Reflection on the Dialogue of Charity and the Dialogue of Truth

Author: Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.

Reflection on the Dialogue of Charity and the Dialogue of Truth

Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Christian truth spreads by conviction not coercion

An initial epistemological proposal concerning religious dialogue advises that it be implemented by way of two distinct tracks, since each has a different destination not necessarily linked to the other.

One is the dialogue of charity, which endeavours to build a reconciled and peaceful human civilization. The other is the dialogue of truth, which aims instead to discern the truth in individual religious beliefs.

The dialogue of charity can appear first of all in the dialogue of life, through respect for the conversation partner as a member of the same humanity and consequently as entitled to acceptance. esteem and even friendship.

Secondly, this dialogue can be put into practice in the dialogue of action. This implies collaboration among world religions in order to achieve peace among the nations, to defend nature and its laws, to protect life, especially that of the weakest, to show solidarity regarding the goods of this earth, to safeguard the freedom of every human being — especially religious freedom — to affirm justice, equality and brotherhood, to overcome the negative aspects of globalization and to eliminate poverty and hunger in the world.

The dialogue of charity visibly opens a horizon as boundless as that of God's love poured out into our hearts.

The other aspect of interreligious dialogue is the dialogue of truth, which entails the freedom to confront one's own convictions with another's, respecting both the validity of that person's conscience and the sincerity of his/her beliefs.

This dialogue, whose aim is not to achieve a universal religion with a minimum common denominator, is a difficult one, since it presses conversation partners to explain the essential characteristics of their religious beliefs.

It should be borne in mind that all great religions, and not only Christianity, put forward their claim to truth and universality. Thus, the dialogue of truth is indispensable for an objective discernment of reality.

I shall present several reflections that focus on this dialogue of truth, stating beforehand that they are perfunctory references, since the Church has a long experience of this dialogue.

I begin with an affirmation from the Declaration Dominus Iesus which says: "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" (n. 3).

I believe that now is the time to go beyond the theories of exclusivism, inclusivism and relativism with their further specifications and to focus instead on a dual direction.

First of all, it is necessary to steer clear of generic interreligious dialogue that does not take into account the specific identity of each conversation partner. Interreligious dialogue, just as ecumenical dialogue, demands a bilateral confrontation in which the dialogue partners may be considered in their specific originality and may thus express their own "truths".

In addition, it is necessary that the interreligious dialogue of truth focus on the essential content of the different beliefs and hence on their vision of God (should they mention it), of the human being and of the cosmos. The dialogue of truth must examine in concrete terms religious, ethical, educational, political and cultural convictions, in a word, the hard core of the interlocutor's religious identity.

Hence, it is essential to avoid generic comparisons that are based solely upon superficial phenomenological analyses and to open oneself instead to an open and frank bilateral exchange regarding the respective religions' perspectives on the truth about God, man and the cosmos.

This implies a correct and articulate knowledge of one's own faith and an equally complete familiarity with the beliefs of the other.

The dialogue of truth, then, cannot come about without the risk of trivializing and perhaps even betraying one's own convictions as well as those of others.

Dialogue of truth against the tide of opinion

Certainly, in a culture such as our post-modern culture in which opinion dominates and the truth seems an evanescent mirage, the dialogue of truth appears as a challenge to go against the tide of opinion.

This entails a certain change in the dynamics of interreligious dialogue. Benedict XVI's lesson in Regensburg can be considered the beginning of a new approach that breaks away from the rigid patterns of a diplomatic dialogue that disregards the consequences of a virtual dialogue cut off from reality, in order to enter into the life of a dialogue de vérité et de vie which brings into play the actual lives of the conversation partners, in the entirety and complexity of their plans for human and religious fulfilment.

Obviously, my thoughts could not be other than based on a Christian frame of reference and are accompanied by historical observations and philosophical and theological reflections.

To respond to those who ask us to account for Christian hope, we must refer to the truth. Indeed St. John says: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things. and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true" (Jn 21:24).

