The old model of interfaith dialogue argued that the only way you could truly engage another person, who was not a Christian, was to give up a particularistic criteria of truth in favor of relativism and universalized faith.
Raimon Panikkar, author of The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), famously argued that support of pluralist conversation required us to embrace real pluralism “because no single culture, model, ideology, religion, or whatnot can any longer raise a convincing claim to be the one, unique, or even best system in an absolute sense” (23). Such arguments are adamant about Christians actually embracing pluralism openly.
I believe such writers were right to recognize that modern society is increasingly pluralistic. They can assist us in conversation in one way. Quotes like that of Pannikar’s should make us realize that there is a big difference between equating a “single culture, model, ideology, religion or whatnot . . .” with living faith in Jesus Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit. I think his words, when read one way at least, reveal the real heart of the problem that we often bring to religious dialogue.
There is a lot that Christians can admit that they do not know. God has chosen to reveal to us that Christ is the savior of the world but he has not told us the last word on who he saves and how extensive his salvation really might be in the end. What is clear is that Jesus of Nazareth is “the way, the truth and the life.” What is also clear is that we are commanded to believe his words and proclaim his gospel to all nations. Final judgment is simply not ours to make. It is a false conundrum to insist that orthodox belief in hell means that we clearly know who is, and is not, going there and what specifically happens to those who do go there. Dante is not the last word on what the Bible teaches, if he was even the first word.
But I simply reject the idea that I have to become a pluralist to engage with people genuinely. A new paradigm is emerging in which people are talking without surrendering to pluralism in the process. Partners are not seeking the lowest common denominator between their faiths and traditions but embracing and talking about their differences.
This new paradigm encourages a more robust and serious dialogue. It encourages learning about others by listening, not by finding easy ways to agree. What we, as Christians, can bring to this dialogue is what we believe to be our core (revealed) truth. Sometimes we will discover, to our surprise, that other faiths share “some” of these truths but never all.
An agreement, spoken or unspoken, in the new paradigm is simply this; we do not have to agree in order to talk. Since dialogue is about learning from others, as well as sharing what we know, we can enter into it in good faith.
Does this mean we must give up our commitment to “proselytize” other faiths by ceasing our earnest efforts to bring people to Christ? Not at all.
Finally, this new dialogue requires commitment to reciprocity. We are committed to listen and to learn and this approach respects the other person’s deepest beliefs and practices in a humane and loving way. If the new paradigm is taken seriously then orthodox Christians need to engage in such dialogue because they can best represent what Christians have historically believed with the most conviction about its truth. We want to talk to people who really believe what they profess and they need the same from us if there is to be truly good dialogue.