A CHRISTIAN VIEW ON WORLD RELIGIONS
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam are renowned religions. Plurality of religions is a fact. Today there are many relations between believers of different religions in the world. What is the correct view on the world religions? Do the equality between believers of all religions as human beings, the good things done by believers of diverse religions, and the profound spiritualities of various religions compel Christians to conclude that all the religions are the same value? Is Jesus Christ one among many symbols God uses to save humankind? Is it wrong to claim the superiority of Christianity to other religions? Is the evangelization a wrongdoing?
This paper will see some different views on the world religions especially pluralism, next tradition and pluralism, then evangelization and pluralism, and finally a Christian view on world religion.
Theologians have many positions on world religions.
The first one is from famous Protestant theologian Karl Barth: all religions are human works, not the work of God, so religions are not means of salvation by the will of God.
All religions expressed the effort to be justified by them. By another terms, religions are human works that try to affirm oneself before God, and refuse the grace of God who justify the unholy. Revelation demonstrate what are truly all religions, indicate that religions are not necessary, that is, human beings are unable to reach truth. All religions are a kind of idolatry or effort to be justified by them, that is, unfaith.
This view applies to Christianity too.
Beside Karl Barth’s position many theologians have positive views about religions. Religions are not only the human works but also divine works, too. Religions are the means by that God saves human beings. Human beings are social beings, that is, their acts of worshipping God have social features. Therefore religions are consequences of the public acts of worship.
To be touched by the plurality of religions and the dialogues between different religions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith proposes to build a world theology that fits all religions. Smith knows clearly that it is very difficult, but he argues:
In practical terms, it has always been unrealistic for a Christian thinker to suppose that he or she could write a theology that would be acceptable to all Christians. Nonetheless, in principle that has been valid as an ideal. Similarly, ideally the theology of comparative religion, when constructed, should be acceptable to, even cogent for, all humankind. (We may dream, may we not?) That is a long way off; it may be an eschatological rather than an historical goal? Yet we may not, must not, surrender it as an ideal. We aspire to a theology of the faith of man. More etymologically: we aspire to a statement of God and His diverse involvements with humankind.
Smith’s proposal includes the equality between religions. Wilfred C. Smith dreams what some Christian theologians try to do.
The stumbling block seems to be the central Christian belief in the uniqueness of Christ. The fundamental premise of unitive pluralism is that all religions are, or can be, equally valid. This means that their founders, the religious figures behind them, are or can be equally valid. But that would open up the possibility that Jesus Christ is “one among many” in the world of saviors and revealers. Such a recognition, for the Christians, is simply not allowed. Or is it?
The touchstone in the world theology is the claim of Christianity that believes Jesus Christ is the constitutive cause of universal salvation for all humankind. Some theologians think this belief prevents the true dialogue and destroys world theology, because if one is superior to other, if one is absolute and others are not, how can there be dialogue? Moreover if believers of their own religion think their religion is true way to get the salvation, and the founder of their religion is the best one among other founders, how can they accept world theology? To resolve this difficulty, some pluralist theologians suggest their theory.
John Hick presents his philosophy: the Real is not a thing, is not thing, but not nothing. The Real is not a thing because it transcends all thing and all our thing-concepts, but the Real is not nothing because it is immanent in all thing, “contain” all thing. The Real is neither personal nor impersonal, but it has its analogues of the attributes of its other authentic “personae” as love, goodness, compassion, justice, mercy, and “impersonae” as transcendence, immanence. That happens because people talks about the Real in relation with human beings, in mythical language in personal and in non-personal terms. The Real can be worshipped as one or other of its “personae”, for example Allah, the Holy Trinity, Adonai, Vishnu and so on, and can be meditated as one of its “impersonae” for example Tao, Brahman, Dharma, Sunyata and so on.
John Hick’s theory is very attracting. The notion “persona” of John Hick is not the “persona” notion in Catholic view “undivided intelligent reality”, but is an appearance of the reality in certain periods and places. By this view there can be many “personae” which have appeared in other religions, and therefore Christianity is one religion among other religions.
Paul Knitter wants to present his theology so that Christians can accept it; he does so by keeping the expressions “Jesus is unique and absolute”, “Jesus is the Son of God”, “Jesus is the only begotten Son”. However, the meaning of these words or expressions is changed by his interpretation. Paul Knitter imagines these expressions are confessional language, similarly as the language of a husband to his wife, for example “you are the most beautiful woman in the world… you are the only woman for me”.
