Our society in America loves the debate. Debate and controversy fill the news constantly, usually with a heavy bias one way or the other, but almost always to satiate the appetite we have developed for the shrewd and absolute. Make no mistake, we are creatures who disagree, sometimes vehemently, but a world that finds its foundation in argument, debate and accusation forgets the human person for ideas true, false or somewhere in-between.
Of all the topics not to be discussed around the dinner table, religion is often the fiercest because it strikes at the inmost being of a person’s identity and their views on the world. That is why meaningful discussion on this topic is perhaps the most important thing we can do as members of a society, especially one as diverse as ours in the United States. The Second Vatican Council proclaimed religious freedom as a civil right for every person in the world, to be upheld by both States and individuals. In this declaration, the Catholic Church made a simple distinction that I offer to you – religious freedom and the conversations surrounding religion are not merely tolerated because differences exist, they are celebrated because of the dignity of the human person and the complete and free ability to be the captain of one’s own destiny.
This means a person has the autonomous right to discern, in communion with humanity, the nature of Truth and the worship or non-worship of Truth – because they are a human person. Truth does not impose itself upon us, but rather presents itself for discovery, and that discovery takes place in a myriad of traditions.
Pluralism isn’t about not offending a person’s personal beliefs. It is about protecting the inherent dignity of the human person by recognizing their own ability to make rational decisions. The Second Vatican council proclaimed part of “Dignitatis Humanae” in light of this.
“Truth, however, is to be sought in a manner befitting the dignity and social nature of the human person, namely by free inquiry assisted by teaching and instruction, and by exchange and discussion in which people explain to each other the truth as they have discovered it or as they see it, so as to assist each other in their search (for Truth).”
Simply stated, debate and argument are useful tools, but they fail to recognize the unique and incredibly precious individual with whom it engages. Instead of building understanding, it villainizes at worst and polarizes at best. Dignity is protected best when, in the recognition of the person, dialogue and discussion are employed not to prove one or the other wrong, but to find the Truth.
I use Truth with a capital “T” to reflect an objective, unchanging, and sure reality that we come to an understanding with in our exchanges with one another. The other – our neighbors, our sisters and brothers, our communities – are treasures and are more than an opposition to us. The world has a problem with this dialogue because it supposes that “I” am not more important than the person next to me. The world is afraid of this kind of dialogue because it is afraid of losing its own identity in a religiously plural world.
You should not be afraid, because in choosing to respect the dignity of the person you dialogue with, you will strengthen your beliefs, foster community, and plant the seeds of peace. To argue and debate about religion is not the answer – dialogue, mutual service, and justice sows the path to peace and Truth. As Eboo Patel puts it in “Acts of Faith,” “We have to save each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves.”