Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., used the occasion of his Fall McGinley Lecture to explore potential ways world religions can relate to one another in the hope of preventing future conflict and tragedies. “The present armed intervention in Afghanistan is sometimes described as a religious war,” said Dulles, Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society. “This interpretation is on the whole false, but it contains a grain of truth. From the Arab side, religion is part of the picture, but Muslim extremists such as bin Laden seem to be working for ends that are cultural, political, ethnic, and economic rather than exclusively religious.”
The lecture, “Christ Among the Religions,” drew more than 400 people in Fordham Prep’s Leonard Theater on Nov. 7 and explored different ways world religions could relate to each another. Dulles discussed four possible models: coercion, convergence, pluralism and tolerance. In discussing coercion, Dulles acknowledged Christianity’s contributions to interreligious tensions in the past, such as when the Roman Empire enforced Christian orthodoxy and persecuted all other religions. “Protestants and Catholics alike have learned that adherence to faith must be a free and uncoerced act,” said Dulles.
“Religious coercion survives only in nations that have come late to modernity. It is promoted by extremists who sense that desperate measures are needed to save their theocratic vision of the State.” Dulles went on to indicate how those believing in the authenticity of their religion have issues with the premise of convergence. “The basic premise of [convergence]is that all religions, at least in their differentiating features, are human constructions – faltering attempts to articulate the holy and transcendent mystery by which human existence is encompassed,” said Dulles. “This theory meets with resistance on the part of religiously minded people, who contend that their specific faith is true, even that it is divinely revealed.”
Pluralism, which Dulles defined as the contention “that each religion reflects certain aspects of the divine,” may seem like the easiest answer to appeasing religious conflict. However, those with strict beliefs will have trouble adopting such a mindset. “[Pluralism] has a certain appeal for relativists, who maintain that the human mind cannot attain objective truth, and that religion is an expression of merely subjective feelings,” said Dulles. “But it will not appeal to orthodox believers, who hold that the doctrines of their religion are objectively and universally true.” According to Dulles, it is the adoption of the fourth model, toleration – an approach that American history has proven to be most effective – that might provide the best possible solution to interreligious conflict.
“From the beginning we had in this nation a great variety of Christian denominations that regarded one another as mistaken,” said Dulles. “The American political settlement did not require them to approve of each other’s doctrines and practices, but it did insist that they avoid any effort to coerce the members of other denominations to agree with them. The American experiment has worked well enough to offer a possible model for the global international community that is currently experiencing its birth pangs.” In the second part of his lecture, Dulles showed how this fourth model is the one that best coheres with the teachings of the Catholic church.
He emphasized the high Christology of the Second Vatican Council, which insisted on the unique mediatorship of Christ. He also reviewed the Council’s position on ecumenism, missionary activity and religious freedom. In his concluding remarks, Dulles returned to pondering the events and aftermath of Sept. 11, pointing out the dire need for ongoing tolerance and interreligious dialogue. “In the present crisis, the religions have a great opportunity to overcome hostility and violence among peoples and to promote mutual esteem and cordial cooperation. But the stakes are high,” said Dulles. “If the various religious communities refuse to adopt programs of tolerance and to engage in respectful dialogue, there is a serious danger of relapsing into mutual recrimination and hatred.”