This paper is based on a talk given by Monsignor Felix Machado of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Vatican’s central office for the promotion of inter-religious dialogue, in April 2004 at the annual ISKCON Communications Europe Leadership Team meetings near Bergamo, Italy. In this paper Mons. Machado argues that interfaith dialogue does not require difference be ignored for fear of offending. Quite the opposite: he argues that difference must be acknowledged and respected before proper inter-religious understanding can take place, and that ignoring difference is more likely to lead to a breakdown of relations between people of different faiths. Here he examines some of the unique difficulties and opportunities presented by Christian theology in interfaith dialogue and how Christian doctrine regards the diversity of faith that now pervades almost all societies. This paper and the talk it is based on mark a significant development in ISKCON dialogue with other faith traditions, a dialogue that was begun in earnest with the 1999 statement: ISKCON in Relation to People of Faith in God.
The commitment of the Catholic Church to interreligious dialogue is firm and irreversible. Through the practice of interreligious dialogue the Catholic Church wishes to cultivate sincere respect for other religious traditions, their followers, and their beliefs. The Catholic Church attempts to approach other religious traditions with honesty and frankness. It also has its own understanding about what precisely is meant by interreligious dialogue.
The call to dialogue entails inherent limits. It is not an uncritical and ambiguous engagement on the part of Catholic Christians, especially not in the field of theology. In other words, the Catholic Church exhorts her faithful to engage in dialogue with people of other religious traditions while at the same time obliging them to adhere uncompromisingly to the essential truths of Christian faith. The Catholic Church has been trying, especially in these past forty years, to incorporate the practice of interreligious dialogue in its overall teaching.
The Catholic faithful do not consider themselves to be on a higher level or better than the believers of other religious traditions, such as Hindu Vaisnavas. I think hardly anyone in the Catholic Church today would really have this attitude of superiority. The text of Dominus Jesus, an important document from the Central Authority of the Catholic Church, clearly states: ‘Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions’ (Dominus Jesus, n. 22).
I would like to introduce here, with frankness and honesty, the fundamental faith of the Catholic Church concerning the uniqueness of God. The respect I have for the Vaisnava religious tradition has brought me to write this. I write, in my official capacity, with the knowledge of my colleagues in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
I would like here to present the fundamental difference between the Catholic and Vaisnava traditions. I am convinced that once we accept each other, and the basic difference between our respective religious traditions, we will see many paths open up to allow us to affirm our unity, which is radical, fundamental, and decisive. “There is only one divine plan for every human being who comes into this world [cf. John 1:9], one single origin and goal, whatever may be the colour of his skin, the historical and geographical framework within which he happens to live and act, or the culture in which he grows up and expresses himself” (John Paul II, n. 3). It is important to understand the essential faith of the Catholic Church in order to deepen our friendship.
The human being is the crown of God’s creation
A theology course I teach, entitled ‘Christian Anthropology’, deals with the basic question: ‘Why does the Catholic Church value human life, even to the point of clearly distinguishing the incomparable dignity of human being life from the rest of creatures?’ The doctrine of the Catholic Church begins by affirming that every human, male and female, is created in the likeness and image of God. We as Catholic Christians believe that the human being is the crown of God’s creation; that God did not create humans simply as one creature among many other creatures. According to Gregory of Nyssa (commentarius in Canticum Canticorum), the human person is all but the equal of God (Daniélou, pp. 162–3).
God is the creator of everyone and everything. He did appoint the human person as steward of His creation; but this can hardly be interpreted to mean that the human being received absolute power to dominate and rule indiscriminately over other creatures. That would mean the human could replace God, the creator of heaven and earth. The Christian tradition upholds the truth that God is always the creator of all people and of every creature. This truth is reflected in the life of St Francis of Assisi who, in his well-known ‘Canticle to the Sun’, called the water his sister, the sun his brother, and so forth. He treated everyone and everything as God’s creation. However, according to the Catholic faith, we must still affirm that the human person is the crown of God’s creation. The human enjoys a singular place within the whole creation of God.
From faith in God the Saviour...
The general method in teaching theology is that we should first turn to the scriptures, the divine revelation, the Bible. Meditating on the sacred scriptures, and particularly the Old Testament, I am struck by the fact that the first realisation of the people of Israel was: ‘God is with us and He saves us; even when beset by danger He never abandons us’.
