A letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Marcello Pera has been causing a stir, mostly because of the NYT's latching on to his statement that "an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible" (Reuters has offered a helpful response here). What is of great interest in the pope's comments, I think, is his distinction between religion and culture as each relates to the possibility of dialogue. The Reuters post notes:
Even if a strictly-defined interreligious dialogue was not possible, Benedict said in his letter, it was important to have an “intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas.” This brings him back to a distinction between religion and culture that he tried to make visible two years ago when he folded the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue into its culture ministry. It didn’t work out very well — other religions felt it downgraded their faith to an anthropological phenomenon — and he had to separate them again. That he’s trying to make the distinction again probably says more about his intellectual rigour than his diplomatic skill.
Here, I think, a Protestant ecclesiology, and even a strongly catholic one that values Ratzinger's contribution to the Church's self-understanding, can offer a needed corrective that would both allow for the distinction Ratzinger wants to make and offer a better response to accusations of "downgrading" other faiths.
The "downgrading" of religion to culture, after all, is nothing strange for modern Protestant thought. It is a critique (and sometimes not even a critique- as Barth says, Feuerbach was also singing his Magnificat) that seeks to clarify the limits of human interaction with and knowledge of God in corporate life. What Protestantism is able to affirm, however (at least Protestantism in a Reformational and Barthian mode) is that the Christian religion itself is included in this downgrading to mere "culture". There is nothing divine about religion; there is nothing in itself that separates it absolutely from any other human cultural endeavor. Christianity most of all can understand this, as the absoluteness which Christianity claims is understood to be present in God alone and not immanent in Chrisitanity itself, either in some 19th century liberal "essence of Christianity" sense or a neo-thomist deposit of doctrinal truth. Alien is the true religion, or the truth of religion... alien to the point that the religions themselves cannot be understood as anything but a human and cultural phenomenon without thus grasping too much from the divine hand and short-circuiting grace.
This understanding of religion and culture doesn't mean that the Christian faith is merely an act of human culture, however. We do call upon the name of the Lord and He answers us. But the election, promise, and command of God is extrinsic to the people gathered in His name, and the daily life which circles this encounter need not (cannot!) be understood as anything but mundane. On this level, the Christian religion can engage with other religions entirely as itself and entirely within a merely cultural scope. Benedict's concern for the necessity of such dialogue can only be maintained to the full if we recognize this about Chrisitianity as a religion among others.