religions and dialogue

This essay by Philip Jenkins can stand in for many, many books and articles — and cocktail party conversations — about interreligious dialogue. People have been making just this kind of argument for more than a hundred years now. It goes like this: “As trade and technology shrink the globe,” “teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, [is] a prerequisite for human survival.” Now, it’s not at all clear what Jenkins means by “acknowledge”? Must we agree that all religions have equally valid (or invalid) claims upon us and there is no reasonable way to choose one in preference to another? He doesn’t quite say that, but he does lament the way the Catholic church has “cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions.” And makes the old the-Church-must-change-or-die argument: “Many Christians are coming to terms with just how thoroughly so many of their fundamental assumptions will have to be rethought as their faith today becomes a global religion.”

So, familiar stuff. I just want to make one point, which I have developed at greater length elsewhere. What always fascinates me about these arguments is that, in their focus on how proponents of different religions can get along, they invariably forget to raise the issue that for most religious believers is the central one: truth. If “intolerance” of other religions means denying that they are equally valid means of accessing the divine, that’s only a bad thing if all religions are equally valid means of accessing the divine — but that is just the point at issue. The constant and never-questioned assumption of people like Jenkins is that, if there is a God, that God will be tolerant and open-minded and accepting of a great variety of ways of trying to get to Him or Her or It. But as far as I can tell, the only reason for believing in so all-embracing a God is that we’d prefer to. Looking around at the world — the natural world as well as the human world — I do see some reasons (none of them definitive, of course) for believing in a God, but I don't see much warrant for believing in a God who is nice.