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Practices of Mission: Interreligious and Secular Dialogue

November 11, 2013

Posted by Inagrace Dietterich

Steve Bevans

Stephen Bevans, SVD

This is the closing presentation by featured speaker Steve Bevans in the 2013 Missional Church Convocation in Chicago in July.

We live in a religiously pluralistic world, in which the only way to be religious is to live interreligiously. We also live—especially in North American society—in a secular world marked by individualism, consumerism and hedonism, yet marked as well by astounding scientific advances, rapid development of communications media, and the emergence of new understandings of freedom. Being Christian today requires a prophetic dialogue with all of these.


All Christian communities are called to practice dialogue. Particularly here in the United States, we live not only in an intercultural world, we live in an interreligious world. Indeed, it could be said that the only way to be religious today is to be religious interreligiously. And the only way to be in mission today is to be in mission interreligiously. We are also to be in dialogue with people who no longer believe, who have no faith, who find church faith irrelevant.

The document that came out in 1991, from two Roman congregations, called “Dialogue and Mission.” states it well. “Dialogue is…the norm and necessary manner of every form of dialogueChristian mission, as well as every aspect of it, whether one speaks of simple presence and witness, service or direct proclamation. Any sense of mission not permeated by such a dialogical spirit would go against the demands of true humanity and against the teaching of the Gospel.” Interreligious dialogue is not an extra, it is not a luxury which we can enter into at will, it’s part of the missionary nature, the missionary work of the church itself. So part of being a missional church, is to find out where those partners are for dialogue. And to seek them out, to learn from them and work with them.

Why Dialogue?

dialogue2Dialogue with those of other religious ways (and for that matter with those who are not members of any religious group or who do not subscribe to any religious doctrine) is not a tack that the church has been forced to take in order to “get along” in the aftermath of Western colonialism, the worldwide renaissance of the world’s religions, or the spread of postmodern secularism. Most profoundly, dialogue is today “the norm and necessary manner of every form of Christian mission” because Christian mission is participation in the mission of God, and God’s being and action is dialogical. Mission is reflective of the dialogical nature of God’s Trinitarian self. God’s self-revelation shows a communion in dialogue in which Mystery is made concrete in Jesus of Nazareth. God’s way of revealing through Spirit and incarnate Word is always one that treats humanity and all of creation with freedom and respect.  “God,” writes John Oman, “does not force His mystery on us.” Rather, “God in an age-long dialogue, has offered and continues to offer salvation to humankind.” And so, “in faithfulness to the divine initiative, the Church too must enter into a dialogue of salvation with men and women” (Pope Paul VI).

God is present in every situation, God is present in every religion. As Gerald Hopkins wrote in “God’s Grandeur:” “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” He goes on to talk about how God’s presence fills everything and ends with “The Holy Spirit broods over the world with—ah!—bright wings.” So it is important for us to be open to that presence, to be open to that truth so that our own truth can be expanded and challenged and grow as well. Dialogue is so much a part of the missionary dance of the church. From the World Council of Churches document, Mission and Evangelism, Dialogue “springs from the assurance that God is the creator of the whole universe and that he has not left himself without witness at any time or any place. The Spirit of God is constantly at work in ways that pass human understanding and in places that are least expected.”

An “Inclusivist” Model of Salvation

It is significant that at the Second Vatican Council the traditional dictum “outside the church there is no salvation” was never used. The council, rather, spoke of the possibility of salvation for all people of good will, whether they have faith in God or not, of other religious ways as possessing “a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” and of the presence of the Holy Spirit who “in a manner known only to God, offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” While there is no absolute assurance, Vatican II affirms the possibility of salvation for people who simply strive to follow their conscience in the best way that they know how.

formsThis affirmation taps into a subaltern tradition in Christian theology. For example, Justin Martyr’s idea of the seeds of the Word present in every religion. Or Thomas Aquinas’ reflection about what if a boy grew up in a forest and was never baptized, but somehow survived, could that boy be saved? He said, some way or other, God would make sure that the boy heard the good news. Or Max Warren, Anglican theologian’s wonderful line: “When you come into another culture, another people, another land, the first thing you need to do is take off your shoes because the land you are treading on is holy and you don’t want to tread on the dreams of the people of that land.”

Approaches to dialogue in the last several decades have been based on how various Christian theologies estimated the presence of grace outside explicit knowledge and faith in Christ. One approach, the exclusivism model, is espoused by more conservative Christians, perhaps more in past times than at present. This position would hold that only Christians possess religious truth and the means of salvation. If one would engage in dialogue from this perspective, it would only be in order to understand other religions so as to preach the gospel to them more effectively. A second approach, dubbed the pluralism model, focuses on God (in whatever way God is named) or on the salvation that is available through conscientious religious practice. Here dialogue is important so that all religions can get beyond themselves to the one reality that they all point toward but never articulate.

