Church and... Church Previous - Next


Suspending Our Beliefs

  In recent decades, a new phonomenon among the Churches has emerged. Leaders of different faiths have begun meeting and talking to one another. The more this happens the more the barriers of suspicion, misunderstanding and intolerance come down. As the consciousness of one world, and of one world community, grows, it may be that the world religions will move towards a common understanding.
By Mathai Zachariah  

In the world today, Christianity is one religion among others. For the first time in history, it is impossible for any religion to isolate itself from or to ignore other religions.

Two important transitions have taken place to usher in this new day. We have seen the emergence of an ecological viewpoint. People from various faiths have together declared that humankind's greatest sin is our transgression of the sacramentality of the cosmos: we are commiting "ecocide".

The second transition is equally important: there is a convergence in the faith and the life of humankind. We are only at the beginning of this transition and are groping for our way. We are on new ground, on slippery ground, but if we are serious about multi-faith existence and harmony, we have to confront this shift seriously.

Simply put, there are three kings of religions or three types of faiths. First is the animistic religion in which a person worships the awe-inspiring powers of nature and before which he or she is helpless. Then there are the other two types of religion: the prophetic (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and the mystic (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism).

The three major religions that emanated from the Mediterranean region are essentially centred on prophets and have a high sense of ethical life. In the prophetic religions, moral existence is the prime criterion for religious life. In the mystic religions the accent is essentially on an undefinable relationship with God. Our effort today is for a meaningful dialogue between the prophetic and mystic religions.

All religions have at least three aspects a creed at the core, a cultus around it and a culture surrounding it all. The core faith is often expressed in dogmas, injunctions and affirmations. Around it are cultic rites, rituals, liturgies and worship forms. Then surrounding them all is a culture and a modus vivendi outward signs that express the ethical and aesthetic values of the religion through festivals, music, art, architecture.

These three are not concentric circles; they overlap,cut into one another and are inextricably mixed. However, every religion is as an integral whole in which all these aspects are blended into one, creating powerful defences from the outside. These defences are still in place in the modern world. Religion is not disappearing; the trend is in the opposite direction.

How do we do justice to dialogue and its demands while at the same time remaining faithful to our own religion with its attendant commitments?

Mutual Talk

When and where did interfaith relations start? Some contact began when the western churches initiated missionary work in other parts of the world, especially in Asia. Little dialogue took place, however, because of the colonial overtones of missionary work.

We can see three stages towards dialogue in the missionary movement: first was the anti-other religions stage, second the praeparatio evangelica stage, and third the Christian presence stage. It is at the second stage that the maximum number of contacts took place.

But the real beginnings of interfaith relations began at the World's Parliament of Religions (Chicago, 1893), the centenary of which we celebrated two years ago. That was a nodal point. Not much happened during the next 50 years or so. Then all of a sudden, due to outside pressures and stirrings of the Spirit, religious leaders starting talking to one another about their faith.

The initiative came from Christians. We had the problem of interpreting our claims about the uniqueness of Christ. Then followers of other religions joined. Dialogue started and it became a movement. We talked a lot. We wrote more. Some of our best theological minds, from Paul Tillich to Raymond Panikkar and Swami Abhishiktananda, got exercised on this issue.

The problem they faced remains with us: How do we do justice to dialogue and its demands while at the same time remaining faithful to our own religion with its attendant commitments?

We need to be open to what people say about their faith. By openness I do not mean a facile and easy tolerance that arises out of a lack of commitment to truth and anything ultimate. This type of "openness", which comes out of a relativism, cannot be taken seriously. Openness is theological and spiritual and has deep roots in the reality that humanity is one in sin and in grace.

If we accept openness, with no hidden agenda, with no effort at apologia by artifice, to use Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's phrase, then we naturally enter into dialogue with one another. Our dialogue should be open-minded, open to the new idea of convergence of faiths, eluding any final verdict as to where the dialogue will lead us.

Those who believe in interfaith dialogue will have to live with contradictions and unsolved questions, without trying to unravel them. We must be prepared to launch out onto new sojourns without worrying about destinations and arrival times. The world today is seeking for new forms of spirituality that are less dogmatic about the boundaries between Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Christianity.

An important question arises when we think of interfaith relationships: What are the dynamics of dialogue?

Dialogue is an I-Thou relationship, to use Martin Buber's phrase. When a person enters into our midst, she moves from being an "it", formal and isolated, to a "thou", informal and close up. then what we say and do assume a personal dimension; we get concerned about her her being, her feelings, her welfare.

Dialogue is also a two-way street. We have to give and receive. We have to seek and to find the "points of connections" in our particular situations.

Real dialogue is done at a personal level, "in the cave of the heart" where we meet in the depths, and where the "deep calls to the deep".

Looking over the walls

In our time it is impossible for us to remain shut up in the little worlds of our own family, tribe or nation. We are obliged to look beyond all walls and frontiers, and to become aware that other ways of living are as authentic and valuable as our own.

Abhishiktananda has put it well: "We have to recognise that complementarity is the law of nature, at every stage of creation as well as in situations and conditions in which man happens to be. From sub-atomic particles to the most complex living cell, it is by combination, by the coming together of individual energies that everything developed on earth and matter was made ready to receive the spark of life and later the spark of intelligence.

