Next Meeting Nov. 20: Why So Many Religions? Buddha? Muhammad?

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 7:30 PM
Parish Hall

Join us as we discuss the following sections of the book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope by St. John Paul II.  Excerpts are found on the main post page.

Why So Many Religions?  p. 77

Buddha?  p. 84

?  p.91

Nostra Aetate

Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg
Tuesday, 12 September 2006

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,  August 6, 2000.

EXCERPTS:  Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Why So Many Religions?  
p. 77

But if God who is in heaven - and who saved and continues to save the world - is One and only One and is He who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, why has He allowed so many religions?

Why did He make the search for the truth so arduous, in the midst of a forest of rituals, of beliefs, of revelations, of faiths which have always thrived - and still do today - throughout the world?

You speak of many religions.  Instead I will attempt to show the common fundamental element and the common root of these religions.

The Council defined the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions in a specific document that begins with the words "Nostra Aetate" ("in our time")… that authentically hands on the Traditions, faithful to the thought of the earliest Fathers of the Church. 

From the beginning, Christian Revelations has viewed the spiritual history of man as including, in some way, all religions, thereby demonstrating the unity of humankind with regard to the eternal and ultimate destiny of man.

The Church sees the promotion of this unity as one of its duties: 
             "There is only one community and its consists of all peoples.  They have only one origin, since God inhabited the entire earth with the whole human race.  And they have one ultimate destiny, God, whose providence, goodness, and plan for salvation extend to all...  Men turn to various religions to solve mysteries of the human condition, which today, as in earlier times, burden people's hearts: the nature of man; the meaning and purpose of life; good and evil; the origin and purpose of suffering; the way to true happiness; death; judgment and retribution after death; and finally, the ultimate ineffable mystery which is the origin and destiny of our existence.  From ancient times up to today all the various peoples have shared and continue to share an awareness of that enigmatic power that is present throughout the course of things and throughout the events of human life, and, in which, at times, even the Supreme Divinity or the Father is recognizable.  This awareness and recognition imbue life with an intimate religious sense.  Religions that are tied up with cultural progress strive to solve these issues with more refined concepts and a more precise language: (Nostra Aetate 1-2). 

Here the Council document brings us to the Far East - first of all to Asia, a continent where the Church's missionary activity, carried out since the times of the apostles, has borne, we must recognize, very modest fruit.  … only a small percentage of the population on what is the largest continent believes in Christ.

As yet the tradition of very ancient cultures, antedating Christianity, remains very strong in the East.  Even if faith in Christ reaches hearts and minds, the negative connotations associated with the image of life in Western society (the so-called Christian society) present a considerable obstacle of the acceptance of the Gospel.   Mahatma Gandhi, Indian and Hindu, pointed this out many times... He was disillusioned with the ways in which Christianity was expressed in the political and social life of nations.  Could a man who fought for the liberation of his great nation from colonial dependence accept Christianity in the same form as it had been imposed on his country by those same colonial powers?

The Second Vatican Council realized this difficulty.  This is why the document on the relations between the Church and Hinduism and other religions of the Far East is so important.  We read:
"In Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it through an endless bounty of myths and through penetrating philosophical insight.  They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition, either by way of the ascetic life, profound meditation, or by taking refuge in God with love and trust.  The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadequacy of this malleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illuminations" (Nostra Aetate 2). 

Further along, the Council remarks that "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.  The Church has a high regard for those precepts and doctrines which, although differing on many points from that which the Church believes and propounds, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.  However, the Church proclaims, and is bound to proclaim that Christ is 'the way and the truth and the life' [Jn 14:6]. in whom men must find the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled everything to Himself" (Nostra Aetate 2) 

The words of the Council recall the conviction, long rooted in the Tradition, of the existence of the so-called semina Verbi (seeds of the Word), present in all religions.  In the light of this conviction, the Church seeks to identify the semina Verbi present in the great traditions of the Far East, in order to trace a common path against the backdrop of the needs of the contemporary world. … a truly universal concern.  The Church is guided by the faith that God the Creator wants to save all humankind in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man, in as much as He is the Redeemer of all humankind.  The Paschal Mystery is equally available to all and, through it, the way to eternal salvation is also open to all.  

In another passage the Council says that the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible structure of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 13), making use of these very semina Verbi, that constitute a kind of common soteriological root present in all religions. 

 I have been convinced of this on numerous occasions, both while visiting countries of the Far East and while meeting representatives of those religions... at Assisi... 

thus instead of marveling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them.

… recall all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship... are particularly close to Christianity, … also find it easier to speak a common language.... a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of the Saints, in which all believers - whether living or dead - form a single community,  a single body? ...the Communion of Saint is, ultimately, faith in Christ, who alone is the source of life and of holiness for all.  

(religions of the Far East)… possess the characteristics of a system.  They are systems of worship and also ethical systems, with a strong emphasis on good and evil. Certainly among these belong Chinese Confucianism and Taoism: Tao means eternal truth - something similar to the "Word" which is reflected in the action of man by means of truth and moral good.    The religion of the Far East have contributed greatly to the history of morality and culture, forming a national identity in the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and Tibetans... The indigenous people of Australia … their ethnic and religious tradition is older than that of Abraham and Moses.

Christ came into the world for all these peoples.  He redeemed them all and has His own ways of reaching each of them in the present eschatological phase of salvation history.  In fact, in those regions, many accept Him and many more have an implicit faith in Him (cf. Heb 11:6)


p. 84

...I would like to ask you to speak more fully on the subject of Buddhism.  Essentially - as you well know - it offers a "doctrine of salvation" that seems increasingly to fascinate many Westerners as an "alternative" to Christianity or as a sort of "complement" to it, as least in terms of certain ascetic and mystical techniques.  

