The Middle Ages were way ahead of us when it came to inter-religious discussions. There were debates between leaders of the three monotheistic faiths, as well as invented, literary ones. In a 12th-century Jewish text, The Kuzari, by Judah Halevi (he was also a heart-rending Hebrew poet), a king invites a Catholic, a Muslim and a Jew, plus a philosopher, to persuade him of the best path to follow. The other three get a page or two each, while the rabbi has about 300.

That was the nature of those encounters. They weren’t real dialogues, and not interested in reconciliation at all. They were about which religion was right or, at least, superior. In The Kuzari, which has some historical basis, the king converts to Judaism.

The Pope’s recent, controversial speech falls into this stream. It’s true he now says, “I wanted to invite a dialogue between the religions of the modern world.” But it’s the same purpose that the king of the Khazars had in mind: Find out who’s right, or rightest.

Remember: This is the former cardinal who got his edge in the race for pope by kicking off the conclave with a diatribe against “a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain.” The theme echoes through his career.

His recent speech implies that only Catholicism has an intrinsic relation to Greek philosophy, which largely inoculates it against the kind of fanatical violence that can emerge in other religions, such as Islam, since they lack a deep respect for human reason. It’s a questionable thesis: Think of the Crusades, or the Inquisition.

And anyway, the church received most of its Greek philosophy via Arabic translations and interpretations. But what the hey, it’s what you’d expect from most (though not all) conventional religious leaders, and spots him squarely at the centre of medieval times.

Those debates over who’s right were impressive for their era. But, today, what’s appropriate is something else: genuine attempts to reconcile different faiths. That’s because in an era like ours, with so much human and intellectual interconnection and hybridity, and with an awareness of historical flows and origins, it seems ludicrous to many of us to claim that one major religion is inherently superior to others.

Reconciliation also matters because religious stresses have become political and military ones; and in a nuclear context, such conflicts are scary. A warning about this came, oddly, from a recent gathering of world religious leaders in Kazakhstan. I pause to note that this is the same nation ridiculed as barbaric and hate-filled in one of the Toronto Film Festival’s hits: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The clerics gathered in that benighted place “expressed concern over mounting inter-religious and inter-ethnic tension worldwide.” An Israeli chief rabbi present worried about “the prevailing tendency in the world today to associate events with religious issues.”

I want to emphasize that any efforts at genuine dialogue and reconciliation must show real respect for other faiths, not just token phrases. Such a thing is doable. In the 1920s, German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig managed to find a place for both Judaism and Christianity in his scheme of things, without subordinating either to the other. Today, with a “Judeo-Christian tradition” taken for granted, that kind of project may not seem necessary. But it’s interesting that Franz Rosenzweig didn’t even bother to include Islam in his schema. The omission would be unthinkable now.

It’s like those jokes that begin: A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar. They basically functioned to defuse and explore tensions. Currently, you’d have to add an imam, a Buddhist priest and others. Don’t expect too much from the Pope in this regard. He weighed in on Buddhism a decade ago, calling it “auto-erotic spirituality,” which one critic paraphrased as “a form of masturbation for the mind.”

I suppose what one could say to the arch-foe of relativism is: A little well-considered religious relativism might be exactly what our poor stressed-out planet needs.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.