Dialogue is a literary genre with a long tradition, present in Greek philosophy and also in the Gospels. In the interreligious exchange, ancient Christianity was obliged to face certain inter-connected challenges that are still relevant today: the rational justification of faith, the question of its truth and the possibility of its actuation in the practical life of Christians.

In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin (second century), considered both the Old Testament and Greek philosophy as two paths that lead to Christ, the Logos: Benedict XVI comments in one of his Catecheses that "This is why Greek philosophy cannot be opposed to Gospel truth, and Christians can draw from it confidently as from a good of their own" (General Audience, 21 March 2007 on Justin, Philosopher and Martyr; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, ORE, 28 March 2007, p. 11).

Tertullian (second to third century A.D.) speaks of Christianity as the vera religio veri Dei, distinct from the romana religio. Lactantius (third to fourth century) also saw the Christian religion as the vera religio veraque sapientia.

Tertullian identifies the differences between the new religion and the principal philosophical currents to lie in the triumph of the Spirit's love, wherein the persecutors' violence is opposed by the blood, suffering and patience of the martyrs.

As a good apologist, Tertullian is also aware of the need for a positive representation of Christianity: for this reason he adopts the speculative method to illustrate the rational foundations of the Christian dogma. He examines them systematically, starting with a description of the "God of the Christians".

"The God we worship", the apologist says, "is one God alone". And he continues, using the antitheses and paradoxes characteristic of his literary style: "He is invisible although seen: he is elusive, although he is present through grace; he is inconceivable, although human senses can conceive of him; consequently, he is true and great!" (Apologia, 17, 1-2).

The Fathers had to withstand the barrage of anti-Christian criticism from the pagan writers and philosophers, and especially from Porphyry, a Neo-Platonic philosopher (third century) whose views were as clear as those of his teacher Plotinus were obscure.

Why was Porphyry anti-Christian?

There are three reasons for his anti-Christian sentiment. First of all is his rejection of the Scriptures, and especially of the Gospels, since he supposed the Evangelists to be actors and impostors who would have practised magic, thereby deceiving the ignorant.

Porphyry also denied the Incarnation and the resurrection of the flesh since they were irreconcilable with the Platonic dualism of the absolute separation between the intelligible and the sensible, the latter considered evil in itself.

Lastly, Porphyry contested the novelty of any of Christianity's characteristics, since the need for conversion, the practice of good works for one's neighbour and respect for all creatures are values that were also upheld by Greek wisdom.

These topics were later to be taken up by the Emperor Julian in his Contra Galilaeos (Against the Gallleans). The apostate Emperor was shocked by the claim of truth advanced by the Christians in comparison with other religions. He held that all peoples should be free to venerate their own divinities which are always partial expressions of the divine transcendent.

In his defence of religious pluralism and relativism, the Senator Symmachus (fourth century) also argued along these lines, equating the cult of the Goddess of Victory with Christian worship.

From these references the widespread and argued offensive against Christianity within the culture of that time is immediately obvious. However, the Church through her pastors and great minds replied in an equally firm and coherent way.

For example, in St. Ambrose's answer to Symmachus he says that God alone can teach the mystery of God, not man, who does not even know himself: "[Symmachus] says that there cannot be only one access to such a great mystery. What you ignore we know from God's voice itself. And what you seek by conjecture, we learn from God's own wisdom and truth" (Letters, 18, 7-8).

Arnobius of Sicca (third to fourth century) wrote an apology for Christianity, Adversus nationes. Its unitive approach was inspired by passion for the truth within the heated dispute between the Christian faith and pagan polytheism, with which he was well acquainted and which had formerly been his existential reference point.

Arnobius stressed the ability of the ratio to judge correctly and to understand and accept Christian truth. His method, centred upon the relationship between doubt and certainty, is a dialectical expression of that between falsehood and truth.

