Christ Among the Religions

American Magazine
Vol. 186 No. 3, February 4, 2002 By Avery Dulles

The relations between the various religions of the world have often been hostile, and in many places they remain so today. When we pick up the daily newspaper, we can hardly avoid reading about conflicts between Jews and Muslims, between Muslims and Hindus, between Hindus and Sikhs or between Muslims and Baha’is. All of these faiths have at one time or another clashed with Christianity. Christianity, for its part, has also contributed more than its share to interreligious tension and warfare. Christians have persecuted Jews and have fought holy wars against Muslims. Within Christianity there have been internecine wars, especially between Protestants and Catholics, but sometimes also with Eastern Orthodox. Struggles of this kind continue to rage in Northern Ireland, for example, although it would be unfair to describe the Catholic Church as a belligerent in that conflict since its authorities have disapproved of violence on either side.

The present armed interve! ntion in Afghanistan is sometimes described as a religious war. This interpretation is on the whole false, but it contains a grain of truth. From the American standpoint, there is nothing we are less interested in than a war against Islam. Our own nation is hospitable to Muslims, who constitute well over a million of its inhabitants. They enjoy full freedom of worship throughout North America and Western Europe. A new crusade would gain no support from any major power in the West and would certainly not receive the blessing of Christian religious authorities. Our quarrel with Osama bin Laden has to do only with his politics of violence, which does not seem to be in accord with the tenets of authentic Islam.

From the Arab side, religion is part of the picture, but Muslim extremists such as bin Laden seem to be working for ends that are cultural, political, ethnic and economic rather than exclusively religious. They resent the power of the United States and its allies, w! hich they perceive as arrogant and brutal. Even more fundamentally, they are repelled by what they perceive as the culture of the West. Their quarrel is not primarily with Christianity as a religion but much more with what they regard as the loss of religion in the West: its excessive individualism, its licentious practice of freedom, its materialism, its pleasure-loving consumerism. They see this hedonistic culture as a threat, since it exercises a strong seductive power over many young people in the traditionally Islamic societies of Asia, Africa and other continents.

If this analysis is correct, globalization might be seen as an underlying cause of the conflict in Afghanistan. Modern means of travel and communication bring together cultures that have developed in relative autonomy in different regions of the earth. The encounter produces a kind of culture shock, especially in nations that have not gone through the gradual process of industrialization and modernizati! on that occurred two centuries ago in the West.

Christians of North America and Western Europe have by now grown accustomed to rubbing shoulders with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and members of practically every other religion that can be named. Where immigration is taking place on a large scale and modern means of communication are generally available, no religion is any longer in a position to claim exclusive domination of a region and shelter its faithful from contact with other faiths. Like it or not, most of us are destined to live in a religiously mixed society that includes people of many faiths and of no faith at all.

Four Models

For this reason we have to discuss the ways in which different religions can relate to each other. I should therefore like to propose a typology consisting of four possible models: coercion, convergence, pluralism and tolerance.

The first model, coercion, predominated throughout the greater part of! human history. In most periods of history, political authorities have wanted to enforce unity of religion within their respective jurisdictions and to compel the populations of subject peoples to adopt the religion of the conqueror. The Roman Empire for a time accepted religious pluralism, but the emperors soon began to insist that divine honors be paid to themselves. They consequently came to persecute religions like Christianity, which refused such worship. When the empire adopted Christianity as its official religion, the emperors began to enforce Christian orthodoxy and persecute all other religions, including dissident forms of Christianity. The pattern of a single religion for a single state remained normative until early modern times, even after the Reformation. The terrible wars and persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries were largely brought about by the assumption that every state must have only one religion, that of its ruler (cuius regio eius religio)!

In this situation, wars between states frequently became, under another aspect, wars between religions. The Crusades vividly illustrate this fact. Although the Europeans are usually depicted as the aggressors, much of the military action was in fact defensive. The Turks had conquered Syria, North Africa and large portions of European soil, including Portugal, Spain and southern France and parts of Italy and Switzerland in the West, and the Balkans, present-day Yugoslavia and Hungary in the East. The advance of the Turks meant, of course, the extension of Islam as a religion, and their retreat, more often than not, meant the Christianization of the territories they had lost, as can be seen from 15th-century Spain, which expelled all Jews and Muslims who did not convert to Christianity.

