Discussions in this post are not in the official stand of the Church. They are still part of the on-going reflections theologians are doing. So there is no need to accept all that is said here. Some ideas here can raise eyebrows. The theolgians consulted are Jacques Dupuis S.J., Bernard Sesboue S.J. and, to a very large extent, Claude Geffre O.P.
For the Social Scientists
1. It is not easy to define "religion". Etymology on line will say that "religion" refers to "state of life bound by monastic vows," also "conduct indicating a belief in a divine power." It can mean "piety, devotion; religious community," and "respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods; conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation; fear of the gods; divine service, religious observance; a religion, a faith, a mode of worship, cult; sanctity, holiness". In European languages that have Latin in them, the word "religion" is found. But in many other languages of the world there is no word for "religion".
2. In the Roman times, during the first century AD, a Roman philosopher named Cicero saw "religion" as RITUALS FOR THE GODS. Of course he was referring to the Roman gods. A little later, a Church Father named Tertullian said that "religion" meant a way of RELYING ON GOD. Both Ciceo and Tertullian were living after the Biblical times. If we look at the Bible, and the New Testament, we will NOT see the word "religion". The early Christians at the time of St. Paul and the Apostles did not see themselves as belonging to a "religion". They were followers of "the Way". The early Christians saw Christianity as following "the Way" and not as a religion. The early Christians simply followed God, they relied on God in Christ. They were more interested in following the footsteps of Jesus.
3. But then somewhere along the way, Christians developed a more sophisticated was of living the faith. So they started having rituals, cult practices, different sacrifices, liturgies, etc. More and more there were EXTERNAL signs and manifestations directed to God. More and more Christianity became marked by many EXTERNAL practices and became thus identified as "religion".
4. Today we can see what "religion" is according to social scientists, notably the sociologists and anthropologists. Two major identifications are made regarding "religion".
i. Religion is functional. In the functional view religion is a system of practices, symbols, rituals, norms that relate to what people consider as sacred. People then oppose the sacred from the profane. So we see temples, pagodas, mosques, Churches which are special places set apart from the rest. There are objects specially used for rituals and they cannot just be mixed with ordinary objects. There are priests, shamans, holy persons, ect., who function differently from ordinary work. etc. The major FUNCTION of religion is to GIVE SOCIAL COHESION to members. The different ritual and practices give a sense of "membership" and "belonging".
ii.Religion is substantive. Here the assumption is that human nature is designed to SEEK FOR THE LINK BETWEEN LIFE HERE AND THE BEYOND. This is why the human is believed to be by nature "religious"--the human is HOMO RELIGIOSUS. The human is always interested in looking for what is beyond; the human looks out to the transcendence and there sees the help and hope for addressing life here.
5. Let us keep both in mind. Religion is functional because it serves unity of members. Religion is substantive because the human is by nature oriented to what is transcendent. In a way we can see Christianity as "religion"in both senses. We have our practices, symbols, rituals, priests, etc. We feel we are together, we identify ourselves as "Christians" and we have a group TO BELONG TO. Then of course we have our sense of Absolute and Transcendence; we have our Trinity who answers for the basic questions we have in life and who orients our life to salvation.
6. Some sociologists try to refine the meaning of religion. Today it can be said that, in general, all religions are systems with moral-ethical norms; there are rules of behaviour and practices that members SHOULD DO. It can be said also that, in general, all religions have communities; there are adepts and faithful ones who identify themselves together as "belonging" to one another. Finally it can be said that, in general, all religions talk of "paths" that point to realities BEYOND THE HUMAN CONDITION here and now. Again we might want to apply this to Christianity. We have our NORMS, like do not steal, do not kill, go to mass on Sundays, etc. We have our COMMUNITY which we call as "Church". We say we belong to it and we adhere to it. We differentiate ourselves from people of other religions through our belonging to our Church. Finally we say that we have the path--which we call as salvation brought to us by Christ. So the ingredients of being "religion"may be in Christianity too.
7. Yet, we need to go deeper. There is, perhaps, something in Christianity that may still be "outside" the usual features of religion. But to see this we need to go slowly through other matters first.