On the subject of true religion Christians admit that God's mystery is inaccessible through human efforts alone. But the revelation of Christ is the very word of God who reveals himself with wisdom and truth; thus the consequence that the Christian religion is the only true religion. It is not a form of Gnosis, or salvation through knowledge. Rather, Christianity recognizes as historical fact the salvific mystery of the Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God, through whom communion with God is offered to humanity like a gift of life and truth.

In his treatise De vera religione, St. Augustine sets out to dissuade his benefactor, Romanianus, from Manichaeism and lead him to the Church. In this work, Augustine criticizes pagan cults and presents the true religion as adoration of the God who is One and Three.

The mysterious writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century) who, after Paul's example, placed the Gospel in dialogue with Greek wisdom, made an important contribution. His intention was to seek the truth: "I do not wish to spark polemics", he said in one of his letters, "I simply speak of the truth, I seek the truth".

His attitude goes to the heart of the true spirit of every dialogue: the search for the truth. For this reason, Pope Benedict XVI said in his Catechesis on 14 May 2008, that Dionysius, to us, "appears as a great mediator in the modern dialogue between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia" (General Audience, 14 May 2008; ORE, 21 May 2008, p. 11).

Understanding in the light of the truth

And, with regard to interreligious dialogue, the Pope added: "In this context it can be seen that dialogue does not accept superficiality. It is precisely when one enters into the depths of the encounter with Christ that an ample space for dialogue also opens. When one encounters the light of truth, one realizes that it is a light for everyone; polemics disappear and it is possible to understand one another; or at least to speak to one another, to come closer" (ibid.).

The Fathers of the Church were therefore attentive to the rational justification of Christianity in a harmonious but sometimes also argumentative confrontation with other philosophical and religious conceptions, making use of the recta ratio as a way to the divine truth.

On the basis of this rational justification they also showed the existential exemplarity of Christians. Indeed, there could be no other explanation of the extraordinary and rapid spread of Christianity in the ancient world, which succeeded in integrating profound philosophies and in surpassing religions then deemed invincible.

Of course, the missionary zeal of the apostles, and especially of Paul of Tarsus, was immense, but the practical nature of Christianity also made an undeniable contribution, and it soon became a religion for all.

"A Christian", in Ignatius of Antioch's opinion, was someone who lived a life in harmony with his faith. Origen maintained that the truth of Christianity was proven by putting it into practice. Christian life, in fact, is not only interiority but is expressed in the conduct and language of the faithful. For John Chrysostorn, the Christian "must be recognized everywhere by his way of walking, his expression, the impression given by his entire behaviour and even his voice" (Homily, 4, 7).

Criticized by Celsus who maintained that there was nothing original in Christian morals, Origen refrained from protesting and explained that the presumed lack of newness in Christian ethics depended on the fact that God had desired to provide common ethical criteria for all humanity, to ensure that the verdict of the Last Judgement would be based on criteria that were truly the same for all.

The way in which Christianity serves as an essential completion of ancient thought concerns two elements.

First of all, the Christian truth is not a truth only for experts but for everyone. It is not only theoretical but is also a practical truth. It is not only a truth for academia but also for practical life.

This Christian simplicity is far removed from Gnostic fabrications. Those who helped to spread Christianity were not only scholars but also simple people. The Fathers often called Christians "the true philosophers".

Jerome wondered: "Who reads Aristotle? Who knows Plato or his books or even his name?... On the other hand everyone is talking of our ordinary people and our fishermen; talk of them echoes across the world. Therefore it is necessary to offer them simple words in an equally simple language".

What is more, Christian simplicity is not simple-mindedness or superficiality but docta ignorantia, in analogy with Socratic ignorance. It indicates a loftier knowledge that goes beyond the dialectic of philosophers and rhetoricians and succeeds in reaching all.

Christianity's claim to truth and universality has therefore been inherent in its identity from the outset. This is proven not so much by technical reasoning but by living a visible and exemplary life. And this truth was not spread by coercion but by conviction. At the very foundations of the Christian proclamation lies the principle of freedom.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 July 2008, page 6

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