In the present situation of the “global village,” this coercion model is difficult to maintain. As a result of the bloody “wars of religion,” Europe and the United States learned ! the lesson that the cost is too great. From the perspective of Christian theology, it is indefensible to try to convert people by the sword. Protestants and Catholics alike have learned that adherence to the faith must be a free and uncoerced act. Past efforts to force conversions have served to discredit religion and have contributed to the spread of indifferentism and irreligion.

True, there are still rulers in the world who seek to enforce uniformity of faith. They are both troublesome neighbors and threats to global peace. From a Christian point of view, their coercive policies must be disapproved. In time, I suspect, they will come to recognize that their policies are mistaken. For, as I have said, modern means of travel and communication make it very difficult to prevent the growth of different religious communities in every region of the globe. Although authoritarian governments may resist the penetration of other faiths, as they are doing in some Muslim, Hindu! and Buddhist regions today, the barriers will ultimately be pierced and will crumble. Sooner or later, populations that have been compelled to adopt the religion of their rulers will demand freedom to make conscientious choices and testify to their sincerely held convictions.

In spite of setbacks, the tide of history has been running in favor of religious freedom. The Soviet Union was not able to enforce its atheist ideology beyond the span of 70 years. Religious coercion survives only in nations that have come late to modernity. It is promoted by extremists who sense that desperate measures are needed to save their theocratic vision of the state.

The second model for relating the religions to one another is one of convergence. On the ground that the religious impulse is essentially the same in all peoples, some scholars contend that the religions agree in essentials and that their differences are superficial. In the 1970’s John Hick, among others, conten! ded that the religions could agree on the basis of theocentrism, recognizing their differences about the means of salvation as culturally relative. But theocentrism is not a satisfactory platform for dialogue with the many religions that are polytheistic, pantheistic or atheistic. Even faiths that are clearly theistic, such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity, are unwilling to surrender their convictions regarding the way to God, whether it be the law of Moses, the Koran or Jesus Christ.

A number of scholars, abandoning the theocentric idea of religious convergence, have recently turned to what they call the “soteriocentric” model. All religions, they maintain, agree that the purpose of religion is to give salvation or liberation, which they understand in different ways, perhaps because of the variety of cultures. By dialogue about liberation, it is presumed, they could overcome their mutual divisions.

The basic premise of these convergence theories is that all re! ligions, at least in their differentiating features, are human constructions—faltering attempts to articulate the holy and transcendent mystery by which human existence is encompassed. This theory, however, runs counter to the official teaching and historic identity of the religions and meets with resistance on the part of religiously minded people, who contend that their specific faith is true, even that it is divinely revealed. Christians hold that central doctrines of their own faith, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, belong to revelation and cannot be sacrificed for the sake of achieving some putative reconciliation. Jews adhere passionately to the Law of Moses and to rabbinic tradition. Muslims, for their part, regard the Koran as the final revelation of God and look to Muhammad as the greatest and last of the prophets. Soteriology is a point of division, because the religions vehemently disagree about the way to salvation. Soteriocentrism, therefore, is no more ! promising than theocentrism as a remedy for disunion.

