September 01, 2004
Exclusion and dialogue

Andi linked the other day to a post by a Buddhist teacher in Korea who's facing a student who states flatly that all non-Protestant Christian religions worship "false gods." He wonders if it's even worth attempting a dialogue with such a person, or if it would be pointless.

I don't have the answer, but it reminded me of Noah Millman's recent post considering how Jews should attempt interfaith dialogue with Christians and Muslims. It was interesting not only for the techniques he recommends, which I'll let you see for yourself (it's a very long post, and tough to excerpt), but for how he conceives such a dialogue's ultimate purpose:

Is there a point to all this? I hope so. I don't think you engage in inter-religious dialogue because you want to obscure the differences between religions, nor as a sneaky way of corrupting other religions and weakening them, nor out of pure politics. I believe that at the end of days, everyone will worship at God's holy mountain, and shall acknowledge Him as the only King. I do not, however, believe that the nations shall be abolished, nor that Israel shall be the rulers of the world, nor that the nations will have to adopt Israel's particularistic stringencies. (Indeed, a case can be made that many of those very stringencies will vanish in the Messianic age; there's a lot of conflicting ideas on this question which I'm not going to go into here.) So what must I believe? Either that the world is almost wholly dark, and that most of the traditions by which people know God will have to be obliterated before the Messianic age. Or that the world has a great deal of light mixed with the dark, with many traditions that have a genuine connection to the divine, albeit mixed with errors that will need to be corrected, as even my own tradition has. As a tempermental matter, I'd rather be an optimist on this question. And if I take the optimistic view, that means that inter-religious dialogue has a real, Messianic purpose.

Posted by Camassia at September 01, 2004 10:23 AM | TrackBack

I'm reminded of another recent installment of "Speaking of Faith," (weekly radio program) which discusses the mindset of people who believe that their way is the only path to God. It was helpful to me to gain insight into why some folks cling to this idea. I'll provide the full link rather than try to create one here in these comments:

Posted by: Dash on September 1, 2004 11:48 AM

Well, for clarity's sake it's probably a good idea to differentiate between thinking you have the only way to God, and believing all other gods are false gods. Jesus' line about being "the Way, the Truth and the Life," is pretty unambiguous, but that does not mean that other people's attempts at reaching God are reaching toward someone else. As Noah mentions, where the Jews draw the line is at idolatry, because the form of a calf or an emperor or some fantastic mongrel creature really couldn't be Yahweh. That attitude continues in the New Testament; when Paul visits Athens he's appalled at their idols but he's perfectly willing to accept their imageless god as God.

Another important distinction is what, exactly, it means to have reached God. For some, it means simply obeying and placating him; for some it means a parent-child relationship, or a marital relationship, or of finding God within oneself. What Jesus referred to was a "Way" to a specific type of relationship with God that not all traditions even aspire to, exactly.

Well, maybe your radio show covered all this, but I thought I should point that out.

Posted by: Camassia on September 1, 2004 12:51 PM

Thanks for the shout-out. A quick note: I'm Presbyterian, but am engaged to some superficial degree in Buddhist studies, interreligious dialogue, and issues in religious pluralism.

Great site, BTW. You come highly recommended by Andi Young of Ditch the Raft.


Posted by: Kevin Kim on September 1, 2004 07:13 PM

Ecumenical dialogue is always an interesting topic, because of the tension between the search for common ground and the inviolability of core doctrine.

I think the threshold question facing the Buddhist teacher referenced in your post, and anyone else contemplating inter-religious dialogue, is why attempt it? What is the purpose? Dash's comment seems to suggest that inter-religious dialogue represents more advanced thinking than religious exclusivity, but it's not clear to me why this should be so.

Millman's post is thoughtful and complex, but ultimately it seems to me that he is saying that he believes in the value of inter-religious dialogue because it serves the purposes of his own faith. As you say, he's hard to excerpt, but see, for instance, his discussion about his belief system requiring "an obligation to anti-utopian thinking, an obligation not to try to create a crisis that necessitates divine intervention on the side of right, or to throw pragmatic considerations out the window."

