In July of 2014, after four years as a priest in an urban parish and four years of mission work, I was appointed the site chaplain of Kent Maximum Security Institution. This was, in many ways, an unexpected turn in my life, not just as an Orthodox priest and pastor, but as a Christian. It’s still understatement when I say that my experience of prison chaplaincy has profoundly transformed my understanding of what it means to live out my Christian faith in the secular, multi-faith reality that is Canada in the 21st century. As I tried to learn the distinct reality and language of prison culture, I also came to learn that prison life tends to throw the issues of the surrounding society into sharper relief. What those on the outside of prisons experience in a diluted and latent form, those behind bars experience with far greater intensity and urgency. Jail has a way of distilling and concentrating our broader human concerns to their pure essence. My focus, of course, both as a pastor and as a chaplain, lies in the human concern with faith. But I should be clear from the beginning what this means.
In providing chaplaincy services to address inmates’ faith concerns, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), makes a distinction between site chaplains and demographically responsive (or DR) chaplains. DR chaplains exist to provide religious or spiritual services to inmates who are affiliated with that particular faith or spiritual practice. By contrast, site chaplains exist to ensure that all inmates at that site are able to practice the religious rights and freedoms afforded to every Canadian by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Given these definitions, I should reiterate that I am indeed a site chaplain and not a DR chaplain. My responsibility is to ensure that the inmates in my care are able to exercise their faith or spirituality of choice in as least restrictive manner as the safety and security of the institution permits. This does not mean that I have to provide religious or spiritual services directly to all inmates, regardless of their beliefs. Rather, it means that if I am unable to meet a particular faith need myself, I am responsible for ensuring that a DR chaplain or a volunteer does so. In short, I am not a provider of particular religious or spiritual services for inmates, but a mediator of their religious or spiritual freedoms.
The specific requirements of my role as a site chaplain has raised interesting challenges for me as a Christian. As a site chaplain, I have a mandate to avoid proselytism, allowing those in my care to exercise their personal freedom even if I disagree with their choices. At the same time, I am allowed to maintain the integrity of my own beliefs and am not expected to compromise them in doing my work. This dual mandate has led me into some very tricky ethical situations, such as the time I debated whether or not to visit the website of the Church of Satan so I could pass on their contact information to an inmate who was affiliated with them. I won’t share what I chose to do in that situation because the decision was mine to make, given that particular inmate’s situation. However, how others might respond—how you might respond—to situations like these, though certainly not to the same extreme, is the point of this lecture.
I believe that the challenges I have faced as an Orthodox Christian priest and a site chaplain can offer insights into the broader challenge that Christians face in a religiously porous society. That challenge may be articulated by the following question: How do we engage respectfully with beliefs other than our own without compromising our traditional faith commitments? Specifically, how do we honor others’ God-gifted free will by holding to our belief in Jesus Christ, once for all revelation of the fullness of God the Father?
In the time remaining, I will unpack my own answer to this question, based in my practice of site chaplaincy at Kent Institution. The answer I offer will have two parts or stages, each essential to the process of respectful interfaith engagement. First, I will argue that interfaith dialogue necessarily requires a space of hospitality in which all partners are truly free from coercion. To make this argument, I will offer an interpretation of the imagery of firmaments in the first chapter of Genesis in the light of the Chalcedonian teaching of the two natures of Christ. Second, I will examine a specific case study of interfaith engagement in my work as a site chaplain in the light of Paul’s speech to the Athenians. From this I will derive some principles of interfaith dialogue based on the interfaith theology of John Hick with a patristic corrective from Gregory Palamas that is both non-coercive, even as it preserves traditional faith claims to exclusivity. Let’s begin, then.
I’d like to explore first the necessary underlying principles of respectful but integral interfaith dialogue. Those principles, I would suggest, may be grouped under a single term: hospitality. The importance of hospitality is the basis of any dialogical interfaith relationship has become very clear to me in the course of my tenure as a site chaplain. One of the key responsibilities of the site chaplain is the provision and maintenance of what is called sacred space, which is understood to mean a space in which everyone may practice their faith or spirituality, exercising their religious freedoms, regardless of what it is, without discrimination, and with as least restrictive manner as possible.