The word ‘saving’ for the Israelites did not mean some philosophical, dry, abstract concept. Being ‘saved’ by God was a concrete experience for the people of God. They saw in that experience the trans-historical act of God. This is why, to prove that God exists, the Israelites narrated history in which God was revealed to them as saviour-God. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea as narrated in the Book of Exodus is not a myth, if we understand by that word something a-historical or something that simply never took place. Fundamental truth is conveyed through various episodes that narrate the life of the ancient Israelites, namely, that the living God was their unique saviour.
The Lord God saves people who put their trust in Him. That is the conviction of the Hebrew people. This conviction is based on the revelation of God in history. When speaking of God they do not give conceptual philosophical proofs for His existence; they simply narrate their history. That is also how they transmit belief in God to the new generations.
...to faith in God the Creator
The first revealed truth that the Israelites learnt about God was that He saved them. But linked to that revealed truth was another question: ‘Who is this God who saves us?’ The Israelites are pushed to deepen this question. They came to realise gradually that the God who revealed Himself to them as their saviour was also their creator.
In the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, we learn that God created us and everything that exists. There are two creation stories side-by-side with the same message. On the first day, God creates light, separating it from darkness, dividing day from night. On the second day He creates heaven; on the third day He creates vegetation; on the fourth day He creates the sun, moon and the stars; on the fifth day God creates living creatures. On the sixth day God creates the human being, male and female, in His own image and likeness. And on the seventh day God had completed the work He had been doing. He rested on the seventh day (Genesis 1–2). The Book of Genesis notes that at the end of each day of the creation ‘God was happy, He saw that it was good’. But on the sixth day, when He created the human person, Genesis distinctly records that not only ‘God saw it was good’, but ‘indeed it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31, emphasis mine).
Although this story of the creation is placed at the beginning of the first book of the Bible, it was not necessarily how believers first became historically aware of this truth. Chronologically, the people first learned from God’s revelation to them that He was their saviour, their liberator, the one who set them free from the bondage of all their enemies. Later when they were taken as captives to Babylon they learnt that the God who saved them was also the God who created them.
As captives in the strange land of Babylon the people of God felt cut off from their roots and out of place. They hoped to return to the Promised Land that God had given them. During the period of exile in Babylon they learnt a deeper truth: The saviour of Israel is not only the creator of the Israelites but He is also the creator of all the people around them who belonged to the various religions of the time, and also of everything that exists. The Book of Genesis teaches this fundamental truth. I would like to draw attention to the point that God was revealing Himself to the people He chose in order to make Himself known among the nations of the world; He revealed Himself the unique creator God as well as the saviour God of all people.
The fundamental difference: Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of God’s revelation
The third chapter of the Book of Genesis speaks about the fall, the sin of the human person. In spite of their sinfulness, God does not abandon His people to the power of death. He has a plan to save them. The Bible narrates the unfolding of this divine plan, which is finally fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, and on the third day was raised from the dead. God saved the fallen human race in, with, and through Jesus Christ who is the unique, complete, and final revelation of God, not only of the Israelites but also of all people upon the face of the earth.
This is the fundamental difference between Christianity and all other religious traditions: According to the faith of the Church, God’s revelation in history as the liberator of the Israelites and creator of all is finally, completely, and fully concluded in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. We observe that there is continuity in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ but there is also a radical (rupture) newness. Jesus Christ is seen to satisfy the hunger and thirst for God, not only of the Israelites, but also of every person.
This revelation must be respected in its integrity as it is the essential identity of the Church’s faith, which can also become the foundation, starting point, and guiding principle for the Catholic Church’s dialogue with people of other religious traditions.
I am aware that Vaisnavas also aim to be devotees of God. The Church surely respects this. However, in fidelity to the unique divine revelation that it has received, and abiding in faith in a consistent and coherent manner, the Church asks: ‘Is the God you claim the same God whom Jesus Christ revealed?’ Christianity is going to stay with this question and this is going to define the fundamental and decisive difference with other religions.
The faith of the Church claims to know no other God than the one who is revealed completely, definitively, and perfectly in Jesus Christ, who is the unique saviour of all people. The Church admits that — without any intention of being superior — her claim is, in a certain sense, a judgement about the belief in God by people of other religions. Jesus Christ is the complete and final truth of God; He is the objective truth whom all people are obliged to seek and accept; all other truth claims become relative to this unique and objective truth, the mystery of Jesus Christ.
