The need to talk to people of other religions

Sister Judith Sutera | September 21, 2017

Last week I made my annual guest lecture in a world religions class at Benedictine College. In the class, students learn about other faith traditions and, before they begin studying individual religions, they first read various Catholic Church documents on the importance of inter-religious dialogue.

There are always several who are surprised to learn that this is valued so much by the Church, and there are usually one or two who just don’t see why we need to talk to anybody about religion except if we are trying to convert them to ours.

First of all, the Church teaches that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, so they are inherently good. All people share a desire to know God. If you go to the most remote desert island in the world, you will find people asking the fundamental questions about where they came from and where there are going, whether there is something or someone beyond themselves that gives meaning to life, why we feel concern and love for others, and such.

While Christians want everyone in the world to have heard of and accepted Jesus, we know that there are many good people who live moral lives, and we find it impossible to believe that they would be condemned to be kept out of heaven if they never heard about Jesus through no fault of their own. There are large parts of the world where culture and tradition have offered a different view of divinity and the meaning of life. While many people in our country grew up in places where there was no one who wasn’t Christian, today’s world can easily bring us into regular contact with Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and other religions. If nothing else, we hear about them, and sadly, often in ways that distort the good elements of their faith in favor of the bad news generated by those who distort the universal message of love and tolerance.

A 1965 Vatican document, “Nostra Aetate,” says “The Church, therefore, exhorts her children, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these people.”

The rules of religious dialogue are like the rules for any other good conversation. First, you have to engage. If we are invited to a dinner and seated next to someone we don’t know, it’s very bad form to just sit there and look at your plate for an hour, pretending that the person next to you doesn’t exist. When you meet someone, you try to get to know something about them before you make judgements based on some small piece of information, or no information at all. You try to find things you have in common to talk about, even if it’s just the weather or the local sports team.

We don’t appreciate someone who starts a conversation and then proceeds to talk at great length only about themselves and their opinions. We certainly don’t like to converse with someone who is critical, insulting, and seems to want to pick a fight. You will always be more popular if you ask questions and show interest.

When it comes to religion, unfortunately, sometimes we are like that poor conversation partner. Now is a good time to show your curiosity through respectful dialogue. Even if you can’t meet someone, read something basic about other religions from a reputable mainstream website or book, not the suspicious or hate-filled propaganda that seems so easy to find these days.