A friend recently told me that he was participating in a new inter-religious initiative at a Catholic university in Europe. I didn’t envy his assignment. Though vitally important in a world that is too often visited by the violent acts of self-avowed religious believers, such dialogues can be very taxing, both intellectually and emotionally. Every step of the process can be painstaking. It can be impossible at times to reach agreement about even the most basic presuppositions of such talks.

It was with a sense of relief then that my friend told me that in the interests of “keeping the peace,” the dialogue participants had decided “to bracket questions of truth.” I wished him well, of course, but what he was about to do struck me as a nearly impossible task. Surely one could put aside certain discrete questions of epistemology, questions involving the mechanics of knowing in a cognitive or psychological sense. But how could any conversation proceed by “bracketing” the question of whether there is such a thing as truth? The one thing that all religious believers arguably have in common is that they believe their religious claims to be true, that their beliefs correspond to objective realities. This is at least characteristic of most monotheists. True, the claims of believers conflict, sometimes wildly, but what is to be gained by ignoring this fact? Is it even possible to ignore it? In order to do so, we would need to believe that there is some Kantian-like neutral starting place carved out by reason where we can meet each other without basic theological presuppositions. Such a place is a philosophical Brigadoon, however: it just doesn’t exist.

Yet from the point of view of Christian faith, the idea of “bracketing” the truth is even more problematic. Our faith affirms that truth is not simply a proposition or an epistemological system, but a person, the person of Jesus Christ. As the Holy Father points out in the just-released second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, the Kingdom of God that the Christ event inaugurated is nothing less than the Kingdom of Truth. The pope makes this point, interestingly enough, in his exegesis of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, possibly the most famous inter-religious dialogue of all time. “What is truth,” Pilate asked. In his response, Jesus revealed that the truth is nothing less than Christ himself, according to Benedict, that “in Christ, God—the Truth—had entered the world.” The incarnation of Truth was necessary precisely because man had failed “to understand the meaning of creation” the truth of his creation. Yet even this side of the resurrection, according to Benedict, we persist in this failure; we too often equate truth with merely functional or technological knowledge. Thus we are blind to the real identity and destiny of humankind. Man himself, says the pope, “becomes true, he becomes himself, when he grows in God’s likeness.”

Truth then is never simply a proposition, as if faith were akin to reading a political platform and signing up for the mailing list. Such a characterization of faith is not only theologically impoverished, it is too rationalistic, even Pelagian in its presumption that we can somehow capture or possess the truth in human language. The pope’s point is exactly the opposite: While propositional speech has its place, particularly in a dogmatic faith, we can never possess the truth. To be a Christian is to dare to live in hope that the Truth possesses us. When we forget that, says Benedict, when we fail to recognize the Truth, then “the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world.” In other words, when we “bracket” the truth, we make violence more likely, not less. That is a good thing for all of us to keep in mind, never more so perhaps than when we are in conversation with our non-Christian brothers and sisters.

Comments

David Cruz-Uribe | 3/8/2011 - 7:49am
I can think of two ways in which the  truth can be bracketed, one on a theoretical level, and the other on a practical level.

On the theoretical level, one can take proceed as the drafters of the UN Declaration of Human Rights did:  accept that they each had wildly divergent (if not contradictory) metaphysical bases for their thinking, and work instead to see if from these bases they could reach common conclusions.  One might think of this as "parallel evolution" in the realm of philosophy.  The resulting dialog can be very fruitful, since it shows the participants that their understanding of truth need not be mutually exclusive.  The points of disagreement can then be explored carefully, leading to a better understanding of how their truths differ.  I have heard this approach referred to as Rawlsian, though I am not sure if Rawls himself argued this way.

On a practical level,  Millard Fuller advocated the "theology of the hammer" as a way past the deep divisions within the Christian community.  This was a pragmatic decision that various Christian denominations could not resolve their doctrinal disagreements, but they could all agree that building houses for poor people was a good thing.   This may be American pragmatism carried to extremes, but if two groups work together on something concrete, they will surely build relationships, which in the Christian understanding is central to our view of truth.
Thomas Piatak | 3/5/2011 - 10:27am
An excellent piece.
Juan Lino | 3/5/2011 - 7:12am
Wonderful article!  The human heart (in the Biblical sense) desires truth and is, in a sense, the recognizer of the truth.  God, knowing this, answered man's desire with an event (David Power mentions it) and not with a discourse, etc.  

So, it seems to me that the best method to use in inter-religious dialogue is what I call "activation of the heart."  Moreover, keeping GS #22 in mind as a backdrop I offer this quote from Don Gius:  "Man is not capable of being himself, of remaining man, without the help of Christ.  Without the help of Christ man cannot understand that he is a question, does not understand that his nature is to be desire, and therefore he is scandalized that his desire is not satisfied [...] But man alone is so poorly capable of being himself that without Christ he would no longer even be man.  And, in fact, he would forget to be desire of happiness, and blaspheming, would say: "I am made for happiness and I cannot reach it."
david power | 3/4/2011 - 8:27pm
Rahner and Von Balthasar groped at ,Giussani nailed. The incarnation is where it is at.
Ratzinger met his true master in Italy. 

Thank you Fr Matt Malone SJ