Relation of other religious traditions to Jesus Christ
Christians cannot simply think: ‘Just as God is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth so also He is revealed elsewhere’. A Christian may speak of God’s revelation elsewhere, though not to the same degree as in Christ, the final and complete revelation of God. Rooted in his faith, a Christian is certain of the one true God who is the unique creator and saviour of all people. However, the Church emphatically points out that the God worshipped by people of other religions is understood differently and worshipped differently by them. This, I would say, is the fundamental, perhaps provocative, difference between Christianity and other religious traditions. It is important to understand how Christians hold firmly to this difference without renouncing their commitment to engage and promote dialogue with other religious traditions, because this God of Christian revelation is also the merciful father of all; and in this all people can be necessarily seen as related to Him and therefore related among themselves.
Ignored differences often result in religious conflicts
How do people in various religions appropriate difference? How do they deal with essential religious differences? Does one’s religious difference become a threat to the other? These are the basic questions we need to ask. We can best do this in dialogue.
The purpose of dialogue is not to change or compromise the basic tenets of our respective religions, but to arrive at a better and fair understanding of each other’s religions. We must accept that our religions are different from each other. To ignore, forget, cancel, or compromise differences between our religions would be irresponsible and may lead to false irenicism. It would also be incoherent, inconsistent, and unfaithful to our respective religious traditions.
Should difference necessarily become a threat? Is it viewed as a threat by our partner in dialogue? Further, is difference (ab)used by way of manipulation of the other? Is difference something we can integrate into understanding our own religion and that of the other? This last relates somewhat to the approach of the Church, namely, to integrate into its theology of religions this fundamental and decisive difference with other religions so that it does not become a pretext for an attitude of superiority, or an excuse to be closed in on itself, or a reason to reject dialogue with people of other religions. In presenting difference with other religions in dialogue the Church sees an occasion for the possibility of a deeper encounter.
Holding firmly to its fundamental identity when in dialogue with other religious traditions, and not searching for the lowest common denominator in order to try and please others, the present-day Catholic theology of religions is trying to help Christians attain a spirit of respect and friendship towards people of all religions.
When differences are ignored they can and do raise their heads in violent forms. A strong image that comes to mind is 6 December 1992, when the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, North India, was torn down by Hindu fundamentalists, and after that when Hindu temples were destroyed by Muslim extremists in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In dialogue we need to talk about differences. Differences must not be ignored, forgotten, hidden, masked, or suspended as they will always raise their head after hiding for a while.
With a very naive understanding some people think that difference automatically creates disharmony in society or blocks the path to peace. They then prefer to close their eyes to the basic differences between religions. That is not good. The ignorance of essential differences between religions by their respective followers in the name of harmony and peace can be identified as one of the main causes of religious conflicts. Ignored differences raise their heads in violent forms. It is necessary to acknowledge differences and deal with them.
Hinduism has always had an accommodating and absorbing mentality. It accommodates and absorbs different perspectives. For example, in the ¬g-veda we read ‘ekam sat viparah bahuda vandanti’ — ‘the Absolute is unity, which is seen in its diversity by sages’ (Rg-veda, I.164,46). This view seems to suggest the multi-faceted nature of truth; it suggests that truth is one but it is seen in different ways by different wise people. Based on this interpretation, the Hindu worldview accommodates/assimilates differences between religions. For example, Buddha is seen as an avatara of Visnu and Jesus Christ is sometimes placed in the same shrine with others in the Hindu pantheon.
Until now, in our dialogues, we have not paid sufficient and careful attention to essential differences between religions. Anxious to bring people of various religions together we have rather preferred to ignore or hide these basic differences. The result has often been a sudden eruption of inexplicable and shocking violence. To ignore the essential identity of a religion is to fail to know that religion. This failure can lead to an attitude of compromise on the part of the adherent, and can breed fear on the part of the partner in dialogue. This fear, in turn, creates hatred, which finally shows up in violent forms. In the absence of dialogue, frustrated extremists use violence even in an organised manner. This is why I strongly recommend a closer look at differences between religions through dialogue in order to acknowledge them and respect them. It is important that Hindus try to understand Christians in the integrity of the Church’s faith just as Christians should try to understand Hindus and respect them in the integrity of their religious beliefs.