The third model of religious encounter is that of pluralism. By this I mean not simply the fact of religious plurality, but the view that it is a blessing. The contention is that each religion reflects certain aspects of the divine. All are partially true but need to be supplemented and counterbalanced by the elements of truth found in the others. The coexistence of all overcomes the errors and limitations of each taken alone. As the fourth-century rhetorician Symmachus maintained in his debate with St. Ambrose: “It is impossible that so great a mystery should be approached by one road only.” This approach has a certain appeal for relativists, who maintain that the human mind cannot attain objective truth, and that religion is an expression of merely subjective feelings. But it will not appeal to orthodox believers, who hold that the doctrines of their religion are objectively and universally true. Christiani! ty stands or falls by the claim that there really are three persons in God and that the second of them, the eternal Son, became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Christians gladly admit that there are elements of truth and goodness in other religions, but they continue to insist that God’s revelation in Christ is intended to be transmitted to all peoples. Committed Jews and Muslims likewise regard their religions as divinely revealed and reject any attempt to put all religions on the same level. This negative response does not of course mean that members of different religions have nothing to learn from one another. Christianity has developed over the centuries by entering into contact with a great variety of philosophies and religions, which have enabled Christians to find implications in their own faith that they would not otherwise have recognized. Christianity grows like an organism that takes in food from the environment in which it finds itself and assimilates that food into ! itself. It does not admit the validity of doctrines and practices that run counter to its own self-understanding. As we shall soon be seeing, dialogue can increase the mutual respect of the different religions, but experience gives no ground for supposing that it leads to the conclusion that all religions are equally good and true. On points where they contradict one another, at least one of them must be wrong.

We turn, then, to the fourth option, which I call toleration. Toleration is not the same thing as approval, although it normally includes a measure of approval. We tolerate things that we find less than acceptable because we find ourselves unable to suppress them or because the suppression would itself be evil. In the 18th century, the principle of tolerance—as expressed, for example, in John Locke’s famous Letter Concerning Tolerance—came to be generally accepted in many countries of Western Europe. That principle was also fundamental to the Ameri! can experiment in ordered freedom. From the beginning we had in this nation a great variety of Christian denominations that regarded one another as mistaken. The American political settlement did not require them to approve of each other’s doctrines and practices, but it did insist that they avoid any effort to coerce the members of other denominations to agree with them. In the course of time, the religious scene has become increasingly diverse. It contains many more varieties of Christianity than were originally present. In addition, the nation has welcomed to its shores multitudes of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. With rare exceptions, all of these religious groups live peaceably together, not interfering with one another’s teaching, life and worship. The American experiment has worked well enough to offer a possible model for the global international community that is currently experiencing its birth pangs.

Tolerance in Church Teaching

Although! the term “tolerance” has not been extensively used in Catholic official teaching during the past 50 years, this fourth model, in my opinion, is the one that best coheres with the doctrine of the magisterium. Pius XII, in an important address in 1953 (Ci Riesce), stated that in the world community then coming into being, the Catholic Church would not expect to have a privileged position or to be recognized as the established religion. It would ask only that the various religions be allowed full freedom to teach their own beliefs and practice their own faith. The Second Vatican Council in its “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions” and its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” endorsed this model as suitable for individual nation-states.

Vatican II explicitly renounces the use of any kind of coercion, whether physical or moral, in order to bring others into the Catholic fold. It taught that the religious freedom of all citizens and religious communities should be r! ecognized and upheld, even in commonwealths that give special recognition to some one religion (“Declaration on Religious Freedom,” No. 6). For the peace of civil society and the integrity of the religions themselves it is essential to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.

The council has sometimes been misunderstood as though it had adopted the pluralist model, renouncing the exclusive claims of Christianity. But in point of fact, the council insisted on the unique truth of the Catholic faith and on the duty of all persons to seek the true religion and embrace it when found (No. 1).

Vatican II proclaimed a very high Christology. It taught that God had established Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 17) and that he is “the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every human heart and the answer to ! all its longings” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 45). The council quoted Paul to the effect that God’s intention is “to reestablish all things in Christ, both those in the heavens and those on the earth” (Eph. 1:10).

As a consequence of its high Christology, Vatican II took great care to insist on the unique mediatorship of Christ and to emphasize the abiding importance of missionary activity. Acknowledging Christ as the redeemer of the world, the council called on Christians to disseminate the Gospel as broadly as possible. To be ignorant of the Gospel or to deny it would be to overlook or reject God’s greatest gift to humankind. The church by its intrinsic dynamism tends to expand and take in members from every race and nation. The “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” holds that since all human beings have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, “all have need of Christ as model, master, liberator, savior and giver of lif! e” (No. 8).

