A couple of weeks ago the Holy Father met in Assisi with leaders of many other world religions to make a unified commitment for peace. This event commemorates other such events that took place in the same location under the previous pontificate. It is common and tempting to think of any sort of dialogue with other religions as being pointless and unproductive. To an apologist’s mind, dialogue with non-Catholic Christians is hard enough!
I have to say, though, that a big part of my interest in my faith began in World Religions class (one might think it ironic that this is also where I got my first taste of apologetics). In my opinion there are two big errors related to any intellectual discussion with other religions. One is that since the Catholic Church contains the fullness of Truth, that exposing oneself to doctrines of other religions is fruitless at best and dangerous at worst. The other extreme is a realization of the fear of the former where openness to non-Catholic practices and doctrines leads one to believe that all faiths, including the Catholic one, essentially teach the same thing and are equal in truth and benefits.
I propose an alternate benefit of interreligious dialogue, besides the obvious one of cultural awareness and civility with one’s friends. This benefit is that such awareness gives the apologist a useful tool to explain the prevalence of great religions throughout the world, especially when a doubter wants to understand why universal claims on God’s revelation can be so exclusive to a single faith.
Bear in mind that the Second Vatican Council teaches this charitable way to perceive other faiths:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.
Bear in mind, the reference point for determining truth is still an objective one but we recognize the good efforts made by those, lacking the gift of the divine revelation enjoyed by Jews and Christians, who seek to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Learning about other faiths, especially through sharing with our friends allows us to understand different perceptions such as to find the right hooks to relate to one another.
In return, we can be challenged ourselves to live out a more authentic Christian life where we can see ourselves falling short even compared to those who adhere to other faiths. I was particularly struck by the openly devout spirituality when travelling in Thailand. In a city with a reputation of great sin, there is at least a mini-shrine on every corner and the average Buddhist is serious about their devotion. My realization that these Buddhists did not have to modernize their temple architecture or adapt their chant to a modern rock setting showed me that Christianity’s attempt to grow lies not in modernization, but in expressing its very authenticity.
Although the Assisi meetings are a high-level example of fraternity between faiths, true directed dialogue must be a personal experience with one’s own friends to seek always a more solid foundation for approaching the fullness of the truth in mind and practice.