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.

"There is nothing in my faith that says God will only reveal himself to me and my people," he said. "I can accept that he revealed himself to Jesus, and there is nothing to stop me from believing that he revealed himself generations later to Muhammad."

That does not mean that he should be confused about his own faith, he said. Benedict may have moral authority for Catholics without having the same authority for Christians of other denominations or Jews or Muslims, because God may have given him that authority, but only as leader of the Catholics, Ehrenkranz said.

"He has to interpret the theology for them, but not for me," he said.

When it comes to accepting faiths like Hinduism or Buddhism, which have different conceptions of the role that a supreme being plays in human life, though, he said the question becomes more complex.

"I don't dare say that I know that God revealed himself to them, but if they do not say that God revealed himself to them, then they do not believe in revelation, that's not what they're looking for," he said.

Yale University professor Lamin Sanneh, who converted to Catholicism after growing up a Muslim, said that for him, acceptance of other faiths and respect for people who hold those beliefs is a necessary part of his own faith.

"As a Catholic, it is not my commitment to one way that distinguishes me, it is my commitment to one God that characterizes my belief that all humanity is one," he said.

His faith, he said, is a pilgrimage, rather than an arrival at a static truth, and because of that, there is no cause to exclude another's pilgrimage, even if at least superficially it does not resemble his own. Part of the reason for this, he said, is the commandment not to bear false witness against others.

"I deeply cherish Islam for Muslims, therefore I deeply hope that all of us, Christians, Muslims and Jews, can manifest something of grace in ourselves," he said.

The call of his faith, he said, is such that he must see a bit of God in each human being.

That feeling is familiar to some who say that they cannot accept that faiths other than their own have equal validity. A belief that others are in error in their faith does not mean that you do not respect the person or care about them, they say.

Just as when you see someone doing something that you know will hurt them you try to stop them, so when you see someone whose belief is taking them on the wrong path, you try to set them straight.

"I believe their faith is in error and is false and will ultimately lead to their eternal damnation," said Dan Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. "I have compassion and pity for them, and that's why our seminary sends graduates in missionary work around the world."

There is a line between the political and the social, on the one hand, and the religious, on the other, he said. As an American, he deeply believes in everyone's right to their own religion, and he said he "would die" for that right. As an evangelical Christian, however, he said, he believes it is his duty to try to show others what he sees as the truth.

"If the resurrection of Jesus is truth, then Christianity is true," he said. "If it is not, then I'm a fool. But if it is true, then every other religion is false."

The drive to proselytize crosses that line between the political and the religious. It parallels the ideals of a democracy, whereby the right to have different views does not exclude the idea of dialogue -- specifically dialogue with the attempt to convince the other of your view.

But it's difficult to engage in dialogue when it is about something as important as what will happen to a person's soul for all eternity without abandoning respect for the other.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization with more than 30 million people across the United States, admitted that some evangelists come across bombastically. But he said there is another way to approach evangelism.

"Some Christians say, 'I have it right, everybody else has it wrong, so they are all infidels,' " he said. "Other Christians will say, 'I have it right, everybody else has it wrong and I will do my best to be a blessing for them.' "