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Common Ground vs. Dialogue

BY Tom Hoopes

| Posted 6/7/09 at 7:00 AM

 

Yesterday, I noted that Obama’s vision, spelled out at Cairo and Notre Dame, is radically different from Benedict XVI’s.

Benedict wants religions to acknowledge their differences in search of truth. Obama wants them to acknowledge their sameness in search of peace.

Obama is very cleverly, with fine intentions, proposing relativistic secularism as the world’s common ground.

(This continues what I started yesterday in “Obama, Notre Dame and Islam”.)

At both Cairo and Notre Dame, Obama identified the Golden Rule as the point of agreement of all religions.

At Notre Dame, he stressed that the Golden Rule amounts to service and love:

To Catholics: “For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule—the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. “

At Cairo, he stressed that the Golden Rule is our common ground:

To Muslims: “There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion — that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. (Applause.) This truth transcends nations and peoples — a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.”

He transitions nicely to a call for peace:

“We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.
“The Holy Koran tells us: ‘O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.’
“The Talmud tells us: ‘The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.’
“The Holy Bible tells us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’
“The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.”

Now, no one doubts that it’s a very good thing indeed to call for peace based on the Golden Rule we all share. I, for one, am glad Obama did so in a speech carefully watched by Muslims.

I would bet Pope Benedict XVI appreciates that, too.

But Benedict is a deep thinker, and it is striking that he specifically mentioned government calls for peace through dialogue when he spoke about dialogue at his interreligious meeting April 17 in Washington last year.

“There is a further point I wish to touch upon here. I have noticed a growing interest among governments to sponsor programs intended to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue. These are praiseworthy initiatives.

“At the same time, religious freedom, interreligious dialogue and faith-based education aim at something more than a consensus regarding ways to implement practical strategies for advancing peace.”

Pope Benedict sees limitations in government common ground initiatives that try to find ways for competing worldviews to tolerate each other.

For him, dialogue isn’t an attempt at coexistence, but a search for truth.

“The broader purpose of dialogue is to discover the truth. What is the origin and destiny of mankind? What are good and evil? What awaits us at the end of our earthly existence? Only by addressing these deeper questions can we build a solid basis for the peace and security of the human family, for ‘wherever and whenever men and women are enlightened by the splendor of truth, they naturally set out on the path of peace.’”

See the important difference here:

Obama’s desire for common ground (and I believe its aims are well-intentioned) wants to minimize differences so we can all get along. He focuses on the horizontal: The Golden Rule.

Benedict’s desire for dialogue wants to define differences to bring more people to the truth, which leads to deep-seated, lasting peace. He focuses on the vertical: Eternal Truth.

The desire for religions to ignore their differences is a secularist’s desire. It’s the desire of someone who doesn’t think there’s a discernable truth. Someone who says faith is always assailed by doubt.

When someone tells you, “Relax. Don’t make such a big deal of your questions about God,” you know that they don’t think questions about God are a big deal. Benedict’s desire for dialogue, on the other hand, starts from the assumption that questions about God are at the very center of our lives. He also has a great confidence in God’s ability to provide clarity in answer to our questions.

As Benedict put it to his interreligious audience:

“Dear friends, in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth.

“In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation. We have no reason to fear, for the truth unveils for us the essential relationship between the world and God. We are able to perceive that peace is a ‘heavenly gift’ that calls us to conform human history to the divine order. Herein lies the ‘truth of peace’.

“As we have seen then, the higher goal of interreligious dialogue requires a clear exposition of our respective religious tenets.”

Benedict doesn’t want to stop at finding a “common set of values” but at the “essential relationship between the world and God.”

Last comparison of Obama’s words to Catholics and to Muslims:

Obama told Notre Dame students that the Golden Rule calls us “To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.”

He told his Cairo audience: “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort — a sustained effort — to find common ground.”

That “brief moment” is signficant.

Benedict is well aware that his own life is but a brief moment on earth. But Catholicism isn’t a brief moment. Judaism and Islam aren’t a brief moment. They’re focused on God and the world in all times.

Obama is focused on the individual person here and now. “We have but a brief moment,” he says, “so relax and make the most of it.”

Benedict’s scope is broader. He’s focused on the Church, on souls, on eternity. “We have all time and all eternity,” he says,  “so let’s buckle down and make the most of it.”

Given what is at stake, it’s not enough for religious people to simply find a way to get along with each other in a world run by secularists.

We must find a way to help the world better understand the constant, enduring source of peace who Benedict didn’t hesitate to name in his interreligious address at Washington: Christ.