Given this mandate, the site chaplain must work to ensure that the chapel presents no barriers to those who would use it. The décor of the room must not suggest that it belongs to one group, while others are just tolerated visitors. When Christians use this space, a cross, an altar, or other symbols or images may be set up. When Buddhists come to meditate, a statue of the Buddha may be brought out. When Muslims pray on Friday, all symbols and images must be covered or removed. Chairs must be rearranged or arranged as necessary: rows for some, a circle for others, a pyramid or an open space for others. When no one is using the space, no trace of any one group may remain.
But hospitality goes beyond ensuring that the interior décor of the sacred space is welcoming to whichever group uses it. In my own practice of site chaplaincy, I do more than maintain a faith-neutral environment, an architectural blank for each group to fill in its own way. Instead, I have striven to make the chapel a hospitable place, where each group is not merely tolerated but embraced with equal warmth and respect.
I will take one example. Every Friday afternoon, I make the chapel available for our Muslim inmates to assemble for their Jumu’ah prayers. I arrange the space so that it is suitable for them, moving all the chairs off to the side and covering any religious symbols or items in the room, and orienting the floor rug towards Mecca. I put on coffee, and I set out cookies. I also print off the sermon emailed from the DR Muslim chaplain, and make copies, which I leave on the table for the inmates to read.
During one such Jumu’ah event, I was doing what I usually do—bustling around, refilling coffee, creamers, sweeteners—when I overheard one Muslim fellow say to another, “Now that’s a real man of God.” I won’t lie. I was personally gratified by this remark. I share it with you, though, not to draw attention to myself but to suggest that those who host interfaith engagements should do more than just ensure that the form of dialogue is neutral, a round table at which no one party is higher than any other. Rather, the host must actively welcome every party who enters the room and concretely the same warmth and respect for each of them as persons, regardless of whether or not they share their beliefs.
Such a view poses a challenge for Christians, especially to those who hold to the traditional understanding of their faith. In the so-called Great Commission, which we all know fairly well, Jesus calls his disciples to “go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In Luke’s rendition of the parable of the feast, the master of the feast, hearing that there was still space for guests, orders his servants to go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, “that my house may be filled.” Thus, a key part of Christian identity is the call not just to make known to others their belief in the absolute authority of Jesus over all (Matthew 28:18), but to somehow compel others to embrace the same belief.
The real question here is: How can Christians fulfill this imperative when interacting others at a round table of dialogue where discrimination, let alone coercion, has no place? In short, how can Christians compel others into the feasts of the kingdom without coercing them, overtly or covertly? I would suggest that the Christian called to compel others into the feasts of the kingdom must be understood within a broader principle of hospitality, which is more than just a practical method of securing good-will when engaging with people of other beliefs. It is, rather, a theological affirmation that the bowing of every knee in heaven and on earth to the absolute and universal authority of God revealed in Jesus Christ must be a free and loving response to the love of God. Such a free and loving response can only take place within what I will call a firmament of grace, with hospitality being the commitment to establish and preserve this firmament in the world.
The language of firmaments can be found in the creation account in Genesis. According to this account, God establishes firmaments (Genesis 1:6-8) within which each of his creatures can multiply and live freely according to its kind. Thus the firmaments guarantee the integrity of God’s creatures, their freedom to exercise and fulfill their God-given natures, which is how I understood “according to its kind.” When human beings disobey God and thus cease to live according to their nature, “according to their kind,” God temporarily breaches the firmament in the flood. After salvaging a remnant of his creation, through the faithfulness of Noah, God closes the breach, repairing the firmaments, and making a covenant to preserve the space in which human beings can continue to live according to the freedom of their wills. What’s important for us to notice here is that God commits to do this even if human freedom leads us to disobey him and follow a path contrary to his will (Genesis 8:21).
Why does God maintain the firmaments despite human disobedience and sin? If he breaches the firmaments, God can eradicate sin, but human beings then are no longer able to love him in any meaningful sense. They can’t choose to love him. Without the firmaments in place, human beings exist in a coerced state that is deprived of freedom. God is love, and his love expresses itself for another, that is, us, his creatures. But that love can only be perfected if its objects are truly other. In other words, if they are truly not him. As long as human beings exist in a coerced state, they are not truly other, living according to their kind, but merely extensions of God himself. The firmaments, therefore, are an integral part of the perfection of God’s love for his creation.
