Pope Benedict XVI is at it again – making fine distinctions which create gross problems. He declared to the world that “inter-religious dialogue is not possible in the strict sense of the word…that a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parenthesis.”
As in previous declarations about Islam and secularism, to name just two examples, the Pope uses language that may be helpful in a philosophy seminar, but actually causes real harm to human relations around the world. And that is the generous interpretation of his remarks.
Perhaps Benedict has created a “strict definition” which precludes such conversation because his understanding of dialogue requires a level of spiritual connection/agreement between the conversants, which may not be possible for people who follow different faiths. That might be what he means when telling us that one must “put one’s faith in parenthesis” in order to speak with those of other faiths. But that is an odd kind of faith which can only be present among those who share the faith.
The alternative understanding of the Pope’s most recent comments is that he actually finds all other belief systems defective and their members best served by only a single outcome i.e. conversion to the Catholic faith.
Can it be that he finds real inter-religious dialogue impossible because at all costs any conversation which accords full and equal dignity to other’s faith is impossible for him? That’s a pretty scary thought from the leader of a billion human beings backed by real financial and political power.
Admittedly, most of what passes for inter-religious dialogue in our world is neither deeply religious nor genuinely dialogic. Too often it is people of different faiths deciding to bracket the particulars of their faith in order to gather for a few moments of kum-ba-yah. In that sense, the Pope is on to something, but he has it exactly backwards. Real interfaith dialogue IS possible, but only when we DO Not bracket that which we believe.
And real dialogue is only possible when there is more than one view in the room. Dialogue demands difference, but it demands difference without denigration. And it is this criterion which Benedict claims is not possible. If he thought otherwise, he would champion the kind of challenging inter-religious conversations which the world needs right now – conversations which encourage us to bring all of who we are and all that we believe while demanding that we do so in a way that encourages others to do the exact same thing.
Do we trust each other enough to do that? Do we even trust ourselves enough to do that? Can the faiths we follow guide us on that path or will they simply give us tools to negotiate with other faiths that we really wish would simply go away?