8. One of the questions we raise today is about the truths of religions. Because of religious PLURALISM we might, sometimes, wonder which is the "true religion". "Which religion has the truth?" There are ways of answering this. There is a kind of pluralism, we can call it as "relativism", that will say that ANY RELIGION IS TRUE. Truth is RELATIVE TO WHERE YOU ARE. So it does not matter where you are. It does not matter what religion you go to. This can be very attractive but we need to think twice about this. The danger of relativism is that "anything goes", or "anything is ok". Why is this a danger? It leads to INTOLERANCE. It says that any truth is ok so you should not try to be true. If you try to be true, then you will violate the others to be true. Others have the right to their own truth, so you should not hold to your truth. So when someone else wants to be true, that person should not. Why, because that person should consider the truths of others. That person should not insist on his/her truth because others can still be true. In the end, nobody is allowed to be true for the sake of others. Let us take an example of relativism.
9. I am Christian and I believe that Jesus Christ is Savior. This is true for me. But relativism will NOT TOLERATE this. It will say that other religions have their truths, so I should not hold on to the truth of my faith. I must respect other religions and the truth they have. But then when a Buddhist says that salvation is through the dhamma, that Buddhist should not also hold to that truth. Relativism will NOT TOLERATE the truth of the Buddhist. The Buddhist should respect the Christian or the Muslim. So where will we all go? In the end nothing is true and nobody among us is in the truth. But the funny thing is this: the relativist will say that relativism is true. So all of us should accept the truth of the relativist. This is BAD PLURALISM. We allow for plurality of truths but we do not tolerate any truth. We go nowhere with this.
10. We need to be healthy in pluralism. We admit that HUMANITY IS PLURAL in cultures, religions, beliefs, etc. But WE CANNOT ACCEPT NOBODY IS TRUE. Even if humanity is plural, THERE IS STILL SOMETHING TRUE TO ALL OF US HUMANS. With this type of thinking DIALOGUE IS POSSIBLE. Also it is here where we need to situate our own Christianity.
What then is "truth" among religions?
What is "true religion"?
1. The questions raised often today are these: what is "true religion"? Is my religion true or are other religions true? Which is the true one and which is the false one? First of all, we must be careful about our position. Today pluralism is so attractive but we need a "good pluralism", a "healthy pluralism" that is open to the possibility of TRUTH THAT BELONGS TO ALL. Without this, we can not have dialogue. If we accept "bad pluralism" or "relativism" we will not go very far; each will stay locked up in a box. Good pluralism admits that humanity is plural--there are many cultures, religions, practices, beliefs, etc. All of us can move and work together to discern what is true and common to all of us IN OUR PLURALITY.
2. Today we can note many types of religions. There are the emerging new religions--like the "New Age"--that are characterized by the search for spiritual-physical-psychological well-being. But then of course we also see the "usual" traditions of the world that have been existing for so many centuries, such as Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, etc. Let us not forget the Traditional religions of indigenous communities.
3. Although the world is becoming more and more pluralist, there is also a growing tendency towards fundamentalism in some sectors. The news report about them now and then. Fundamentalism is an extreme position that hardens the parameters of a religion and refuses any form of dialogue and openness to plurality. Yes, people have the right to be fundamentalist but we cannot accept a fundamentalism that opts for violence.
A bit of historical review
4. Let us review what we know about history. We cannot deny that in history many have engaged in violence and even war for the sake of religious beliefs. Many have fought wars IN THE NAME OF THEIR GODS AND RELIGIONS, thinking that their religions are so true while others are not true and are opposed to them. Our own Church history is not exempted from this fact. In the name of Christ many Christians have done so much bloodshed against people of other religions. We have a wounded history with Muslims and Jews, for example. Still, let us be careful in our interpretation of history.
a. We cannot say that religions alone have been sources of violence and wars. Other social "non-religious" sectors have been very violent too. Just think of the Nazism of Germany or the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia. They were not in the domain of religion but they were heavily violent. So religion does not monopolize violence.
b. We should not be very quick in condemning religion, especially Christianity-Judaism-Islam, as basically sources of violence. History will show that most of the time violence emerged because of politics. Religions were then used to sharpen the political positions. Violence did not start because of religious beliefs but because of political differences. Religions became instrumental. If we remember our history of the Indian continent during the time of Gandhi-ji for example we will see that Hinduism, a very peaceful religion, was used by politics and consequently became aggressive against Muslims and Christians. The violence was not originally from the religion.
