The Future of Interreligious Dialogue

A Multireligious Conversation on "Nostra Aetate"

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Charles L. Cohen, Paul F. Knitter, Ulrich Rosenhagen
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , September
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Catholic Church’s highest doctrinal body, issued Dominus Iesus (hereafter DI), and momentarily, at the cusp on the new millennium, the future of interreligious dialogue seemed less vibrant and hopeful. In 1965 Nostra Aetate (hereafter NA) had unleashed a rebirth in both the Catholic and non-Catholic worlds, with revolutionary language that was open, sensitive, and respectful of those from other faiths outside the Church. It flowered into inspiring and fruitful partnerships, especially in its unprecedented re-appraisal of Judaism and the Jewish people. Fortunately, the sober, constrained, and provincial approach of DI was not even footnoted in the 2015 reflection from the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). In its call officially revoking institutional attempts to convert Jews, the reflection restored the positive thrust of NA that had been impeded by DI and some subsequent Notes from the CDF.

Edited by Charles L. Cohen, Paul F. Knitter, and Ulrich Rosenhagen, The Future of Interreligious Dialogue: A Multireligious Conversation on “Nostra Aetate” not only points the way forward for the future of interreligious dialogue but shows why and how NA deserves to be seen as a starting point (though not the final goal). Although the book’s distinguished contributors reflect a properly ecumenical and multifaith range, gaps remain. In fairness, the editors note this weakness (perhaps stealing reviewers’ thunder): namely, the book, like NA, does not go beyond the world religions mentioned in NA so there are no essays from Confucians, Jains, Baha’is, Sikhs, First Nation peoples, or atheists. Part of the failure comes from the book’s origin in a conference that did not include such voices, but it is unfortunate they were not added for the book. Co-editor Charles L. Cohen calls this an “ironic gap,” and acknowledges their “failure to fully take heed of everyone whom the church…might want to engage” (6). Such an admission, though, makes the omissions all the more disappointing. It also gives solid ground for an expanded version.

A section on the origins and challenges of NA (John Borelli and Paul Knitter) is followed by five sections divided by the religious identity of the contributors, and so has three essays from Roman Catholic perspectives (Jeannine Hill Fletcher, John Pawlikowski, and Roger Haight); three essays from Protestant and Orthodox Christian perspectives (Ulrich Rosenhagen, Dwight Hopkins, and Peter Bouteneff); and two essays each from Jewish (Rabbi David Fox Sandmel and Rabbi Shira Lander), Islamic (Jerusha Tanner Lamptey and Riffat Hassan), and Buddhist perspectives (Rita Gross and Jeffery Long). The final section, “Moving with and Beyond Nostra Aetate,” concludes with essays from Jennifer Howe Peace, Sallie B. King, and John J. Thatamanil. I’ll begin with the last and best essay in the book, in which Thatamanil rightly calls for the Church to overcome an ethos of religious self-sufficiency and to recognize a deeper sense of interreligious learning. In his essay, Thatamanil rewrites a few paragraphs of NA; for example, adding the phrase that love of Jesus compels the church to “receive truth and wisdom from those outside the church” (298), an idea undeveloped in NA. Thatamanil also accentuates the Wisdom of the First Nations (not included in NA), and expands and nuances NA’s positive statements on Hinduism and Buddhism. Let’s hope that if the Church ever updates NA that Thatamanil is involved in the process. .

Another indispensable voice in the process should be Paul Knitter, a guiding beacon in interreligious dialogue, who also rebukes NA’s sense of “religious supremacy” (50) and calls (with Pope Francis as a guide) the Church to follow a green dialogue, partnering and focusing on how to restore and save the health of the earth, without being mired in theological squabbles. John Pawlikowski, a key figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, advocates a nonsupersessionist incarnational christology (85) and bravely warns against letting Jesus’s singular uniqueness stymie the idea of God within all of us and within all of creation—and how such ideas should influence our theological thinking towards the Other. A similar openness courses through Haight’s contention that a Christian spirituality should “respect and promote pluralism” (94).

Other stand-out essays include Hopkins’s analysis of NA through key voices within Black Liberation Theology (from James Cone to Martin Luther King to Hopkins himself). He identifies links with NA but argues that a more explicit condemnation of capitalism and structural injustice against those of certain races is required, especially in light of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (132). Jeanine Hill Fletcher astutely unmasks a “hidden white Christocentrism” in some presuppositions of NA, advocating a “Religio-Racial Project” (67). Rabbi Sandmel offers a useful overview of key documents in Jewish-Christian dialogue since NA. Most helpfully, he analyses the recent 2015 declaration from the Chief Rabbi of France, highlighting the “massive, positive transformation in [the Church’s] attitudes towards Jews” (174) and the statement (“To Do the Will of Our Fathers in Heaven”) currently signed by seventy-three Orthodox rabbis. Lamptey’s close reading of NA, and the writings of John Paul II and Francis from an Islamic perspective strike the right balance in lauding the value in dialogue that probes deeper knowledge of both difference and commonality. From a Buddhist perspective, Rita Gross questions the continued use of masculine language in such documents (246) and NA’s presumption that religious diversity is not normal and inevitable (247). Sallie King, in the book’s penultimate chapter, praises the Christian call to preach Jesus, and more importantly, encourages Christians to show this love of Jesus in acts of love. She also asks whether such a belief must contain Jesus as “the one and only way” (282; and see Knitter’s essay, 50).

Amidst Pope Francis’s papacy, the future of interreligious dialogue is looking far more hopeful, vibrant, and secure since the days right after the publication of DI. For Christians, though, questions like King’s remain unsatisfactorily answered, though Thatamanil’s challenge to overcome an ethos of religious self-sufficiency is a key piece of the way forward.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is Assistant Professor of Theology in the School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music, and the Coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles L. Cohen is E. Gordon Fox professor of American institutions at UW-Madison and former director of the Lubar Institute for the study of the Abrahamic religions.

Paul F. Knitter is the emeritus Paul Tillich pro­fessor of theology, world religions, and culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

Ulrich Rosenhagen, formerly associate direc­tor of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, is a lecturer in religious studies at UW-Madison.



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