Among the religions mentioned in the Council document Nostra Aetate, it is necessary to pay special attention to Buddhism, which from a certain point of view, like Christianity, is a religion of salvation.  Nevertheless...the doctrines of salvation in  Buddhism and Christianity are opposed.

The Dalai Lama... brings Buddhism to people of the Christian Wester, stirring up interest both in Buddhist spirituality and in its methods of praying.  …Today we are seeing a certain diffusion of Buddhism in the West. 

The Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system.  Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology. 

The "enlightenment" experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man.  To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality - ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies.  The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are free from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.

Do we draw near to God in this way?  This is  not mentioned in the "enlightenment" conveyed by Buddha.  Buddhism in is large measure an "atheistic" system.  We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad.  The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world.  To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil.  This is the culmination of the spiritual process.

At various times, attempts to link this method with the Christian mystics have been made - whether it is with those from northern Europe (Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck) or the later Spanish mystics (Saint Teresa of Avila, St. John of the cross).  but when St. John of the Cross, in the Ascent of Mount Carmel and in the Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the need for purification, for detachment from the world of the senses, he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself.  "To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not enjoy.   to reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know.  To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you have nothing" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, I.13.11).

This Doctor of the church does not merely propose detachment from the world.  He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world - by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God.  Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love.

Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life.  In the active an passive purification of the human soul, in those specific nights of the senses and the spirit, St. John of the cross sees, above all, the preparation necessary for the human soul to be permeated with the living flame of love.  And this is also the title of this major work - The Living Flame of Love. 

Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference.   Christian mysticism from every period - beginning with the era of the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of Scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics, to the Carmelite mystics - is not born of a purely negative "enlightenment."  It is not born of awareness of the evil which exists in man's attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit.

Instead, Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God.  This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues - faith, hope, and, above all, love.

Christian mysticism in every age up to our own - including the mysticism of marvelous men of action like Vincent de Paul, John Bosco, Maximillian Kolbe - has built up and continues to build up Christianity in its most essential element.  It also builds up the church as a community of faith, hope, and charity.  It builds up civilization, particularly "Western civilization," which is marked by a positive approach to the world, and which developed thanks to the achievements of science and technology, two branches of knowledge rooted both in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition and in Judeo-Christian Revelation.  The truth about God the Creator of the world and about Christ the Redeemer is a powerful force which inspires a positive attitude toward creation and provides a constant impetus to strive for its transformation and perfection.

To indulge in a negative attitude toward the world, in the conviction that it is only a source of suffering for man and that he therefore must break away from it, is negative not only because it is unilateral but also because it is fundamentally contrary tot he development of both man himself and the world, which the Creator has given and entrusted to man as his task.

"...the world which Christians believe has been created and is sustained by the Creator's love, a world enslaved by sin but liberated by the crucified and resurrected Christ in order to defeat evil, and destined, according to the divine plan, to be transformed and to reach its fulfillment" (Gaudium et Spes 2).

These words indicate how between Christianity and the religions of the Far East, in particular Buddhism, there is an essentially different way of perceiving the world.  For Christians, the world is god's creation, redeemed by Christ.  It is in the world that man meets God.  therefore he does not need to attain such an absolute detachment in order to find himself in the mystery of his deepest self.  For Christianity, it does not make sense to speak of the world as a "radical" evil, since at the beginning of the world we find God the Creator who loves Him creation, a God who "gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16).

For this reason it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East - for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice.  In some quarters these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically.  First one should know one's own spiritual heritage well and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly.

Recall... important document of the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith "on certain aspects of Christian mediation" (10/15/1989).  Here we find a clear answer to the question "whether and how [Christian prayer] can be enriched by methods of meditation originating in different religions and cultures" (n.3).

A separate issue is the return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age.  We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion.  It is only a new way of practicing Gnosticism - that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting His Word and replacing it with purely human words.  Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity.  Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian.

p. 91

It is a different case when we come to these great monotheistic religions, beginning with Islam. … As a result of their monotheism, believers in Allah are particularly close to us. 

Whoever knows the Old and New Testament, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation.  It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about Himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son.  In Islam all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside. 

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Islam is not a religion of redemption.  There is not room for the Cross and the Resurrection.  Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad.  there is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent.  For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

Nevertheless, the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect.  It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer.  … without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not al all.  

The Council has also called for the church to have a dialogue with followers of the "prophet," and the Church has proceeded to do so.   We read in Nostra Aetate:  "... this sacred Council now urges all to forget the past and to work toward mutual understanding... otward the preservation and promotion of social justice, moral welfare, peace, and freedom for the benefit of all mankind"  (Nostra Aetate 3). 

...meetings for prayer held at Assisi, (esp. 1993), ...meetings in (Muslim) countries... the Pope was welcomed with great hospitality and was listened to with similar graciousness. 

The trip I made to Morocco...with the young people at Casablanca Stadium (1985) was unforgettable.  The openness of the young people to the Pope's words was striking when he spoke of faith in the one God.  It was certainly an unprecedented event.

Nevertheless, concrete difficulties are not lacking.  In countries where fundamentalist movements come to power, human rights and the principle of religious freedom care unfortunately interpreted in a  very one-sided way - religious freedom comes to mean freedom to impose on all citizens the "true religion."  In these countries the situation of Christians is sometimes terribly disturbing.  Fundamentalists attitudes of this nature make reciprocal contacts very difficult.  All the same, the Church remains always open to dialogue and cooperation.