Religion, Dialogue, and Truth

21 April 2009

Conference at the John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington DC 

The speech that Benedict XVI gave at the John Paul II Cultural Center on April 17th, 2008 was predominantly dedicated to what the Pope himself defined as “interreligious and intercultural dialogue”. Since the two expressions are not equivalent, I’ll first try to examine in what they differ and then defend two theses: that interreligious dialogue is not possible, that intercultural dialogue, on the contrary, is not only possible but necessary. 

I have analyzed the Pope’s speech carefully and I have my own views. But I will be neither so conceited as to try an authentic interpretation of the Pope’s words nor so arrogant as to attribute to him opinions which are only mine. The admirable thing about Benedict XVI is that he intends to face up to everybody, without any prejudice. In doing so, the Pope is not foregoing the Christian truth, he is undertaking to discuss it with those who deny or question it. His plea to “creative minorities” is at the same time an act of intellectual modesty, because he brings himself down to our level, and a challenge, because he encourages us to question even our most deep-rooted assumptions. We should all live up to this challenge. An open and responsible discussion is just what we need, because what is at stake are the peaceful relations among people and countries and the future of our liberal and democratic states. 

1. Goals of dialogue 

In his speech, as well as in the one he gave at the United Nations the day before, Benedict XVI advanced four reasons in favour of interreligious dialogue. 
First: dialogue is necessary to mutual understanding. As the Pope said, “in the dialogue between religions both the participants and society are enriched”. This means that, through dialogue, each group comes in touch with the others’ faith, understands how such faith is articulated, in what respects it differs, and what makes it similar to one’s own. 
Second: dialogue serves the sharing of fundamental ethical values. According to the Pope, such values are “discernible to human reason [and] venerated by all people of goodwill”. It is thanks to dialogue that “we see that we share an esteem for ethical values”, that is, we share a common ground we all appreciate. 
Third: interreligious dialogue is valuable for reasons of solidarity. If, in a complex society, each group knows and respects the others’ faith, then society can harmoniously grow. To use the Pope’s own words: we ought to conceive dialogue “not only as a means of enhancing mutual understanding, but also as a way of serving society at large. By bearing witness to those moral truths which they hold in common with all men and women of goodwill, religious groups will exert a positive influence on the wider culture, and inspire neighbours, co-workers and fellow citizens to join in the task of strengthening the ties of solidarity”. 
Fourth: interreligious dialogue fosters the quest for truth. “The broader purpose of dialogue said the Pope is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence?”. 
I have no doubt about the value of the first three goals. If believers in one faith come into contact with believers in another one, both groups will certainly benefit from better knowledge of each other’s ways of thinking and acting. Both will be enriched and better disposed to mutual respect. Although understanding, which is an intellectual act, does not by itself imply respect, which is a moral act, it does at least remove the suspicion and prejudice that derive from ignorance which is a precondition for respect. Society at large undoubtedly gains from it. 
However, the fourth goal mentioned by the Pope the discovery of truth seems to me to be problematic. What truth are we referring to? If the answer is “the truth about fundamental issues of man and his destiny”, my questions are: does such a truth really exist, and can it be achieved by dialogue? No precise answer can be given unless we examine what, exactly, dialogue means, presupposes, and amounts to. 

2. Dialogue “stricto sensu” 

From a technical viewpoint, a dialogue is a dialectical exchange between two interlocutors who maintain different views but are willing to find the truth about them. Two aspects are particularly to the point. 
The first aspect concerns the logical structure of dialogue. Dialogue uses refutation, that is, in a dialogue one participant (the proponent) tries to prove that the point of view of his interlocutor (the opponent) is untenable because it is logically contradicted by other views the opponent himself, due to the questions asked by the proponent, puts forward during the exchange. The role of refutation was aptly highlighted by Socrates, the first to use the dialectical method. As he said: “[I am] one of those who would gladly be refuted if anything I say is not true, and would gladly refute another who says what is not true.” (Gor. 458a). In virtue of its logical structure, a dialogue is different from a simple conversation, in which each person informs the other about his own opinions, without feeling obliged to revise them or to disprove his interlocutor’s beliefs. In a dialogue, the other person’s opinions are used against him. 
The second relevant aspect of dialogue is its purpose. Dialogue aims to find the truth, as Socrates says. More to the point, dialogue aims to eliminate errors from a set of opinions by a gradual process of refutation. The heart of dialogue is an act of both modesty and ambition, because, as Karl Popper has repeatedly stressed, the interlocutors implicitly agree on saying “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth” (The Open Society, II, p.238). In this respect, a dialogue is different from an apodictic proof, which proceeds from first or self-evident principles, as well as from the presentation of a thesis, as is the case with a lecture, a rally, or a sermon. 
If we put together the two aspects, we may reconstruct a dialogue as a sequence composed of a starting stage, with the proponent saying A and the opponent saying B, a series of intermediate moves which are rejected one after the other, and a final stage, when both interlocutors say A or B or concur to a new and different thesis C. In terms of the language of the game of chess, a good metaphor for dialogue, the sequence would be: “opening”-“capturing pieces”-“checkmate”. 
It should be noted that dialogue is both cooperative and contentious. It is contentious because it makes use of refutation: each interlocutor tries to put the other one in difficulty. It is cooperative because the two interlocutors realize they are fallible: only by joining their efforts can they attain the truth. This dual nature of dialogue sheds light on what may be termed its essential presupposition, i.e.: in a dialogue, every thesis is fallible and liable to revision. 