The third approach, advocated by Vatican II, is called the inclusivist model. God’s salvation has been expressed in God’s giving of Christ to the world, but is available to all people of good will. Individuals who tap the truth through their own conscience, or their own ethical behavior, or their own seeking, tap into that truth which is ultimately Christ. From this perspective dialogue is important both to enrich the understanding of one’s own and the other’s faith and to help the other see that behind his or her own faith lies a reality that can bring what is already believed to full completion.

Dialogue presents us with a non-threatening moment on both sides for prophetic confession of faith; it allows us to know other religions not as abstract systems but as ways of life lived by persons with whom we can actually become friends and partners; and it helps us deepen our knowledge as such of the other religion. It also provides a way to discover the fullness of our own faith, so that, paradoxically, we can offer it to others with a bolder humility and a humbler boldness.

Four Forms of Dialogue

conversationFirst, and above all else, there is the dialogue of life, in which Christians live and rub shoulders with people of other faiths and ideologies. People of different faiths intentionally get to know one another as human beings, as neighbors and as fellow citizens. As people begin to see one another not in the abstract but with concrete faces and personalities, many of the fears and tensions that so often exist between practitioners of different faiths, or no faith all, can be dissolved. Such a dialogue of life is the foundation for any other kind of dialogue.

Second is the dialogue of social action, by which women and men of work together for common issues of justice. While not downplaying religious commitments and religious differences, when people of different faiths set their eyes on the common goal of social, political, or ecological justice they can work for values that are common in practically all religions. Working together for fairer immigration laws, for the abolition of the death penalty, for the sacredness of human life, and against racism and sexism are ways that committed people can learn to live with one another and be inspired by the social doctrines of the various religious and secular traditions.

Third is the dialogue of theological exchange. While this may be an area for experts as they probe one another’s doctrines and practices, challenging and inspiring one another’s sacred document and cherished authors. The 2012 Synod of Bishops, suggested setting up a “court of Gentiles,” where secular humanists, non-believers, and believers could come together and discuss various areas of common interest. Reading books together, secular or religious, could be a very real way of doing interreligious dialogue and having a theological exchange. People could get to know one another, learn about other perspectives as well as deepening their own faith.

Finally, there is the dialogue of religious experience. All religions have a spirituality and a form of prayer, and an exchange about the meaning and practice of these can lead to a deeply mutual enrichment. By bringing people of faith together and by praying together, peace may have some kind of possibility on earth. Hans Kung often says, “no peace among nations unless there is peace among religions.” Sharing the experience of the transcendence of God by sharing modes and practices of spirituality can be a significant aspect of dialogue.


togetherInterreligious and secular dialogue is indeed prophetic dialogue. As dialogue it demands attentive listening, conversation skills, empathy, study, and respect. As prophetic, it demands honesty, conviction, courage, and faith. So often dialogue is depicted as a search for a “lowest common denominator” or for a greater reality beyond particular religious expression or practices. What experience has shown, however, is that real dialogue does not take place when everyone is “being nice” or “politically correct.” It is actually hard work to really dialogue, to really express your position, to really listen to the other, to really, in a certain sense, be converted by the other to all sorts of new perspectives and ideas. What theologian David Tracy says in an often-quoted paragraph about conversation can be said of dialogue as a prophetic practice: “Conversation is a game with hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary; to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.”

As an integral part of missionary activity, dialogue focuses on the missionary constant of the centrality of Jesus Christ, even while it recognizes the presence of the Spirit, and of “seeds of the Word” in those women and men of good will with whom they meet in the dialogue of life, with whom they work in the dialogue of action, and with whom they share in the dialogue of theological exchange and the dialogue of spirituality. This focus on dialogue is affirmed by the statement of the World Council of Churches: “In doing evangelism it is important to build relations of respect and trust between people of different faiths. We value each and every human culture and recognize that the gospel is not possessed by any group but is for every people. We understand that our task is not to bring God along but to witness to the God who is already there….Joining with the Spirit we are able to cross cultural and religious barriers to work together towards life.”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

    1. Do you agree with the assertion that “the only way to be religious is to live interreligiously”? Can you illustrate this necessity from your own ministry?
    2. How is dialogue related to God’s mission? To God’s self-revelation in the world?
    3. What are the differences between the different models of salvation?
    4. What are the qualities of the “inclusivist” model?
    5. In what ways does interreligious and secular dialogue strengthen the participants own faith?
    6. Within your congregation, which form of dialogue is practiced most often? How could the other forms be strengthened?
    7. What does this discussion of interreligious and secular dialogue contribute to your understanding of prophetic dialogue?

Steve Bevans is an internationally acclaimed scholar and friend of the Center community. He has contributed significantly to a theology of mission in the 21st Century, which he immediately describes is more a ‘spirituality’ than a ‘strategy,’ a “prophetic dialogue” — a bold yet humble engagement with today’s cultures and contexts. Steve is Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines. His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). Steve’s most recent publication with Roger Schroeder is Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (2011 Orbis Books).

Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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