Of course, our underlying hypothesis in discussing the love of God for his creation is the Son and Word of God, Jesus Christ. The declaration that God is love must be understood in the light of the Incarnation, in which God’s love is the perfect depth of his self-emptying service and death for his creatures. But this love is made absolute and perfect by Jesus’ absolute otherness from humanity, his equality with God, whose ways are far above ours, as the heavens from the earth. And since God cannot truly serve and die for that which is merely an extension of himself, the complete humanity of Jesus, united and unconfusedly within his complete divinity, is the epitome of God’s love.
I use the word “unconfusedly” which is not a word that is familiar to us in English, but which comes to us from the language of the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). This definition indicates in part that we believe in one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. In the light of this Christological definition, the firmaments of creation may be read as an image of the line of unconfusion between the divinity and humanity in the Person of Christ. Even as God unites himself to human nature, he is committed to preserving the integrity and freedom of that nature, allowing for its full and its potential perfection and completion in freedom. The firmaments described in the book of Genesis are fulfilled in the firmament of grace: God’s self-constraint in allowing for the full humanity of Christ and by extension of all human beings to exercise their wills and choose him freely without being coerced.
These are abstract theological reflections, but they have concrete implications for us in that those united to Christ are committed to incarnating God’s love in relation to the other. “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me,” says the Apostle Paul to the Galatians. And just as Jesus Christ epitomizes God’s love by the inseparable but unconfused union of his divine and human natures, we in our entirely human nature are committed to embody the divine-human union of Jesus’ two natures through our relationship with other human persons.
As in the divine-human union that is the Person of Jesus, our relationships with others must be inseparable. We are obligated to a union with the other. We are our brother’s keeper, regardless of how alien he is to us—culturally, theologically, or ideologically. We are committed not merely by choice but by our very nature as Christians to a brotherhood with those whom we might consider outsiders and even alien to us. In this sense, all engagements and dialogues with the other are essential to Christian life.
At the same time, those relationships must also be unconfused. We must allow others to be wholly other from us without coercion, even if they subsequently choose to become less, not more than human in our eyes. It’s only when we make such an allowance that there can be a potential for them to make a different choice, to choose to become more rather than less human. However, such a movement is only meaningful under the firmament of grace: our self-constraint in relating to them that allows for both repentance and rejection. Of course, allowing others to be fully other is also our commitment to maintain our otherness from them. Giving them total freedom to turn away or turn towards in no way implies that we must be neutral about their choices, because then we might compromise the integrity of our beliefs. Indeed, an unconfused union with others requires us to affirm what clearly distinguishes us from them, and even, when necessary, to assert our “rightness” against their “wrongness.” The commitment to an unconfused union with others is simply allowing them the freedom to choose error and taking the form of a servant even as they do so, in the hope that they might see our love and choose just as freely the truth we embody.
This allowance, this firmament of grace in which others can do rightly or wrongly, is the heart of hospitality. And hospitality is essential to the Christian vocation to invite and compel outsiders into the kingdom. For when we allow them to be other, wholly other, even if that means them being entirely wrong, we epitomize the love of God, who allows us to willfully disobey in the hope that we might willingly repent and embrace him. This, I believe, is the meaning of the Muslim inmate’s comment that Friday afternoon in my prison chapel: “That’s a real man of God.” When he saw a Christian working to ensure that others could practice a faith that was other than his, he understood on some level the nature of divine love. This means that my provision of hospitality to him was and continues to be foundational to my Christian witness to him.
But hospitality to the religious other is more than just a mandate of my ministry as a site chaplain. As I have suggested before, engaging the other, however their otherness expresses itself, is essential to each and every Christian, an integral part of our apostolic evangelical location. And as I’ve shown, that engagement must be rooted in the creation of a hospitable space. It is within this hospitable firmament of grace that actual interfaith dialogues may take place. I will now discuss the principles of such dialogues.
While Christians must root the vocation to compel the other into the kingdom essentially through the action of non-coercive self-emptying, which we can call simply hospitality, how do we actually engage in respectful conversations with non-Christians, bearing witness to our own beliefs and working for mutual understanding? As a site chaplain, I am presented with these opportunities more than daily. While I can and do refer inmates with specific religious needs to the DR chaplains responsible for their particular demographic, I often find myself called upon to offer guidance to individuals from all kinds of religious backgrounds, and some who have no religious background at all. What are the parameters of these interfaith conversations?
