Alessia Giuliani/CPP Pope Benedict XVI stands at the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2009.


How is Benedict XVI, long a defender of orthodoxy and famous critic of the “dictatorship of relativism,” likely to approach interreligious dialogue? Does he see religious pluralism and tolerance as little more than an enticement to indifferentism or as something potentially more spiritually and intellectually fruitful? While in India this summer, I spent a good bit of time reading two books by Benedict: Many Religions-One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World and Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (both Ignatius Press). Both collect relatively short pieces from the past fifteen years that shed considerable light on the new pope’s views. Many Religions (1998) concentrates on Christian-Jewish relations, while Truth and Tolerance (2005) deals with the Christian encounter with Hinduism and Buddhism. I also brought along for rereading Benedict’s essay “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today” (1996), and two documents issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) when he was prefect: Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (1989) and Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000). Near the end of my visit to India, I was perhaps providentially visited by some concerned Hindus who accused me-Catholic priest, Jesuit, aficionado of interreligious dialogue, and provocatively named “Francis Xavier”-of being the “pope’s man,” come to fulfill his plan to subvert and convert the subcontinent. Pondering my reading, their questions, and my Jesuit credentials, I had to ask myself, what would it mean to be sent as a missionary to India by the pope responsible for these writings? What follows is not so much a summation of Benedict’s writings as a practical reflection written with Hindu concerns in mind too. We should be grateful for these essays, which are eminently clear, incisive, and full of good sense. Benedict challenges us to rethink issues large and small, and offers insights we should remember if dialogue is to work well. Moreover, he does all this in a quiet way that invites further discernment. Benedict takes religious diversity seriously; indeed, he sees it as central to Christian identity in the twenty-first century. Simplistic solutions to the challenges posed by interreligious dialogue are discouraged: the relativizing of doctrines, the disparaging or praising of positions we do not understand, the unending deferral of truth claims. But any competition for converts or resolution of disagreements merely by appeals to authority is also rejected, I think. Resorting to such strategies would not make the gospel message clear or advance understanding. Benedict’s approach is perhaps best captured in the essay “The New Manna” (Many Religions), originally a homily. There Benedict rereads the encounter of Elijah and the four hundred priests of Baal, precisely to deflect us from reading Elijah’s victory as a justification for the melodramatic slaughter of the priests. Rather, Benedict reminds us, God dwells in the still, small voice heard by Elijah only after he flees the scene. Benedict asserts that it is “when [Elijah] lets go of his own greatness, when he no longer believes that he himself is able to reestablish God’s kingdom, that God’s new paths begin to open up.” In a similarly nuanced way, the pope has little to say about proselytizing and conversion, although he clearly does believe that encountering the truth may lead someone to change religious affiliation. Ever the professor, Benedict insists on making proper distinctions: concepts must be understood in context, the development of ideas duly noted, and words used precisely and without casual elasticity. Making such distinctions enables us to speak meaningfully-even normatively-about the world and its religions. With that conviction in mind, we should enter dialogue as committed believers eager to confess our faith. Dominus Iesus rightly warns us not to be evasive or overly clever; we do no good for others or ourselves if we fall silent about Jesus, or mention him merely in passing, as if he were optional, not the center of our lives. Directness of speech will serve us well. My guess is that many thoughtful members of other faith traditions agree with Benedict about this approach to dialogue. Underlying Benedict’s various cautions about dialogue are two complementary convictions, one positive and the other negative. Positively, Benedict insists that dialogue is always about truth-participating in the underlying Word (Logos)-and it best occurs as a search for truth, not for mere tolerance. I would be inclined to notice other benefits of dialogue, including interreligious harmony, friendship, quietly righting past wrongs, learning from others how better to think and act religiously, and even simply enjoying our similarities and differences. But Benedict is certainly right that deep down dialogue is less about manners, speeches, and politics, and more about the search for truth. Dialogue is not polite conversation meant to comfort people who prefer to stay just as they are or who want to avoid disagreements. At the same time, the search for truth cannot mean, “We have the truth; they are searching for it,” a view that would turn interreligious exchanges into pantomime and farce. The quest for truth obliges everyone involved, and what is learned will have consequences even for those of us who, by grace, know Jesus. As Dominus Iesus noted, “In the practice of dialogue between the Christian faith