Truth and Tolerance

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI thoughts on “mission” were reiterated in an address delivered on October 21st to faculty and students of Pontifical Urbanian University in Rome. The address was read by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, who is prefect of the papal household and the personal secretary to Benedict.

Particularly noteworthy to my mind was this section:
“The risen Lord instructed his apostles, and through them his disciples in all ages, to take his word to the ends of the earth and to make disciples of all people,” retired Pope Benedict wrote. “‘But does that still apply?’ many inside and outside the church ask themselves today. ‘Is mission still something for today? Would it not be more appropriate to meet in dialogue among religions and serve together the cause of world peace?’ The counter-question is: ‘Can dialogue substitute for mission?’
“In fact, many today think religions should respect each other and, in their dialogue, become a common force for peace. According to this way of thinking, it is usually taken for granted that different religions are variants of one and the same reality,” the retired pope wrote. “The question of truth, that which originally motivated Christians more than any other, is here put inside parentheses. It is assumed that the authentic truth about God is in the last analysis unreachable and that at best one can represent the ineffable with a variety of symbols. This renunciation of truth seems realistic and useful for peace among religions in the world.
“It is nevertheless lethal to faith. In fact, faith loses its binding character and its seriousness, everything is reduced to interchangeable symbols, capable of referring only distantly to the inaccessible mystery of the divine…”
This intellectual trajectory is counter-intuitive for a lot of people who consider themselves ecumenical today, because it focuses on the truth over platitudes. I am amazed, even astounded, that so many seem to think we can continue to avoid the difficult or thorny issues about the Christian faith's unique claim to truth. It was the fact that this fundamental contradiction had not been addressed that caused me great consternation as a young man. I still think that it is one of the main reasons many refuse to accept the Gospel today. How can all the different religions be true? Why are there so many religions? To the uninitiated, perhaps it would be fair to say that Christianity appears the archetype of this premise:

For me, pretending that there is no truth and that, in fact, everything is relative, is a real cop out, and a real mistake because it contradicts what we can measure about reality, and Jesus' word in the Gospel. A big part of being human for me is the search for truth. Philosophy is history's search for truth and meaning, and study of philosophy teaches us that we can reason to the truth. But not everyone can invest the time and intellect in a detailed study of Lonergan's Insight or Kierkegaard's Journals. Of course, if we had more priests and bishops prepared to stand behind the faith they purport to have committed their lives to, we wouldn't have to. Yet instead, the sheep wander while our shepherds engage in fantasist speculation about relativising doctrine in order to draw in prospective followers who have long since abandoned any notion of the superiority or veracity of Christian truth or morality. Can it truly be that our prelates honestly think abandoning the Magisterium so many of us strive daily to live up to will somehow fill their Churches? In reality, all they are managing to do is alienate and antagonise (and genuinely hurt) those who are faithful, many who make sacrifices to live according to the teaching of the Church. Meanwhile, the fallout of this modernist strategy is plain for all to see all around us. Just look at the publication of the 2015 British Election Study a couple of weeks ago, from which it is crystal clear for all to see that  the Church of England is slowly walking down the statistical road to oblivion. This is where a liberalising agenda will inevitably lead. It's not imagination, it is demonstrable fact. And common sense, because if it doesn't really matter, why on earth should anyone bother about it? If we are to arrest the decline, we have to go back to explaining why it really matters to live a Christian life, why it really matters to hold to Church teachings, why those teachings are the true treasure of our Church, why a Catholic life is fulfilling, transformative, and worthwhile.

Returning to the point of departure once again, I have noticed that everyone who has reported on this has done so as if these thoughts are something new. In fact, this has been a theme Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of at length. For example, on April 17, 2008, at the U.N., during his Apostolic Journey to the United States, see here, and most expansively in his book Truth & Tolerance, one of the most important books I have ever read.

It is a compilation of lectures delivered mainly between 1992 and 2002 by the then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, on faith, religion, culture, truth and tolerance. This book brings his thoughts together in one tome which explores how religions can "relate to one another peacefully" and contribute to educating man towards peace, an urgent goal for the world today.
Naturally, he tackles the argument from the perspective of Christianity being the one truth - the only way to salvation - and whether there is any scope beyond this seeming impasse for finding some kind of unity between religions, as this perhaps offers the only genuine hope for a better future. The book therefore begins in Part One with a look at the unity and diversity of religions, and the place of Christianity in the history of religions. Ratzinger explores the meanings of faith, religion and culture in the search for a way to have fruitful dialogue between Christianity and other faiths and cultures, and in separate essays looks variously at the relevance in this context of the questions of inclusivism, exclusivism and pluralism, the charge, (refuted), that Christianity is a European religion, the influence of Greek culture and Roman law on Catholic and Eastern Christianity, the relevance of the Old Testament to the Christian religion, and the role that multireligious prayer can play in global endeavours for world peace.

The overall conclusion of Part One is that the understanding of truth is fundamental to the scope of the book, and Part Two therefore tackles this philosophical and theological question, first by looking at the new theological problems of the nineties, such as liberation theology, relativism, fundamentalism (as a threat to freedom and tolerance), "New Age" practices, stressing that faith and philosophy need each other, and concluding that in spite of phenomena such as those discussed, faith survives because the "longing for the infinite is alive and unquenchable within man...(and) the Christian faith will come to man again." The next chapter reflects upon the truth of Christianity, starting with the present day crisis of faith brought about by the Enlightenment and the rift between scientific and rational thought, or reason and certainty on the one hand and the subjective realm of feeling on the other, an imbalance that he warns may be fatal for man's humanity and indeed for the future of the world. Reason and feeling will have to come together again, without merging into each other, and we have to find a way to do that.

Finally Ratzinger tackles the difficult questions around truth, tolerance and freedom. Can there be a communion of cultures all seeking the same truth? Is the renunciation of the claim to truth in the Christian faith a fundamental condition for achieving any universal peace, for reconciling Christianity with modernity? Does the question of truth belong in religion anyway? How far should man go in steering his own evolution? What is the true nature of human freedom?

For the well read Catholic, it is easy to see the same themes developed here which were set out in Dominus Iesus, the document addressing the question of salvation through other religions, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in August 2000, and even Fides et ratio.

Truth & Tolerance is a scholarly book, but it is written in a lucid style with extreme sensitivity, understanding, and spiritual maturity and presented in a logical order that makes it accessible and I would say invaluable to those who struggle to hear or make heard the voice of truth in the modern world. As Ratzinger himself remarks: "But what meaning does belief then have, what positive meaning does religion have, if it cannot be connected with truth?" 

Reading this book was a turning point for me because it demonstrated that there were people asking the same questions I was asking--questions which seemed eminently sensible and obvious to me. It also showed me that some people in the Church could answer those questions. What we need to do now is share some of the answers.

For more on ecumenism and Dominus Iesus, you can read this blog I blogged before!


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