That truistic exhortation which is often mis-ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi calls Christians to “preach the Gospel always, using words when necessary,” but when words are necessary, how should we speak? In the remainder of this presentation, I will attempt to sketch the answer I have evolved in the course of my work as a site chaplain, which I believe may be helpful to anyone who might be called on to account for their hope to a person of a different faith (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
Before I continue, I should reaffirm the two commitments that shape my dialogical engagement with non-Christian inmates. First, as I mentioned earlier, I am committed to radical non-coercion, which respects a person’s freedom to choose his or her own path, even if I don’t agree with it. This is essential if their salvation is to be rooted in the genuine love of God, incarnated in the free self-offering of Jesus Christ on the cross. Second, I am committed to the traditional Christian view of the exclusivity of God’s self-revelation or rather the exclusivity of God’s full self-revelation in the historical Person of Jesus Christ. While this position has been challenged among the so-called liberal Christian theologians, I do not intend to defend it here. Rather, I hope that in the course of my reflection you will see that maintaining the respectful and non-coercive essence of any interfaith dialogue does not require you to abandon any claims to exclusivity that you may have.
To aid an understanding of how I have proceeded with interfaith conversations while maintaining these commitments, I would like to sketch an interaction with an non-Christian inmate called Damian. This is best understood as a composite case study, whose underlying principles could be applied to a variety of situations. Damian’s file indicates that he is a Muslim. Though raised in a secular, Christian-influence environment, he converted to Islam while in prison, and since then he has, by all accounts, practiced his religion consistently and faithfully. At the same time, Damian regularly attends not just the Muslim prayers or teaching sessions, but every other event that the chapel has to offer. He comes to the Buddhist meditation group, to the Wiccan circle, to the Protestant Bible studies. The DR Muslim chaplain, though quite conservative, supports this interfaith exploration because he believes Damian is not merely sampling from a spiritual smorgasbord, taking a little bit of this or a little bit of that to supplement his Muslim beliefs; rather, he is asking genuine questions and seriously seeking to understand what others believe. Although Damian is faithful to Islam as the best expression of objective truth as he understands it, he is not averse to seeing that truth in other faiths or spiritual practices.
So right at the beginning I should acknowledge that both partners in this particular dialogue, Damian and myself, come to the table with an openness to the possibility of truth outside our chosen faiths. This is a key attitude, without which true dialogue cannot proceed. It does raise questions, though, as to how interfaith dialogue might be built when this willingness is lacking. This is an issue that I will not address in this presentation, but I want to acknowledge the limits to what I am proposing from the start. So let’s now consider Damian’s case.
One day he asked me how he can know whether his chosen religion is true. The DR Muslim chaplain’s responsibility is to convince him to stay faithful to Islam, so Damian does not feel comfortable approaching him with the question. He does not approach the Buddhist teacher or the Jewish rabbi or the Wiccan priestess, or even the Protestant pastor for the same reasons. Their goal is to provide him with the Answer, with a capital A, whatever they believe that Answer to be. So Damian comes to me, the site chaplain, though I am an Orthodox priest also, for guidance in the process of seeking truth. As a site chaplain, my mandate is to assist him in this exploratory process without providing my own Answer (with a capital A), which might be viewed as proselytism or, worse, coercion.
How do I proceed? To begin, as a Christian, I must ensure that my method is consistent with the apostolic testimony beginning with what might rightly be called the first interfaith dialogue in the history of the Church: the Apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenian philosophers as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. It is worth quoting this speech here in full, but I will refer to it in parts. A few points are worth noting in this speech. First, Paul identifies an unknown god as the basis of dialogue with his pagan Greek audience. This unknown god “does not live in shrines made by man,” nor is he “a representation by the art and imagination of man.” Thus, the Apostle claims that the unknown god is independent not only of human manipulation and control, but also of the human ability to imaginatively conceive and represent. This echoes a fundamental Jewish theological affirmation about God’s transcendence which is expressed in the prophecy of Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Later Christian theological reflection would continue to affirm this belief in the ineffability and unknowability of God, which is termed apophatic theology. Ample testimony of this theology may be offered from both Eastern and Western sources throughout the history of Christian theological reflection, but I will content myself with one quote from my own Orthodox tradition, and that is the “Treatise on the Orthodox Faith” by the sixth-century Father, John of Damascus. He says simply that
God is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about him is his infinity and incomprehensibility.
