives good cause for alarm. On the one hand, the Pope is certainly well within his rights (and role) to assert that Catholic doctrine is the sole truth and all those outside of the Church will suffer eternal damnation. On the other hand, this is almost surely not a helpful point to bring out when one also claims to be seeking greater interfaith understanding.
I certainly understand that in interfaith dialogue everyone is entitled to their theological convictions, as we discussed on this blog a few weeks ago, and no one should enter dialogue seeking to prove someone else is wrong. But I see real problems with the “fundamentalist relativism” Rabbi Stern describes. Fundamentalism is based on assuming your truth alone is complete and correct, without allowing the possibility for questioning and discovery. There is a great difference between saying, “I believe Jesus is the one and only path to salvation” and “Jesus is the one and only path to salvation.” The former informs the listener while the latter seeks to make a claim upon him.
Relativism too poses grave difficulties. It’s attractive and easy to say: You can believe whatever you want and I can believe whatever I want, since who’s to say what’s right? But such an approach confers the “blessing” of religion on every practice from murdering infidels to honor killings to human sacrifice (if you imagine taking that approach with the ancient Mayans).
I would like an approach to interfaith dialogue that is neither fundamentalist nor relativistic–to have participants engage one another with an acknowledgment that each of us holds some piece of truth and, only by working together to see what core principles we share, can we really come to see what is true. Religion should uphold values of human dignity, of justice, of compassion, of love, of right action, and of finding holiness in the world. We may have different ways to get there but that’s not the same thing as taking a relativist position of saying, “Sure, but hatred, injustice, and violence are nice values too.” Insist on the integrity of your own position but strive to see what truths one can learn from the other: this is the formula for dialogue that Pope Benedict seems to be missing.