I would propose four interpretations of violence that are directly linked to religions:
Violence erupts when relationships are avoided with the excuse of the other being different from me. We need to be in relationships with one another. We avoid relating to the other because we are afraid of each other, because the other is different from me. (Violence also breaks out when religious believers choose to live in ignorance of their own religion as well as that of the other.)
In many parts of the world violence is the result of the politicisation of religion for vested interests.
Violence can explode because of different understandings of secularism. Religious believers are grappling with the question of how to deal with increasing secularism that often encourages marginalisation of religion in society or induces an attitude of indifference towards religions.
Violence may flare up due to the changing/evolving understanding of the role of religion in society.
Is religious pluralism a problem to Christianity?
For Christianity, religious pluralism does pose a problem in a certain sense. Why? Because no other religion proclaims itself so absolutely as ‘the’ religion, the one and only valid revelation of the one living God. Thus Christianity obviously considers its basic identity in relation to other religions as being of significant importance. Christianity gives serious attention to the difference between religions lest people begin to think that one religion is as good as another.
This is the fundamental question that Christians pose: ‘If we believe in one God who perfectly, finally, and completely revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, then how can there be others who can claim to worship God other than the one whom Jesus Christ revealed?’ Thus, in a certain sense, religious pluralism does become the greatest scandal when seen from the point of view of the Church’s faith. This perceived problem can be intensified for individual Christians in today’s world as we are surrounded also by relativistic ideas from within as well as from outside of Christianity.
It could be roughly stated that, in the past, it was understood that Europe had its religion, Christianity; India had its religion, Hinduism; Thailand had its religion, Buddhism; and so on. Culture and religion were uncritically linked. An individual Christian in Europe thus felt safe, for he thought: ‘Hindus live in India, far away’, or ‘Buddhists live in Thailand, also far away’. Hindus in India would do the same: ‘Christians live over there in Europe’. However, our societies are becoming increasingly multi-religious. Very little attention has been paid by respective religious traditions to teach their followers to deal with the new situations created by religious pluralism. Individual believers often feel threatened by the presence of the followers of other religions. An exclusively Christian Europe, for example, does not exist today. Men and women with their different religious beliefs are becoming neighbours. Modern Catholic theology is grappling with questions posed by this religious pluralism. When fundamental differences are not integrated into the coherent theological visions and systems of different religious traditions there obviously come about many misunderstandings that give rise to prejudices, hatred, and finally end in violence and killing in the name of religion.
Attempts by Christians to understand others
Catholic theologians have been reflecting on the fact of religious pluralism in order to integrate the spirit of respect and friendship towards other religious traditions while remaining coherent with the integrity of the Church’s faith. One of them, for example, noted in rather categorical language: ‘Religious pluralism poses for Christianity a greater threat and grounds for greater anxiety than for all other religions. For no other religion, not even Islam, proclaims itself so absolutely as the religion; Christianity is the one and only valid revelation of the one living God’. He further observed: ‘Christianity conceives of itself as the absolute religion determined for all humankind, as a religion that can recognise no other as having equal rights alongside itself’ (Rahner, 1962).
An urgent need is being felt today to re-articulate, with the help of the positive experiences of dialogue among religions, the basic difference between Christianity and other religions in order to arrive at a more exact understanding of the identity of a Christian in a religiously pluralistic world. The Church’s faith in the revealed mystery of God, on the one hand, and a genuine search for the mystery of God by the people of other religions1, on the other hand, can be seen to be related. This possible relation can become the basis for Christians to enter deeper into dialogue with people of other religions. Christianity identifies itself with the revealed mystery of God in Jesus Christ, the unique mediator between God and the human person. Can we then say that the authentic search for God in other religious traditions is ultimately related to Jesus Christ as He alone can satisfy the hunger and thirst of every person for God?
The fundamental question remains: Are we Christians and people of various religions really talking of the same God? Obviously we would all agree that there cannot be more than one God. But who is the true God? The Christians firmly believe that He is revealed as the Trinitarian God. Logically then there should have been only one religion. The fact is that there are many religions. Christianity is struggling to come to terms with this enigma, not by abandoning or compromising the Church’s faith, but by trying to integrate into its coherent theological vision the religious search for God by people of other religious traditions, pointing out to them that their search can be fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
God’s offer of salvation extends to all humanity. This means that God makes His grace available to all people so that all people come to know Him in His fullness. God’s grace cannot be reserved only for a few. Since God wants to save all people, all must also find access to Him. It cannot be the privilege of a few. I would summarise this reflection in three points: (1) all people are called to salvation, (2) all salvation is in Christ as there is no salvation outside Christ. Therefore, (3) all people who seek God sincerely can be related to the mystery of God in Jesus Christ.