In describing Jesus as “the only,” Christians were not trying to elaborate a metaphysical principle but a personal relationship and a commitment that defined what it meant to belong to this community … Christian dogmatic definitions, in the way they have been understood and used, have perhaps done just that to the love language of the early Church. The language of the heart and the head are not necessarily contradictory, but they are different. And their differences must be respected.
The incarnation is “a true myth, a meaningful model, for expressing what Christians have experienced Jesus to be;” it is “the full realization of what is the potential, the God-given, goal of all human beings;” but, “other may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph.3: 19). So, “Jesus is the only incarnation” should not be “dogmatically mediated”, that is, only on the basis of Christian experience and doctrine.
On the resurrection of Jesus, Paul Knitter says, “the nature of resurrection faith was not and is not a matter of historico-physical proofs but of deeply personal-communitarian experience and commitment”.
The subjective approach presents the resurrection as an event that took place in his followers: Jesus arose in their faith, in their renewed conviction that his message is still valid and must go on. In this view, the resurrection did not cause faith; faith caused the resurrection.
By the thinking of Paul Knitter, Jesus Christ is unique and theocentric, is one among many sent to proclaim the kingdom of God, is full of grace as a doctrine of incarnation mythically conceived, risen as the experiences of apostles, and is (could be) one among many religious figures for salvation.
According to the scheme of J. Peter Schineller, theologians defending pluralism belong to the “third” or “fourth” groups:
· Theologians of the third group believe Jesus Christ and the Church as normative but not constitutive way of salvation; that is, God’s saving grace is given to humankind through Jesus Christ and Church as normative and through various religions too;
· The fourth ones judge Jesus Christ as one of many ways of salvation, that is, God’s saving grace is given to human kind through Jesus Christ and Church and through various religions. Jesus Christ is one among other symbols of God.
Knitter knows other Christian theologians such as Monika Hellwig, Avery Dulles and Hans Kueng do not agree with him, especially Frans Josef Van Beeck’s opinion:
“To claim only that Jesus offers a way of salvation to us which is one among many is to fall short of fidelity to the classic statement about Jesus in the Bible and the tradition.”
What is essential to Christianity?
By the testimony of the New Testament, Jesus is the son of Mary whose husband is Joseph, was born at Bethlehem, lived in Nazareth, worker, preaching in three years in the time of Pilate, died and has risen after three days, is the Word of God, God became flesh.
Against Arius who wants to affirm that Jesus is subordinate to God, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD defined that Jesus Christ is homoousios with God. That is, Jesus Christ is one with God, God from God. Against Nestorius, who wants to separate Jesus born from Mary and the Word of God, the Council of Ephesus in 431 defined Mary as Mother of God; that is, Jesus is the second person of God incarnate. In Jesus, there is the hypostatic union.
Denying the divinity of Jesus Christ can lead to very different consequences. For example, Christianity is not superior to other religions because the Christian founder is a normal man, like founders of other religions. However, denying the divinity of Jesus Christ is not standing in Christian tradition. Christianity includes the set of human beings who believe Jesus is Christ, Son of God, Word of God incarnate. Whoever denies this is not Christian.
Because Jesus Christ is Word of God incarnate, that Jesus is a special person in the world of all time. By the testimony of Scripture, “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by whom we must be saved” (Act.4: 12). By the life testimony, if by other names or symbols human beings could receive their salvation, Paul would not have had to have been so painful on the way of preaching the Gospel, and other apostles would not have had to die to be witness of Jesus Christ, and the Christian Church would not have needed arduously to preach Jesus Christ as God incarnate.
Catholic faith is handed down from apostles; that is, Christians believe at least what the apostles believed in Jesus Christ and Church. And the same faith lies throughout the Christian history. Every Christian generation in history is a living tradition. And this continuity is a feature of Christian tradition. Every Christian generation has the whole truth of the doctrine transmitted.
One of the criteria of theological invention is that theologians can say new things but they are not allowed to be against the tradition. Theologians can interpret the tradition but are not allowed to distort the tradition and the Scripture. As the second letter from Peter says: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pr.2, 20-21). Do not interpret Scripture by your own models; rather everyone has to understand the Bible with the understanding of the first community. Even though people of the present generation can widely understand it, that does not signify that they can interpret it with different and contrary meaning to that the first community understood. An honest theologian may not say that what the first community proclaimed and paid for with their lives is only confessional language, the temporal sentiment that does not signify the reality. Continuity of tradition includes a stand at the least not against tradition.