"The same has been true of civilisations. It is through creative contacts that cultures have become enriched. The same holds good for the sphere of religion. God does not want to discard and keep out of his salvific plan the diverse spiritual and religious preparations through which men and races were groping towards him. Creation is one. Mankind is one. There can only be one summit".

Is this syncretism? Yes, in a way. Many religious people are scared of syncretism and fear that it will water down genuine religion and drown the search for truth. Of course, early Christianity itself was a highly syncretic faith it combined elements of Greek philosophy, Roman law, a sense of justice and the Mediterranean cultic religions with Judaism.

At the same time I affirm God at work here at work in the affairs of humankind, at work in history. And is that not the core of the Christian message? God acts in history and so history is meaningful. God is history, coming into history, to redeem history.

In the early days of the missionary movement, we spoke of the Church Triumphant. We saw the church going forth to gather all nations unto her fold (as Hendrik Kraemer wrote in his 1938 book The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World). But slowly we have realised we must give more attention to what is happening outside the boundaries of the church. We have tried to see what God is doing in the secular world and the world of the other religions. And, thus, we have beheld God's presence in the other religions.

Today we see Christ leading his whole creation and his whole human family towards the goal of unity in him. In this saving work he is using the human movements of progress, liberation and humanisation. The church is not the only instrument, although it remains central to his purpose, for it is the place in which he is explicitly known and confessed and adored.

But the saving work of Christ is not limited by the boundaries of the church; it reaches out to the whole cosmos. Vatican II said: "Many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside the visible structure of the Church and so helps needed for salvation are always and everywhere available to all who are obedient to the dictates of conscience".

Every age has its kairos, its moment of destiny, so to speak. Panikkar has written that "the kairos of our time is a comprehensive, dynamic process which we become aware of and which we share today a process in which the problem of cultural and religious pluralism has not only become acute, but in which the common urge for universalism drives men for dialogue, understanding, agreement and even synthesis".

This cosmic vision is part of the salvation of our time. How can we move into such existential catholicity? Can we proclaim the uniqueness of Christ in an age of universal history? "Christ is the universal redeemer" and "God does not condemn anybody" "God has a universal will to save" "Other religions have a place in the divine economy of salvation".

How can we reconcile these statements with Peter's words: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12)

While God's saving power is not limited to the church, we believe that it is the nucleus, the first fruits, the sign and instrument of God's purpose in Christ. But the church is not itself the new humanity; the new humanity transcends the church. Where, then, do we find the new humanity?

We have to purge our minds of conscious and unconscious provincialism to reach the truth of religion.

Your place or mine?

The conversation between theologians of different religions is not dialogue. That is the study of comparative religion. Real dialogue is done at a personal level, "in the cave of the heart", to use an Upanishadic phrase, where we meet in the depths, and where the "deep calls to the deep". It is "conversation done with spiritual ardour".

The essential mental altitude is epoché to use a word coined by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, the father of modern phenomenology. It means putting aside, putting within brackets, temporarily suspending our tenets, convictions and opinions. In interfaith relations, epoché means not allowing our convictions and mental categories to interfere with what others are saying. We have to become purely transparent, purely receptive. A complete state of epoché can rarely be achieved, for we are all rooted in our own categories, rooted in individual psyche. But if epoché is absent, dialogue becomes monologue.

There are other aspects in the dynamics of dialogue and its methodology we must acquaint ourselves with and study the sacred books of other faiths; we must pray and meditate, and even consider living in community, with people of other faiths; we must avoid triumphalism and allow the Spirit to lead us; we must allow the religious experience of others to happen in us.

We have to purge our minds of conscious and unconscious provincialism to reach the truth of religion. We have to be honest to God and to ourselves in our search for God.

One world

In the light of our understanding of the unity of humankind, we are moving into an age of "universal history". It may take us a few centuries to realise the folly of our present conflicts based on nation, race or religion. these are, as a Greek philosopher said, "Streaks of irrationality in the cosmic scheme of things". Ethnicity, for example, is an ephemeral phenomenon. We live in the twilight of a new evolution, a social evolution.

In the future the only religions that will be able to present themselves and maintain their ground as "world religions" will be the ones that accept a "single world" that is coming into being. This is a new situation for all religions.

What the world needs most today is a sense of community to combat pervasive and perverse threats.

Some years ago in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a conference on "World Community" was held, which gathered diverse philosophers and theologians to spell out the common elements in our religions promoting life-in-community. They identified the following: the basic oneness of humankind, culminating in a person's responsibility towards fellow human beings; the person-in-community preceding the person-as-individual; the conviction of the inherent, inviolable dignity of the person; the emphasis on loving-kindness and forgiveness; the demand for and dedication to the promotion of peace and of social and economic justice; and the struggle against social, economic, racial and religious discrimination.

How can we manifest signs of community with our neighbours of other faiths in the midst of our present conflicts and tensions? We must attack the problem at the local level. G.K. Chesterton once said that if we want to make anything vital, we must make it local.

The temple, the mosque, the church, the synagogue, is a local unit of the kingdom of God. Our religious groups are now insular communities; they are islands. It should not be so. They should be like lighthouses, radiating love, truth and justice.


  Mathai Zachariah is a former general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India.

Originally published in One World No. 202 Jan/Feb. 1995. Office of Communication, 150, route de Ferney, P.O. Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland. Tel: (+4122), 971-61-11
  Previous - Next