Why does the Church, especially the Catholic Church, promote dialogue among religions? How do Catholics remain open to the followers of other religious traditions while at the same time holding firm to their essential identity, the faith of the Church? By holding firmly to her essential faith, namely, that there is no God outside the one revealed in Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church wishes to be respected for its faith.
The Catholic Church can never impose her faith on others; the Canon Law of the Catholic Church stipulates that ‘It is never lawful to induce men by force to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience’ (Canon 74.8 §2), although she must always propose it to all.
Every religion has its own way of understanding itself. The reason people of different religions must come together in dialogue is primarily to have every religious tradition mutually respected in its integrity. Just as I am not going to tell devotees of Krsna how or what to believe, so I expect that they also will not tell me, a Christian, how or what to believe. Of course, I do not mean to reduce the entire exercise of interreligious dialogue to just allowing me to live my faith and letting you live yours. Interreligious dialogue is more than that. However, it is fundamental to respect essential differences between our religions without making these differences obstacles in the path of respectful and friendly relationships.
Essential differences among religions: Recognise, identify, and respect
Dialogue among religions can often take place because of essential differences. Therefore we should not try to do away with essential differences by ignoring them or by trying to cancel them and thus engage in facile compromise. In order for our dialogue to become effective and fruitful we need to identify essential differences, acknowledge them, and respect them; and when it comes to respecting other religions let it be an exercise worthy of its name. That is the conviction of the Catholic Church, particularly since the Second Vatican Council. Lest there be an attitude of indifferentism in our respect for differences, all partners in dialogue should relentlessly seek the truth that is the common destiny of all.
In the administration of the Catholic Church, on the universal level, one office, or department, the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, looks after the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; but there is also an office, or department, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), for dialogue with people of other religions. The respective competences of these two offices are well defined. The Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples promotes the spread and deepening of the Christian faith, a duty of every single Christian as well as of the whole Church. This is carried out, in principle, without imposing the Church’s faith on anyone. The PCID works to ‘promote adequate studies (on various religious traditions) and to favour friendly relations of the Church with the followers of other religions. The Council is linked, for doctrinal and practical aspects, to the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate. The Apostolic Constitution, Pastor Bonus, of John Paul II (28 June 1988) on the Roman Curia, assigned to the Council the competence to favour and regulate relations with members and groups of other religions which are not included under any Christian denomination, and also with people who are, in whatever manner, endowed with a religious sense’ (Annuario Pontificio 2004, p. 1722).
A Hindu can say to a Christian, ‘thank you very much, I have listened to you proposing to me the Catholic faith; but I am a Hindu and would happily like to remain a Hindu’. This answer is perfectly legitimate and must be respected. Catholics do not shy away from relating to Hindus who wish to remain Hindus, knowing well that they may never become Christians, for Christians must relate with people of all religions at all times and in every place. Similarly, if a Muslim says, ‘I want to remain a Muslim’, a Catholic does not turn around and say, ‘Ah, I thought you were going to become a Christian, that is why I came to propose to you the Christian faith; but now that you do not wish to become Christian I will have nothing to do with you’. No, I, as a Catholic, must still relate with that Muslim. Catholics wish to become friends even of those who declare their firm adherence to their respective religions. That is why there is, in the Vatican, besides the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. That you are different does not prevent me, a Christian, in any way from relating to you, a Hindu, and becoming your friend. I hope it is also true vice-versa. As Hindus you are different from me and I respect you. As Hindus you see me different from you and I appeal to you to respect me in my difference without asking me to change what I must and must not believe as a Catholic Christian.
The Catholic Church recommends and encourages its faithful to study other religions, while at the same time exhorting them to deepen their own faith. Such an exercise allows Christians to accurately identify differences among religions, gladly acknowledge them, and humbly respect them in order to grow in genuine friendship with people across religious boundaries.