Moreover, the benefits of inter-religious dialogue that Millman describes are essentially political; i.e., ways to help people get along better with other people on this earth. Are there spiritual or theological benefits that accrue from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam acknowledging one another in the ways that he describes? Perhaps, but he doesn't really attempt to describe them. Indeed, as I read him, he doesn't show that inter-religious dialogue would work any significant changes to his religious views, but rather would validate them in their current form. Notably, his hope that such dialogue creates a world where "everyone will worship at God's holy mountain, and shall acknowledge Him as the only King," largely expresses a tenet of his own faith. As he points out, a Christian who believes in the Trinity likely would have great difficulty with that purely monotheistic ideal.

From the opposite perspective, the Buddhist teacher's Protestant student rejects inter-religious dialogue, presumably because that's what his faith demands. It seems to me, then, that this student is rejecting dialogue for much the same reason that Millman is embracing it. The Protestant student speaks of "false gods," while Millman speaks more inclusively but ultimately refers to "many traditions that have ... errors that will need to be corrected." This sounds to me like a difference in degree more than a qualitative distinction.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that the decision to engage in inter-religious dialogue may itself be a core issue of faith and integral to one's conception of God. To try to push such ecumenism on someone whose beliefs don't allow for it may therefore be akin to an attempt at a religious conversion.

On a more everyday level, I have to say that the Protestant student's views seem more rude and confrontational to me than do Millman's. This is a reaction built on my own notions of interpersonal courtesy, though, and certainly not a religious analysis on my part.

Posted by: Tom T. on September 1, 2004 10:00 PM

Once you've professed that Jesus is God, aren't you implicitly saying that all other gods are false gods? It seems to me that the Jews and the Muslims worship the same God, but it is not the Christian God, because it is explicitly not a Triune God. It seems also, therefore, to be problematic when Christians say that he is the same God because Jesus worshipped him, didn't he? There is a disconnect there, somewhere, that has not been convincingly explained to me yet.

Posted by: Rob on September 2, 2004 07:05 AM

It sounds as if Rob is suggesting there is more than one God? I doubt that was his intention, but that is how it might be heard.

It reminds me of General Boykin's comment, "I knew we would win, because my God was bigger than his God." Later on, he corrected himself, and stated that his enemy's god was not real, but a false idol.

As far as the "value added" of interfaith dialogue, I would suggest that there is great benefit in the faith traditions of the world coming together to work towards common goals, such as world peace. At the root of many wars are religious differences.

One such group would be the United Religions Initiative, as but one example.

Posted by: Jake on September 2, 2004 06:40 PM

I don't understand how you get "Rob is suggesting there is more than one God" from what I wrote. Please explain. What I was saying is that the Jewish and Muslim concept of God is different from the Christian concept and that those concepts are mutually exclusive--as both the gospels and the Koran make explicit: only one of those two concepts is correct. Either The One True God is Triune and Christ is God, or God is a monad and Christ *was*...what?

Posted by: Rob on September 3, 2004 04:30 AM

Perhaps we can get at the heart of interreligious dialogue - which, of course, can be done incorrectly - by looking at some of its most profound practitioners. Fr Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda, founded, with the French Jesuit Jules Monchanin, an ashram called Shantivanam in 1950 in Tamil Nadu. In 1958, Fr Le Saux wrote in La Vie Spirituelle:

"It has been said that the purpose of Shantivanam - and therefore of Fr Monchanin, who was its co-founder - was 'reorienting the religious and ascetic dimensions of Christian life according to the philosophy, culture, and traditions of India, thus preparing the way for a humble, intelligent and sympathetic approach to the questions of evangelization and eternal salvation.'