If Jesus Christ is not the Word of God, is not God incarnate, is only a figure of God among other as Buddha or Mahomet, I do not need to be Christian because I am Vietnamese, an Asian people. In my country the most popular religion is Buddhism; it is easy for me to be a Buddhist if Jesus Christ is not absolute and is not the constitutive cause for all humankind by God’s plan. Moreover if the founders of religions are only normal persons, why do I need to practice the cultural rites? Indeed, why cannot I be a founder of any religion in the future? If Jesus Christ is a normal figure of God as others, why did the first Christian generations have to be faithful until they had to die? They were really foolish to do that. To interpret their faith expressed through the Scripture as “confessional language” is disrespect the first Christians and others Christians who have suffered for their faith.
How do we know what are the beliefs of the Christians in the history? Worship, the liturgy, the writing, the teaching of the Church, all have to be harmonic with each other. Some regard the official teaching of the Church as merely acts controlling and preventing the freedom of theologians, but it is better to see the official teaching of the Church as representative of the beliefs of Christians, and representative of the voiceless poor that theologians of all generations have to pay attention to and respect. The magisterium of the Church is the servants of people, and it is not good if theologians do not care of it. So one thing theologians have to respect as a sign of being in tradition, is not to say anything against the teachings of the Church. Theologians should not speak against the teachings of the Church, not because they fear it as a powerful organization, but rather because they see it as a representative of the beliefs of Christians, voice of the poor people who are voiceless.
Theologians are human beings of the actual Church, of tradition. They theologize to respond to the needs of their time in the tradition that lies in all history from the apostles. Theologians cannot say, the theology in the past time was wrong, and this theology today is just true. The mystery of the incarnation was a touchstone for Greeks and for Jews, and now this mystery continue to be a mystery that is difficult to be accepted by modern human beings too. By the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the Christian believes that the Church of every period understands correctly about revelation and by that transmits his faith from generation to generation.
The divinity of Jesus Christ is the fundamental revelation of Christianity. Omitting this, Christianity is not Christianity. All the history of Christianity affirms this belief. If theologians deny this by one way or another, they may have many things to say and can invent many theories, but it is not Christian theology.
The effort of pluralist theologians to build a world theology is to present Christianity so that believers of other religions can accept it. Some of them think this can be done if Jesus Christ is seen as one among many founders of religions. But doing that they have presented the Christian doctrine about Jesus Christ in a way that does not fit with the Christian tradition.
Pluralist theologians want to respect other religions, so they believe missionary works are unworthy. Missionary work or evangelization is a fact that does not fit with the pluralist theology; that is, the fact of evangelization demolishes pluralist theologies.
In the flesh time Jesus Christ refused to evangelize the Gentiles, for example the case of the woman from Tyre (Mt.15: 24) or the directives given to disciples (Mt.10: 5-6). However, when risen from death, Jesus Christ mandated to the apostles and via them to the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt.28: 19). By this mandate that Christian of first generation, and on to the next Christian generation was told to go and preach the love of God to humankind by proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ, God incarnate.
The second council Vatican affirmed “the Church on earth by her nature is missionary” (Ad Gentes, n. 2). That is, it is not the Church of Jesus Christ if the Church does not proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And the ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love.
Christian history is a history of the converted. In the beginning apostles proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, died and risen, glorified as Lord, seated at the right hand of God. And there were many persons who believed in the proclamation of the apostles and became Christians through baptism (Act.2: 41).
When the first Christians were hated and killed, they escaped from one village to another, continuing to proclaim what they believed. Paul went to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ all his life in minor Asia. People in Rome were converted, the emperor of Roman Empire was converted, and Europe was converted. When Columbus discovered America, many missionaries went, and converted many people. My country Vietnam received the missionaries from 1615 and many Vietnamese were converted, and a lot of Vietnamese Christians were killed for faith; more than one hundred thousand Vietnamese Christians died for their faith.
For their beliefs they were killed. If they had believed Jesus was only a man, they would not have received the hate and been killed.
The Church realizes his mission, not by ambition of domination over other religions but “because the love of Christ urges us on” (2Cor.5, 14). Christian history is a history of evangelization and this action was and is continuing in the entire world now.
