Why Interfaith Dialogue is Bound to Fail

As this NYT piece reports:

“In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible. In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.””

Finally, someone understands! Don’t get me wrong, I would love nothing more than to reconcile fundamental theological differences, but the nature of theology is such that reconciliation is not possible, from a strictly logical point of view.

True interfaith dialogue is logically impossible because theological views are truly comprehensive, that is, they underlie every belief held by their believers. In other words, theological views are fundamental–they cannot admit of any contradiction or falsity, or else the believer’s entire belief system is undermined. To admit even the possibility of one’s theological beliefs as false, or that there could be other true theological beliefs, is to in some ways to cease being a believer.

Dialogue, in its Socratic sense, is not possible unless there exists some points of agreement. But theological views, by their nature, cannot admit to any agreement with other, different theological views. If one’s belief system is founded on that the Christian God is the only true, real God, then one cannot have a dialogue, in the true sense of the word, with someone whose belief system is founded on the existence of a non-Christian God.

In other words, if theological views are theological views, then they must be all encompassing. And if they are all encompassing, they can never admit the possibility of another all-encompassing belief system. This is what the Pope means by “putting one’s faith in parenthesis,” because without creating some room, no matter how small, that one’s theological system does not encompass, the dialogue is DOA.

Pessimistic? Undoubtedly. But I’ve always been annoyed by people’s neglect to truly consider what “respecting” other people’s beliefs really mean. As Simon Blackburn points out, one cannot have respect for another’s beliefs if those beliefs are (to oneself anyways) patently false. One can tolerate, from a purely political sense (as in, not persecute), a false belief system, but there can be no respect for it.

This ultimately brings me to my conclusion: religion cannot never completely co-exist within a secular society, because it is in the nature of religion to be fundamental, comprehensive, and all-encompassing. But if the laws of a secular society are to be legitimate, then they must justify themselves to everyone, non-believers included. And if they are to be justified to non-believers, they must be justified on secular grounds.

In the end, there can only be a consensus with tension, and that tension will never go away


2 Responses to “Why Interfaith Dialogue is Bound to Fail”

  1. lmajeed Says:

    “One can tolerate, from a purely political sense (as in, not persecute), a false belief system, but there can be no respect for it. ”
    Tolerating and respecting are two very different concepts. I could tolerate someone I hate, for instance, and on the other hand, respect someone, ie. regard with respect. Now about religions, if I respect someone else’s religion I show them a higher degree of my understanding and level of tolerance, not necessarily the fact that I am simply ‘tolerating’ them because I have to.
    In this case, tolerating would then be ‘bearing’ something, which is morally a supressed sign of hatred, as I see it.

  2. A Free Spirit Says:

    Making interreligious dialogue perhaps more difficult than it need be, those of us interested in the religious domain tend to miss the obvious: that we share an interest in the same domain. Our intra-domain differences, I submit, are dwarfed by the distance from our planet to others…such as the planet of the stock market enthusists. For more, if you are interested, pls see my post. http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/10/31/missing-the-obvious-in-religious-discussion-something-we-have-in-common/

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