and other religious traditions, as well as in seeking to understand its theoretical basis more deeply, new questions arise that need to be addressed through pursuing new paths of research, advancing proposals, and suggesting ways of acting that call for attentive discernment.” Learning is the fruit of dialogue. We live by faith, but still we do not know in advance the whole truth. We can learn from others. The trick, of course, lies in the Zen-like balance Benedict seems also to be urging on us: search for truth, but do not ignore the “indispensable elements” of Christian revelation; dwell in Christ, but remain vulnerable to an unpredictable dialogue that may actually change us. Benedict’s key negative point supports the positive: we in the West have forgotten that dialogue is a search for truth, not simply a modus vivendi. Benedict’s real target, in everything he writes here, is secular modernity, not Hinduism or Buddhism. His real worries concern modern Catholic intellectuals, largely trained in the West, not Jewish or Muslim believers and scholars. According to the pope, we in the West are intellectually lazy; we have forgotten how to seek religious truth with a conviction that it actually exists and we can actually find it. Because of this, believers cannot recognize themselves in the way Western intellectuals, including some theologians, write about them. Contemporary religious scholarship often seems curious, distasteful, and sometimes even offensive to authentically religious people. Given the high premium our culture places on “tolerance,” modern Western theologians certainly value harmony, equality, and the need to take outsiders’ views seriously. Yet, Benedict worries that the indiscriminate application of such “liberal” virtues ignores what is religiously and intellectually challenging about differences in belief. Truth is seen to be fluid and amenable to every expression, and religious practices detachable from broader worldviews. Oddly, Benedict’s analysis aligns him with subaltern and postcolonial critics who insist that the West keeps distorting the religions and cultures of the wider world to maintain its own hegemony. Much more can be said regarding Benedict’s views, about how the West has interpreted the religions of the “other” over the past three hundred years, and about how theology has, or hasn’t, come to terms with the dispassionate scholarly study of religions. Much also should be said about how much more we know about how different people around the world think, experience, and practice their faiths than Westerners were aware of just a few hundred years ago. Still, Benedict is correct in challenging the modern West’s intellectual assumptions. He is also right in urging us to reclaim older and now almost forgotten spiritual and intellectual Christian traditions. For example, “The Dialogue of the Religions and the Relationship between Judaism and Christianity” valuably draws on the pioneering insights of Nicholas of Cusa’s fifteenth-century On the Peace of the Faith. In Benedict’s summation, Nicholas is praised for seeing a realistic connection between peace as a religious goal and peace as political reconciliation. Nicholas insisted that it is God’s will that religions overcome the evil of religious conflict, and made the daring claim (voiced by Jesus) that “you do not find a different faith in each [religion]; rather, they each presuppose one and the same faith.” At the same time, he rooted that deep harmony among religions in the mystery of God who is “the Triune and the One.” Deep Christian particularity, in the minds of Nicholas and Benedict both, promises a solid foundation for spiritually profound interreligious friendship. If we take to heart Benedict’s criticism of rationalism, relativism, and the modern tendency to conflate everyone’s values and ideas with our own, we may achieve sufficient detachment from our particular culture to see the wider world as if for the first time. But remedial work must first occupy us. India, for example, has fascinated the West for centuries, but has also been regularly misrepresented and victimized by religious and secular programs aimed, sometimes insufferably, at the country’s improvement. Among the more common Western caricatures of India is that Hindus worship false gods and live in darkness (charges not made by Benedict, though); India’s meditation practices are harmful; Hindus can’t keep up with the modern world because they think the world an illusion; they worship cows, instead of eating them as we do. Benedict himself is actually rather positive toward Hindu India, on occasion commending its spiritual riches and displaying insight into its complex traditions, values, and practices. Still he worries, because so many things can go wrong when Western Christians start to talk about Asian wisdom or try to learn from its practices. In this context, the pope is worried that the search for truth is being thwarted by an odd alliance of liberal theological presuppositions with ideas and images from the East. “Relativism is a typical offshoot of the Western world and its forms of philosophical thought,” Benedict writes, but it becomes even more problematic when inappropriately “connected with the philosophical and religious intuitions of Asia especially, and surprisingly, with those of the Indian subcontinent.” Yet if Benedict’s goal is a search for truth not dominated by the modern West’s imperious explanation of everyone else, the consequences of his program will only become visible in actual dialogue. Asian religions are complex and multidimensional, and their