This evangelization includes the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, representative of world religions, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is only a human being, how can Christianity be superior to Judaism that was willed by God? The relation between world religions and Christianity is the same between Judaism and Christianity. Even though by non-Christian view, it is impossible to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to other religions, because:
· Believers of other religions judge their religions are good, right; their religions possess the revelation, such as Hinduism, Judaism and Islam;
· Every religion has its own founder who is a very good human being, has deep experiences with God, and teaches human beings to live correctly and happily;
· Believers of other religions do many charitable works for other human beings;
· The spiritualities of other religions are very deep and full of wisdom; in this time many Christians learn to meet God by Yoga and Zen ways.
· Christianity has appeared late in comparison with other religions as Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism; in fact, Christianity stemmed from Judaism, but almost all Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate;
· There have been many defects through the history of Christianity, for example the schisms, inquisition courts, the ambition of some popes;
the superiority of Christianity is always affirmed by the Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate.
The evangelization is an argument to refute the effort to estimate Jesus Christ as one among other symbols in other religions, or to equalize the Christianity and other religions.
Some previous pages demonstrate pluralism as an inadequate theological solution because it is not in the Christian tradition and does not conform to Christian doctrine. What position a Christian must have facing world religions?
Christian faith affirms that Jesus Christ is truly man and truly God. He is the Word of God incarnate; by this, nobody can be compared with him, because He is absolute, the constitutive cause of universal salvation of all humankind, even those who were born before him.
Christians always take steadily this truth, founded on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and Jesus’ statements. In the testimony of Scripture, Jesus tells he has the power to forgive sins (Mk.2: 5); this power belongs to God only. He proclaims that he exists before Abraham (Jo.8: 58). The Jews knew that He wants to identify with God (Jo.10: 30.33). Before the judges he declares to be equal to God, and for this he was condemned and died. When he is risen from death, his apostles recognize what he said previously. If what was spoken is not true, that is, if he is liar, then God would not have made him risen, but if God made him risen, what he said is true, that is, he has power to forgive, which means, he is equal to God, he really exists before Abraham, he is really one with God.
Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, so he is the Absolute man that nobody can be compared with him. He is superior to all founders of other religions. And in Christian belief all goodness is done by him to mankind, even to the founders of all other religions. In any theology this doctrine must be kept firmly.
Human beings are saved by faith, that is, the attitude of a human being to God. By faith human beings encounter God, discover realities of life with faith light, and then live with new energy, accepting all that happen against his or her own will as from God after trying to do what is good with all his or her ability.
To have knowledge human beings need experience through the senses; and through material experience human beings have knowledge of abstract notions. Knowledge has material spiritual structure. To recognize the existence of God human beings have to transcend the material as sign to attain the Absolute.
Human beings are spiritual and material; by Karl Rahner’s language human beings are “spirit incarnate”, or by another way speaking, human beings become spirit by transcending material things. Human beings can encounter God through the symbols- signs of spiritual reality. So the symbols in world religions are means through which believers can encounter the Real, the Absolute, the Reality or God.
Respecting the human structure, God reveals to human being through material objects, and uses history as signs. And through the signs, even human words, human beings have relations to God.
God loves every human being. He searches to encounter human being in any time and any ambiance. Human beings encounter God, not by his own force or ability but by God’s love. Because God created human being as spirit in body, so religions are means that help human beings to encounter God.
Every religion has rites as symbols; through them God encounters human beings. Human beings express their attitude to the Absolute by acts and material offerings too. For example, Cain and Abel presented their fruits and animals to God, and these acts reflect their hearts and souls.
God encountered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He met Moses and had an intimate relation with him. That causes Judaism to exist. The same has happened with other religions. However, Christianity is a special case, for there the Word of God became man, creating the unique mediation between God and human beings. Putting it another way, the mediation that human beings use to encounter God belongs to Him. He is the mediator in other religions through the symbols of those religions. Even the founders of other religions through Him become the symbols that allow believers to encounter God.
Most peoples follow the religion in which they were born. God is the father of all humankind. He wants everybody to be saved and recognize the truth (1Tm.2: 4). Every good thing come from God, “everyone lives in love lives in God, because God is love” (1Jo.4: 8).
Religions collect good and beautiful things of human beings in different cultures; express the attitudes to God of different cultures of diverse people in the world. Through religions the differences of people are recognized and respected. Religions express the wisdom of people who practices religious rites.
Christians must try to see the positive things from other religions as works of God in each culture and religion, and to be faithful to what God reveals through each religion in recognizing what are the human or divine characters. Respecting one’s own faith and opening one’s heart to God through what is the truth is the best attitude to live with believers of other world religions.
