Christianity and World Religions
Stratford Caldecott


The following article appears in the September 1999 issue of The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham

‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines
which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often
reflects a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’ (Nostra Aetate, n.2)

‘Every truth – no matter who speaks it – is from the Holy Spirit’
(omne verum a quocumque dicatur a Spiritu Sancto est) (St Thomas Aquinas)

We live in a pluralistic society.  The biggest Buddhist monastery and research centre in Europe is located in the west Scottish lowlands, at Eskdalemuir.  The locals call it ‘Sammy Ling’, but its full name is the Kagyu Samye-Ling Tibetan Centre.  It is big, and it is pink, with paintwork in red, yellow, blue and gold.  Inside 1000 golden Buddhas, gold-encrusted pillars and silk-screen prints of dragons and birds bring authentic Tibetan craftsmanship to a region that is now almost more familiar with saffron than tartan.

  In Oxford there are plans to build a mosque on the banks of the Cherwell.  We already have an Interfaith Centre, as well as centres for Hebrew and Islamic Studies.  Other parts of the country are more Muslim than Christian.  Worldwide, modern communications and transport have brought about a situation where most people grow up with neighbours and friends - or family members - belonging to a variety of faiths.  Only a third of the world population is Christian (just over a half of that Catholic).  Muslims account for 17%, Hindus 13%, Buddhists 7%.  The year 2000 will see the birth of a new organization, the World Religions Organization, conceived as the religious answer to the UN.  But a person trying to make moral and metaphysical sense of a world where the scriptures of every religion are equally accessible in any large bookshop, may be forgiven for feeling a bit confused.

  Every one of these religions offers a complete way of life and claims to answer the question of human meaning.  Apart from their obvious social and cultural expressions, every one of them has the following five components: scriptures, institutions, saints, metaphysical doctrines, morality and rituals.  Most if not all of them claim some kind of revelation from heaven, and their holy men and women seem reputedly to perform the same kinds of miracles.  Yet if you look at the doctrines of each religion, they are so different from the others that it appears they flatly contradict each other.  There seem to me to be at least five different views we might take on all this, and you might like to consider which corresponds best to your own position before we go any further.  Either:

1.       All religions are false, so invent your own path, or
2.       One religion is true, the others are false, or
3.       One religion is the truest, the others are merely approximations, or
4.       All religions are true in what they agree about, false where they disagree, or
5.       All religions are true: the contradictions are only on the surface.

  C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Abolition of Man which can serve as an example of option 3 - although it might seem more like numbers 4 or 5 if one had not read his other works.  In it he takes a few pages at the end to run through the common moral beliefs that he sees around the world in all the religions, including the ‘primal’ or ancient native religions.  He calls this universal moral law the Tao – the ancient Chinese word for the Way.  This includes some version of the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), plus various important virtues on which an ordered society seems to depend, such as humility, charity and veracity.  One of the things a religion does is give people a reason for cultivating these virtues, even when it might be to their own immediate advantage not to do so.

  Option number 4 has been called the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach.  Unfortunately most of what is interesting about the various religions disappears if you drop the areas of disagreement.  An example of number 5 would be the attempt to locate common ground below the surface, in some kind of mystical experience.  (This was tried by Aldous Huxley in his famous book The Perennial Philosophy.)  Every religion has members who claim to have broken through the common state of ignorance and attained a new state of consciousness, in which they experienced a kind of oneness with the universe or with God.  It is fairly easy to compare these statements and conclude that they are all talking about the same thing (cosmic consciousness? supreme identity? enlightenment? gnosis?), and that this new consciousness is what all religions are really there to induce in the believer – even if only a few individuals manage to make it all the way.

