Dialogue and “Humility in the Face of Transcendent Truth”

(This is Neil) What is necessary for theological dialogue? As yesterday’s post suggested, there are three essential principles that Christians must accept. First, they must be convinced that they have received “good news” and must proclaim it to others. Second, Christians must be convinced that they must still search for truth beyond what they have already received. Third, as Stratford Caldecott says, they must have “humility in the face of transcendent truth.”

What does this “humility in the face of transcendent truth” look like? To give something of an answer, I’d like to share a couple paragraphs from Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s recent book, Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist, which happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for this past year. (I must confess that I most like Fr Radcliffe’s books because one always read sentences like, “Thirty years ago I visited a Zulu village in the Drakensburg mountains in South Africa. I was told that I should bring a chicken.” Or “I often stayed with the parents of one of my brethren in Cornwall. His father was an abstract painter.” After a short while, you nod and think “Of course, you did.”)

Here, then, is Fr Radcliffe:

… Often enough we sustain a Christian identity by asserting what we are not. We are Roman Catholics and definitely not Anglicans, or Dominicans and not, thanks be to God, Jesuits, or liberal Christians, unlike those narrow-minded traditionalists. But, like Mary, the gestation of the word of God in our lives will challenge all that is narrow and triumphalistic, inviting us to tiptoe into the spaciousness of God.

Any engagement with the word of God opens us beyond our narrow ecclesiastic tribes. It subverts our temptations towards sectarian superiority; it demolishes the battlements that we erect around our tradition. Our homilies, all the ways in which we share our faith, will only transmit the “happening of grace” if we are prised open to other ways of being Christian, and indeed being human. St Dominic was travelling with Brother Bertrand to Paris and they came across a group of German pilgrims. Dominic was frustrated that he was unable to preach to them because he did not understand German. And so he said to Bertrand, “Let us pray that we may understand them so that we may share the good news with them.” It is interesting that Dominic does not pray that the Germans may understand him, but that he may understand them. We need to learn other languages of faith, extend our vocabularies: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords” (Isaiah 54:2).

This cannot be by pretending that Christians do not differ, and that we are all, somehow, the same. It cannot be in denying our deepest convictions. If I believe in the divinity of Christ, then I cannot put this aside in the name of church unity and subscribe to a belief in Jesus who was rather a Good Thing. If I believe that the option for the poor is central to the gospel, then I cannot pretend that God also has a special option for the rich. It cannot be in trying to create a neutral discourse, some theological Esperanto, which everyone can talk, a Christianity of the lowest common denominator. We must stand by what we believe, even if this brings us into tension with others. After the Second World War, Albert Camus said in a lecture to the Dominican brethren in Paris, “Dialogue is only possible between people who remain what they are, and who speak the truth.” Yet this painful conversation with those who have been formed in other traditions will “purify the dialect of the tribe” [“Little Gidding” – N] of all that is narrowly ideological and sectarian, of prejudice and hidden contempt and the desire for domination. Just as Mary’s child transcended the small world of his mother and aunt, so too the word of God opens our hearts and minds and expands our vocabularies.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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