More recently, religious philosopher John Hick has used the teaching of God’s apophatic nature as the basis for proposing a theology of the Christian engagement with other faiths. He says that
We have to recognize with virtually all the greatest Christian thinkers that the reality we call God exceeds the scope of human thought. In its Christian form, this apophatic strand is the distinction between God a se, God in God’s eternal self-existent reality, prior to and independent of the creation, and God pro nobis, God in relation to humankind.
Using this distinction, Hick says that we have to
...postulate an ultimate transcendent reality, the source and ground of everything that is in itself beyond the scope of human conceptuality but is variously conceived, therefore variously experienced, and therefore variously responded to in life, from which these different religious totalities.
Hick’s views have problems of their own, namely relativism that conflicts with the traditional Christian claims of exclusivity. In a moment, we will look at appropriate corrective to this relativizing tendency. For now, we can accept Hick’s proposal of an ultimate real as a valid and accurate expression of the universally traditional Christian apophatic teaching about God’s essential nature. We can also use the term “ultimate real” as the first principle upon which interfaith dialogue may be based.
Let’s turn now to the second core section of Paul’s speech to the Athenians. In verse 26, he states that “all nations, regardless of their geographic location or historical circumstances, have the capacity to feel after and find the unknown god.” While God cannot be contained in the human mind, let alone any other human-made form, Paul, quoting the Greek poet Aratus, suggests that we can know him because we are immersed in him and draw life from his being. Thus Paul articulates, along with his negative or apophatic affirmation, a seemingly contradictory cataphatic, or positive, affirmation, one which is just as vital to Christian theology: the human calling to become partakers of divine nature, as the Apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 1:4: to know God and to experience true union with him.
Paul’s preaching articulates a dilemma for Christian theological reflection from the apostolic era. How can human beings know a God who is unknowable? As the Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky, puts it, the question of the possibility of any real union with God, and indeed of the mystical experience in general, thus poses for Christian theology the antinomy of the accessibility of the inaccessible nature. Faced with this antinomy, this opposition, John Hick makes a Kantian distinction between the world as it is, itself unperceived, and that same world as humanly perceived, which he then applies to the question of religious awareness. He argues that:
if we distinguish between the real, ultimate divine in itself, and that reality as humanly perceived, we can at once see how there is a plurality of religious traditions constituting different but apparently equally salvific human responses to the ultimate. These are the great world faiths.
Hick’s view, however, fails to address the traditional Christian conviction that human beings can become partakers of the divine nature. We can know the ultimate real, not just relative to our historical, social, cultural, and linguistic perception, but in an absolute sense: God as God really is. In the end, Hick’s separation between God a se and God pro nobis renders God not only unknowable to us but effectively nonexistent, a figment of our mind. Real union with God is essentially impossible, because God does not and cannot exist in a way that we can access, let alone know.
So how can we preserve Hick’s useful conception of the ultimate real, which I believe is useful, while satisfying the Christian imperative for real union with that real? The teaching of Gregory Palamas, a Byzantine Father of the 14th century, offers some insight. As he was embroiled with a controversy with Barlaam the Calabrian over hesychasm, which is a practice of prayer that developed among the Desert Fathers of the fourth century and came to full flower in the monasteries of Mount Athos, Palamas developed language that holds together the antinomy of the human accessibility to the inaccessible God. A full exposition of Palamas’ theology lies well beyond the scope of this lecture. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that while Palamas views God’s essence, ousia in Greek, as unknowable, he affirms at the same time that God possesses energies, energeia, by which God communicates in Jesus Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit absolute real knowledge of himself to the world.
While distinguishing between these two ontological expressions of God, Palamas is adamant that God’s energies are uncreated and are to be invisibly distinguished from the single and wholly undivided ousia of the Spirit. God communicates his energies to human beings by grace through union with Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, allowing us to become participants in his divine nature to the extent that we are capable. But God’s divine energies, which Palamas calls “the light of Tabor,” referring to the light that envelops Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor, are really God, undivided from his divine essence. To articulate the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Acts, not to mention traditional Christian teaching generally, while using Hick’s terminology, we can say that the ultimate real reveals itself as it is in itself by means of its energies.
