Whether religions that differ from his own posed a threat or an opportunity for discourse was a question Paul Knitter tried to answer during the Festival of Faiths event Saturday in downtown Jefferson City.
Knitter, a professor of theology and world religions at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, told about 70 people attending the event there were steps necessary to understand "other religions" aren't a threat.
Knitter, the author of 13 books, grew up with as a Roman Catholic in Chicago and learned about other religions through the community and his experiences.
"There was a clash between what I was taught and what I saw," Knitter said, "what I was told was the case and what I experienced to be the case."
When he was in eighth grade, in 1952, Knitter decided he wanted to be a missionary priest and later went off to seminary to begin the 14-year-process. His motivation was he loved people — especially people in other religions, he said.
"Because I loved them, I was profoundly convinced that I had to convert them," Knitter said.
He recalled the Latin phrase meaning that outside of the church, there is no salvation. He grew up with that knowledge and deeply felt if someone did not accept Jesus as their savior, they were not going to be able to get into heaven.
But, in order to convert people of other faiths, you have to know them. So part of missionaries' training was to study other religions. Missionaries would come back from their travels abroad and tell students at the seminary stories about their mission and the people they met. He began to see the value of other religions.
For the last four years of his seminary training, Knitter was chosen to attend the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
While there, he was housed with bishops, many of whom couldn't read Latin, which he could. Bishops would come home from their assignments with documents (written in Latin) that they were to study and vote on the next day. They would have students, like Knitter who could read Latin, translate the documents for them.
Among the documents for the bishops were the preliminary drafts of the Nostra Aetate — a declaration by the Roman Catholic Church about its relationship with non-Christian religions. The document was passed during the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
Knitter can remember standing in front of a chapel, where a Dutch bishop showed him some of the preliminary drafts.
"I couldn't believe what I was reading," he said. "I said, 'My God, this is my church saying these wonderful things about these religions.'"
Never had a church officially declared there are elements in other religions that are "true and good."
"Precious things, both religious and human," Knitter said. "Elements of truth and grace. Spiritual moral goods. Seeds of the Word. Rays of the truth."
And the kicker, he said, was Christians were urged prudently and lovingly to engage in dialogue with other religions.
"This was a real shift," he said. "The threat was being reduced. In fact, it was not a threat — it was already an opportunity."
Missionaries could engage with other religions, Knitter said, but the church still maintained the supremacy of Christ.
He began to study and engage other religions.
He began to accept the writings of Edward Schillebeeckx, a Roman Catholic theologian who wrote "there is more truth in many religions than there is in any one, including Christianity."
Knitter later concluded his understanding of Jesus was an impediment to his dialogues with others.
For many, in order to understand their own religious traditions, they have to compare them with other religions, he said.
"You have the opportunity to enrich your own religious experience," he said.
Although they were brief, there were opportunities for people to learn a little about several religions at the Festival of Faiths, held at First United Methodist Church. After the keynote address, the Capital Area Interfaith Council hosted numerous break-out sessions, in which speakers discussed their personal faiths.
Sessions included Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism and Protestantism.
Chris Caras converted to Islam as a high school junior in Peoria, Illinois in 2001. Caras, Imam in Galesburg, Illinois, told listeners the purpose of life in Islam is to worship God.
"Life is a test," he said. "Ultimately, everything that happens to is is a test from God."
When things are going well for people, they don't really think about thanking God for their prosperity, he said. It's a test that people usually fail. When people are tested with "trials and difficulties," they wonder why God is not doing something for them.
"This is something the Quran tells us over and over — it's all a test," he said.
Daniel Reich, curator and director of education at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, held the session on Judaism. He said it would be difficult to illustrate Judaism in the hour given.
"They say that if you have two Jews, you have three opinions," Reich said. "Sometimes, one Jew has three opinions, because of the complexities."
For example, he has an entire book devoted to how the faith deals with death and dying.
In spite of their differences, he said, religions need to adhere to the phrase tikkun olam, which means "repairing the world," he said.
"It's a distinct Jewish concept shared by many faiths that we have a duty to make the world a better place," Reich said. "That leads to a lot of interfaith work."