practitioners, like us, are concerned with truth, reality, and salvation. Accordingly, we need to become much more specific in thinking about and with our counterparts in dialogue. The reconstruction of dialogue as a shared search for truth, not straitjacketed by settled Western Christian presuppositions, requires fostering more conversations in which other persons and other traditions get to speak in their own languages and for their own purposes. While Benedict’s call to reclaim certain aspects of the premodern Christian sources of the West is necessary, only a specific, positive, and deep reception of non-Western paradigms of knowledge and practice can actually better our interreligious conversations. In such exchanges, though, the stubborn and often unruly particularities of traditions will come to the fore, since no religious tradition merely exemplifies a species of religion, and no tradition’s meaning is reducible to safe, generic wisdom. Benedict is right that the rich complexities of Catholic culture and tradition ought not to be reduced to one or another simple, inoffensive distillation of Christian truth; consequently, though, the same is true for other religions. How all this works in practice becomes evident if we look at just four tantalizing examples Benedict ever so briefly mentions: meditation, rebirth, social abuses endemic to Hinduism, and mystical monism. Regarding each, Benedict opens a door, starting rather than finishing a conversation. First, the CDF document Some Aspects of Christian Meditation rightly worries about what happens when Christians engage in Yoga or Zen without attention to the larger frameworks of philosophy, tradition, and Scripture in which the practices of Eastern meditation have flourished. We need to understand those frameworks too. If this is done, we will soon realize that, despite so many Western opinions to the contrary, Eastern mysticism is neither always “impersonal” nor merely a matter of emptying the mind. In fact, these meditation practices can truly dissipate ignorance and inculcate wisdom while changing people in enduring ways. Some Aspects of Christian Meditation ably highlights the richness of Western meditative traditions and reminds us that an encounter with God is at the heart of every Christian’s prayer. It is not necessary to turn elsewhere to meet God. But since there is no going back to an age when Catholics did not practice Asian forms of meditation, we need to understand how Asian meditation may help Catholic Christians. Catholics need to engage in the patient practice and careful study of Asian traditions and speak precisely from there. If that is done, new insights will arise, provoking questions that may seem impertinent precisely because they cannot be managed by old answers to old questions. For instance, we assume that we know what “self” means and why “self” is an entity such as we have imagined it. Yet on intellectual and experiential grounds, Asian meditation practices consistently call into question the notion of an enduring self; they do this not for the sake of a facile nihilism, but rather to facilitate a richer and more attentive grasp of what our experiences actually teach us. Second, I mention rebirth because of just one tantalizing remark Benedict made in a 1997 L’Express interview. Yes, this is the same interview in which he (in)famously spoke of the narcissism (l’autoerotisme) of either Buddhism itself (described as “un défi” to the church) or of some Western (mis)appropriations of Buddhist spiritual practice. He also remarked, “[Reincarnation] has a meaning in the Hindu religion, that of a path of purification. But outside that context, reincarnation is morally cruel, because these eternal returns to earthly life resemble a hellish cycle.” As the pope suggests, endless return would indeed be hellish. Hindu and Buddhist theologians have said this for millennia. And yet even if most Hindus seek liberation from rebirth, there is a way in which Hindus also see rebirths as occasions for learning and purification. If Benedict recognizes in this tension between expectation and fulfillment a positive approach that is not morally cruel, then he is opening the door for a further and positive consideration of the wisdom Christians and Hindus may share regarding the religious idea of purification. Here too, to say more would require research that would surely complicate matters; if we do not merely discount rebirth as “unchristian,” then we will have to try to understand it, and ask again how our own views of life after death affect our lives now. Third, in an essay on the “Truth of Christianity,” Benedict makes the obvious point that religions, distinctive and never blandly “equal,” are also never entirely or uniformly good. If we consider various degenerate forms of religion such as Crusaders slaughtering Jews and Muslims, then, he wisely admits, the Marxist critique of religion has a valid point. No religion is beyond criticism. After recognizing “marvelous elements” in Hinduism, Benedict cautions that admiration must be tempered in light of problematic aspects of Hinduism such as “involvement with the caste system; suttee (self-immolation) for widows, which developed from beginnings that were merely symbolic offshoots of the cult of the goddess Sakti.” Notice the variety of issues taken up in these examples: a social structure, religious or not, known as caste; the immolation of widows, and that as rooted in degenerate offshoots of Sakti symbols; and possibly, the Sakti cult itself. For Benedict, caste seems merely a negative. Many Western observers have said