3. The impossibility of interreligious dialogue 

I am now in the position of embarking on my first thesis, namely, that interreligious dialogue is impossible. Since “dialogue”, as we have seen, technically means dialectical exchange by refutation, this amounts to saying that no dialogue “stricto sensu” can be entertained between believers in different religions. This is precisely the view that Benedict XVI maintains in his Preface to my latest book. 
The thesis follows straightforwardly from the essential presupposition of dialogue. The object of interreligious dialogue should obviously be religious, and dialogue which, let us repeat, uses refutation to eliminate errors should establish which religion, or which specific religious statement, is true or nearer to the truth than the other. But when a believer, let us assume a Christian, discusses with a non-Christian believer, let’s say a Muslim, it is not this that is or can be the object of discussion. The Christian cannot reasonably try to prove to the Muslim, for example, that God is a Person, that He has become a Man, that Christ is the Son of God, that He died and was raised, that He is three yet one, and so on. Statements about God such as these are truths of faith that the Christian worshipper cannot put in doubt (or “put in brackets”, as the Pope says). And, of course, the same is true with similar statements advanced by the Muslim. It would be unreasonable for him to try to convince the Christian, say, that Christ was just a prophet, or that God has no personal nature. But if a belief cannot be doubted, neither can it be the object of a dialogue, because that would violate dialogue’s essential presupposition. 
The point is that religions, in particular monotheistic religions, have dogmas, while dialogue has none, and believers are dogmatic while the participants to a dialogue are not. For believers, being dogmatic is not a defect or a fault; quite on the contrary, being dogmatic is the very manner in which believers preach and practice their faith. But if worshippers of different religions are by their very nature dogmatic, they cannot allow themselves to say “I may be wrong, you may be right”, therefore they cannot even dialogue. They may indeed converse, that is, mutually expose the content of their faith and understand each others’ points of view. But, as we have observed, conversation is different from dialogue, because it does not use refutation and, above all, it does not aim to find the truth. The most interlocutors can do in a conversation is to shed light on their own truths. 
It could be objected that dialogue is such a powerful instrument, that it is even capable of bringing down dogmas. Isn’t this the case of conversion? Does it not happen that, by argument, an interlocutor resolves to reject his own faith and embrace the opponent’s one? Conversion undoubtedly exists and its effect is certainly that of conveying the convert from one set of dogmas to another, from one faith to the other. But conversion is a spiritual process, not a logical one. Nobody converts to another faith by letting his own faith be refuted, that is by accepting reasons that disprove it. 
Consider two religions, A and B, and suppose that somebody is converted by reasons of this kind: “I am converting to A because I have realized that, according to B, God does not love all people in the same way”, or “I am converting to B because I have understood that A’s faith allows for violence”. Conversions of this kind are certainly possible, but when they occur they show that the motives advanced are not really religious. They concern issues such as equality, dignity, mutual respect, love among people, and so on, which typically are ethical or, broadly speaking, cultural. But if the conversion from one religion to another occurs for cultural reasons, then the dialogue that induces it is intercultural, not interreligious. 