Returning to Paul’s speech, we note his next affirmation that Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected, is the definitive historical crux of the unknown god’s self-revelation. While they may once have had the liberty to represent the unknown god according to their own culturally limited understandings, Paul now declares that all men everywhere must be ready to turn and conform their minds to a single standard by which they will be judged, that is, a resurrected Man, Jesus Christ, who is the unknown god’s final and complete self-revelation to the nations. This is another way of affirming the exclusive claims of traditional Christianity summarized in Jesus’ oft-quoted declaration: “I am the truth—the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
This claim to exclusivity, which we much include as a key part to the Apostle’s engagement with the Athenians, seems to deal a fatal blow to his aspirations to respectful dialogue. By stating that Jesus is the sole revelation of the unknown god, he appears to shut down the validity of the polytheistic claims of his pagan audience. However, we must be careful to note the “terms and conditions” in which Paul couches his claim to exclusivity, namely that
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent (and this is the key part here) because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.
While Paul proclaims the historical resurrection of Jesus as an accomplished fact, a testimony to Jesus’ claim to be the full revelation of God, one might even say the prototype of God’s energetic self-revelation, the judgment of “all men everywhere” by the one standard of Jesus Christ is yet to come, taking place at a time that no one knows. Thus the space of history between the completion of God’s work in Christ on one hand and the final judgment of the world on the other is a space in which all judgment can be suspended, including the judgment of others’ claims to truth. We cannot afford to miss this vital eschatological dimension of the Apostle Paul’s interfaith speech to the Athenians. Without it, he does indeed shut down all possibilities of dialogue with his audience, and his speech becomes nothing more than a final judgment on their error. As it is, Paul suspends judgment on the Athenians’ competing claims until the eschaton, thus creating a space in which they may change their minds, which is the literal meaning of repentance, metanoia.
As we have seen, the creation of a hospitable space in which persons can freely choose to repent is vital to any interfaith dialogue. Having explored the Apostle Paul’s method in dialoguing with the Athenians, I can return to my pastoral task as a chaplain: Damian’s request to know the truth of his faith.
Our reflections so far suggest how I might proceed. First, I could propose to Damian that he is, at heart, looking for an ultimate real. This ultimate real lies behind and is independent of the human biases, opinions, attitudes, or beliefs about it. Damian attends non-Muslim gatherings because he believes that ultimate meaning must exist somewhere and must be essentially true for everyone, regardless of their beliefs. My goal is to help him discover what that meaning is, without pushing him, even subtly and gently, towards my own understanding.
My second proposal to Damian is that, as well as being universal, independent of human subjectivities, the ultimate real must also be knowable. It must be something he can discover and know, at least to the extent that any human can know anything. If Damian is asking questions, it is because he is not willing to accept the truth of his Islamic worldview within its own cultural context. He is seeking to a measure that transcends those limits, and I am committed to honoring his honest efforts to find that measure.
Thirdly, I could propose to Damian that when he discovers the ultimate real, or when it reveals itself to him, it would be a clear delineation of the ultimate meaning of his life. This will necessarily involve embracing some notions while rejecting others. Thus Damian’s view of the ultimate real, once he finds it, will be exclusive to some extent, and he will have to embrace that exclusivity to maintain the integrity of his beliefs. This may pose a potential difficulty for Damian, namely offending those who hold different views than he does. But in this case I can propose to him that he can embrace his beliefs without compromise, trusting that the ultimate real will eventually make itself known to everyone. In short, he can embrace exclusive claims as long as he is willing to suspend final judgment on others’ claims until some future point of universal revelation: the eschaton.
As I have argued throughout this lecture, my response to Damian is not limited to the particular and unique context of prison chaplaincy. It’s rooted in the Apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenians, and suggests broader principles, on the basis of which respectful interfaith dialogues may take place. Based on what I have discussed, dialogue partners can affirm these principles in the form of a common set of affirmations as follows.
Having agreed on these affirmations, partners can then explore their own understandings of what the ultimate real means, of how to know the ultimate real according to their traditions and the nature of their exclusive claims of their traditions, and finally their understandings of what Christians call the eschaton, the final revelation. As discussed in the first part of this lecture, it is crucial that partners explore their similarities and differences within a hospitable firmament of grace which is ultimately an attitude of willingness to suspend judgment of others’ views, allowing them to represent themselves as fully and freely as possible, understanding that the last word on the matter is yet to come.
For Christians, such an attitude is essential for fulfilling our vocation to compel others into the feast of the kingdom, not with coercion or even the perception of coercion, but with the force of God’s love, which alone is sufficient to drive us into his presence, where we will see him face to face and, seeing him, we will know him, because only in knowing him can we truly repent, turning our minds and hearts and bodies to embrace him and love him as he has loved us since the foundation of the world.