Wednesday, October 21

Nostra Aetate: The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions

Today's world is markedly pluralisitic and diverse. This pluralism and diversity is also clearly seen in the religious world. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s put forth a document known as Nostra Aetate (In Our Age), which is concerned with considering what is common among the major religious traditions of the world, and what draws men and women of these different faiths into fellowship with one another. Each religion seeks to answer the key questions of human existence - who are we? Where are we going? What is goodness? The telos of these considerations is God. Throughout the history of mankind, as St. Paul says in Romans 1:20, God has been clearly seen through his creation. The religions of the world have recognized the existence of a divine being, and have expressed this awareness in a number of ways, as in Hinduism or Buddhism. The Church accepts what is right and good in these religions, and recognizes that some of the practices, teachings and concepts reflect Catholic teachings and may lead some to Christ (theologian Karl Rahner termed this the "Anonymous Christian").

Nostra Aetate notes that there are a number of similarities and shared beliefs between Christianity and Islam. There is One God, there is an esteem for Abraham and Mary - and even the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Jesus is present in Islam, and there are similar ideas about judgment as well as praying, fasting and alms-giving. There was a lot of overlap between Christianity in Arabia and the early Islamic movement. For example, Muslims pray toward Mecca, which is in the East. However, the earliest Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem. An early Christian church manual, the Didascalia (AD 200-250), notes that "The Holy Apostles have therefore decreed, first, that people should pray towards the East, because, that as lightning that flashes from the East, and is seen unto the West, thus shall be the coming of the Son of Man" (11b). Muslims later picked up this Christian practice. Practices aside, one may note the words of the Catechism on Christians and Muslims - "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (841). 

When considering the mystery of the Church, it is important to remember the bond and the ties between the people of the New Covenant - Christians - and Abraham's stock - Jews. As Christians, the Church recognizes that Jesus was Jewish, that from the Jews comes the Hebrew Bible, the Fathers such as Abraham, and a number of other things that is owed to Judaism. For centuries, Christians charged all Jews with deicide, and a number of atrocities has been committed on each side. Nostra Aetate declares that Jews and Christians are brothers, and that we need to respect Jews and not support antisemitism by any means. It is against the teaching of the Church to discriminate against anyone of another religion, nation, condition of life. All men were created in the image of God (imago Dei), and therefore all have inherent human dignity, worth and value. 

The question of the relationship between Christians and Jews has a long and complicated history. But it is also slightly different than exploring the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity, for example - because Christianity comes out of Judaism. St. Paul, in Romans 9-11, notes that Jews are still God's elect, and hopes that all Israel will be saved under Christ. Jesus Christ was a Jew, when it comes down to it, so be anti-Semitist is to be anti-Christ. Also, both Jews and Christians utilize the Hebrew Bible. Christians may feel that they alone are children of the new covenant, but the "new" implies that we also belonged to the Old - and therefore, are tied to Jews. Christians do not claim to believe in a different God than Jews, only that they have a fuller understanding of that God. The relationship is therefore like that of a younger and older brother living in a house with the same Father.


The teaching of the Second Vatican Council 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).

By accepting the universal grace of God, one must be open to the work of the Father, the Son and the Spirit outside of Christianity. We do not glorify Jesus by slandering other religious traditions. Also, when engaging in dialogue with other religions, Christians are not called to give up their heritage or their mission to stand for Christ. Instead, they are called to empty themselves of their presuppositions and their misconceptions of others, and treat the Other with respect and dignity, and understand that God is not confined to our ideas or theologies, but is much larger than that, and that dialogue and mutual understandings with the Other can bring a giving and receiving for both parties.

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