The superiority of the believers’ belief has been kept because it includes religious freedom, even though the duty of evangelizing the Gospel has been respected too. Every denomination can expand its own religion in respecting the real religious freedom of every other one.
With Christians, Jesus Christ is the Absolute and universal cause of salvation. So by loving other human beings, they have a duty to evangelize the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is the Word of God incarnate to save human beings. But doing that, they always respect the freedom of other human beings who live in the other religions. In the same way, Hindu or Muslim can expand their religions by preaching the excellent doctrine subjectively to other faithful of different religions; and this will make the religions more fertile. Helping others to recognize the good things in one’s own religion is not a feature of dominance but a sharing spirit.
The dialogue between religions keeps its value because each religion has good things and good express of gifts given with its own way. Christians can use Zen and Yoga as methods of prayer if they help them to encounter God.
Some theologians think that if one is proclaiming superiority there is no real dialogue. This is not true, someone can share what is true for him to others with all his hearts and humbly. And other with the authentically generous spirit can receive what a friend wants to share. To have dialogue needs love, authentic hearts and generous spirits. It does not need to make all equal subjectively.
The believer of any denomination cannot constraint other believers to have the same belief; and in reverse he or she was not bounded to follow the same belief with others. Others cannot prevent me from thinking I am of the true way, and similarly I cannot put off others from thinking they are of the right way. To deny one’s faith is alien. Trying to distort the Christian beliefs to build a world religion theology is wrongdoing for all religious believers. It is right to respect all believers of any religion.
Freedom for religions has to be respected. The priority of conscience must be kept. Whoever wants to follow any religion must have freedom to do so. Consequently the national religion has to be excluded because this regime neglects religious freedom and expresses the discrimination between religions.
Christianity is Catholic- universal, that is, it is appropriate to all people, to all cultures and every people. The unique that Christian must protect is the Absoluteness of Jesus Christ, because he is God incarnate. And as the Word of God came to world by incarnating in a culture, a nation, a religion, Catholic has to do the same in all religions, in all cultures of every people.
In summary, the pluralism that tries to make all religions in the same rank and then construct a world theology that fits to all religions is not acceptable from the point of Christian view. Even though the absoluteness of Jesus Christ is not demonstrated to believers of other religions, for Christians Jesus Christ is always the Word of God incarnate. The belief that Jesus Christ is Son of God, Word of God incarnate is held firmly and continually in all Christian tradition. The Christian tradition and the evangelization in Christian history are arguments against the pluralist theory. The best Christian view on religions has to firmly keep the divinity of Jesus Christ and authentic respect to other religions. By this the beliefs of faithful of every denomination are kept and faithful of every religion can do as his or her beliefs require; though doing the evangelization, he respects the freedom of other human beings.
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WILFRED CANTWELL SMITH, Toward a World Theology, The Westminster Press-Pennsylvania 1981
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Chúc bạn an vui hạnh phúc.
Giuse Phạm Thanh Liêm, S.J.
 H. KRAEMER, Foi chreùtienne et les Religions non-chreùtiennes, NEUCHAÂTEL 1956, pp. 76-77, cited by G. THILS, Propos et Probleøme de la Theùologie des Religions non-chreùtienne, CASTERMAN 1966, pp. 46-47
 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Toward a World Theology, The Westminster Press-Pennsylvania 1981
 Wilfred Cantwell Smith, op. cit., p. 126
 PAUL KNITTER, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1984, p. 17
 Cfr. John Hick, A Christian Theology of Religion, The Rainbow of Faiths, WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX PRESS- LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKEY 1995, p. 60-65
 PAUL KNITTER, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1984, p. 185
 Cfr. PAUL KNITTER, "Toward a Liberation Theology of Religions", The Myth of Christian Uniqueness- Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, edit. by JOHN HICK and PAUL F. KNITTER, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1987, pp. 191-192
 PAUL KNITTER, "Toward a Liberation Theology of Religions", The Myth of Christian Uniqueness- Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, edit. by JOHN HICK and PAUL F. KNITTER, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1987, p. 199
 PAUL KNITTER, No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1984, p. 197
 J. Peter Schineller, S.J., “Christ and Church: A Spectrum of Views,” Theological Studies 37 (1976), pp. 549-550
 PAUL KNITTER, "Toward a Liberation Theology of Religions", The Myth of Christian Uniqueness- Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, edit. by JOHN HICK and PAUL F. KNITTER, ORBIS BOOKS- NEW YORK 1987, p. 194
 Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, (December 7, 1990), n. 23