Jesus Christ is the only savior, says Christianity. "Can this absolute claim still be maintained today?" That’s the question addressed by the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his new book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.
When, in 2000, the Catholic Church reiterated its teaching about Jesus in its declaration Dominus Iesus, "a cry of outrage arose from modern society," notes Ratzinger, "but also from great non-Christian cultures such as that of India: this was said to be a document of intolerance and of religious arrogance that should have no place in the world of today." Ratzinger argues that the Church’s teaching is not intolerant but true.
How can Christianity insist it is true in the face of other religions and philosophies making competing claims? Do truth and tolerance inevitably conflict with each other? Does respect for others mean all religions are equally true? Does the diversity of religions prove there’s no such thing as religious truth? Or do all religions ultimately teach the same thing? Are all religions capable of saving their adherents?
Truth and Tolerance is Ratzinger’s careful answers to these important questions.
Ratzinger confronts head-on the claim that Christianity has imposed European culture on other peoples. "Christianity … originated, not in Europe, but in the Near East, in the geographical point at which the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe come into contact," he writes.
Yes, Christianity has a European element. But above all it has a perennial message that comes from God, not from any human culture, argues Ratzinger. While Christians have sometimes pushed their cultures on other peoples, as have non-Christians, Christianity itself is alien to no authentically human culture. Its very nature as a free response to God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ, means that Christianity must propose itself to culture, not impose itself.
The issues of truth and diversity in religion are also tackled by Ratzinger. Some people relegate religion to the realm of feelings and taste. As people’s feelings and tastes vary, so, too, do their religious ideas and practices. Ratzinger responds by presenting what he calls "the inevitability of the question of truth."
Other people argue that all religions essentially affirm the same things. Truth and Tolerance points to fundamental, non-negotiable differences among religions, as well as certain common elements.
Ratzinger distinguishes two main forms of religion. On the one hand, there is a kind of mysticism in which one seeks to merge into or become identical with everything, in an all-embracing, impersonal unity. Many Eastern religions and the New Age movement are religions of that sort. On the other hand, there is "a personal understanding of God," in which one is united in love with a personal God and yet remains distinct from him. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are examples of the latter kind of religion.
A first-rate theologian, as well as a church leader, Ratzinger also assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the three main contemporary approaches to a "theology of religions": exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
Exclusivism holds that only those who explicitly accept Christ and the Christian message can be saved. Inclusivism is the view that non-Christian religions implicitly contain Christian truth and therefore that their adherents are "anonymous Christians." Pluralism holds that there are many valid ways to God among the various religions.
At the heart of the discussion about the diversity of religions, contends Ratzinger, is the identity of Jesus Christ. Is the he the sole savior, prefigured by other religious leaders perhaps but nonetheless unique? Is he one among many religious figures who bring salvation? Is he the one true God in human flesh, rather an avatar or one among many different manifestations of the divine?
Christianity has always held that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is definitive, argues Ratzinger. The divinity of Jesus is "the real dividing line in the history of religions," which makes sense of "two other fundamental concepts of the Christian faith, which have become unmentionable nowadays: conversion and mission."
Relativism, which Ratzinger calls "the central problem for faith in our time," lurks behind most modern mistakes about faith and morality. The net result is a deep skepticism about whether anything is true or can be known to be true.
Christianity can help modern thought overcome its relativism and skepticism by presenting the One who is the truth, Jesus Christ, the one who sets people free by their coming to know, understand and love the truth. Ratzinger explains how tolerance, reason and freedom are not only compatible with truth, but ultimately depend upon it.
With respect to the difficult subject of things interreligious, Ratzinger strongly supports interreligious dialogue, so long as it isn’t understood as assuming all points of view are and must be, in the end, equally valid. About interreligious prayer—understood as prayer together by Christians and non-Christians, with widely different religious views—he is more skeptical. He distinguishes multireligious prayer, where different religious groups come together but pray separate from one another, and interreligious prayer.
Ratzinger doubts whether reasonable conditions for interreligious prayer can generally be met. Still, he lays out careful criteria for such prayer, which include agreement about the nature of God, and the nature and subject of prayer, as well circumstances that don’t lend themselves to misunderstanding such common prayer as relativism or a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith.
Truth and Tolerance is a book for anyone interested in how Christianity, world religions, faith, truth, and freedom fit together.
Excerpts from Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (footnotes have been removed).
The position that Christianity assigns itself in the history of religions is one that was basically expressed long ago: it sees in Christ the only real salvation of man and, thus, his final salvation. In accordance with this, two attitudes are possible (to it seems) with regard to other religions: one may address them as being provisional and, in this respect, as preparatory to Christianity and, thus, in a certain sense attribute to them a positive value, insofar as they allow themselves to be regarded as precursors. They can of course also be understood as insufficient, anti-Christian, contrary to the truth, as leading people to believe they are saved without ever truly being able to offer salvation. The first of these attitudes was shown by Christ himself with respect of the Old Testament. That this may also, in a way, be done with regard to all other religions has been clearly shown and emphasized only in recent times. We may in fact perfectly well say that the story of the covenant with Noah (Gen 8:20-9:17) establishes that there is a kernel of truth hidden in the mythical religions: it is in the regular "dying away and coming into existence" of the cosmos that the God who is faithful, who stands in a covenant relationship not merely with Abraham and his people, but with all men, exercises his providential rule. And did not the Magi find their way to Christ (even if they did so only by a round-about way, by way of Jerusalem, and by the Scriptures of the Old Testament) by means of the star, that is, by means of their "superstition", by their religious beliefs and practices (Mt 2:1-23)? Did not their religion, then, kneel before Christ, as it were, in their persons, recognizing itself as provisional, or rather as proceeding toward Christ?
