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
She has a high regard for the manner of
life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines
reflects a ray of that truth which enlightens
all men’ (Nostra Aetate, n.2)
which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless
‘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:
All religions are false, so invent your own path, or
One religion is true, the others are false, or
One religion is the truest, the others are merely approximations,
All religions are true in what they agree about, false where
they disagree, or
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,
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
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
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
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
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.’
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
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
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,
[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.