One question that has appeared more than once in my reading of Paul Knitter’s No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions concerns the purpose of inter-religious dialogue. Knitter wants for it to be much more than chit-chat in which people from one religion affirm other religions, and vice versa. My impression, and I’m open to correction on this, is that Knitter would like for inter-religious dialogue to get at a truth. But Knitter also appears to be skeptical of Christian claims that Christianity is superior to other religions. He refers to thinkers who regard such a stance as inhibiting dialogue rather than fostering or encouraging it. Moreover, he seems to believe that the claim crashes against reality, in which history and culture are in flux, and people from non-Christian religions appear through their good lives and their insights to have experienced the divine.
I suppose that one reason to be aware of other religions is that this helps us to better understand our own religion, as we see what we are like in comparison to others. There are evangelicals who practice this principle. Some look at Islam and think that Muslims have something to teach evangelicals, since Muslims have a much less casual attitude to God than a number of evangelicals do, or Muslims are serious about their regular practice of worship. Others look at Islam and conclude that the evangelical intimacy with God is preferable, and they may regard the Muslim rituals of worship as legalistic. Either way, they’re thinking about their own religion as they compare it with another.
Mutual understanding is another reason for inter-religious dialogue. There are plenty of stereotypes out there. These stereotypes shape how we view and treat the other. Listening to people define themselves rather than how others define them can help correct this problem. It’s important to hear people’s own side of the story.
I’m rather skeptical of the notion that Christians have to become liberals for inter-religious dialogue to occur. Not only do I believe that genuine dialogue occurs when people are themselves, but I also think that excluding conservative practitioners of religions from the discussion—-just because they hold a stance that is not considered conducive to dialogue—-brackets out a significant number of people who play a key role in shaping the religion. If you want for inter-religious dialogue to be an elite enterprise, then perhaps a way to do that is to say that only liberal Christians can show up as representatives of Christianity. I don’t think that approach is very productive, however.
I’d say that from the standpoint of my own spirituality, however, I prefer a Christianity that does not dismiss the notion that God may be at work in other religions, and that other religions may have insights to teach me. But that’s part of my own spiritual search, not so much my stance on inter-religious dialogue. At the same time, I think that being open to learning can assist dialogue, and that even conservative Christians can see their own blind spots as they compare themselves with other religions, and may in the process even draw the conclusion that other religions have insights that are compatible with Scripture. On page 163, Knitter refers to a thinker who held that Christians can learn important lessons from Judaism, such as “the Jewish insistence on salvation as communal and as demanding historical transformation, the goodness of creation, and the danger of making anything final before the kingdom of God has come” (Knitter’s words).