  There are more sophisticated versions of this approach than Huxley’s: for example that of the ‘metaphysical traditionalists’, whose leading figures include S.H. Nasr and the late Frithjof Schuon.  Another may be represented by Simone Weil, who (according to Martin Andic in ‘Simone Weil’s Taoism’)[i] believed that every ‘nation’ of antiquity ‘had its own vocation, to explore a different aspect of God: for Israel, it was God’s unity and uniqueness; for India, his mystical identity with the perfected soul; for Egypt, God’s suffering and death and resurrection to judge the soul made like him through justice and compassion; for Greece, his distance from wretched man and the search for a bridge or mediation; “for China, God’s special mode of operation, plenitude of action in what seems inaction, plenitude of presence in what seems absence, void and silence”.’  Among Catholic writers, Romano Guardini saw the Buddha and Socrates as pagan precursors of Christ equivalent to the great Jewish precursor, John the Baptist.  Jean Danielou developed this theme in a little book called Advent (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950).

  Whatever we make of this, whether we see them as complementary or contradictory, the fact remains that what each religion states about reality in its doctrinal pronouncements is different, and often so different that it appears flatly to contradict the others.  Before trying to resolve these differences, we should probably ask ourselves first, what does it mean to say a religion is true?  For a doctrinal statement or creedal formula is not necessarily ‘true’ in the way that a statement in a poem, or in a scientific textbook, may be called true.  And because each religious tradition is also a whole imaginative world, a culture, a universe, it is not as easy as it seems to compare one religion with another, or even to translate its core doctrines into a common language.  As G.K. Chesterton says: ‘A religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in’.

  Increasingly many scholars of religion are coming to understand how the claims of the various religions are not only hard to translate accurately because of this difference in cultural context, but are actually answers to different questions.[ii]  The primary question that the religions of India tend to ask is Who am I?  Judaism asks, Who are we? Or What is our identity as a People? Or perhaps What is the Law?  Buddhism asks instead, What is the way beyond suffering?  The fundamental question Christianity asks is different again: Who is Christ? Christianity is therefore centred not on a doctrine, or on a method, or on a law, or on a book, but on a person.  (And thus also, the greatest contribution of Christianity to civilization is arguably the importance and dignity of personality, or personhood, both divine and human.)  The message of Christ, you could say, was simply himself.  He asked us to believe in him, in order to be saved.


Christianity and Buddhism

In the case of ‘salvation’, both Christianity and Buddhism use the word, but the meaning in each case is very different.  In Buddhism it means salvation from ignorance through enlightenment, which implies the dissolution of the false self - or rather from a whole chain of false identities that is supposed to continue from life to life until enlightenment is finally attained.  For Christianity (as distinct from the heresy known as Gnosticism), salvation is a process not of extinction, but of integration.  It is the process by which in this life we become part of Christ, and through him become part of the life of the Blessed Trinity.  Our existence is not extinguished, but made eternal in God.  Christian love also seems to differ radically from Buddhist compassion.  For the Buddhist, compassion is the natural result of dissolving those selfish attachments which create the illusion of a self.   As a Christian, I am supposed to love my neighbour as myself; the Buddhist is taught there is no self to love - whether my own or anyone else’s.

  There is also a difference between the two religions in their attitude to suffering.  In both, suffering is regarded as an evil.  But in Christianity, the evil acquires a salvific purpose.  The aim is not to escape or elude suffering, but to join it to that of Christ.  The French poet, Paul Claudel, once said, ‘Jesus did not come to explain suffering, not to take it away: he came to fill it with his presence.’  In other words, his purpose was to enter into suffering in order to be with us, and in order to draw us to himself: to heal the breach between God and man.  That is why Christian detachment consists ‘not in casting aside all natural loves and goods, but in the possession of a love and a good so great that all others seem nothing in comparison’ (Coventry Patmore).

  There was a great outcry a few years ago when Pope John Paul II, in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, described Buddhism as a ‘negative’ religion.  In fact he does seem to have made a fairly serious mistake when he claimed that this religion believed that the world was evil and the source of evil.  For Buddhists, it is not the world but ‘craving’ (tanha) - that is, our undue attachment to the world - which is the source of evil.  This is not as nihilistic a doctrine as it has usually been painted in the West.  Buddhists do speak of the ultimate nature of all things, including the self, as a ‘Void’, but they do not mean by this the modern Western idea of ‘nothingness’.  They mean almost the opposite: a state of infinite fulness, of being which cannot be divided into parts or ‘things’ - ‘no-thing-ness’ perhaps.  (The sage Buddhagosha describes Nirvana in extremely positive terms, as ‘Truth transcendental, difficult to be seen, without decay, eternal, indestructible, immortal, happy, peaceful, wonderful, holy, pure and an island of refuge.’)  When they speak of the destruction of the self, you could interpret them as refering only to the destruction of the self that Christians too are told to deny: what we call the ‘Old Adam’.