The God in whom Christians believe as the God of all is certainly not the exclusive God of Christians alone. His revelation in history is for all people; all seek Him, for only He can satisfy, beyond every expectation, the hunger and thirst of every human heart. It is interesting to listen to St Paul who, after coming to know the religion of the Athenians, declares to them the fundamental difference of Christianity while at the same time drawing their attention to the relation their search for God had with Jesus Christ. St Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, reports St Paul’s speech to the Athenians:
Men of Athens, I have seen for myself how extremely scrupulous you are in all religious matters, because, as I strolled round looking at your sacred mountains, I noticed among other things an altar inscribed: To an unknown God. In fact, the unknown God you revere is the one I proclaim to you.
Since the God who made the world and everything in it is Himself Lord of heaven and earth, He does not make His home in shrines made by human hands. Nor is He in need of anything, that He should be served by human hands; on the contrary, it is He who gives everything — including life and breadth — to everyone. From one single principle He not only created the whole human race so that they could occupy the entire earth, but He decreed the times and limits of their habitation. And He did this so that they might seek the deity and, by feeling their way towards Him, succeed in finding Him; and indeed He is not far from any of us, since it is in Him that we live, and move, and exist, as indeed some of your own writers have said: We are all His children.
Since we are the children of God, we have no excuse for thinking that the deity looks like anything in gold, silver, or stone that has been carved and designed by a man.
But now, overlooking the times of ignorance, God is telling everyone everywhere that they must repent, because He has fixed a day when the whole world will be judged in uprightness by a man He has appointed. And God has publicly proved this by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:23–31)
Dialogue with religions and the mystery of the Blessed Trinity
Christians believe in one God who is Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is tri-unity, community, family. God is not an isolated monad, He is one God in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I find it easier to explain this to Hindus than to people of other religious traditions. My ancestors were Hindus and part of my distant family is still practising Hinduism. Although we, of two different religions, are not speaking of the same thing it is not very difficult for Hindus to understand me if I speak of the Trinitarian mystery of God; it is a pluralistic mystery rather than a mystery of God which is pure monism.
God the Father
Christianity gives fundamental value to love. God can’t be a loving God if He is a pure monad which, as closed-in upon itself, would be just loving itself — a form of pure egoism. Jesus Christ reveals God as the loving merciful Father: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). When God is invoked as a loving Father, He is certainly the Father of all. Here ‘all’ should mean ‘all without exclusion’. If He is the Father of all, then He is the single origin and the single destiny of all people. In that then, despite the difference, He is the authentic and objective goal of search of all people for God. In your search for the true God I see you related to Him and therefore, related to me, a Christian believer. Christians cannot negate this fundamental relationship. Therefore, dialogue with other religions becomes indispensable for all Christian believers.
God the Son
When Christians proclaim God the Son, Jesus Christ, as God made visible, they witness to the unique mediator between God and the human person. He is true God and true man, the God-man. He is the eternal Word of the Father. ‘He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through Him’ (John l:2–3). Jesus Christ is the incarnate God. Only in Him is God fully, perfectly, and finally revealed. Christians thus believe that Jesus Christ did not assume a body of merely a single individual belonging to a nation, a race, or a religion, but He assumed in His incarnation entire humanity. In other words, the mystery of His incarnation saved every human person and therefore He cannot be limited to a particular people, race, or religion. In this He united himself with every human being. Jesus Christ is God mingling with humanity. In His incarnation Jesus Christ is united with all; in His person He fulfils all search for true God. Can a Christian then think: ‘I have nothing to do with people of other religious traditions?’ On the contrary, Christians have everything to do with everybody, without exception, because they profess their faith in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Lord and saviour of all.
As the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ is also referred to as the ‘Word made flesh’. The creator God has sown the ‘seeds of the Word’ in every culture and religion (everything is created through Him, with Him, and in Him). Consequently, He is the source of all goodness, truth, and holiness which may be found in every culture and religion. The Church urges Christians to discover the ‘seeds of the Word’, the hidden treasure, everywhere.
Jesus Christ is the unique saviour of all. He redeems all from sin and gives everyone fullness of life. Christians celebrate the feast of Easter as the final liberation that Jesus Christ brought to all. Jesus Christ completed the definitive liberation of every person by shedding His own blood, by willingly offering His own life. Jesus did this not only for people of a particular religion or race but He did it for all. Recognising this truth, Christians are obliged to build deep relationships with everybody.