this, but here the judgment is odd, since Benedict surely does not think that hierarchy itself is evil. Almost everyone condemns suttee as murder, but Benedict interestingly traces the crime to a degeneration of misunderstood symbols. Catholics too do well to remember how abominations occur when we misuse symbols, taking them literally and without a sense of history. Whether Benedict means also to criticize Sakti, the divine feminine, is unclear; we might expect him to do so, but in fact he does not. In any case, the pope’s judgments on caste and suttee, heard after comments on the Crusaders and a sympathetic nod toward Marxists, force us to ponder how human and religious goods seem on occasion to give rise to evil. Especially here, actual dialogue is needed if we are to say more. Today’s Hindu community must be consulted before Christians either criticize or exonerate Hindu traditions on a substantive level. Fourth, in the essay “The Unity and Diversity of Religions” (Truth and Tolerance), Benedict approvingly cites Horst Burkle, a scholar of interreligious dialogue. Burkle argues that tat-tvam-asi (“that [highest reality] is you”), a famous Upanisadic correlation of absolute and individual selves, cannot support a fundamental respect for persons. Mystical monism, the belief that material and spiritual reality form one substance or being, is of course central to Hinduism. For the monist, life is transitory, persons come and go in different bodies, there is no absolute or enduring value to any particular human person. Accordingly, Hindus who wanted to defend human dignity often turned to the Western concept of the individual, an idea rooted in the Christian idea of God’s creative action. At the same time, the assumption that Hinduism is incompatible with a successful modern life was a truism often used to justify empire, and it must be treated with suspicion today. If we are to pursue Benedict’s dialogical search for truth, we really have to start over by seeing how Indians actually live their communal and individual values. Certainly some Hindus interpret “that is you” as undercutting enduring individuality. At the same time-and more powerfully-Hindu believers may find infinite value in every being, alive or inanimate. More common among Hindus, though, is a theistic realization of God and self as “intermingled realities,” distinct but inseparable. Thus, the eighth-century Hindu poet Tirumalisai Piran sang, “Without You I am not, O Narayana-indeed-but without me, You are not,” concisely integrating the divine and human persons, yet without confusion. Over the past twelve hundred years, Tirumalisai Piran’s Srivaisnava Hindu tradition has spent much time explaining how the supreme God and every single individual are related by distinctions neither dualistic nor monistic. In short, we must pay much closer attention to what Hindu mystics and theologians have actually said. These examples could, of course, be supplemented by many others gleaned from Benedict’s writings. His reflections on the Christian-Jewish relation alone merit separate study. Of course, we also need to do more than read books; the written word is only part of how a cardinal or a pope affects the life of the church and its performance in the wider world. But Benedict’s careful, intelligent, and provocative insights invite us to reconsider our thinking, to take a fresh and unromantic look at ourselves, and finally, I suggest, to begin listening to what other religious traditions actually say about themselves and consequently to us. Unsurprisingly, he reminds us of who we are as Christians; unexpectedly, he helps free us from some of the habitual illusions by which the modern West, church included, has colonized the globe for its own purposes. In these essays Benedict does not set out a program for how India or any other civilization is to be reconsidered in a search for truth that commences after a thorough critique of the West. If we had only his writings, we would still know very little about Asia’s religions. But he opens a door, provoking us to learn in a fresh way. Were my Hindu critics right in accusing me of being the pope’s man? No and yes. My visitors were wrong if they were imagining that the pope and I were plotting to subvert Hinduism and convert the unsuspecting. There is no evidence in these writings that Benedict has any such plan; I would in any case never accept a mission to subvert and convert. But, as I have been suggesting, another mission pervades Benedict’s writings. It has to do with an honest search shared by believers who already, by grace, know the truth but who also, by grace, are unafraid to look deeper and learn still more. In this dialogue, we need to say who we are, honestly and in light of our faith, but we need also to have real questions. As Benedict puts it, “The proclamation of the gospel must be necessarily a dialogical process. We are not telling the other person something that is entirely unknown to him....The reverse is also the case: the one who proclaims is not only the giver; he is also the receiver; rather, we are opening up the hidden depth of something with which, in his own religion, he is already in touch.” Benedict goes on, “The dialogue of religions should become more and more a listening to the Logos, who is pointing out to us, in the midst of our separation and our contradictory affirmations, the unity we already share.” This dialogue is a mission I would happily accept, were it asked of me.

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and director emeritus of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.