As for the non-Christian religions, the council taught that they often contain “seeds of the word” and “rays of that divine truth which enlightens all men,” but it did not teach that these religions were revealed, or that they were paths to salvation or that they were to be acceptable alternatives to Christianity. Judaism, of course, holds a special position among the non-Christian religions, since the faith of Israel is the foundation on which Christianity rests (cf. “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” No. 4). The Hebrew Bible is a permanently valid and inspired record of God’s revelation to his elect people before the coming of Christ (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No. 14).

The council is far from teaching that the other religions are free from error. It declares that “rather often people, deceived by the Evil One, have become caught up in futile reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a! lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:21, 25). Consequently, to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all such persons, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mk. 16:16), the church painstakingly fosters her missionary work” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 16).

Evangelization, according to the “Decree on Missionary Activity,” frees the rites and cultures of the nations “from all taint of evil and restores [them] to Christ as their source, who overthrows the devil’s domain and wards off the manifold malice of evil-doing” (No. 9). These sentences imply that the other religions are by no means adequate substitutes for Christianity. The implication is that they may in some respects hinder the salvation of their own adherents. To that extent the council’s attitude toward them is one of qualified approval and toleration.

The charge is sometimes made that absolute convictions, s! uch as the claims made for Jesus Christ by the Scriptures and the councils, give rise to oppression and violence. I believe that the contrary is true. The leaders in the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century, as well as the great champions of nonviolence, have been, more often than not, men and women of strong religious conviction.

Persons who recognize no moral absolutes lack any solid grounds for defending human rights and human dignity. Anyone who is unsure whether the taking of innocent human life is unconditionally forbidden will be able to make only a weak case against genocide and against the massive slaughter of innocents that occurs in abortion clinics all over the world. It is possible, of course, that a few opponents of abortion may misguidedly murder those who commit abortions, but these killings are rare; they also violate Catholic ethical principles, which forbid individuals to take the law into their ! own hands.

Christians are tolerant of other religions not in spite of but in part because of their certainty about revelation. Revelation assures them that God made human beings in his own image as free and responsible subjects. It also teaches that faith is by its very nature a free act. Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” makes it clear that Christians must respect the right and duty of all persons to seek the truth in matters of religion and to adhere to it when found. Believers must be allowed to profess and practice their religion, provided that in so doing they do not disturb the requirements of just public order.

Toward Peaceful Coexistence

The posture of tolerance and qualified approval, if it is reciprocated, opens the way for a variety of strategies that may lead to peaceful and friendly coexistence. First I should like to mention the avenue of knowledge. The different religious groups will normally experience a healthy impuls! e to get to know one another by encountering them in actual life and by obtaining accurate information about them through study and reading. In a religiously diverse society, people should be educated not only in their own faith but also, to some degree, in the faiths of others with whom they will have to interact. All should be on guard against caricatures based on prejudice or ignorance.

Second, the groups can engage in certain joint programs based on a common recognition of basic moral values. Opportunities arise for people of different faiths to work together for objectives such as the defense of the family, the rights of migrants and refugees, the relief of poverty and hunger, the prevention and cure of disease, the promotion of civil and international peace and the care of the environment. Religious groups, because of their authority over the consciences of the faithful, can give powerful motivation for humanitarian reform.

Third, the groups can bear common! witness regarding the religious and moral convictions that they share in common. Most religions agree on the importance of prayer and worship. They encourage the pursuit of holiness and speak out against socially harmful vices such as anger, theft, dishonesty, sexual promiscuity and drunkenness. In a society that is threatened by selfishness and hedonism, the harmonious voices of religious leaders can greatly help to raise the tone of public morality.

On occasion the different groups can unite for interfaith services of prayer and worship. This fourth expression of qualified approval occurred very dramatically in the days of prayer for peace sponsored by Pope John Paul II in 1986 and 1993. Many interfaith meetings for prayer and silent reflection have been held in New York and other cities since the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Still another critical need, frequently noted by Pope John Paul II, is the healing of memories. Religion, since it relies heavily ! on tradition, perpetuates the past experiences of the faith community, including its moments of glory, suffering and humiliation. Injuries that were inflicted generations or centuries ago continue to rankle and breed hostility. Unless the sources of resentment are honestly faced, they poison the atmosphere, so that men and women living today are unjustly blamed for the real or imagined misdeeds of their ancestors. If friendship is to be restored, the communities should disavow the conduct attributed to their predecessors. They may fittingly apologize for what their forebears may have done and extend forgiveness for the wrongs their own communities have suffered. John Paul II has courageously followed this procedure in his dealings with other Christian churches, with Jews and with Muslims. Expressions of repentance and forgiveness constitute a fifth category of interreligious action.

Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has placed strong emphasis on a si! xth program, namely, theological dialogue. Paul VI set up a special secretariat, which continues to exist as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In dialogues of this type the parties explain their beliefs to one another, explore ways in which they can live amicably together, enrich themselves from one another’s insights and seek to narrow the disagreements by finding convergences. Such dialogues have proved extremely useful for improving relations among different Christian communions. They likewise hold great promise for interfaith relations.

Valuable though it be, dialogue is not a panacea. It cannot be expected to overcome all disagreements. After shared insights have been achieved and convergences established, the parties will normally come to recognize that full unity cannot be achieved by dialogue alone. The religions are firmly committed to contradictory positions, which they could not abandon without sacrificing their identity. Although Christian! s will undoubtedly hope that their partners in the dialogue will come to recognize Christ as Savior of the world, any such result lies beyond the expectations and horizons of dialogue itself. Dialogue is intended to achieve agreements that the parties can achieve within the framework of their defining religious commitments.

It is sometimes said that dialogue is a sign of weakness, since it implies uncertainty about the adequacy of one’s own positions. In my opinion dialogue is rather a sign of strength. It takes considerable self-confidence to listen patiently while others tell you why they think you are wrong. Groups that have not reflected deeply on the grounds of their beliefs quite understandably shy away from a dialogue for which they are not prepared.

If dialogue is misused, it can do positive harm. One error would be to make it a platform for proselytization, with the aim of converting the dialogue partner to one’s own faith. This would be a distortion of ! the purpose of dialogue, which differs from missionary proclamation. The opposite error would be to conceal or renounce the convictions of the group to which one belongs, thus raising false expectations. Quite obviously, dialogue teams are not authorized to change the doctrines of their religious communities.

Rightly pursued, however, dialogue is one of the most auspicious paths for the growing encounter of the great religions. It does not have to start with the most sensitive and disputed issues. The parties will generally do better to begin with topics on which there is promise of achieving a significant measure of consensus. Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964) suggested that common ideals such as religious freedom, human brotherhood, sound culture, social welfare and civil order might be taken as themes of interreligious conversation (colloquium). It might also be possible to conduct dialogues on some properly religious themes, such as the ! value of prayer and the nature of mystical experience, which seems to occur in similar ways in different religious traditions. (Authors such as Bede Griffiths and Thomas Merton have described how the experience of mystical prayer can be a bond of union among members of different religious communities.) One could imagine very fruitful dialogues about suffering and happiness, life and death, speech and silence. The most important result of such encounters would be for the participants to get to know and respect one another. Friendship among qualified representatives of different religions could help to overcome some of the accumulated hostility and to restore trust.

In the opening years of the third millennium, interreligious dialogue is not a luxury. Together with the other five strategies I have recommended, it may be required to prevent disastrous collisions between major religious groups. In the present crisis, the religions have a great opportunity to overcome host! ility and violence among peoples and to promote mutual esteem and cordial cooperation. But the stakes are high. If the various religious communities refuse to adopt programs of tolerance and to engage in respectful dialogue, there is a serious danger of relapsing into mutual recrimination and hatred. Religion may once again be abused, as has so often happened in the past, to justify conflict and bloodshed. As John Paul II said with reference to the events of Sept. 11: “We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict.” Religious believers must take the lead in building a world in which all peoples can live together in peace and brotherhood.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y. This article was originally delivered as the Laurence J. McGinley Lecture on Nov. 7, 2001.

This article was originally printed in America, February 4, 2002, and is electronically reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc. Copyright © 2002 All Rights Reserved. For subscription information, call 1-800-627-9533 or visit American Magazine

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