This evening I want to say one thing: dialogue is necessary.   We might also say, dialogue is desirable, dialogue is welcome, dialogue is constructive.

Dialogue is personal for me.  My area of theology is liturgy, which is about talking to God.  Jesus said: you must love God with your whole heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Dialogue, then, is the corollary to talking to God, it is talking to your neighbor.

I did a lot of soul-searching for this address.  This is because dialogue never comes easily.  Dialogue means confronting someone who is different, who believes differently than we do.  It means standing on an edge.  It means straining our own credibility.  It might mean – but, I stress, it does not necessarily mean – clash or conversion.  As human beings, we want to follow the easier road.  We are right – the other is wrong.  End of story.  The rhetoric of anathema is easier than the language of dialogue.  For that reason, defending dialogue is dangerous – not only for us as individuals but for us as a community.  It means how are we as individuals and as a community going to deal with the OTHER – the one who is different.


I start with a simple general principle – God has created the world and all who live in it.  He has created human beings – male and female – in his own image and likeness.  Since God is infinite, he loves each and every human being he has created with an infinite divine love.  The Christian gospel tells us that we are going to be judged on whether we treated each and every human being as an image of God.  This is the simple general principle.


When we turn to Scripture, we find that relationships with the OTHER is sometimes harsh and violent.  To speak of dialogue – in my own soul-searching – seems to be difficult and weak. Let me preface what I am about to say by stating first that the Scriptures are recognized by the church as the word of God.  They therefore demand our respect and assent.  In the beginnings of the Old Testament we find an image of a warrior-God, who would not be much for “dialogue.”  Deuteronomy 7:1-5:

“ When the Lord, your God, brings you into the land which you are about to enter to possess, and removes many nations before you – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you – and when the Lord, your God, gives them over to you and you defeat them, you shall put them under the ban. Make no covenant with them and do not be gracious to them …. For they would turn your sons from following me to serving other gods, and then the anger of the Lord would flare up against you and he would quickly destroy you.  But this is how you must deal with them: Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, chop down their asherahs, and destroy their idols by fire.”

Likewise, in the New Testament, particularly the later epistles, those who deviate from the gospel are soundly condemned.  St. Paul warns, “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7), and the Epistle of Jude denounces “some intruders, who long ago were designated for this condemnation, godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)” However, he also takes a road of “semi-dialogue:” Yet the archangel Michael, when he argued with the devil in a dispute over the body of Moses, did not venture to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him but said, “May the Lord rebuke you! (Jude 9)”

The language of anathema continued in Christian disputes.  It was particularly strong in the debates after the Council of Chalcedon.  In a letter of St. Gregory of Narek, I came across a condemnation of heresies in Armenia in the tenth century, “For they are packs of dogs and bands of thieves, troops of wolves and arrays of devils; tribes of brigands and masses of weevils, hordes of savages and legions of crucifiers, congregations of evil ones and men of blood, swarms of poisonous snakes and herds of wild beasts, enemies of mankind, societies of wizards and heretics, the scorn not only of churchmen, but of heathen as well.”

Such rhetoric continues to the present day, and I have recently read condemnations of Orthodoxy by Conservatives Protestants that are unseemly to quote here.  There are also groups of traditional Orthodox and traditional Catholics who consider the other side as heretics and are not sparing in their mutual anathemas.  The language of mutual condemnation of the OTHER has been definitely in the mainstream of theological history.

With a love for Scripture and for the tradition of the Church’s faith as expressed by its teaching authority, is there any way to “rationalize” this policy of anathema?  I do not want to “rationalize” it, but I do observe that there is another tradition also.  In the Gospels, Jesus calls us definitely to love for the OTHER, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)” It is Jesus who calls us to unity, as a part of our deification, ““I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:20-21),” and St. Paul who preaches, “one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)” One might point out that this unity is in one true belief, and the OTHERS are excluded, but it also points out that we are not to condemn the OTHER, but to bring the OTHER into unity, hopefully through dialogue and not through violence.  We cannot simply “rationalize” Scripture, but we can observe that the purpose of Scripture and tradition is to strengthen our faith, to make us more committed to the truth, to have a zeal for the gospel.  At the same time, we might also say that “tradition” is good, but “tranditionalism” is deadly; that “zeal” is good – and scripture and tradition are about zeal – but zealotry is about hate.