4. The desirability of intercultural dialogue 

This leads to my second thesis: unlike interreligious dialogue, intercultural dialogue is possible. And not only is it possible, it is also expedient and desirable. 
In this case, too, the reason appears to me simple. In the first place, religions are conceptual systems organised around dogmas of faith. They are exclusive and mutually incompatible. Each has its own truth. Even when they talk about the same one God and they think of Him in the same way for example, saying that “God is merciful” they are not in fact referring to the same divinity. And even when they speak of the same relationship with God for example, saying that “we are all God’s children” or “we are all Abraham’s sons” it is not the same relationship they have in mind. Verbally, the expressions are the same, conceptually their meanings are different. For example, to be children of God for a Christian means to be loved by Him, in Islam it means to be subject to His inscrutable will.
But religions are not simply conceptual systems organized around a core of beliefs embraced by an act of faith. They do not live in empty space. They have consequences because they give rise to, or are connected with, cultural systems or ways of life. Take Christianity. If men are sons of God, created in His image, loved by Him, then men are equal, have the same dignity, deserve the same respect, are members of the same human family. These Christian ideas have effect on the culture, the values, the institutions of the society in which they are diffused. For instance, they lend their support today to liberal societies, to charters of fundamental rights, to the idea that States cannot invade the sphere of private conscience. Some Christian ideas, such as Christ’s saying “let Caesar take what is his”, also support the separation of Church and State. 
The point is that religions are demanding. Once they penetrate in the surrounding social life, the “society at large” as the Pope calls it, they produce an ongoing process of give and take. If certain religious truths are admitted, then certain ethical values and certain social, juridical, political principles are also to be followed. Let us consider Christianity again. Due to the central tenets of his faith, the Christian requires that equality, parity of the sexes, respect for life, personal dignity, be recognized, granted and protected. Strictly speaking, these are moral, civil, legal, political, not religious principles. They may be thought of as the secular consequences, or counterparts, of religious dogmas. 
This is precisely the ground for intercultural dialogue. If a Christian champions the Trinity and a Muslim objects that this amounts to polytheism, no dialogue is possible. But if the former claims that women should have the same rights as men and the latter denies it, or if the Christian claims that civil law and religious law should be separate and the Muslim disagrees, then dialogue, though difficult, is possible. Likewise, issues such as whether democracy is better than sharia, political struggle better than jihad, a legal sentence better than a fatwa, may all be discussed. Exactly as in Socratic dialogue, such discussions can make use of refutation. If, for example, somebody denies the equality of the sexes and then he comes to acknowledge that international rights charters should apply to all countries independently of their prevalent religion, then he is refuted. 
Intercultural dialogue is also promising. By proceeding from certain shared starting points, such as ethical values or cultural claims or human needs, a proponent may try to convince his opponent that a given way of life is better or more desirable than another. For example, he may show how all women, independently of their religious beliefs, wish to be respected, or that corporal punishments are inhumane, that sexual violence, even towards one’s wife, injures her dignity, that societies that draw a line between Church and State and between religion and politics are more free, that marriages not arranged by parents last longer, that a democratic society is preferable to one organized by caste, and so on and so forth. At the end of a similar dialogue, each interlocutor will most likely maintain his religious beliefs, but he may come to admit that not all ways of life have the same value. If this is the case and it usually happens this way then we may assert that, while interreligious dialogue is ineffective and fruitless, intercultural dialogue is hopeful, expedient and desirable. 

5. Dialogue and the Western crisis 

One last remark. What I have just said seems to me reasonable and helpful. It is certainly well intentioned. Why is there then such insistence on interreligious dialogue? And why so much neglect of intercultural dialogue? The problem is mainly a Western one and affects Christians. Neither Islam nor the other religions pose themselves the question of dialogue in the same pressing terms as Christianity does, especially in Europe. Why? 
My short answer to the first question is: due to a new apostasy of Christianity, and the spreading of secularism, relativism, multiculturalism, and scientism, the West is losing its traditional religion, lessening its own identity, becoming less confident in itself. This makes it weak, and like any weak subject the West is forced to shield itself against the stronger party. Interreligious dialogue is intentionally considered a sort of protection against the firm faith of those who arrive in the West, especially Muslim. In this sense, interreligious dialogue is a substitute for self-respect, a way of avoiding responsibilities. It is presented as the post-modern, open, liberal response to the challenges of our complex societies, the best antidote against a possible clash of civilizations. Actually, it masks the capitulation of one culture to another. 
My equally short answer to the second question is: the West tends to avoid intercultural dialogue because it proves too demanding. Intercultural dialogue, precisely because it is a dialogue “stricto sensu”, requires the proponent to possess a culture he is confident in and ready to defend and spread. The West today does no longer seem to embody such a proponent. Quite on the contrary, it looks so affected by a sort of guilt syndrome and so poorly convinced of its own worth that it tends to believe that claiming the intrinsic value of the conquests of its civilization is tantamount to imperialism, and that defending its open society amounts to aggressive ethnocentrism. This is the reason why the West refrains from even asking for the reciprocity of those rights it considers fundamental and universal. No doubt the West, like any cultural system has many faults, drawbacks, defects to amend, and many virtues to learn. Discussing and questioning our own views, even the most deeply rooted ones, is a good critical attitude. Disparaging or rejecting them would be a mistake. I only hope that we will not have to pay too high a price for this.

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