The dominant impression of most people today is that all religions, with a varied multiplicity of forms and manifestations, in the end are and mean one and the same thing; which is something everyone can see, except for them. The man of today will for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religion’s claim to be true; he will simply relativize that claim by saying "There are many religions." And behind his response will probably be the opinion, in some form or other, that beneath varying forms they are in essence all the same; each person has his own.
To me, the concept of Christianity without religion is contradictory and illusory. Faith has to express itself as a religion and through religion, though of course it cannot be reduced to religion. The tradition of these two concepts should be studied anew with this consideration in mind. For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, "religion" is a subdivision of the virtue of righteousness and is, as such, necessary, but it is of course quite different from the "infused virtue" of faith. It seems to me that a postulate of the first order of any carefully differentiated theology of religions would be the precise clarification of the concepts of faith and religion, which are mostly used so as to pass vaguely into each other, and both are equally used in generalized fashion. Thus, people talk of "faiths" in the plural and intend thereby to designate all religions, although the idea of faith is by no means present in all religions, is certainly not constitutive element for all of them, and—insofar, as it does occur—means very different things in them. The broadening of the concept of religion as an overall designation for the relationship of man to the transcendent, on the other hand, has only happened in the second part of the modern period. Such a clarification is urgently needed, especially for Christianity to have a proper understanding of itself and for the way it relates to other world religions.
Can or must a man simply make the best of the religion that happens to fall to his share, in the form in which it is actually practiced around him? Or must he not, whatever happens, be one who seeks, who strives to purify his conscience and, thus, move toward—at the very least—the purer forms of his own religion? If we cannot assume as given such an inner attitude of moving onward, if we do not have to assume it, then the anthropological basis for mission disappears. The apostles, and the early Christian congregations as a whole, were only able to see in Jesus their Savior because they were looking for the "hope of Israel"—because they did not simply regard the inherited religious forms of their environment as being sufficient in themselves but were waiting and seeking people with open hearts. The Church of the Gentiles could develop only because there were "Godfearers", people who went beyond their traditional religion and looked for something greater. This dynamic imparted to "religion" is also in a certain sense the case—this is what is true about what Barth and Bonhoeffer say—with Christianity itself. It is not simply a network of institutions and ideas we have to hand on but a seeking ever in faith for faith’s inmost depth, for the real encounter with Christ. In that way—to say it again—in Judaism the "poor of Israel" developed; in that way they would have to develop, again and again, within the Church; and in that way they can and they should develop in other religions: it is the dynamic of the conscience and of the silent presence of God in it that is leading religions toward one another and guiding people onto the path to God, not the canonizing of what already exists, so that people are excused from any deeper searching.
Anyone entering the Church has to be aware that he is entering a separate, active cultural entity with her own many-layered intercultural character that has grown up in the course of history. Without a certain exodus, a breaking off with one’s life in all its aspects, one cannot become a Christian. Faith is no private path to God; it leads into the people of God and into its history. God has linked himself to a history, which is now also his history and which we cannot simply erase. Christ remains man to eternity, retains a body to eternity; but being a man, having a body, includes having a history and a culture, this particular history with its culture, whether we like it or not. We cannot repeat the process of the Incarnation at will, in the sense of repeatedly taking Christ's flesh away from him, so to speak, and offering him some other flesh instead. Christ remains the same, even according to his body. But he is drawing us to him. That means that because the people of God is, not just a single cultural entity, but is gathered together from all peoples, therefore the first cultural identity, rising again from the break that was made, has its place therein; and not only that, but it is needed in order to allow the Incarnation of Christ, of the Word, to attain its whole fullness. The tension of many active entities within a single entity is an essential part of the unfinished drama of the Son’s Incarnation. This is the real inner dynamic of history, and of course it stands always beneath the sign of the Cross; that is to say that it must always be struggling against the opposing weight of shutting off, of isolation and refusal.
We must also bid farewell to the dream of the absolute autonomy of reason and of its self-sufficiency. Human reason needs a hint from the great religious traditions of mankind. It will certainly look at the individual traditions in a critical light. The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned an absolute value: the atheistic systems of modern times are the most frightful examples of passionate religious enthusiasm alienated from its proper identity, and that means a sickness of the human spirit that may be mortal. When the existence of God is denied, freedom is, not enhanced, but deprived of its basis and thus distorted. When the purest and most profound religious traditions are set aside, man is separating himself from his truth; he is living contrary to that truth, and he loses his freedom. Nor can philosophical ethics be simply autonomous. It cannot dispense with the concept of God or dispense with the concept of a truth of being that is of an ethical nature. If there is no truth about man, then he has no freedom. Only the truth makes us free.