God the Holy Spirit
The third person of the Blessed Trinity is the Holy Spirit. The Heavenly Father sent His Son into the world out of love. God wants all people to be saved. Upon accomplishing the mission entrusted to Him, the Son returns to the Father but without leaving us orphans, as it were. We are animated from within because we are accompanied by the Holy Spirit. He has no confines or boundaries. He is God ever present in our midst. We who are baptised in Him are always to follow God and not make God follow us, as we often tend to do. The Holy Spirit, it is clearly said in the sacred scriptures, is like wind; it blows where it wills. We are to follow wherever He precedes us. The Catholic bishops in India once wrote: ‘Other religions are not walls to be brought down; they are temples of the Holy Spirit whom we have failed to visit’2.
Dialogue with other religions is an obligatory path for Christians because the presence of God through the Holy Spirit is limitless and without confines. God is present everywhere through the promise of the Holy Spirit. We believe that He is present in a special and in particular way in the Catholic Church because that is the explicit promise of Jesus Christ before he ascends to the Father; that does not mean the Holy Spirit is not present in other places and people. He is giver of all gifts, light of all hearts; He is the perfect consoler; in fatigue and tiredness He is our rest, in sorrow He is our comfort; without Him there is nothing authentic in any of us. He is the bond of unity among us. We like to say that the Holy Spirit is the patron of our dialogue with other religions.
I would like here to reiterate the irreversible option of the Catholic Church to dialogue with people of all religious traditions.
A history of the Church’s dialogue with other religions
We can roughly divide the history of Christianity and its dialogue with other religions into four stages.
In its earliest period, nascent Christianity was influenced by other religious traditions. In imitation of the mystery of the incarnation, ‘the young Churches, rooted in Christ and built up on the foundation of the Apostles, take to themselves in a wonderful exchange all the riches of the nations which were given to Christ as an inheritance (cf. Psalms 2:8). They borrow from the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and disciplines, all those things which can contribute to the glory of their Creator, or enhance the grace of their Savior, or dispose Christian life the way it should be’ (Ad Gentes, 22). The early fathers of the Church, while affirming the unique, original, and singular character of Christianity, presented the Christ-event as the fulfilment of the ancient quest for the absolute.
In the next stage Christians became more occupied with safeguarding the uniqueness of the Christian faith in the context of heresies of their time. Other religions were completely ignored, or their role in the life of their adherents was underestimated. Christianity is accused of exclusivism as it is seen to be acting in a way that seemed superior and triumphalistic. However, one cannot overlook the danger with which Christianity was threatened in this period. The struggle with inner heresies that endangered the purity of Christian faith meant that differences were considered threats.
With the dawn of colonialism, which brought the Christians of Europe into more direct contact with other cultures and religions, and following the period of illumination in Europe, there began the stage of serious study of other religions and their comparison with Christianity. As a result of this study, discussion and debate emerged about other religious beliefs and the place of the followers of other religions in God’s plan of salvation.
Finally, a radical change of attitude took place. Today the Catholic Church wants to approach other religious traditions with sensitivity to the spiritual and human values enshrined in them. Religions command respect because they bear witness to efforts to find answers to the profound mysteries of the human condition and give expression to the experience and longings of millions of their adherents. Other religions are not considered mere objects of Christian mission but partners in dialogue.
The Church’s dialogue is founded on the content of its faith
Hindus and Christians today must deepen their mutual respect and friendship, not by ignoring the essential differences that exist between the two religious traditions, but rather by understanding, acknowledging, and accepting them, and thus mutually respecting them. In Hindu-Christian dialogue there is a tendency to dwell on apparent analogies or similarities, the result of which is often facile irenicism. Let me share with you three examples:
The symbol of food: In the Vedic tradition food is sometimes said to be a sacred symbol. The ¬g-veda teaches that food is life. I quote from the Taittiriya Upanisad: ‘From food indeed are creatures born. All living things that dwell on earth, by food in truth do they live and into it they finally pass. For truly food is the first of all beings and therefore it is called the universal remedy. Those who worship Brahman as food, assuredly obtain all the food they need. From food are all things born; by food when they are born they grow and develop. Food is eaten by beings and itself eats beings; because of that its name is food’ (III, 1–2; 6–10).
