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Michael Fuss {*}

In the Hall of Mirrors of Truth

Dialogue of Religions as an Event of the Unconditional


From: zur debatte, 2/2010, P. 29 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The colourful mosaic of religions and world views gives the impression that after the processes of globalization in the field of economy, finance and tourism the global community now enters into a decisive debate about the pluralism of religions. The multicoloured rainbow of religious truth claims here involuntarily reminds of a bewildering hall of mirrors, where these claims to truth are reflected thousandfold, illuminate each other, but ultimately leave behind often a dazzling picture puzzle.


1. Hall of Mirrors in the Amalienburg

The famous Hall of Mirrors of the Amalienburg (1739) in the Nymphenburg Park (Munich), an architectural masterpiece of the playful culture of the Rococo period may serve as an example of the attitude to take delight in the truth and its contradictions. Also the exotic pluralism of the religions has something playful and perplexing for many contemporaries. The religious expressions appear like superimposed entertaining ornaments upon a society that is soberly devoted to manufacturing goods. From the perspective of enlightened European arrogance, one looks on these truths as entertaining curiosities - often even through locally-coloured glasses, as the white-blue-coloured tiles in the Hall of Mirrors at Amalienburg suggest.

In the name of a generous tolerance one becomes aware that religions appear as a stronghold of absolute truth but also as atavistic troublemakers in a tolerant world order. With patronizing imperturbability one condones that Christianity still regards its revelation as unsurpassable and saving truth, and one observes sardonically that it at the same time in the global concert of religions meets with often violent conflicts of truth claims.

You remember: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was 15 years old when the Amalienburg was completed. So the Hall of Mirrors may - as a metaphor - stand for the concept of truth of the Enlightenment, according to which in the diversity of its manifestation an ultimate, unassailable truth is reflected - in the gradation between the natural truth of a "noble savage" and the philosophical systematics of an absolute, occidental Christianity.

The first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 was still organized in a similar perspective. Truth naturally appeared to be a pyramid with Christianity at the top. In this evolutionary perspective, the choreography had planned that, under the chairmanship of the Catholic cardinal, the assembled representatives of all religious traditions would join in the prayer of the "Our Father", because this was indeed the ultimate expression of "religion". This pretension followed the evolutionary point of view of its period, as well as the classic manuals of religious studies were conceived in an ascending manner: from "primitive religions" up to the monotheistic religions with Christianity at the undisputed top.

But precisely this claim caused the scandal. Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902), the eloquent representative of Hinduism, lays claim to the truth claim of his tradition as the historically oldest and therefore the original expression of God's presence: "I thank you in the name of the mother of all religions" - "I am proud that I belong to a religion that has preached to the world both tolerance and acceptance of all religions. We believe not only in an all-embracing tolerance but also accept all religions as true."

In his opinion the authority of religion as religio perennis or sanatana dharma (eternal dharma) derives from its age. Thus, religion constantly regenerates from the womb of genuine human existence - a trend that continues in contemporary spirituality by an often artificial regeneration of native traditions (Egyptian temple town of Damanhur, Neo-Celts, Neo-shamans). Despite its commitment to an integration of all religious teachings this understanding of truth actually expresses the exact opposite of its alleged tolerance, because it accepts as true only what is compatible with one's own tradition, and what is - compliant with one's own subjective arbitrariness or colonial arrogance - regarded as logically meaningful.

With its motto "No religion is higher than truth" also theosophy, created in 1875 by the German-Russian Helena P. Blavatsky, is oriented towards principles of the Enlightenment. An abstract and absolute truth is conceived, which is found beyond all concrete religions. It is as such inaccessible and becomes apparent in historically imperfect way. Needless to say, no concrete religion can live with this widespread understanding of truth. It would mean that the respective own religion is necessarily imperfect and has to be transcended toward a hypothetical universal religion. Cardinal Ratzinger rightly remarks about it, "According to this view, whatever there is of religion is only a reflection, an image, a refraction of the being that never appears as such. Accordingly, the true religion cannot exist at all. Christ was here certainly a great, prominent figure but we have nevertheless, as it were, to draw him back into the consciousness that appears in him, and which appeared also in others." (J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (1996), 144) This relativistic understanding of truth with its surrender to the impossibility of recognizing the ultimate truth has recently found its way also into the pluralistic theology of religions, above all in the positions of the British theologian John Hick, with respect to a nebulous convergence of religions in 'the Real'.

But once again back to the 17 century. With religious foresight Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716) postulated a new structure of thought. By an intellectual debate with the Chinese religion, especially with the Yijing oracle, he developed a new number system as an expression of the eternal truth. According to the motto "Without God nothing exists" he uses 'one' for God and 'zero' for the nothingness.


2. In the Hall of Mirrors of the "Rays of Truth"

If one takes the diversity of religions as truth-claims seriously, i.e. as truth that becomes apparent, another "Hall of Mirrors" of penetrating rays opens. The Second Vatican Council places the Church completely under Christ as the "light of nations" (Lumen Gentium) and considers her to be sent to all people (ad gentes). The Church is missionary by her very nature. This term refers more to the radiating dynamism of truth than to mere territorial expansion of the missions. On the other hand, according to a bold word of John Paul II, the church draws her self-conception from the encounter with foreign cultures and religions. "This awareness - or rather self-awareness - by the Church is formed a "in dialogue"; and before this dialogue becomes a conversation, attention must be directed to "the other", that is to say: the person with whom we wish to speak. The Ecumenical Council gave a fundamental impulse to forming the Church's self-awareness by so adequately and competently presenting to us a view of the terrestrial globe as a map of various religions. (Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis (1979), 11).

The mission of Christianity must be understood as a process in which the truth becomes accessible; it happens in dialogue with the different cultures. "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power." (Dignitatis Humanae, 1). The truth is diffusive and polycentric, and the encounter of religions must be regarded as an authentic, a living event where the truth will always appear deeper. When in the field of religious truth man reaches beyond him/herself, and when truth is able to open man for the area of the Absolute, then today's interreligious perspective shows that other religions can offer unexpected paths to the divine mystery, roads that correspond to this original gift of divine life in Christ and give time and again a new expression to it.

With the religious truth it is not about prefabricated sentences that are open for debate, no, it is about free and surprising events that describe relationships. Jesus does not reveal these or those truths about God. His life does not play an eternal drama according to a pre-established plan on a historic theater stage; on the contrary, his concrete life is a constituent part of the divine truth. God reveals his identification with the history and suffering of every human being. That's why the historical life of Jesus is the normative "event of the Absolute", truth that is open to all, and that is once and for all confirmed in the mystery of the Resurrection. This deed of God can not be thought independently of its realization in Jesus Christ and e.g. fastened to other figures of salvation. Here one might indeed speak of the truth as the correspondence between intellect and thing (adaequatio rei et intellectus). The humanity of Jesus Christ is the centre of history as the adequate realization of the original relationship between God and man, and represents at the same time the nature of man. What is meant is that each creature has its origin in the love of God, becomes aware of its own 'emptiness', and opens to others in loving devotion. Johannes B. Lotz (1903-1992) calls this attitude the "basic dynamism of the universe." With its transforming power it pervades all claims to truth, like a ferment that opens man to the ever greater truth. "When Christianity, which has its origin in the figure of Christ, has placed itself as the true religion in the history of religion, this means that in the figure of Christ the word of God has appeared as the actually purifying power. Christians do not necessarily always well and correctly practise this attitude in their lives, but it brings the standard and the direction for the indispensable purifications, so that religion does not become a system of suppression and alienation but really a path that leads human beings to God and to themselves" (J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, 26).


3. "Now we see only reflections in a mirror" (1 Cor 13, 12)

The interpenetration of the truth claims makes it possible to appreciate everything that is seen in the religions as true and holy and at the same time to maintain the belief in the universal salvation, which is found in one's own tradition. Christian theology is paradoxically able to be open and to perceive even deeper the truth under the sign of the precious religious heritage of humanity, "in the awareness that every achieved truth is only a stage on the path to the full truth that will be revealed in the last revelation of God, 'Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known' (1 Cor 13, 12)." In the introductory section of his encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) John Paul II regards the Church as a "pilgrim that has made her way along the paths of the world" and describes her mission as a dedicated "diakonia of the truth." Not only the religious and ideological pluralism is positively assessed as a common "pilgrimage", also the traditional testimony of the social diakonia is complemented by the selfless commitment to the service to truth.



With respect to the characterization of religious truth should be noted here that it is about the common history of mankind. The pluralist position would take the non-binding co-existence of paths of salvation as starting-point, where everyone can be saved after his own fashion. It is here also not about a temporal priority (religions before and after Christ, before or after Muhammad) but about the origin of religion in an unconditioned entity that enters into the human conditionality. Thus, the whole of reality gets a new meaning (Revelation) and a transforming power (salvation). Religion is the "covenant" in which man conceives himself through God's self-revelation.

Then, interreligious encounter initially does not mean a discursive and non-binding search for the truth but a trustful imparting of what absolutely concerns the partner. Religious truth of which we believe that we alone possess it opposes the truth that is shared, because it is reflected in the prism of its different receptions. That's why other religions are a criticism of the traditional theology, if it does not understand itself as a "dialogue with the religions" and thus as a theology that, trusting in the work of the spirit, takes its starting-point for thought from the religions: "The Church's relationship with other religions is dictated by a twofold respect: "Respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man." (Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1991), 29)


4. Religions as a "Family of the Truth"

In the synopsis of this eventful and relational concept of truth with the various claims to truth of today's pluralism, we should overcome the widely accepted division into exclusive, inclusive and pluralistic theology of religion, with respect to a theological perception of the "multi-coloured wisdom" (Eph 3, 10) of mankind, which is constituted in the concrete religions as societal realities. Such corporative forms of self-consciousness-in-encounter follow the metaphor of the human family, into which an individual is born spontaneously and where s/he lives and unfolds her/his personal identity-in-encounter.

Where universal truth is postulated, it must effectively encompass all truths, without slipping down into the non-committal game of subjective arbitrariness or colonial arrogance, or even justifying violence in the name of religion. Here, the model "family of the truth" presents itself, in which the common denominator of the contrasting truth claims would be the common respect for the unavailability of life. Likewise, the religions find themselves in a universal "family of the truth" and express there at the same time their close interconnection as well as their identity in comparison with all other religious traditions. According to the model of the mutually pervading "Rays of Truth", this analogy makes a horizontal linkage between the different truths of religious traditions possible, without relativizing one's own vertical truth claim. Precisely for the simple reason that the at a time proclaimed truth does claim universal validity it includes, and does not exclude the likewise universally conceived truth of other religions. In accordance with the individual universal claims of the religious traditions, this model or viewpoint allows that the religions completely preserve their identity but are nevertheless interwoven in a web of the shared testimony on the one truth about man.

The view at this constitutive cell of the human community opens an interactive perspective of the encounter of religions. 'Family' is an open project for life. It opens the relations of the individual in concentric circles from family unity up to the universal human family but is also moulded by the societal challenges. It is the open space of private and public solidarity, where social responsibility is 'playfully' practiced and cultural behaviours are acquired, where value orientations are communicated and borderline situations of life are experienced. As various members of a family are gathered around the common table and are linked by blood ties, although they hold in many matters very different views and have a different understanding of 'family', so the followers of religions share one religious world view, without acknowledging the respective beliefs of others. Attention should be given here at first to the religions' resolute witness to the transcendent reason for human existence. In view of a rampant consumerism and general godlessness, it has to remind today of a solidary commitment to the spiritual survival of mankind. Contrary to all syncretistic attempts to postulate a hypothetical universal religion or, in the attitude of irenic tolerance, to relativize the existing differences, the 'family of truth' puts an ontology of 'identity-in-relation' into effect and withstands all ideological, economic, political or social constraints of modern globalization.

The joint commitment to the sanctity of life becomes the primary task of the religions and must be seen analogously to the life-affirming atmosphere of human families. Philosophical and psychological insights into the human person as essentially family-oriented today definitely require to train the ability for interfaith encounter. Beyond their immediate context, the words of John Paul II may be understood as pathbreaking vision for this sense of family of the religions, whose common sanctuary is the respect for the sanctity of life:

"It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: it is the place in which life the gift of God can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life." (Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1991), 39)

Since all religions in the same way advocate the assertion of a universal community (the Buddhist "sangha", the Christian "church," the boundless tolerance of the Hindu "advaita", the Muslim "umma", the "natural religion" of the new paganism, etc.), the question arises whether this element of conflict could paradoxically prove to be a point of encounter for the creation of a fruitful interculturality. It seems that the crux of the problem is exactly the interplay between the subjectivism of one's own values and beliefs and the 'we-all-community' of a fruitful and relaxed living together. An interactive and symbiotic model would be required, according to which all religious expressions exist simultaneously. But also in the philosophical and theological perspective the problems of a common denominator of the mutually opposing claims to universality seem to be solvable neither by an absolutizing nor by a relativizing subjectivism, but only by an open transparency.

With regard to an encounter of religions, the Buddhist scholar of philosophy of religion Masao Abe (1915 - 2006) speaks of a "point of view without a point of view, which - because it is empty itself - allows every different point of view to exist and to work as it is!" Encounter can only happen in the openness to the other person's viewpoint; beyond an obliterating tolerance, it includes both the recognition of one's own and of the different standpoint. The sentence of the Apostle Paul, "Then I will recognize thoroughly, as I also have been recognized", discloses in the horizontal and vertical dimension the open emptiness of religious self-awareness. It enables us to healing, integrating encounters - both with the claim to a universal interpretation of existence (truth as segregating competition) and under the claim of a reality that communicates itself (truth as a relational event). What matters for the "family of truth" is therefore not the truth in the sense of dogmatics and ideology but the event of the Unconditioned Reality, which affects man in his/her 'naked' and conditioned existence.

In a moving discussion with representatives of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in April 1993 Masao Abe has applied his word to the Christian event of salvation. In the redeeming death of Jesus on the Cross in unsurpassable depth takes place the "point of view without point of view" of human loneliness and emptiness. In the sacrifice of life [Dasein zum Tode] shines out life for all [Dasein für Alle]. In Jesus, who through his deepest obedience to the will of the Father "emptied himself and became like a slave" (Phil 2, 7), the fullness of divine love shines as a source of new life. Christians do not see in the Crucified the annihilation of the Son of God, but even venerate his "standpoint" of complete openness in which the mystery of salvation takes place, which connects in him the entire humankind with the Father. In view of this Ecce Homo (Jn 19, 5: 'Look, here is the man') the religions become transparent to each other. You cannot get interreligious dialogue at the low costs of a non-binding discussion; it calls for a common witness of the truth. As Benedict XVI said, every commitment to the truth includes necessarily a dialogic process. "Others are not told something that is entirely unknown. Rather, the hidden depth of that reality is opened to them that they are already touching in their faith. And, conversely, the herald is not only the giver but also receiver .... The dialogue of religions should increasingly become a listening to the Logos, who shows us the unity in the midst of our separations and contradictions." (Many Religions, One Covenant, 121).


    {*} Michael Fuss, Professor of Buddhism and New Religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome


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