Thursday, August 14

Christianity: Other Religions and Religious Pluralism

What is religion? Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin noun religio, but there are three verbs that are associated with this, including relegere (meaning “to turn to constantly” or “to observe conscientiously”), religari (meaning “to bind oneself [back]”) as well as reeligere (meaning “to choose again”). If religion is defined as a response to and perception of the reality of God, then questions abound. Why are there so many religions? What does this mean for Christianity? What is the current relationship between Christianity and Judaism? What is the relationship between religion and society, or religion and institutionalism? When discussing Catholicism, these and other questions arise. There is also a question as to whether or not someone can be Christian and not belong to a religious group. This is perhaps best seen in "non-denominational" Christianity, a movement that has been around since the 1990s. These Christians have more of a spirituality than a religion (Note: This article is based on chapter ten in Richard P. McBrien's book, Catholicism, as well as Christianity and Other Religions by Ian Markham).


Attempting to Define Religion
It is not easy to come up with a working definition of religion that encapsulates all aspects of it. In antiquity, such as Greco-Roman or Jewish areas, religion was inseparable from daily life, whereas today in the United States this is not the case. Some try to look at religion historically, sociologically, psychologically, philosophically, theologically, scientifically or through other means. For some, religion is seen as a sort of crutch, while others see it as necessary for society, as a necessary part of human experience. A working definition of religion therefore needs to include considerations from each aspect of religion. 

Early Christians linked Greek philosophy to the Christian concept of the Logos. St. Thomas Aquinas linked religion to justice as well as knowledge of God. Religion is seen as something that takes in all elements of the shared human experience, and appropriating these to a relationship between God and man, and this relationship comes about through Revelation. But this does not mean that every person of faith is religious. Indeed, some people are spiritual but not religious, while some are religious but not spiritual. Some have faith without truly perceiving their faith, and as such as oriented to God. Therefore, we may understand religion as an individual, social, and institutional manifestation of some explicit faith in God.


Characteristics of Religion
One of the major characteristics of religion is the holiness and sacredness of religion. What is holy is considered to be themysterium tremendum et fascinosum, that is, a mystery which at the same time overwhelms and fascinates us. But this also means that religion is not only concerned with the impact of the holy and sacred upon us, but also our response to the holy. It can produce such things as creeds, doctrines, teachings, morality, liturgical structures - and a community. A religious community often begins with a kind of charism, and once the founder or a leader has died, the community must decide what to do. At this point, it becomes routinized. Those groups who claim to be wholly charismatic are actually not, as they still meet at a set time, at a set place, in a set community. There is therefore an element of routine at work. But these communities ought to be consistently re-evaluating and reflecting on its foundations and what sets it apart, as well as how they live out their faith.

Criticisms of Religion
There are a number of criticisms from within religion and from outside of religion which concern the subject. Within, critics such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich have noted that religion has sometimes been an attempt of man to place religion above revelation, or that religion has been placed into an area separate from everyday life. Within Christianity, a great number of reform movements have been present from early on - monastic movements, schismatics, heretics, later Protestants, and others. Critics outside of religion say that those who are religious are simply regressing to a form of childhood understanding, or those who seek psychological comfort in something seemingly non-existent. Finally, there are those - such as Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others - who live a kind of religious individualism. It is individuals such as these who may believe in a deity but do not adhere to any kind of structured religion - a form of spirituality, perhaps, but not religion. 

Types of Religion
Starting from the notion that God is both transcendent and immanent, it is understood that there are religions that emphasize each of these. Those who stress the transcendent God put an emphasis on the otherness of God, as in Deism, whereas those who stress the immanence of God put an emphasis on the worldliness of God, as in Pantheism. Those who emphasize transcendence are Judaism, Islam and Confucianism, whereas those which are immanent tend to be Buddhism and Hinduism. There is also a point at which transcendence and immanence is pushed to the extreme, so much so that the transcendent turns into Atheism, and the immanent turns into Fetishism, as in black magic. 

