In the teaching of Benedict XVI inter-religious dialogue is always intercultural dialogue and this corrects the purported separation between the domain of faith and the domain of reason

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In the teaching of Benedict XVI inter-religious dialogue is always intercultural dialogue and this corrects the purported separation between the domain of faith and the domain of reason. Indeed, like every human experience, faith also takes place and is expressed within culture, even though it transcends it.

Ever since the beginning of his pontificate, Benedict XVI has stated with clarity that

Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.[1]

In this statement inter-religious dialogue and intercultural dialogue are cited together. This concomitance anticipates, in my view, a fundamental key by which to read the teaching of Benedict XVI on the subject. We could describe this key by stating that inter-religious dialogue is always intercultural dialogue.

A reading of the texts that I propose is based upon two fundamental premises. The first, which is of a methodological character, is the decision to take into consideration solely and exclusively the observations made by Benedict XVI on inter-religious dialogue. This implies deliberately not including what Joseph Ratzinger wrote on the subject before his election as Bishop of Rome. The second premise relates, instead, to a clarifying observation: the occasions when Benedict XVI has addressed the question of inter-religious dialogue were fundamentally meetings with religious, political and diplomatic representatives during his apostolic visits. This fact is illuminating because it indicates that the Pope reflects theoretically on the subject of inter-religious dialogue in the concreteness of encounter and dialogue with men of religion and with the leaders of civil society.

A suitable point of departure for a reading of the texts of Benedict XVI on inter-religious dialogue is offered to us by the speech he made to the Collège des Bernardins on 12 September 2008. In this speech the Pope described the motivations that guided the first evangelisation:

In fact, Christians of the nascent Church did not regard their missionary proclamation as propaganda, designed to enlarge their particular group, but as an inner necessity, consequent upon the nature of their faith:  the God in whom they believed was the God of all people, the one, true God, who had revealed himself in the history of Israel and ultimately in his Son, thereby supplying the answer which was of concern to everyone and for which all people, in their innermost hearts, are waiting. The universality of God, and of reason open towards him, is what gave them the motivation – indeed, the obligation – to proclaim the message.  They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.[2]

From this description we can draw certain fundamental coordinates for an understanding of the teaching of the Pope on inter-religious dialogue. First of all, the recognition of the fact that the specific nature of Christian faith implies, intrinsically, witness/mission. However, witness is neither a strategy for another end nor an option: however possible and worthy this might be, in the final analysis it is unnecessary. Only an acceptance of this assumption, which is identified ultimately with the missionary nature of the Church, helps us to understand the central character of inter-religious dialogue.

Secondly, the Pope cites two elements that we may see as being the fundamental bases of inter-religious dialogue:

the universality of God and the universality of reason open to Him.

And he immediately expounds what we could call the point of intersection of both these universalities: the ‘domain of truth’. Indeed, proclaiming and dialogue are necessarily a part of the Christian experience because this last constitutes the free encounter of men with the one God who is truth and who, for this reason, all men wish for and search for. God, indeed, is truth and for this reason concerns in a radical way all men. In this way, the statement of the Pope excludes any ‘regional’ consideration of God. To look for God is to look for truth and this impedes the closing up of the religious question in any type of particular culture, ethics or sensibility so as to be able to see it, by definition, as a part of the private domain of each person and, as a consequence, so as to ban it from public space. The question of truth constitutes at the same time the ‘most concrete’ and the ‘most universal’ question of human existence: ‘the question about the meaning and purpose of life, for each individual and for humanity as a whole’.[3]


Two Undeclared Assumptions

Now, beginning with the identification of the search for God with the search for truth, is it possible to state that inter-religious dialogue is always intercultural dialogue? What other coordinates are offered to us by the teaching of the Pope to support the soundness of this interpretative hypothesis?

In order to answer these questions it is advisable to remember that some interpreters have suggested a different hypothesis, if not an opposite one. In the view of these scholars, an understanding of inter-religious dialogue as intercultural dialogue is born from a recognition of the impossibility of a specifically inter-religious dialogue. In this domain, it is said, it is not really possible to establish a dialogue and for this reason each party should try to reduce its claims and confine itself to an intercultural dialogue. As such dialogue between cultures could, in addition, foster common work on the great questions of social and public life (the family, the right to life, the dignity of the person social justice, ecology…). The unitary consideration of inter-religious dialogue, and of intercultural dialogue, which is present in the speeches of the Pope, in the view of these interpreters, constitutes a precise way of defining the claims of inter-religious dialogue given that these claims could lead to a relativist conception of the truth of Christian faith. Indeed, inter-religious dialogue is possible, they seem to affirm, only if one begins from the assumption that no religion is to be identified with the truth and that all religions are engaged in a search. Inter-religious dialogue as such would reduce these specific and characteristic claim of Christianity, proposing, in fact, its being seen simply as one religion amongst others.

This interpretative hypothesis, which I have presented beginning with an extreme version without shadings, does not seem adequate because it moves from at least two undeclared assumptions which the teaching of the Pope, as I see things, radically contests. First of all, it accepts as a point of departure a radical separation between the domain of faith or of the religious and the domain of reason. To the first is said to correspond a possible inter-religious dialogue which in fact is impossible given that the contents of faith make religious experiences radically different from each other. In this logic this separation inevitably leads to the reduction of faith or the religious to the domain of the incommunicable, of the particular, of that which is alien to the universality of reason. For its part, the second domain, in which reason reigns supreme, is said to be the domain of intercultural dialogue. This is a dimension to which every man, in virtue of the universality of reason, has access and whose goodness, at a practical level as well, is acknowledged by everyone.