5. We need to be calm, today, and try to be more lucid about history. What we think is "clash" of religions in the past may have been triggered NOT BY RELIGIOUS BELIEFS BUT BY POLITICS. But of course we never close our eyes to the history of violence too and how intolerant a religious group went against people of other religions. For us, Catholics, we have said sorry. We have had Popes who apologized. We hope and pray that, today and tomorrow, we will NEVER engage in any violence and war for the sake of our Christianity.
6. It is, however, not enough to say we are sorry for past history. We need to look into ourselves and discern, regularly, our possible propensity for violence, intolerance, rejection. We need to be vigilant with our biases and prejudices against people of other faiths. We need to constantly uproot any weed of violence that sprouts in our hearts.
7. Because of this history of past violence and wars, many of us are hesitant to go into mission. Many of us say that we do not want to repeat the harm we have done to other cultures in the past. Our Christianity, many say, has become so "elite" and arrogant and with a superiority complex (like during the time of Colonizing), that should not be repeated. So mission itself is affected. Proclamation is affected. But really, if we go back to Jesus himself we can say that JESUS NEVER WANTED THAT WE GO FOR VIOLENCE AND ARROGANCE. History has wounded mission and Jesus himself would agree that we should not go do violence and arrogance. But the command of Jesus remains: GO TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH. Go PROCLAIM. Mission continues to be our Christian vocation. But we need to do it in a more healthy and human way.
8. Vatican II itself has come out with a document DENOUNCING acts of violence and violation of others. We have no right to force others against their own religions. Let us read two passages.
From Dignitates humanae #2: "This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits".
From Dignitates humanae #10: "It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man's response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will".
9. If the aim of mission is to impose upon others, then IT IS NOT MISSION anymore. Jesus did not command us to go and force others, Jesus did not command us to impose on others. We do not anymore opt for intolerance, fanaticism, proselytizing, etc. We do not anymore take the stand that others have no rights to their beliefs. We do not anymore see them as children of the devil. Times have changed and Vatican II has affirmed the changes. Religious freedom is the right of all so we cannot and should not pull others out of their religions. "The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person" (Dignitati humanae #2).
10. So then we need to fact the fact today: there is pluralism in religions. There are many religions and they all have to be respected. This poses as a challenge not just for us for for every religion: HOW DO WE DIALOGUE WITH OTHERS WHILE WE CONTINUE TO BELIEVE THAT OUR FAITH-RELIGION IS TRUE? How do we engage in dialogue within a pluralistic world?
Truth in pluralism today
11. We say that our faith is true. We say that our religion is true. BUT THAT DOES NOT FALSIFY OTHER RELIGIONS. The truth of my faith does not make other faiths necessarily false. We do not opt for "exclusivism". We do not say that we are in the truth and others are rejected to be in the error. We have stopped thinking like this already. We might add that, following the tradition of the Church Fathers, other religions contain elements of our religion. We might want to say that the "Seeds of the Word" are already there. Ok, we hold on to this. But we need to admit also that even non-Christian elements can be true. There are aspects in other religions that are really VERY DIFFERENT FROM OUR CHRISTIANITY. And we add that THOSE ELEMENTS CAN BE TRUE TOO.
12. Truth is a manifestation. It is an "unveiling". For us God has revealed--in history, in Christ, in the Trinity. This is true. It has been manifested and unveiled to us. But there is more to what has been revealed to us. God in his own mysterious ways MAY BE REVEALING TOO TO OTHER RELIGIONS. God may be sharing himself with other religions in his own mysterious ways. His revelation to us does not sop him from revealing to others.
Truth in dialogue
13. Notice then that we do not abandon out faith. We remain TRUE TO OUR FAITH In front of people of other religions we can still hold on to the Church tradition of "Seeds of the Word" present in other religions. But we can add that God can reveal in them, God can speak in them and communicate with them IN WAYS THAT GO BEYOND OUR OWN KNOWING. We cannot stop God from relating with people of other religions.
14. God is sharing truths to other people. To us he has shared and revealed, this is the "profile" of his revelation and it is presented to us. God may be showing OTHER PROFILES TO OTHER PEOPLE AND WE RESPECT THAT. This can explain what Pope John Paul II said in his Redemptoris missio: that as we enter into dialogue with people of other religions we go DEEPER ITO OUR OWN RELIGION because we discover more and more the OTHER PROFILES OF GOD'S REVELATION IN OTHER RELIGIONS.