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.