Christianity and Other Religions
Today's world is markedly pluralisitic and diverse. This pluralism and diversity is also clearly seen in the religious world. The way in which we relate to God is sacramentally, which is mediated and communal. Revelation is seen in how the individual receives the given revelation according to context and understanding. As has been seen, there are a number of similarities between the various major world religions - priesthoods, a call to conversion, monastic life, the supremeness of God, liturgy, and so forth. Certainly, there are a great number of differences - but these many similarities can also encourage interreligious dialogue as well as greater brotherhood and understanding. From this, attitudes of both indifferentism as well as exclusivism have arisen in the Church. 

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1960s) is worth quoting here: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. It looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what it holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people. Indeed, it proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom everyone finds the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things…(cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18–19)” (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, n. 2).


The relationship between Christianity and Judaism has had a long and sometimes extremely complicated history. There has been bloodshed on each side, certainly, and Christians for centuries blamed Jews for the death of the Messiah. However, Vatican II made it clear that Christians should not blame either all of the Jews living at the time of Christ or the Jews living today, but instead should realize the similarities, the heritage of the Hebrew Bible, our heritage through God's covenant, and that Jews are still the brothers and ancestors of Christians. 


The acceptance of religious pluralism has only really come about in a post-Vatican II world, so the history of Catholicism's relation to other religions can be seen through four different historical stages. The first stage was that only Jesus Christ is the sole means of salvation. The second stage was during the medieval period when the Church felt threatened by Jewish and Muslim presence, and there was thus a negative response. The third stage came about in the nineteenth century as a result of the idea that all religions are essentially equal. The Church condemned this kind of indifferentism. The fourth stage is that which has emerged out of Vatican II. Currently, the Church holds that other religions have salvific value, and that there needs to be interreligious dialogue - but that Christianity holds a unique position in the economy of salvation. Indeed, we may see Christianity as the fullness of revelation, whereas other religions may be seen as having partial revelation. The question then becomes - how do we have interreligious dialogue? In order to even begin to examine this question, Christians have to be settled in their own mind about what view they take on other religions. 

Religious diversity and pluralism has at times created a multitude of problems for Christianity. Even in the very beginning, there was the looming question of just how Jewish the faith had to be. Was there much continuity? Was there a radical break? Where was the line drawn? The first Church Council, the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was called to answer this very question. Christianity's relations to other religions became much more complex as it developed. However, it also owes a great deal to other philosophies, religions and traditions. For example, St. Augustine noted that Platonic influence on Christianity, whereas St. Thomas Aquinas utilized Islamic thinkers (who had been used Aristotelian thought). Certainly, whether consciously or unconsciously, Christians have been influenced by other religions.


Seeing Other Religions as a Problem
Other religions need to be viewed within their own context and set of beliefs and teachings. In order to make a judgment on a belief or teaching, you must first understand what is actually being taught. There is thus a first step of trying to understand the Other. One of the problems in modern times has been seeing Christianity in light of science, history and other religions, which have at times seemingly made more sense to some. If, for example, God is loving, why would he send 68% of the world to Hell for not believing the Christian faith but another faith, even Judaism or Islam? The general response is that missionaries should go and convert these people. Statistically, however, there is a very small number of people who convert from one tradition to another, generally because religion is so often tied to one's cultural identity.

As a result of these and other considerations, there are three varying Christian responses to other religious traditions: pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism. Pluralism is the idea that all religions have salvific value, inclusivism declares that Christianity is the true faith and that other religions have seeds and parts of the truth without knowing it, and exclusivism insists that Christianity alone is essential for salvation, and one must be committed fully.


The Pluralist Hypothesis
A good example of the pluralistic approach is seen in prayers. A number of prayers taken from the Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Islamic traditions are similar. A major supporter of this hypothesis, John Hick of the University of Birmingham believes that each tradition is all praying to the one God using the language, resources and traditions of that religion. Hick believes that different traditions are vehicles that have access to "the Real." But what about witchcraft and the occult? In this case, Hick declares that a religion that is totally ethically destructive should be excluded. He also believes that Jesus should be looked at as one who shows us God, and is not himself God - a functional Christology rather than an ontological Christology. Both the academy and the Church are highly skeptical of the Pluralist position for a number of obvious reasons.


