Can a Religious Person Accept Other Faiths?

With Pope Benedict XVI talking about the Roman Catholic Church reaching out to Christians of other denominations and showing acceptance of people of other faiths, has religion turned into a theological ice cream parlor, where choosing a faith is like choosing a sundae?

Pick the flavor of God and the spiritual toppings, and you've got yourself a religious faith as good as anyone else's.

Despite the irreverence, the issue is at the heart of the meaning of faith and the question of what religious belief is really about.

Benedict has repeatedly spoken about his desire to "foster dialogue" with people of other faiths, and has gone even further when speaking about Christians of other denominations.

"Your presence, dear brothers in Christ, beyond that which divides us and casts a shadow over our full and visible communion, is a sign of sharing and support for the bishop of Rome, which can count on you for following the path in the hope and for the belief toward he who is the head, the Christ," he said Monday, addressing non-Catholic Christians.

There is some doubt among Christians of other denominations about whether Benedict is really talking about accepting that there might be other ways to be a Christian or whether he is talking about making greater efforts to bring non-Catholics into the fold.

The chilly relationship between the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia, for example, shows no signs of warming up, and some evangelicals in the United States say they see no evidence that Benedict intends to truly embrace them.

The need for tolerance of other faiths and acceptance of people of other faiths is clearly important, but does it make any sense theologically?

"If I believe water is H2O, and somebody else doesn't believe it is H2O, well it makes it difficult for us to agree," said Mal Couch, director of the Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "Our understanding of chemistry is different."

If God is something that can be grasped with anything like the comprehensiveness with which scientific facts are grasped, then it would seem that Couch has a point. If there is one truth, and it is possible for someone to know that truth, then those who believe something else must be wrong.

But there is a great deal of disagreement over just how fully any person can grasp what God really is.

"Speaking for myself, as a Christian, God is bigger and greater and far beyond my conception," said Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches. "I am limited by time and space, and I can't explain my understanding of God because of the limitations of language."

Religious truth, he said, is not like other truth. In science, hypotheses can be tested by experiment, objective data can be gathered and tallied and that way truth can be established.

"When we come to religious truth, it is a different kind of truth, because it requires faith to recognize it," Premawardhana said.

For Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz, executive director of the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Stamford, Conn., there is no difficulty in accepting that the beliefs of Christians and Muslims are as correct and true as anything in the Jewish faith, because all three faiths are based on revelations.

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