Mission and Dialogue

By Carl Starkloff SJ

We have little information about Ignatius’s views on “interreligious dialogue,” other than his famous encounter with the Moor on the way to Montserrat. But that story of the discerning donkey says a great deal about the mature Ignatius reflecting on the very immature Iñigo: while Ignatius was fully devoted to his Christian-Catholic beliefs, he understood the necessity at least of tolerance. Today we have come some journey from the language of “mission among the infidels,” and we have learned to attend more closely to Ignatius’ Presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises, which challenges us to seek for a favorable interpretation of the ideas of others. And yet, we hear the call to testify to the Gospel.

Having agonized for three decades over the tension between mission and dialogue, I offer a brief comment. Readers may be familiar with the (highly inadequate) interreligious rubrics of “exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.” I have long since cast aside any kind of exclusivism - the belief that no one can be saved apart from an explicit adherence to Jesus Christ and the Church. But neither have I been able to embrace a theology of pluralism, which argues that there are many equally valid ways to salvation, depending on the culture of the believer. That leaves me with the argument from inclusivism, that salvation is mediated through Jesus Christ, but that all believers of good will are included in that salvation. This is the “inclusive pluralism” of the late Jacques Dupuis, which argues that historical plurality of religions is here to stay, but that each faith must be true to its essential teachings, which include a type of universal way of salvation. Pluralists call this position “condescending” and reductively exclusivist, a “my religion is better than your religion” position. I would like to offer a nuance of this argument.

Responding with a number of thinkers associated with the English theologian Gavin D’Costa, I suggest that each of the “world religions,” true to its central beliefs, is ultimately inclusivist. Each religion grants salvation to other believers, but from its own faith standpoint. However, I add an argument that I think has been left more or less unheeded. I mean the argument from what I call a “phenomenology of faith.” When we practice phenomenology, we are adopting a process of examining any phenomenon with “restrained” judgment. This permits us to study all that composes the “essence” of the subject being studied. This method can also help us to avoid confusing different types of discourse.

What is the “essence” of faith? Well, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This is much more than a pious admonition from a proof text! It is a description of what one is doing when one believes; one is not “solving” a scientific problem in such a way as to give one the certitude to call another’s belief insincere or scientifically erroneous. It is the embracing of a testimony from a hallowed tradition. Thus, a devout Hindu will tell me that I can follow my own tradition and still be saved, but that I will finally be saved by a union of Brahman-Atman; the Buddhist will allow me many incarnations until I finally find Nirvana; the Muslim will hope for my salvation as one of the “people of the Book.” But each tradition is true to its founding faith. While interreligious dialogue resembles discussions over scientific paradigms, this dialogue is not an argument about the “best religion.” The historical practice of religion is always imperfect, but each believer chooses a certain form of religion, as a result of any number of factors, as the way that unites one with God.

What about the “tension” between proclamation and dialogue? When the earliest Christians began to announce the “Good News,” they did so because they had been grasped by a powerful message about the Person of Jesus Christ. A Christian can do no other, but must appreciate a similar zeal in a devout Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew and, as is becoming clearer, in many adherents of aboriginal religion. I must also pursue an intelligent apologia for my faith before the tribunal of world experience: “Be ready to give an account to all who ask about the hope that is in you” (1 Peter, 3:15). I must, like the early apologists, inquire respectfully about the hope of one who believes differently.

Thanks to centuries of learning the bitter consequences of religious polemics, we avoid the more denunciatory remarks of those early writers, but we follow a similar integrated path of devotion and learning. Is there a “risk” in such open encounter? Well, yes: we risk learning new and valuable “truths” and practices. We may even incorporate some of these, such as many Christians do now who practice Zen meditation or Yoga or certain tribal ceremonies, without surrendering their essential beliefs.

We Jesuits must labor for peace in a pluralistic world; some of it is no doubt demonic, and some is worthy of acceptance. The Ignatian tradition is one of making choices “without coming to a decision through any disordered affection.” This makes the way of interreligious dialogue one of deep spiritual and intellectual challenges.

Starkloff (MIS) teaches theology, specializing in faith and culture, at Saint Louis University and at Regis College in Toronto School of Theology.

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