In the twentieth century, a charitable way of relating to the OTHER became popular.  I did not want to “rationalize” but I want to point out that throughout human history, there has been an impetus to peace and love and dialogue with the OTHER.  We sometimes don’t see this, because as someone once observed, “History is written by the victors.”  There have always been holy Christians who have sought union through dialogue, often at great personal cost.  Even the condemnation of iconoclasm came about through dialogue, where the iconodules, in dialogue with the iconoclasts, did admit that the making of statues smacked a bit of idolatry.  This did not affect the West, where the iconoclast controversy did not lead to division.  In the twentieth century, however, a revolution in communication brought us into a closer and more intimate union with the OTHER.  This was supplemented by a revolution in travel, bringing different groups into the same place as the OTHER through immigration.  How did we deal with this: one way was through hatred, leading to the genocides of the twentieth century, of the Armenians by the Turks, of the Jews by the Nazis, of the Cambodian “killing field,” and of the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda by the Hutus, often under “Christian” auspices.  Having grown up in a Slav-American “immigration” culture, I know from my childhood, how there was hatred for the blacks and Jews (even after the Nazi genocide).  I know even today how many now transfer that hatred to the Moslems – we need only to listen to contemporary political rhetoric.  I know also from my life in faith how Orthodox and Catholics denigrated one another.  On the other hand, there was a strengthening of the ecumenical movement, in which we began to listen to one another, and to find common ground rather than mutual condemnation.  We became aware that the destruction of the other was our own spiritual death, and maybe even our physical death.  We became aware that we are all travelers on the planet earth, that we are all in this together, and that salvation depends on toleration.  The goal of unity came to the forefront, for the Protestants at the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, though there remain evangelical churches totally opposed, for the Orthodox in the 1920 Encyclical Letter of Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos, though there remain traditionalists, particularly many monastic communities who brand ecumenism as the “pan-heresy,” and for the Catholics in the Second Vatican Council, which is still virulently opposed, however, by many traditionalists. Christians felt the need to unite in the face of a dangerous and secularist world hostile to religion.  

Another reason for dialogue may be the restructuring of society.  Before the twentieth century, the secular power was wedded to religion.  The Church proclaimed the faith, the government enforced belief, or, at the least, public ascription to the Church’s formulations of belief.  This is no longer true for most of the world, though there are still some governments supporting official religions.  Also, in the twentieth century, we have seen governments hostile to religion.  I do not think there is any way in which we can consider the United States a “Christian” society, even though not “hostile” to religion.  In recognition of this reality, the Catholic Church recognized freedom of religions in the Vatican II Council: “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (Dignitatis Humanae 2) Coercion is no longer a way of dealing with other churches or religions, and dialogue becomes an authentic way to relate to the OTHER.  It is certainly unrealistic to think that the billions of non-Christians will all convert tomorrow, or even in the next generation or in future generations, or that we will even find a common denominator among the followers of Christ.  Dialogue becomes necessary, and even desirable.

Especially when the Catholic Church came on board with ecumenism, this resulted in what I can call an “era of good feelings.”  Pope and Patriarch met in Jerusalem and opened a Tomos Agapis, a “dialogue of love.”  Bi-lateral dialogues were established with virtually all Christian Churches with the express goal of a renewed Communion.  The dialogues between Catholics and the Oriental Orthodox and the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox have produced statements of mutual faith, where the linguistic differences are labeled as “semantic” and “political.” Traditionalists within these churches (cf. the Memorandum by Mt. Athos) have prevented these statements in coming to full fruition in Communion.   I am a child of Vatican II, I was present in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and I can witness to the almost palpable presence and working of the Holy Spirit.  However, as time has gone on, this elusive goal still seems far away. Zeal for unity and hope for communion has dimmed.  The easier road of self-righteousness and condemnation of the OTHER is still a basic component of human nature.  

I repeat what I said at the beginning: dialogue is necessary.  There is no chance of a war between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox on theological differences.  However, there is the continued spiritual scandal of mutual division and hatred.  Moreover, in the West there are nationalistic movements, with some religious elements, that could lead to hostilities.  There is more chance of a war between Moslem countries in the Middle East and the West, though probably on more than simply religious issues.  Given the modern human capacity for self-destruction, we should probably tread very carefully today, though this requires the acknowledgment of complexity in cultural differences, which today we seem to want to simplify in extreme partisanship.  As science-fiction author Poul Anderson noted, “I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated.”