For me, as a Christian, this example is very attractive, and it is a tempting proposition to indulge in a comparison with a similar symbol and draw a hasty conclusion by simply putting some verses from the New Testament alongside the above Hindu texts. But here is where I must firmly hold to the essential identity. The rest follows from the content, the essential difference, which I have tried to elaborate in the preceding pages. The verses from the New Testament of the Bible sometimes placed alongside the Hindu texts are the following:
‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh’ (John 6:35, 50–1). Jesus Christ publicly declared himself the bread of life.
In Hinduism food is sometimes used as a symbol of absolute reality and in Christianity Jesus Christ is the bread of life. Although there is a striking similarity in the expression of symbols, for me as Christian, Jesus Christ who declares himself food is the unique, complete, perfect, and final revelation of the one and true God. There is no God outside Him. Only He is eternal food, the bread that has come down from heaven. This is the fundamental difference between our two religions. Since we do not begin from the same premise we cannot draw one conclusion that is valid for both religions as if they were parallel ways of salvation.
The same things may be spoken of in various religions in different ways. But that cannot become a pretext for Christians to ignore or to relativise the essential faith of the Church. There is a fundamental identity in the very content of the Christian faith that should always remain the norm and the criterion, especially for Christians, in all comparison.
Let us take another example. The Bhagavad-gita in chapter four (vv. 7–8) speaks about avatara. It is said: ‘For whenever the law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises then I generate myself on earth for the protection of the good, for the destruction of evildoers, for the setting up of the law of righteousness, I come into being age after age’.
The mystery of the ‘Word of God becoming flesh’ in Christianity is of paramount importance. St John the evangelist introduces the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus with these words: ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life and the life was the light of man. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world and the world was made through Him and yet the world knew Him not’ (John 1:1–5, 9–12, 14).
Again, the tempting proposition is to put the two quotations alongside and indulge in drawing hasty conclusions. I repeat, the premise is not the same, therefore the conclusion cannot be the same. The content, namely Jesus Christ who ‘becomes man’ is the unique, complete, and decisive revelation of one and true God.
My third example is about the respective call to conversion according to our two religions. I would stand by the distinction which is made in India between dharma-parivartan (conversion to God) and dharma-antara (change from one religion to another). Dharma-parivartan is understood as the ongoing conversion that each person is called on to undergo, no matter which religion, including Christianity. God forbid that any of us think that we have arrived at our final destiny, namely, union with God. All of us have a long way to go to achieve our union with God. Therefore there is a constant need, daily, at every moment, for everyone for conversion. This is dharma-parivartan.
The whole sadhana (practice) of the Hindu way of life is considered an ongoing conversion. A Hindu may try to gradually become aware of the satyasa-satyam (the truth of truth) by abandoning all illusion (maya) and thus finally attain liberation.
Mahatma Gandhi coined another word, with a new meaning, namely, dharma-antara, change from one religion to another. In Christianity, dharma-parivartan and dharma-antara are considered distinct but related to each other. One’s real conversion is to God, who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ who cannot be separated from the Church, which is His body. One’s daily conversion to God and consequently the conversion from another religion to Jesus Christ are seen as intrinsically related.
Obviously, Christianity builds its teaching on the faith of the Church. One cannot pretend to be a Christian when one ignores or attempts to relativise the faith of the Church on which the whole edifice of Catholic religion stands. The Church’s faith is the content, the basic identity, of every Christian who must uncompromisingly adhere to it and live it in this religiously pluralistic world. Christians can certainly not impose their faith on others although they must always propose it to everyone. But Christians must also respect others in their religious otherness.
What kind of relationship is the Catholic Church looking for?
Theological relationship between religions can be quite problematic. However, our common spiritual sensitivities can become the basis for our relationships. The relationship that Christianity is looking for is a deep friendship among religious believers. We must build trust and confidence in each other. The first duty of the human being is to respond to God who loves us; God is the supreme value in life (summum bonum). Christians are motivated to go to others in response to God who loves us. This response may take the concrete forms of service such as dialogue or inculturation. The God of Christians is the God of all. In Him we are all related. The comprehensive Hindu tradition has sought God relentlessly. Jesus Christ, we believe, fulfils that search. Because of the openness of Hindus to the mystery of God, Hindu-Christian dialogue can become a model of dialogue also for other religious traditions.
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1. ‘The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ch.1,27)
2. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, New Delhi, 1969.