"All that was implicit in the foundation of Shantivanam; but, at the same time, there was much less - and much more. Much less, at least directly, because none of that would have come about without the realization of the essential purpose: the 'contemplation of the Saccidananda.' Apart from that, everything else - in fact everything that people observed about Shantivanam, whether it be to criticize or to praise it - would be no more than empty wind, aes sonans, cymbalum tinniens (sounding brass, tinkling cymbal). There was also much more, because Shantivanam was about something quite other than the conversion of India. Contact at the very deep level with the mystery of India would surely not be without fruit. One could expect that the local churches would find remarkable ways to integrate the cultural and religious riches of India, and this would in turn lead to hitherto unimagined possibilities for the presentation and acceptance of the Christian message. Even more, a Christian India would have an influence on the world-wide Church, helping it to look more deeply within itself and to discover the still unknown depths of the mystery that lies within - something that, sad to say, really never happened with the stripped-down form of yoga that we Westerners were so proud to have imported. Father Monchanin was especially happy to think that the theology of the Divine Paraclete - so closely tied to the theology of the pleroma of Christ - would find in the Indian way of approaching the mystery of God marvellous possibilities for development. All this is what Shantivanam, founded in humility and faith, was about. It saw its mission not as an ad hoc intellectual apostolate, but as an essential work of the Church, a work of the Incarnation, which begins and is brought to perfection in the unfathomable depths of the Father and in the mystery of the Spirit."

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil on September 4, 2004 10:45 AM

There is no doubt that there is much to be gained by Christians learning about the conceptions of God that have evolved in other cultures. I very much enjoy reading about non-Christian religions. It is not possible, however, to worship Christ as Krishna or as the Buddha, even if it is possible to understand God the Father as Brahman, or as the Unknowable One God of the Platonists. Finally, isn't tolerance of the errors of others (if we are allowed to tolerate, rather than attempt to correct, those errors) the best we can do, as Christians of good will?

Posted by: Rob on September 4, 2004 01:26 PM

Rob, as I mentioned, your statement sounded to me like you were suggesting there was more than one God. I understand that what you were implying that there is more than one conception of God. Forgive my nitpicking. I suppose it's due to encountering too many Christian who seem to be dualists; believing in a God of good and a God of evil, who are eternally engaged in a match of cosmic fisticuffs.

I don't see the need for these various conceptualizations of God to be exclusive, however. It seems to me that the three Abrahamic faiths worship the same concept of God. Some Buddhists, especially among the Mahayanists, follow many of the same teachings as Christians. Allowing for the differences between Eastern and Western thought, I don't see much of a difference between many of the concepts found in Buddhism and Christianity. One example of this can be seen in the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn, specifically in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ.

To engage in meaningful dialogue with other faith traditions, I find it helpful to recognize that there is truth to be found in other cultures and faith traditions that are quite different from my own. If I judge their understanding of God by my frame of reference, usually I end up condemning the differences, rather than celebrating the similarities.

I would agree that toleration is essential for interfaith dialogues. Without it, we have interfaith debates, which builds up the walls that divide us, instead of tearing them down.

Jesus said "I am the way." But he also said, "I have other sheep that are not of this fold." I think it is appropriate to move beyond toleration into a spirit of affirmation. We meet others where they are in their spiritual journey, without feeling the need to drag them down the path we think they should be on. If our paths merge, we may walk together for a season, and rejoice in the shared gift of spiritual companionship.

Posted by: Jake on September 4, 2004 10:15 PM

I am an (amateur) student of comparative religion myself, and I certainly realize that all of the world's great religions are depositories of moral and spiritual truths. Aldous Huxley's delightful book, "The Perennial Philosophy" demonstrates how the mystics, the most profound God-seekers, of all cultures arrive at similar spiritual destinations as a result of their various seekings. The problem, however, when we are speaking of the revealed religions, is that we cannot begin by studying the religious traditions and work back from that to a definition of God; we have to start with God, as God has revealed Himself and understand the traditions as human interpretations of God's will.
Christians believe that God has revealed himself to be a Triune God--the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. This directly, explicitly, contradicts both the Islamic and the Jewish revelation. Jesus brought something new; he didn't just tinker a bit with Judaism in order to "fine tune" it.
Buddhism, so far as I know, does not attempt to define God at all. Hinduism has a concept of a highest godhead, but that godhead is expressed in a whole range of minor gods and avatars, such as Krishna.
No other religion starts from the God known to Jesus. There is a major difference between the monadic God who personally enters history, and a God who is present to the world and to the hearts of men through grace and the Holy Spirit, and through the Incarnation of his only Son: the embodiment of the Word and the Way and the Truth.