The radical separation between the domain of faith and the domain of reason, whose origin can easily be identified with the rationalist reduction of the second, is explicitly opposed to the identification of quaerere Deum with quaerere veritatem. Indeed, only if the search for God is not identified with the search for truth, whose protagonist is without doubt human reason, is it possible to maintain this separation. And to accept this separation inevitably implies the impossibility of inter-religious dialogue. Benedict XVI explicitly criticised a position of this kind when he stated in a positive way that to promote the will to be obedient to truth ‘in fact broadens our concept of reason and its scope of application, and makes possible the genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today’.[4]

The second undeclared assumption on which the interpretation that I am criticising is based proposes a vision of faith and the religious experience of a ‘Barthian’ kind, a faith, that is to say, that is absolutely separate from any cultural expression. The claim to a ‘pure faith’ is opposed by the teaching of Pope when he states with clarity that ‘Faith is always lived within a culture’.[5] Indeed, because every culture ‘with its inner capacity to give and receive gives expression to the one human nature’,[6] every human experience – and religious experience as such – takes place and expresses itself culturally. It is of fundamental importance to recognise the necessary and not optional character of this statement: human experience takes place and expresses itself in a necessary way. There is no human experience outside culture. The importance of this statement is perceived immediately: if human experience takes place culturally, faith either takes place culturally or cannot be seen as a human experience. In the text that I quoted from, which was originally given in English, the Pope explicitly uses the term ‘faith’ (‘Faith is always lived within a culture’).


‘A Life of Religious Fidelity’

Terminological precision is important given that the Pope, in stating that ‘Faith is always lived within a culture’, does not refer simply to various religious experiences or beliefs but to Christian faith itself. The reflection of the Holy Father, however, develops beginning with a second fundamental observation about the relationship between faith and culture. Human experience, as I have already observed, takes place and expresses itself culturally and yet, the Pope declares, ‘the individual is never fully expressed through his or her own culture, but transcends it in the constant search for something beyond’.[7] This is a clarification that is of fundamental importance. Benedict XVI states in a clear way that faith, which is always lived and expressed culturally, absolutely cannot be identified as such with a specific cultural expression. By this statement the Pope appreciates the correct concern of the supporters of ‘pure faith’: faith, like truth, although it takes place culturally, cannot be reduced in an absolute way to this cultural expression, because faith and truth are incommensurably for human reason.

Of the highest interest for inter-religious dialogue is the conclusion that the Pope reaches through a conjoining of these two statements. The fact that faith is always lived within culture and that, however, at the same time and ineluctably, it cannot identify itself fully with it because it transcends it, in the concrete event of the history of men, produces

lives of religious fidelity [which] echo God’s irruptive presence and so form a culture not defined by boundaries of time or place but fundamentally shaped by the principles and actions that stem from belief.[8]

In this case the original text uses the term ‘belief’ because the teaching of the Pope refers here to all religions and not specifically to the Christian Faith. Benedict XVI speaks about ‘lives of religious fidelity’, thereby identifying the subject of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. This is a concrete experience, a historic experience, of men of religions, or, to employ the most appropriate term, one is dealing with witnesses. The subject of inter-religious dialogue is the witness: he in whom is reflected the irruption of the presence of God, he whose culture – the concrete expression of his elementary human experience – is not enclosed within limits of time or space but springs forth from faith. In this way within a witness there in fact takes place knowledge of the truth that he cannot embrace because it radically rises above him. Inter-religious dialogue, like intercultural dialogue, is always dialogue between witnesses.

Secondly, and this seems to me to be the core of the question, specifically because belief (as a generic term which in this context includes Christian ‘faith’) generates a culture that is not defined by limits of time and space but by the search for God/truth, specifically because faith shapes and is shaped in a culture like that described above, inter-religious dialogue will always be, and cannot but be, intercultural dialogue. One is not dealing, therefore, with defining the contents of inter-religious dialogue in terms of intercultural dialogue because the ‘sphere of the religious’ remains beyond the reach of a human reason understood rationalistically. On the contrary: it is appropriate to speak about inter-religious dialogue as intercultural dialogue specifically because ‘the religious’, ‘faith’, lives and is shaped culturally, because culture as a human expression is truly a channel for access to truth, that is to say to God.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] ‘Meeting with some Representatives of Muslim Communities’, Cologne, 20 August 2005.

[2] ‘Meeting with Representatives of the World of Culture’, Collège des Bernardins, 12 September 2008.

[3] ‘Meeting with the President of the Religious Affairs Directorate’ 28 November 2006. Cf. Also ‘Meeting with Some Representatives of Other Religions’ Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, 17 April 2008; ‘Courtesy Visit to the Grand Mufti’, Jerusalem,  12 May 2009.

[4] ‘Meeting with Organisations for interreligious Dialogue’, Jerusalem, 11 May 2009.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Ibidem.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Gabriel Richi Alberti, “Looking for God, Looking for the Truth”, Oasis, year V, n. 10, December 2009, pp. 21-24.

Online version:
Gabriel Richi Alberti, “Looking for God, Looking for the Truth”, Oasis [online], published on 1st December 2009, URL: