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Wolfgang Beinert

Christianity and the Religions


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 4/2011, P. 229-238
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Wolfgang Beinert, emeritus professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Regensburg, interpreted the Second Vatican Council's Declaration "Nostra Aetate" and formulated in ten theses consequences for the Christian dialogue with other religions.


When God speaks in Christ, ... then the other religions have no longer any say. This exclusivism was the common Christian belief from the times of the New Testament up to the 20th century. The consequence was mission at any cost, in order to save the followers of other religions from the hellfire. This rule, too, has exceptions. They are found already in the New Testament (Acts 17, 22-34); and they are on the increase since the time of the discoveries.

Around the middle of the last century the first drafts of a theology of religions emerge. It was nevertheless surprising when on October 28, 1965 the Second Vatican Council adopted the Declaration "Nostra Aetate" (On the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). Fundamentalists are fundamentally protesting against it, whereas in view of the "clash of civilizations" (Samuel P. Huntington) the Declaration is gaining more and more importance for far-sighted Christians.


A Council Text with a Wide Horizon - "Nostra Aetate"

The document is with 1200 words the shortest text and was 'punished' by the second highest number of no-votes {1}, but it is also the text with the broadest theological horizon of the 16 texts of the Council. The other documents (with the exception of "Gaudium et Spes") deal with traditional issues, whereas this declaration opens completely new perspectives.

What is noteworthy is the fact that already its development was surrounded by scandals. At the beginning, nobody thought about the religions as such, but some people thought about Judaism. The Holocaust is recent history; the tensions in the Middle East are of today. On 13 June 1960 in an audience the French historian Jules Isaac presented Pope John XXIII with a dossier with the following questions: Who is responsible for the death of Jesus? Does God's promise today still apply to Israel? What is the obligatory teaching of the Church on anti-Semitism?

The Pope passed the dossier to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and ordered to compile a conciliar declaration on the Jewish people. In February 1961 it got down to work. Due to an indiscretion the Arab world heard of it and intervened. It feared an international upgrading of the State of Israel. The Vatican's response was uneasy. But the work went on and resulted in December 1961 in a first draft (one well filled page). In June 1962 it was submitted to the Central Commission of the Council.



Shortly before, however, a bomb with the label "Wardi affair" exploded and threatened to destroy everything. In summer, the World Jewish Congress announced that it would send ministry official Chaim Wardi as observer to Rome. But first, the Vatican had not invited him, and secondly it is not at all clever to entrust this task to an Israeli government official. The Arab fears were confirmed. The scandal occured. The Central Commission fearfully wanted to remove the item from the agenda. But the public was meanwhile sensitized to such an extent that the Commission (on the instructions of the Pope) refrained from doing so.

The draft shall now form the fourth chapter of the Decree on Ecumenism. During the second session in 1963 the debates began - but the vote on the text was denied and finally adjourned. A third draft was created, now thought of as a mere annex to the Decree on Ecumenism. This, too, went wrong. The paper was admittedly discussed at the third session in 1964, but a game of intrigue whose main part was played by Cardinal Secretary of State Amleto Cicognani led very nearly to the funeral of the project. The Pope, who was now called Paul VI, realized that the Church can not afford to do this. Only in this phase a text about the other religions was formed. It was intended as a sort of escort for the declaration on Judaism.

But soon it became apparent that the relationship of Christianity to other religions should be reflected per se. A fourth draft was formed. Before and during the deliberations in the last session in 1965 and still up to the voting procedures, it was endlessly exposed to the harassing fire from various quarters - at the end by the Coetus Episcoporum Internationalis, the ultra-conservative group to which Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre belonged.

It is almost a wonder that a passable text was accomplished at all against such massive resistance. Simply on account of the novelty of the material for the traditional thinking, one cannot expect that it deals with all issues, let alone perfectly solves them. A balancing act seems to be necessary. On the one hand the unique importance of Christianity has to be preserved fully, on the other hand one has to do justice to the salvation-historical significance of the religions. The declaration "Nostra Aetate" tries the balancing act in five chapters: 1st Theology, basis and purpose of religion, 2nd Hinduism and Buddhism, 3rd Monotheism with special attention to Islam, 4th Jews, 5th Remarks on the basic direction of the declaration.



The Conciliar Approach

Attention is given here especially to the Council's general perspective in No 1 and No 5. In keeping with the overall intention of the Council it is ecclesiological. This means that one does not intend discussing practical or historical issues but the basic dogmatic and normative aspects. What has to be said about the foreign religions from the perspective of the Church's nature? Corresponding answers from this perspective are of course to be found not only in "Nostra Aetate" but also in other ecclesiological documents {2}. In all places the salvation of non-Christians is considered. On the part of God His general will for salvation is decisive for it, on the part of people, in case they know nothing of Christ, honest search for God and loyalty to their conscience {3}. The innermost theological reason:

"For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery." {4}

The core problem then reads, "How get people connected with God outside of the biblical revelation?" Contrary to the classic conception, "Nostra Aetate" says here that this happens through the religions. Men expect from them "answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men;" among them the most important, "What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?" {5} By this statement, the classical individualism has been overcome. So far, one could at best assume that every individual human being is given in principle the possibility of salvation. In addition to it, one says now that salvation is opened also by those social, historical, spiritual, religious collective entities that thematize the riddles of mankind and are called religions by us.

The Council Fathers dexterously negotiate the obstacle, "What is a religion actually theologically?" {6} In their pragmatic understanding it is possible to count Christianity to the religions. The problem of claim to absoluteness is left out of account, because the Council does not start from the religions but from God's universal saving will. The fact that people find salvation is not created by them but by God's grace. Religions are ways that can be and are used by God's grace, but it needs not use them out of any necessity (of God or religion). The Declaration gains this insight from the analysis of human experience:

"From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. ... Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language." {7}



Three points are to be noted: Religion is seen as a phenomenon linked with culture, religion has essentially to do with language, religion knows a positive development.

This is a crucial statement for the Christian interreligious dialogue. These basic insights induce a cautious proceeding. The result reads that one does not put thesis against thesis, doctrine against doctrine, dogma against dogma but tries analytical empathy into the core of the other religious system:

"The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men." {8}

Reference system is not the (Christian-Catholic) conviction but the truth. This truth, however, is not a system of theorems, which some possess and others not or not entirely. The further direction is already indicated in the following sentence:

"She proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself."

The direct intention of this sentence is to profess her faith in Christ. This distinguishes the Church from the foreign religions and makes them foreign religions. This confession can not be abandoned or marginalized. However, since the God-man Christ is the truth, and truth is therefore personal (Jn 14:6), it can not be possessed by the church like a thing; it is always greater than any human knowledge, even than that of the church-people. Her claim to absoluteness does then not rest in itself; it is not an absolute claim to perfection but, in the ideal case, a relative one. Besides, criterion for evaluating the others is no longer her dogma, but the true and holy things which could be found definitely there, but certainly also with the others and perhaps only with them. The truth-rays are not generated by the Church lamps but by Christ, who - according to the dogmatic constitution on the church "Lumen Gentium" - is the "Light of nations" {9}. At that moment, the positivity of religion comes to light.



The Theological Foundation

How has the majority of the Council Fathers achieved this, compared with the tradition, radical new approach? The short answer is: The majority of bishops have gone beyond the boundaries of neo-scholastic thought in two directions - backward by taking up again the pre-neo-scholastic theology that until now was left out of account, forward by a moderate reception of modern philosophy, especially its research on epistemological and linguistic issues. This was a complex process that has not to be portrayed here. At this place, the result must be enough:

1. Approach from Theology of Creation. The Christ event is the real point of difference between our and the other religions. However, it is the center within a continuous history of salvation that begins with creation, especially with that of man. From it the indestructible unity of the human race follows, "We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God." "No foundation therefore remains" for any discrimination on religious grounds {10}. The other religions do not have the label of the ungodly or wicked, but as expressions of human culture they belong to the manifestations of values within the history of salvation.

2. Personalist Thought. The Christo-centrism of the Council shows that all relevant data for the relationship to God (doctrines, rites, revelation, morality) are person-related. Of course, like other religions, Christianity has also holy scriptures, dogmas, ethical codes and binding customs. But they do not have their value in themselves, but due to their relationship to Jesus Christ and according to the measure of this relation. Christianity is not a structure of available factual data but a vital relationship with the person of the Lord and through Him to the Father and the Holy Spirit. This becomes most evident in the Council's understanding of revelation. Revelation is consistently shown as a linguistic event:

"Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself." {11}

This does not only happen through the biblical word and to its listeners but by embracing humankind through the created things as well as by manifesting Himself to our first parents {12}. For behind every word of God His love for Creation is hidden. Every revelation aims at salvation. Each of God's saving actions is therefore in a broad sense revelation, whereas the religions - through their existence and each in its way -, communicate the revelation. Seen in this way, every religion is an address of God to the people.



3. Communicative Theology. With it we are at the last feature of the Council's way of thinking. It is helpful to look at the First Vatican Council, which had also dealt in detail with revelation. It distinguishes a "natural" revelation (through the reality of creation) from a "supernatural" revelation. From the latter it says that it was pleasing to God's "wisdom and goodness, ... to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race" {13}. Nearly a century later "Dei Verbum" formulated the same situation as follows:

"In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will. ... Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself." {14}

The difference is obvious: In 1870 revelation is a decree, an edict which the recipients have to execute legalistically correctly; in 1965 it is God's self-communication. HE, not something, is its subject and content. This includes necessarily that God adapts himself to the addressees. If he wants to be understood, he must - as any other speaker - express himself in such a way that the concrete partners hear what he says. When in the religions truth is shining, it is always the reflex (articulated according to the respective religion) of that all-embracing self-revelation and thus part of a revelation which creates salvation. From it follows that the Christian Church should behave both as a teacher and as an listener to foreign religions. Even though God speaks in Christ, the religions have to tell something to Christians!


About God's Speaking to Man

For Christian theology, the relation of the in the Declaration described "rays of truth" to "Christ the Light of the nations" {15}, hence the relation of the other religions to Christianity remains an urgent question. The same applies to the question of how one should conceive the relation between the inter-religious dialogue ensuing from it and the mission of the Church. Some fragmentary remarks shall be presented about it {16}.

The Christian dogma teaches God's universal saving will. He shows his love, which is the deepest motive of creation, to the people by including them in the eternal communion of love. We call this initiative grace.

What does this mean in practice? The tradition understands grace primarily as a word-event. According to the Letter to the Hebrews God spoke many times to us, most recently through his Son (Hebr 1.1 f.), according to "Dei Verbum" (No. 2) "to reveal" is the same as "to talk".



The Christian theology has called the last and highest implementation of revelation, God's Incarnation, the Incarnation of the Logos (word) (cf. Jn 1:1, 1:14). At this point, the claim to absoluteness is focuses - not that of the Church and of Christianity but that of Christ, as regards the Church and Christianity. But talking takes place via language.

Here we need not at any rate think of the linguistic phenomenon alone but can include all analogous expressions such as visual arts, music, literature, dance - i.e. all phenomena that we call culture. Among them we have to subsume also the religions. On the one hand, they use all of these phenomena from word up to dance, on the other hand they are - differently from those phenomena - exclusively directed towards God. So if God wants to talk to people for their salvation's sake, he makes use of the culture. He involves thus especially religion as the expression of the God-relatedness of culture. Now the cultures are different, regarding the design possibilities and forms of expression. Besides, they have a history in which they develop. There are primitive and advanced cultures. In a certain stage of development, an advanced culture has other opportunities available than in another stage.

God, too, faces this reality when he acts in history. He has, one might say, a translation problem. One of the first work of the missionaries within a nation is always the translation of the Bible into its idiom. On that occasion they learn by experience what everyone learns who wants to translate a text into another language. The words are not conterminous. Perhaps there is in the other language no term for the noun that has to be translated or it means something quite different. And what if on the other side not even the matter exists, the term of which has to be translated into the foreign language?

Also the revealing God basically faces this problem. Besides, he has another much more serious difficulty, which is constitutive for him. He is an absolute and strict mystery. The communication between us and him is therefore by definition imperfect, because he is per se (hence not only for the people in this world) incomprehensible and ineffable {17}. But you can also take into account that some idioms are more perfect and others rather imperfect. Thus religions are imaginable which are more appropriate instruments of divine self-communication than others, and which are in this respect more perfect. Our knowledge of the influence of language on thought is still in its infancy. It is possible that the conception of God is also dependent on it {18}.



Ten Theses

When we include these analyses in our considerations, ten theses on the question of religion can be presented.

1st thesis. Every religion is basically able to contain revelation and to formulate God's truth. In it and through it truth can be recognized.

2nd thesis. On principle, no religion is capable to express God's truth without remainder and without making cuts.
The differences between religions are not between owners of the truth and non-truth owners. God is always incomprehensible.

3rd thesis. It is nevertheless possible that one religion is better able than another one to express what it has recognized of the divine truth - at least in limited areas.
One religion can e.g. be more spiritual than another one, but its state of dogmatic reflection can be lower - and vice versa. The comparison of religions can refer only to their temporal development. Each of them is subject to the laws of historicity; that's why their truth potential is not necessarily realized already now. Only today's Christianity has become entirely aware of the fact that its doctrine is not compatible with violent missionizing, forced baptisms, and Inquisition proceedings but only with freedom. The "amount of truth" of a religion has a time factor.

4th thesis. Insofar as each culture and with it each religion is capable and suitable to be a tool and means of God's saving grace, one can basically encounter God in every religion.

5th thesis. It has also to be taken into account that under certain historical and cultural constellations the divine revelation can happen more precisely and comprehensively than in others, and that the cultural addressees are more open than elsewhere.
One cannot lay down rules for God about the historical hour, the mode and content of his communication with people. In this sense, one can construct a hierarchy of religions. The criterion is not the perfection of the religious system, but the grace of God. Once again we refer to the Letter to the Hebrews. God's final revelation is the one through the Son. "He is sustaining all things by his powerful command; and now that he has purged sins away, he has taken his seat at the right hand of the divine Majesty on high." He is much more exalted than the angels, because he is the son of God. The letter concludes from it, "We ought, then, to turn our minds more attentively than before to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away." With Christianity it is about "the great salvation. It was first announced by the Lord himself" (cf. Heb 1.1 to 2.4). But this does not yet establish an absolute Prae. Israel's primacy in the election is an inalienable component of the New Testament and causes automatically a relativization of Christianity.

6th thesis. The primacy of Christianity is therefore christological.
This means: It refers to those who have recognized Christ as the Logos of God per se and believe in him. Faith in turn is no human performance but gift of the Holy Spirit. The preferential position of Christianity is therefore not an empirically provable rank but expression of the knowledge of faith, communicated by the Holy Spirit. Other people in other religions may lack this knowledge - for whatever reasons.



7th thesis. The Christians are convinced of the truth of their faith and its God-givenness.
However, since all people strive for truth and are capable of truth, it is a human service that Christians bear witness of Christ to all the other people. Mission is a basic task that results from the nature of Christianity.

8th thesis. From the nature of the Christian religion, however, the Christian faith cannot be imposed forcibly on others but its content has to be introduced dialogically.
The Matthean Great Commission requires a dialogical-communicative process. Not the people have to line up in front of the disciples in order to get handed over the Catechism, but the latter have to go to the nations. This is only conceivable if they present the Christian message by argument in such a way that the people can see, in the context of their own culture, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in whom they "have always lived, moved, and been" (Acts 17, 28). Mission is therefore the realization of religious dialogue, through which the people should be convinced that Christianity is nothing less and nothing else than the coming-to-itself of the inmost momentum of their own culture.

9th thesis. This business takes place through the church, but not by churching the peoples and their religions.
In clear contrast to the First, the Second Vatican Council has put no longer the church but Christ as light on the candlestick. The church is only his "sacrament, i.e. the sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" {19}. "Nostra Aetate" adds that this is not the unique characteristic of the church. The religions are eventually also suitable for it. The ecclesiological basis of this insight is the doctrine of Catholicity as an essential property of the Church of Christ. She sees herself, because she is church of Christ, as the fullness of God's salvation, but not as the exclusive place of salvation. "Absoluteness of Christianity" does not negatively mean the absolute exclusiveness with regard to salvation, but positively the via God's grace decreed finality as realization of God's gift of himself to humanity in Christ.

10th thesis. From it follows inter alia that the relationship of the religions is basically different to the relation of the intra-Christian denominations to each other.
The divisions caused or conditioned by the various Christian denominations are by their nature anti-Christian, because Jesus' followers must be One - according to their master's will. The inner-Christian ecumenism follows from the nature of Christianity.



The religions, however, have no explicit common basic stock. They have never been One, and it is not to see from the outset that they must institutionally become One, or even are able to do so. But they are able and must cooperate today in the questions of humanity. These have to be solved for the sake of humankind's welfare, and they are solvable independently of their core dogmatics. All religions are obliged to this welfare because of their religiousness, regardless of from where it is defined. The objective is always the salvation of men.


Pray Together - Believe Together?

On the occasion of the Peace Prayer in Assisi by Pope John Paul II in October 1986 one has vigorously argued about whether the followers of different religions could pray together. As painful as it was, the answer was no. The conceptions of God of the parties involved were too different. A Christian can only pray in a Trinitarian way - "through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit in eternity." Jews or Muslims can, without betraying their belief, not speak in this way. Thus they can not pray together. But they all are allowed to believe that the incomprehensible and ineffable God leads them to salvation, and this can only be One.



{1} The result of the vote was 2221 placet, 88 non placet, 2 placet iuxta modum and 1 invalid vote. The text about the social communications, Inter Mirifica, got the highest number of non-placet votes: 164 no-votes against 1960 affirmative votes.

{2} See Lumen gentium 16; Ad gentes 7; Gaudium et spes 22; Dei Verbum 4.

{3} LG 16, AG 7.

{4} GS22.

{5} NA 1,3.

{6} See E. Feil, Religio (Göttingen 1986-2007), to date four volumes; see also H.-M. Haußig, Der Religionsbegriff in den Religionen. Studien zum Selbst- u. Religionsverständnis in Hinduismus, Buddhismus, Judentum u. Islam (Berlin 1999).

{7} NA 2,1.

{8} In the same place 2,2.

{9} LG 1.

{10} NA 5,1 and 3; see also GS 22.

{11} DV 2.

{12} DV 3.

{13} DH 3004.

{14} DV 2.

{15} NA 2, LG 1.

{16} Our question is therefore strictly in the field of Christian theology and not of religious studies. We do not examine the commonality of religions due to external criteria (concept of God or man's conception of God), but from the position of our own Christian faith.

{17} DH 800 (Fourth Lateran Council).

{18} G. Deutscher, Im Spiegel der Sprache. Warum die Welt in anderen Sprachen anders aussieht (München 2010).

{19} LG 1.


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