Posted by: Rob on September 5, 2004 06:45 AM

Dear Rob,

You write - I think correctly, "It is not possible, however, to worship Christ as Krishna or as the Buddha ..." My original excerpt said, in part, "Father Monchanin was especially happy to think that the theology of the Divine Paraclete - so closely tied to the theology of the pleroma of Christ - would find in the Indian way of approaching the mystery of God marvellous possibilities for development." We are to try to find in other religions "marvellous possibilities for development" that force the Church "to look more deeply within itself and to discover the still unknown depths of the mystery that lies within." We are NOT, I think, to arrive at a point beyond Christology where we somehow find that all religions are ultimately the same and that Christ and Krishna are interchangeable. That sort of syncretism is not recognizably Christian.

But I think that the search for "marvellous possibilities of development" does lead us beyond mere "toleration," however. From a Catholic point of view, John Paul II has recognized the presence of the Spirit in other religions, very concretely after the prayer meeting with representatives of world religions at Asissi in 1986. The 1997 statement of the International Theological Commission, "Christ and the World Religions," says,

"Given this explicit recognition of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the religions, one cannot exclude the possibility that they exercise as such a certain salvific function, that is, despite their ambiguity, they help men achieve their ultimate end. In the religions is explicitly thematized the relationship of man with the Absolute, his transcendental dimension. It would be difficult to think that what the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of men taken as individuals would have salvific value and that what the Holy Spirit works in the religions and cultures would not have such value. The recent magisterium does not seem to authorize such a drastic distinction."


Posted by: Neil on September 5, 2004 02:04 PM

Dear Neil:
Thanks, but I'm not buying it. I think that Christ himself presented us with an unambiguous either/or: either you're with me, or you're against me. Either you know the Father--through me--or you don't know the Father. I don't think you should try to spin that, even if you happen to be the Pope in Rome.

Posted by: Rob on September 5, 2004 06:29 PM

Dear Rob,

While Christ does present us with an unambiguous "either/or," and this certainly implicates certain religious practices (most clearly the imperial cult), it is not obvious that being "with Christ" means simply being against other religions, or that being "against Christ" connotes a degree of openness to other religions.

I suspect that a rather interesting passage with regard to this question is St Paul's speech in Athens (Acts 17.22-34). The speech is, to be sure, not received very well. "But when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. Others said: 'We will hear you speak about this on another occasion'" (32-33). One can read this as a caution against any view that imagines an easy continuity between Christianity and other worldviews. But before this rejection, Paul is able to express Christianity through the language of another religion. "The one whom you thus honor unwittingly is he whom I am preaching to you. ... Indeed he is not far from any of us, for 'By him we live, move, and exist,' as some of your poets also have expressed it: 'For we also are his offspring'" (23, 27-29). Paul is quoting Aratus (Phaenomena, 5), and Epimenides (through Diogenes Laertes [Lives of Philosophers i.112]). So even in an idolatrous (16) city, Paul can detect a dynamism that leads to what Robert Sokolowski has called the "Christian distinction," namely, that God is not merely the best part of the universe, but that He transcends it so completely that "he is not far from any of us" (27).

And if Paul in Athens, why not Henri Le Saux and Jules Monchanin in Tamil Nadu?

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil on September 5, 2004 07:29 PM

Dear Neil:
If what we are saying is that some tenets of other religious traditions may take their adherents to the very brink of accepting Christ, once Christ has been made known to them, then I agree. But, if we are saying that those same tenets may be, in and of themselves, "salvific,"--some kind of alternative Way--I disagree. That those tenets may provide Christians who come in contact with them with "marvelous possibilities of development," I completely agree, so long as that development is understood to be on the part of the Christians who are thus enriched.

Posted by: Rob on September 5, 2004 08:08 PM

I remember one occasion upon which I had the temerity to quote a Sufi over on Tom's blog. The quotation I used was both appropriate to whatever topic was being discussed, and doctrinally neutral. Nevertheless, one of the pious church ladies that patrol those hallowed grounds jumped on me with both feet. I might as well have quoted Satan himself. She knew the stench of brimstone, when she got a whiff of it.
And no man stood up in my defense over there, either. Clearly, I had got what was coming to me.
So much for "marvelous possibilities, eh, Neil?