The Exclusivist Position
The Exclusivist position is the normal position in most religions, particularly among Christian evangelicals. The emphasis is here on a commitment to Truth and a commitment to Revelation. If Christianity is true, all other religions are therefore false. If God revealed himself to Christianity, he therefore did not reveal himself to other religions. Thus, Christianity would have a claim of knowledge of "the Real" - of God. In order to allow other religious traditions into the fold, so to speak, loving your neighbor and perhaps dialoguing with them is how one wins the soul to Christ. But in revealed Scripture, the three-fold point should thus be made: many religions are guilty of idolatry and may be inspired by a force of evil (i.e., a fallen angel/demon beginning Islam), second, Christians have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all nations (see Matthew 28:19, for example), and thirdly, Scripture does not fully reveal what happens to those who never hear the gospel. Therefore, there is still uncertainty in this area - which brings up Inclusivism.

Inclusivism
Due to the large amount of those who will never hear the Gospel or have the chance to respond to the transformative nature of the Gospel, many Christians take an interest in this third approach - Inclusivism. According to Ian Markham, "Inclusivism is the view that even though salvation is exclusively in Christ, faithful adherents of another faith tradition may be saved through Christ, even though they do not realize it in this world." The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner was a large proponent of this. The best way to make sense of this view is in light of the Hebrew Bible patriarchs: they were not under the Christian name, but indeed were all alive (and died) prior to the coming of Christ. God is therefore able to save some even without their realizing it, in a sense, in this view.

Further, consider how a Christian may view Islam through an Inclusivist lens. The Qur'an is addressed to Muslims, but also to People of the Book (Jews and Christians). It also mentions Mary, the mother of Jesus, more times than in the New Testament. It refers to Jesus as the Word of God and as the Spirit of God, and also calls him the Messiah/the Christ. The title used of him in Mark 6:3, "Mary's son," is the most common Qur'anic title for Christ, "Jesus, son of Mary." His virgin birth through Mary is also seemingly found in the Qur'an, and other Biblical figures such as Adam, Satan, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and others play a large role. The eschatology is extremely similar, and many phrases, concepts and ideas are highly Scriptural. "Allah," the god that Muslims pray to, is simply Arabic for "The God," and in fact, Arabic Christians pray to "Allah," as anyone in another language would address God. As a result, an Inclusivist may feel justified in saying that a Muslim is their "brother" or "sister," and that they are believers, in a sense.

Examining the Positions
However, there are many Christians and non-Christians who are critical of these views for a number of reasons. For example - how can knowledge of God be possible outside of Revelation? In the pluralistic view, some say that we must become post-pluralistic, in the sense that to impose such a view on others would be imposing a Western view, and thus a form of inculturation. Christians in Europe and the U.S. therefore need to consider theologies of other countries - for example, Christians in India have used Hindu insights to help their understanding of the Trinity and of the Incarnation.

Most religious traditions will not and do not take up the Pluralist tradition, as it would be giving up the essentials of their religion. However, Inclusivism seems to be present in some. For example, as aforementioned, the Qur'an calls Jews and Christians "people of the book." Although the Muslims believe they have the full truth, they do believe that Jews and Christians have partial truth. The Hindu Bhagavad Vita claims that other religions finding gods are really finding Vishnu. Christian tradition would seem to imply that Jesus as the Logos had a prior influence on Greek philosophers. 

Learning about God from others is perhaps what we need to take away from this. The Christian knows that Christianity had a Jewish and Hellenistic influence given the context it came about in, just as the Muslim recognizes the relation to Judaism and Christianity, Buddhists know the links to Hinduism, and Sikhs know that Sikhism came from a clash between Hindu and Islamic cultures. Therefore, Christians need to delve deeper into their understanding of other religions. We must let God be God, so that God in Godself does His work - and not us. This article was intended to present, not argue, three of the major Christian theological views of other religions. The Catholic Church takes a kind of Inclusitivist position, whereas a Non-Denominational believer may take an Exclusivist position. For some, Inclusivism would constitute as heresy. For others, they are limiting God's love and depth and making him into their image, not His, by claiming that they alone can be saved. These matters are not simply abstract theological concepts, but have very real consequences on the world around us, how we treat each other and how we view other people groups. Therefore, Christians should be mindful of differing concepts of other religions, their own view and understanding of each, but also be aware of the call to "love one another" and care for our fellow man, as we are all created in the imago Dei - the image of God. 

1 comment:

  1. "We understand religion here as an individual, social, and institutional manifestation of some explicit faith in God" (5). Please state the source of this quotation in your article.

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