In my last post, I discussed how Satan uses the words “assurance” and “security” to trick people into believing that God intended us to have 100% certainty about where we’ll spend eternity, and I argued that viewing Heaven as something we can have a lock on in this life is actually detrimental to our souls. In so arguing, however, I do not want to leave the impression that I believe there is nothing in the Christian life of which the individual believer can be sure. He may not be able to assert with absolute certainty that he’ll make it to Heaven (which is actually a good thing because it helps him to stay humble and “keep on keeping on”), but he can know—with the certainty of faith—what the teachings of the Christian faith are so that he can do his best to live his life in accordance with them. Satan doesn’t like that kind of “assurance,” though, and he’s got at least one code word to try, yet again, to deceive us into settling for less than what God wants for our lives. That word, which seems very popular right now, is “dialogue.”
As with “assurance” and “security,” “dialogue” at first blush sounds completely positive. Who could object to “dialoguing” about matters of faith? The problem, however, is that Satan does his best to get people to think of “dialogue” as an end in and of itself—rather than as simply a means of getting closer to truth. In so doing, he helps contribute to his other current project of convincing people that “just love Jesus” adequately captures the totality of the doctrinal content of Christianity, a topic I’ve discussed before here.
Because Satan is quite intelligent, he realizes that the “dialogue” ploy is particularly well-suited to our post-modern age that purports to reject the idea of absolute truth. Speaking for myself, once I began to realize that the Protestant fundamentalism of which I’d been so “certain” when I was younger didn’t work, “dialogue” sounded great. For this reason, I for a time was very taken with the “emergent church” folks like Brian McLaren who so powerfully indicted the inconsistencies of modern American evangelicalism and did a great job “deconstructing” the evangelical project. In place of the insupportable “certainties” of my previous fundamentalism, people like McLaren offered a smorgasbord of Christian experience and “dialogue” across the Christian spectrum. It was mighty attractive.
Eventually, however, the desire for answers began to set back in, although Satan did his best to convince me that I was just some kind of psychological freak for having that desire. But I’m quite certain that “dialogue” can’t possibly be the answer, for example, to determining whether it’s ok or not ok to use artificial contraception. Nor can it be the answer to helping people figure out if they can marry someone when they have a former spouse still living. Indeed, it finally dawned on me that “dialogue” isn’t the answer to anything. “Dialogue” is simply a tool we can use to arrive at conclusions. The Holy Father, just before Christmas, made the point:
For the Church in our day I see three principal areas of dialogue, in which she must be present in the struggle for man and his humanity: dialogue with states, dialogue with society – which includes dialogue with cultures and with science – and finally dialogue with religions. In all these dialogues the Church speaks on the basis of the light given her by faith. But at the same time she incorporates the memory of mankind, which is a memory of man’s experiences and sufferings from the beginnings and down the centuries, in which she has learned about the human condition, she has experienced its boundaries and its grandeur, its opportunities and its limitations. Human culture, of which she is a guarantee, has developed from the encounter between divine revelation and human existence. The Church represents the memory of what it means to be human in the face of a civilization of forgetfulness, which knows only itself and its own criteria. Yet just as an individual without memory has lost his identity, so too a human race without memory would lose its identity. What the Church has learned from the encounter between revelation and human experience does indeed extend beyond the realm of pure reason, but it is not a separate world that has nothing to say to unbelievers. By entering into the thinking and understanding of mankind, this knowledge broadens the horizon of reason and thus it speaks also to those who are unable to share the faith of the Church. In her dialogue with the state and with society, the Church does not, of course, have ready answers for individual questions. Along with other forces in society, she will wrestle for the answers that best correspond to the truth of the human condition. The values that she recognizes as fundamental and non-negotiable for the human condition she must propose with all clarity. She must do all she can to convince, and this can then stimulate political action.
In man’s present situation, the dialogue of religions is a necessary condition for peace in the world and it is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities. This dialogue of religions has various dimensions. In the first place it is simply a dialogue of life, a dialogue of being together. This will not involve discussing the great themes of faith – whether God is Trinitarian or how the inspiration of the sacred Scriptures is to be understood, and so on. It is about the concrete problems of coexistence and shared responsibility for society, for the state, for humanity. In the process, it is necessary to learn to accept the other in his otherness and the otherness of his thinking. To this end, the shared responsibility for justice and peace must become the guiding principle of the conversation. A dialogue about peace and justice is bound to move beyond the purely pragmatic to become an ethical struggle for the truth and for the human being: a dialogue concerning the values that come before everything. In this way what began as a purely practical dialogue becomes a quest for the right way to live as a human being. Even if the fundamental choices themselves are not under discussion, the search for an answer to a specific question becomes a process in which, through listening to the other, both sides can obtain purification and enrichment. Thus this search can also mean taking common steps towards the one truth, even if the fundamental choices remain unaltered. If both sides set out from a hermeneutic of justice and peace, the fundamental difference will not disappear, but a deeper closeness will emerge nevertheless.
Two rules are generally regarded nowadays as fundamental for interreligious dialogue:
1. Dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at understanding. In this respect it differs from evangelization, from mission;
2. Accordingly, both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.
These rules are correct, but in the way they are formulated here I still find them too superficial. True, dialogue does not aim at conversion, but at better mutual understanding – that is correct. But all the same, the search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity. To be sure, we do not possess the truth, the truth possesses us: Christ, who is the truth, has taken us by the hand, and we know that his hand is holding us securely on the path of our quest for knowledge. Being inwardly held by the hand of Christ makes us free and keeps us safe: free – because if we are held by him, we can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue; safe – because he does not let go of us, unless we cut ourselves off from him. At one with him, we stand in the light of truth.
It also ultimately occurred to me that viewing “dialogue” as an end in itself was entirely inconsistent with the Gospel. Jesus promised the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would come and lead the Church into “all the truth“—not that the Spirit would come so they could have a nice conversation. Jesus founded a Church—not a book club.
Reflecting on Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would lead His Church into all the truth was the nail in the coffin for “dialogue” for me and was instrumental in helping me to recognize the need for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. While God didn’t intend for us to have 100% certainty in this life about where we’ll spend eternity, but rather to have the “hope” of Heaven, Christ’s promise that His Church would be led into “all the truth” does mean he wants us to have certainty about what the doctrines of the faith are. And that only makes sense. If I can’t have certainty about what the teachings of the Christian faith even are, how can I possibly determine if I’m following them or not?
This last point is the real rub. “Dialogue” was so tempting to me because it meant I didn’t have to actually commit to anything. Rather, Satan was offering me the chance to be “like God” and decide for myself when the dialogues would end and which rules I’d live by. Sound familiar?
 I’m not suggesting here that it doesn’t take faith to believe the Gospel. The “certainty” I’m discussing here presupposes that faith.