Posted by: Rob on September 5, 2004 08:17 PM

Dear Rob,

I suppose that we must be careful of saying that other religious traditions are salvific "in and of themselves" in a way that would threaten the normative significance of Christ. But here is Fr James Fredericks on the thought of the current pope:

"Nowhere in the development of his theology of the Holy Spirit does the pope suggest that other religious paths are salvific in their own right. All salvation is in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit. Neither does the pope suggest that the Church can ever be completely distinguished from Christ and the Spirit. Instead, John Paul II speaks of 'participated forms of mediation,' i.e. the participation of the other religions in the saving mystery of Christ which is fully present in the Church.

"John Paul II's phrase, 'participated forms of mediation,' can be traced back to Lumen gentium: 'the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source' (no. 62). This conciliar text does not speak of the other religions per se, but rather of elements in the spiritual and material situation of other religious believers. In Redemptoris missio, John Paul II made use of this principle in asserting the centrality of Christ in the salvation of all: 'Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ's own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his' (no. 5). Religions are not equal."

So perhaps we can say that other religions are not salvific "in and of themselves" but insofar as they participate (perhaps unknowingly) in the saving mystery of Christ. But this participation calls us, I think, to more than just mere toleration, but rather to an active interreligious dialogue.

Sorry about the Sufi on Tom's blog. I really don't know what to say. I think that quoting a Sufi to certain Catholics means more than just quoting a Sufi. To a certain sort of Catholic, the teachings of the Church must presently be closely guarded from a perceived dilution at the hands of individualism, egalitarianism, secularism, and the complacency and self-indulgence of the prosperous middle classes. And quoting a Sufi might seem to align you with these things. Even if you were just quoting a Sufi.



Posted by: Neil on September 6, 2004 07:56 AM

Thanks, Neil:
I have found that the truths embedded in non-Christian religions can, without fail, be related to specific Christian doctrines. In a sense, all that these religions lack is Christ. This certainly makes meaningful dialogue possible, to a point. But--if you are interacting with a Jew, or with a Muslim, you will suddenly, almost unexpectedly, hit a brick wall. And that brick wall is their denial of the divinity of Christ. The Sufis, for instance, revere Christ; but only as an exemplar of human perfection, not as God. The eastern religions, with their many gods, are apt to be more tolerant of your belief in the divinity of Christ. This doesn't mean that they will go along with it in the way that Christianity would require, but they aren't going to argue with you about it. Here, you don't so much come up against a brick wall, as you come up against an empty smile.

Posted by: Rob on September 6, 2004 08:12 AM

Another John Paul II quote from a September 9, 1998, General Audience:

"1. ... The "seeds of truth" present and active in the various religious traditions are a reflection of the unique Word of God, who "enlightens every man coming into world" (cf. Jn 1:9) and who became flesh in Christ Jesus (cf. Jn 1: 14). They are together an "effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body" and which "blows where it wills" (Jn 3:8; cf. Redemptor hominis, nn. 6, 12)."
"4. For the reasons mentioned here, the attitude of the Church and of individual Christians towards other religions is marked by sincere respect, profound sympathy and, when possible and appropriate, cordial collaboration. This does not mean forgetting that Jesus Christ is the one Mediator and Saviour of the human race. Nor does it mean lessening our missionary efforts, to which we are bound in obedience to the risen Lord's command: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). The attitude of respect and dialogue is instead the proper recognition of the "seeds of the Word" and the "groanings of the Spirit". In this sense, far from opposing the proclamation of the Gospel, our attitude prepares it, as we await the times appointed by the Lord's mercy. "By dialogue we let God be present in our midst; for as we open ourselves in dialogue to one another, we also open ourselves to God" (Address to Members of Other Religions, Madras, 5 Feb. 1986, n. 4; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 10 Feb. 1986, p. 14)."

For the rest, check out

Posted by: Fr. Terry Donahue, CC on September 8, 2004 05:14 PM
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