Generous God of the Religions
(1) The context: religious pluralism: In our time, religious traditions are bumping into each other as never before in history. People of all faiths are asking: How can we be faithful to our own beliefs while making space for others? Responses to this question take different paths: fundamentalists believe all other faiths are in error; relativists say it doesn’t matter which religion people choose; but other theologians in Asia have turned to inter-religious dialogue, seeking to engage different religions with critical respect.
(2) The back story in church teaching: In recent years the Roman Catholic church has debated three questions in response to religious pluralism. ¶ The first question: Can non-Christians be saved? After long debate, Vatican II concluded that God’s mercy reaches wide beyond Christian word and sacrament. ¶ The second question: Do non-Christian religions have a role in God’s plan for salvation? In a qualified ‘yes’, John Paul II said that “God makes himself present not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches…;” but all religions are meant to reach their true fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ. ¶ The third question: What about Jesus? Since Jesus Christ is central to Christian faith, can religions that don’t accept Jesus have a role in God’s plan of salvation? Pioneering theological work now is being done in Asia, especially by the Federation of Asian Bishops, who have recognized that Christians are just one small group living amidst many peoples. All these peoples are worn down by dehumanizing poverty, yet they are also rich in cultures and religions that give them dignity. The Asian bishops believe Christ is best shared and proclaimed by working together with people of all religions. This requires dialogue with the poor, their cultures, and their religions. Based on their experience with this approach, Asian Catholics have a positive assessment of other religions, seeing them as part of God’s plan of salvation. ¶ Brakes: But the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith raised a warning flag in 2000. Concerned that accepting religious pluralism may lead to relativism, Dominus Iesus said: “Objectively speaking, (the other religions) are in a gravely deficient situation.” This statement evoked a torrent of criticism, with almost all critics noting that Dominus Iesus showed no knowledge of other religions gained from dialogue with other religions. And, if those other religions do have some elements that “come from God,” don’t we insult God’s way of acting in the world when we call them “gravely deficient”?
(3) Glimpse of God from dialogue: The current controversy won’t be resolved in Quest for the Living God. But the book does look at Christian theologians committed to inter-religious dialogue, because this is where new insights are emerging. ¶ Is God a Christian? These theologians begin by acknowledging that the mystery of God lies beyond all human understanding – put simply, the living God is not a Christian. The next step for many theologians is to reflect on the Holy Spirit; every person’s encounter with God occurs in the Spirit, and it is in the Spirit that people make their response. The Asian Catholic bishops express appreciation for the fruits of the Spirit evident in the peoples who follow other religious traditions, and say that seeing the Spirit at work in other religions has deepened their understanding of Christian faith. ¶ The Holy Spirit: But through the centuries, Christian theologians have often seen the work of the Holy Spirit mission as less important than Christ’s, thereby dismissing other religions as pagan inventions or deficient ways of seeking God. But, as John Paul II said, “by dialogue we let God be present in our midst… As we open ourselves in dialogue to one another, we open ourselves to God.” So the Asian bishops teach about four types of dialogue, each essential to the mission of the church.
(4) The dialogue of life: This dialogue takes place wherever people of different faiths live and work side by side in friendly relationships.
(5) The dialogue of action: This dialogue takes place in the common struggle of all people to better their lives. The harsh realities of poverty, along with the exploitation of natural resources, makes these people want to work together for change.
(6) The dialogue of theological exchange: This dialogue occurs when theologians, monastics, and pastoral leaders speak face to face.
(7) The dialogue of religious experience: Prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, community rituals, and individual devotions of all kinds characterize religious traditions. The dialogue of religious experience takes place when people share their spiritual practices with others – not only praying side by side, but also experiencing the spiritual practices of other religious traditions.
(8) A bountiful God: Theologian Jacques Dupuis argues: if there is only one God then there is only one plan by which God will bring all people to salvation. This leads us to consider that God’s plan may be multifaceted; that is, other religions may also be channels of God’s word and grace. ¶ Jesus Christ: Placing Christian faith in the broader framework of the world’s religions expands our understanding of God – and may give us new understanding about the meaning of Jesus. One promising way forward is to see Jesus as the incarnate Word, crucified and risen, who – instead of lording it over other manifestations of God in the world – washes the feet of humans around the world. Thus kenosis (self-emptying) is the way Christ comes into the world (see Phil. 2:5f). ¶ The reign of God: at the center of Jesus’ preaching, the ‘kingdom of God’ points to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. ¶ Sacrament: through concrete things, people become conscious of divine presence; and Jesus Christ himself is the great sacrament of this two-way encounter with the divine. ¶ Configuration of all three: An imperialist framework makes it appear that since the Word is incarnate in Jesus, God is not present elsewhere; and a hierarchical pattern of thinking leads to the conclusion that since Christ is number one, no other religion is all that worthy of attention. But understanding Jesus Christ as the sacrament of God’s saving will – interpreting Jesus’ universal significance in the light of his preaching the reign of God – makes a more generous view possible. Theologian Joseph Hough writes, “It is essential for Christian faith that we know we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus. It is not essential to believe that no one else has seen God and experienced redemption in another time and place.” ¶ One multifaceted plan: Is religious pluralism good, perhaps even intended by God? The reverence experienced in interreligious dialogue has led many theologians toward this view of religious pluralism. Their view doesn’t rest simply on an appreciation of diversity (as seen in biology and culture), but on an appreciation of God’s overflowing plenitude, extended to all.
(9) The dignity of difference: People confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different ways of others. What would our faith be like if we acknowledged the image of God in others – even those whose truth is not our truth? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that it would be like being secure in our own home, yet still moved by the beauty of foreign places – knowing that they are someone else’s home, but that they are still part of the glory of God’s world.