  It is worth noting that the medieval English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing tells the contemplative to set his heart on losing self-awareness: ‘not on ceasing to exist (for that would be lunacy and an insult to God), but on getting rid of the conscious knowledge of your own being; this must always happen if God’s love is to be experienced here below’ (Epistle of Privy Counsel).  The author is here making a very important distinction that may show a way of entering a dialogue with Buddhism at the deepest level.  We must ask ourselves seriously, are we talking about ceasing to exist or of ceasing to be aware of our own existence?

  Towards the end of his life in 1988, the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (who was no admirer of Buddhism) wrote in a letter about the encounter between Christian and Asian forms of spirituality.  He believed that the encounter might turn out to be more important for Christianity itself even than the earlier encounter between Christianity and Greek civilization, which created the culture of the Middle Ages.  ‘The question is,’ he wrote: ‘does selflessness mean emptiness or Trinitarian love?  The dialogue is possible.’  Now by this he did not mean that the Asian religions possess the doctrine of the Trinity.  In fact they sometimes do speak of divine trinities (the Trimurti of Brahma, Shiva and Visnu, for example, or Sat-Chit-Ananda), but these are not the same as the Christian Trinity, which was revealed through the Incarnation.  I think that what he meant was probably something like this.  Is the ‘self’ that is denied – and the ‘God’ that is denied – by Buddhist spirituality something that Christianity also would deny?  Asian religions do not (cannot) have the positive doctrine that is revealed in Christianity.  But if they lack the doctrine, are they nevertheless open I some way to the reality?  And this is a rather subtle question, which perhaps cannot even be answered for the religion as a whole, but only for a particular believer.  For if the formal doctrine of the religion denies the existence of a self or of a God, then in a very important way it is closed to Christianity.  But a person who adheres to that religion in good conscience, as a genuine seeker of truth who as yet has found nothing truer, may well be open to God’s grace in a way that the religion as such is not.


Dialogue and Proclamation

Despite his faux pas on Buddhism, the Pope has been a proponent of interfaith dialogue for many years, building always on the documents of Vatican II, especially Ad Gentes, Dignitatis Humanae, Gaudium et Spes and Nostra Aetate.  In 1986 he organized an interreligious prayer meeting in Assisi which he still regards as one of the inspired moments of his pontificate, although it provoked severe criticism from Catholic conservatives.  He was careful to make a distinction between ‘praying with’ and ‘praying in the presence of’ a member of another religion, given the widely different understandings we have of what it is we do when we pray, and of exactly whom we address in our prayer.  It is not possible to pray a common prayer, but only to pray our own prayers in the same place.  (He also took pains to emphasize that ‘The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions.  Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all.  Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because every human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth.’)

  Since 1986, interfaith initiatives involving the Catholic Church have become increasingly common.  In 1990 the papal encyclical Redemptoris Missio set this kind of initiative in the context of a strong reaffirmation of the value of evangelization and mission – in other words, of the attempt (without using force) to convert or at least persuade non-Christians to become members of the Church.  This was reinforced by the document Dialogue and Proclamation the following year by Cardinals Arinze and Tomko.  And in the previous year, 1989, the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger had already produced a letter to the bishops on Christian Meditation which clarified some of the essential differences between Christian and other forms of spirituality and prayer.  Finally, the Pope’s programmatic letter of 1994, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, outlining the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, makes the year 1999 a special occasion for interreligious dialogue: ‘two commitments should characterize in a special way the third preparatory year: meeting the challenge of secularism and dialogue with the great religions.’ [iii]

  Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1989 letter (which, by the way, is said to have been drafted with the help of Balthasar) states that ‘the essential element of authentic Christian prayer is the meeting of two freedoms, the infinite freedom of God with the finite freedom of man’ (3).  Christian prayer and mysticism, unlike any system of Buddhist meditation or of Yoga, is not aimed at transcendence of the human condition.  It is focused on the Person of  Christ – on his love for us rather than our love for him.  Any particular ‘techniques’ of prayer, even if they involve traditional Christian devotions such as the Jesus prayer, or the rosary, or certain methods of breathing and interior stillness practised by the Desert Fathers, are placed by the letter in that context.  It says that Christian mysticism ‘has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God; and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy’ (32).  It adds that one may take from the other religions whatever is useful in the way of prayer, but only if ‘the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements, are never obscured’ (16).  In fact ‘all the aspirations which the prayer of other religions expresses are fulfilled in the reality of Christianity beyond all measure’ (15).  But the difference is this, that ‘the personal self or the nature of a creature’ is never dissolved (15).

  We always come back to the fundamental divide between Christianity and most Asian religions, which is radically different view of both creation and salvation, due to the Incarnation and the Trinity.  The other religions all know that duality is transcended by unity.  It is only the Christian who knows that even unity is transcended: it is transcended by the Trinity.  The other religions tend to teach that everything that has a beginning must also come to an end, it must be reabsorbed.  But the Christian Trinity makes it possible for something that has a beginning not to have an end.  For our uniqueness as persons, our difference from God and from each other, is founded on the very thing that alone transcends time: namely love. ‘Love never ends,’ (1 Cor. 13:8).  For Christianity, our relationships with others around us are therefore more important than our state of consciousness and awareness, or enlightenment, because it is through these relationships that we enter eternal life, which is the life of the Blessed Trinity.

  If all this is true, it means that Christianity really does offer something that other religions lack, and that is union with God in Christ.  It offers a kind of salvation that is qualitatively unique.  It offers salvation, in a sense, not only from Hell but even from (or beyond) Nirvana.  That is not to say that members of other religions will not be saved.  ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’  Buddhism at its best appears to be a path for the pure in heart, the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful.  The Buddha, purifying himself of all selfish desire, is surely purifying his heart, and it is hard to believe that good Christians will not meet the Buddha in heaven.  But if Christians are right about who Christ is, then the followers of other religions will be saved by Christ, whether they know it or not.  (Thus the Buddha’s task, and his great purity would have been impossible to achieve unless God had given him sufficient grace through Christ to achieve it.)  Furthermore they will be saved more easily if they know the source and meaning of their salvation.

  As Christians, that is as members of Christ, our reason for evangelizing is the same as Christ’s own reason for doing so.  We are motivated by love.  We are sent like him into the world specifically to preach the coming of the kingdom - a kingdom in which all truth finds its proper home.  This missionary work is God’s initiative, not ours.  This is the way in which he gives himself to us, and we give ourselves to him.[iv]

[i]This chapter may be found in Jen, Agape, Tao with Tu Wei-Ming, ed M. Zlomislic and D. Goicoechea (Binghampton University, 1999).

[ii] See, for example, J.A. DiNoia OP, The Diversity of Religions (Catholic University of America Press, 1992).

[iii]Louis Bouyer’s new book, The Invisible Father: Approaches to the Mystery of the Divinity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999) is a particularly helpful resource.  It contains a remarkable summary of the religious history of mankind, including questions of psychology and cosmology.

[iv]There is strange and poignant dynamic to this.  As the Church teaches, a member of another religion may be saved without hearing of Christ, and without converting.  At the same time we are obliged by our fidelity to Christ and our love to proclaim Christianity to all.  And once we have done so, the other may find himself in a radically new situation. He may be at a stage where he could only understand conversion to Christianity as a betrayal of the truth he knows.  But if he is at the point where he could integrate the truth he knows with the truth that is proclaimed to him, and chooses not to; if his rejection of our words is in any way due to his own closure to truth, rather than to our own sins and inadequacy; then his own religion is no longer such a safe refuge, and his salvation is no longer so certain.  It is God who obliges us to put him into this state of spiritual danger, for the sake of his soul and our own.