Dialogue is necessary, but is it possible?  We have learned from the ecumenical movement of the last fifty years that there is one danger to be avoided.  That is to conceive dialogue as “compromise.”  Dialogue becomes toxic when it weakens our own love for truth.  I aver strongly that I am not a relativist.  There is truth, it is not an illusion, and there is absolute truth.  As a Christ, I believe that Jesus Christ is truth.  He is also love, life, wisdom and the power of God.  Dialogue is not “compromise” but a mutual and respectful “search for the fullness of truth.”  However, it is not “dialogue” unless we confess the possibility of learning from one another.  What we know may be the truth and, indeed, even the absolute truth, but as human beings with limitations, it may not be “all that we can know.”  It is hubris to think that we cannot learn from the OTHER.  This does not compromise our faith, but helps to deepen it.  The very definition of “schism” might be to grasp only a part of the total reality.  Archbishop Elias Zoghby explained, “We are all schismatics.”  In accepting inter-religious dialogue as a desirable possibility, the Vatican II Council said: “whatever good or truth is found” in other religions is “given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.” (Lumen Gentium16).  The children of God numbers in the billions, and only a minority have come to know of Christ in authentic way.  We need the humility in faith to know that God does not abandon the people he has made in his image and likeness, that he finds ways of salvation for them all in his infinite loving providence, and therefore, we can learn from the OTHER, all the while establishing ourselves on the right foundation of truth.  

How is dialogue possible?  Does dialogue mean that we cannot proclaim the Gospel?  I think not, for the very mission statement for the Church uttered by the risen Jesus himself is: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20)” We have mentioned many times the commitment of the Catholic Church to ecumenism.  The Orthodox Church is similarly committed, and in the Holy and Great Counci lof Crete (2016) noted: The Orthodox Church has a common awareness of the necessity for conducting inter-Christian theological dialogue. It therefore believes that this dialogue should always be accompanied by witness to the world through acts expressing mutual understanding and love, which express the “ineffable joy” of the Gospel (1 Pt 1:8), eschewing every act of proselytism, uniatism, or other provocative act of inter-confessional competition … The Orthodox Church is aware that the movement to restore Christian unity is taking on new forms in order to respond to new circumstances and to address the new challenges of today’s world.” (Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World 23-24) It seems the Greek Church interprets dialogue as proclaiming the Gospel: “The basic task of the Church is Mission, namely her struggle to constantly bear witness to the faith and preach the Gospel, whether to the faithful who live in modern secular societies, or those who have not yet known Christ. … Dialogue, mainly with heterodox Christians (other Christian confessions – sects [αιρέσεις]) , is based on the duty of the Church to witness the truth and apostolic faith in each and every direction”. (Message of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, January 27, 2017).  Is this “dialogue”?  Is this listening to the OTHER.  I do not deny the right of the Church to her mission, but not every dialogue is going to lead to conversion.

The Orthodox Church’s recent statements relate to inter-Christian dialogue.  At this point, a consideration of dialogue with other religions besides Christianity can lead to an understanding  of dialogue in general.  I will tell a personal story.  Some years ago, I was in Rome for a visit, I don’t remember the occasion.  On the flight home, which landed in Philadelphia, I found myself seated next to a Moslem doctor.  When he discovered I was a Catholic priest, he wanted to talk about religion, and so we had a very friendly discussion about our differences in faith.  In the end, he told me he appreciated what I had to say, but that he simply could not accept a God who would allow himself to be crucified on a cross.  However, who knows what seeds were planted?  This is one of the difficulties of witnessing to the Christian faith – it is a faith of paradox – in weakness we find strength, in death we find life, in foolishness we find wisdom.  However, blocks to understanding often come from pre-conceptions we have even before we begin talking.  Our faith may be established on these pre-conceptions, and not on the absolute truth of the faith we have, which goes beyond rationalization and intellectualism to the very heart of our relationship with God.  


extra difficulty of Christian dialogue


necessity of starting with the statements each faith makes about itself


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