As a prison chaplain in a pluralistic environment, I have often engaged in conversations with men and women of other faiths. This has challenged me to understand how Orthodox Christians can fruitfully engage in interfaith dialogue.*
To illustrate my own process of understanding, I would like to sketch an hypothetical interaction with an inmate called Damien, a Muslim who by all accounts practices his religion consistently, thoughtfully, and sincerely.
One day, Damien asks me a question: How can he find out whether his religion is true? He comes to me and not, say, to his own Muslim Chaplain, because I will respect his freedom to search without coercing him (however gently) to my own answer. At the same time, my own faith commitment compels me to respond to Damien in a way that maintains the integrity of Orthodox Christianity, including its claims to exclusive fulness of truth. How do I prepare? I go to that quintessential scriptural interfaith engagement: the Apostle Paul’s speech to the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:22-31).
In this speech, St. Paul identifies an “unknown god” (v. 23) as the basis of dialogue with his pagan Greek audience. This unknown god is singular, utterly transcendent, and independent not only of human control (vv. 24-25), but also of the human ability to imaginatively conceive and thus represent (v. 29). The Apostle highlights here a way of thinking about God that is developed more fully in later Christian theology: apophaticism, a systematic negation of positive human conceptions of God’s nature.
The Apostle then goes on to say that all nations, regardless of historical or cultural circumstances (v. 26) have the capacity to “feel after” and “find” the unknown god (v. 27a). While God cannot be contained in the human mind, or human-made forms, we can know Him because we move in His being and draw life from it (vv. 27b-28). Here we find the root of a later patristic teaching—most fully developed by St. Gregory Palamas—that God, unknowable in His essence, mysteriously makes Himself knowable in His energies.
This leads to St. Paul’s third key point: Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected is the definitive, energetic self-revelation of the unknown god. While “all men everywhere” (v. 30) may once have had the liberty to represent the unknown god according to their humanly limited understandings, they must now be ready to turn and conform their minds to a single standard by which they will be judged—Jesus Christ—who is the unknown god’s final and complete self-revelation to the nations (v. 31). This is nothing less than a claim to exclusivity. No other revelation is as complete as this one.
However, there is an important final caveat in St. Paul’s concluding words: “[God] has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed…” (v. 31). The key point here is the future tense. While the man Jesus Christ is the Crucified One, he is also the Coming One. Thus, every Christian who claims exclusivity for the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ (the One who is both crucified and coming again) must also suspend the finality of that claim until the “standard” appears in the eschaton, and makes Himself known to everyone beyond doubt.
With these points in mind, I can answer Damien’s question in four parts:
First, I can suggest that he is ultimately looking for an “unknown god,” which I call the Real, following John Hick. Of course, I believe I know the name of the Real, but I restrain myself to an apophatic mode of speaking out of respect for Damien’s freedom. Thus, I propose to him that the reason he attends non-Muslim gatherings is because he believes that there is an ultimate Real, and that Reality exists for everyone, but quite apart from their individual or cultural beliefs, biases, opinions, or attitudes about It.
Second, I can tell Damien that his “unknown god” or Reality is something he can get to know, to the extent that any human can know anything. In this, I follow Gregory Palamas’ corrective of Hick, whose view leads to the dead end of relativized religious truth. By contrast, Damien is not satisfied to hold his Islamic worldview as true relative to its own cultural context, and no more. Rather, he wants more. He wants to truly grasp at a Reality that transcends merely relative expressions of truth and meaning.
Thirdly, I suggest that when Damien discovers the Real, it will be definitive. It will include some ideas, and exclude others. He expresses concern about offending others who hold different views, but I suggest (as my fourth point) that he can embrace his beliefs without compromise and still respect the views of others, as long as he can concede that the universal Real will eventually make itself known to everyone. In short, he can affirm his exclusive faith as long as he is willing to suspend the final judgment.
This is my hypothetical response to Damien; it is in fact similar to ways in which I have actually responded to inquiring inmates who hold beliefs other than my own. At this time, I believe what I have outlined suggests how Orthodox Christians can engage in conversation with partners of other faiths based on the following:
- An affirmation of a single ultimate, transcendent Real, which…
- Makes itself knowable to anyone who genuinely reaches for It.
- We can also allow for exclusive claims of knowledge of the Real, as long as…
- All partners in the dialogue agree to suspend the final judgment of their claims.
Within these parameters, we can engage in a dialogue with those of other faiths that is both non-coercive and respectful, while being uncompromising in its integrity. We can respond to the Great Commission, and give a genuine account for our own hope to those who are reaching for the Real with good and honest hearts.
Father Richard René holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is a priest of the Archdiocese of Canada of the Orthodox Church in America, and conducts Orthodox prison ministry throughout the Chilliwack, British Columbia region. He has been published in The Wheel and on Pravmir, has podcasted on Ancient Faith Radio, and blogs at Anonymous Priest.
Father René’s longer article on this theme appeared in The Wheel, Issue 8, under the title “The Firmament of Grace: Hospitality in Interfaith Dialogue.”
Photo Credit: St. Paul at the altar of the unknown god. Untitled drawing on paper by Tommaso Minardi (1787-1871). The British Museum.
*In contemporary usage ecumenical dialogue refers to conversation among Christians of various ecclesial or denominational affiliations, while interfaith refers to conversation between Christian and non-Christian faith traditions. See also Mark Arey’s “Interfaith Dialogue: A First Step to Perichoresis (Interbeing).”