Recently a Catholic friend asked me for some advice. A non-Catholic religious speaker was coming to her community, and she was wondering if she should go and hear him. She was worried about the possibility that it would involve some kind of Catholic bashing.
When I looked into the speaker, I thought Catholic bashing was unlikely. I suspected instead something perhaps more dangerous: a counterfeit.
The world is full of religious counterfeits, of course, ideas that are popular and seem innocent and agreeable but really are false and dangerous. Outright bigotry can be damaging to people’s faith, but at least it’s usually easy to identify for what it is.
In this case, I suspected the counterfeit would go something like this: “All the major religions are basically the same. They all reflect a human striving after the unknowable divine and toward a good, upright life.”
This sounds so very peaceful and gentle and tolerant to our ears. That’s exactly why it’s such a popular point of view. Yet mostly due to one tiny word — “all” — it’s false and potentially dangerous. It leads ultimately to total relativism and total indifference to religious truth.
It’s worth noting here that the teaching of the church on religious liberty is premised on the opposite conviction, that finding and following religious truth is an essential duty of human life which must be free of coercion.
Now, an inattentive student of Catholic belief might mistake the counterfeit for being Catholic. After all, the Second Vatican Council characterized most non-Christian religions in much this way.
In other words, it’s true that most of the world’s great religions are a striving after an unknown divine and after a good and holy life, and the church rightly treats those efforts with great respect. There are real lights that shine there — one thinks of C.S. Lewis’ “Tao,” the striking commonality in the moral teaching of the great religions, in accord with the natural law.
But Christianity and Judaism, and in particular the Catholic faith, are in a different category, a point that should be especially near to us during Advent and Christmas.
The beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews puts the point perfectly: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word.”
The inspired writer is talking about that little Babe in Bethlehem. God speaks to us in him.
The counterfeit says all religions are human creations, reflections of the human desire for the God we do not know. Christianity says it’s true that God in his fullness transcends our ability to fully know him, but God himself has reached out to us to bridge this gap, at least partially. He has come to us and spoken to us of himself. In the amazing self-emptying of the Incarnation, he has done this in a truly human way.
“Christ’s whole earthly life — his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking — is Revelation of the Father,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it.
God had already reached out through his chosen people and the prophets down the centuries, which is why, on that silent night in Bethlehem, the people of Israel were awaiting the Messiah. In Bethlehem, he came in person.
When we grasp this fact, it should change our whole approach to these questions. No longer is the truth about God a matter of human speculation, yours and mine, a mere matter of opinion. No more is the upright life something we define for ourselves.
Looked at in the light of the Incarnation, of God made man, it is now about humbly seeking to more deeply understand what God has told us of himself and about ourselves. What God has said becomes the primary point of reference, both to understand him and to understand ourselves and what it means to live a full, good life.
When we encounter other religious perspectives, we do indeed do so with respect. But we do so in the position of St. Paul at the pagan Areopagus, knowing that we are witnesses of the unknown God they are seeking. We recognize the insights and good things found in other religions as “seeds of the Gospel.”
To our contemporaries, this could very well sound triumphalist and arrogant, and of course it could be carried out that way. But the foundation here is actually humility. Pretending that religion is just what I decide it is, setting myself up as the measure of all things, even just in my own life, giving God no say — isn’t that what’s really prideful?
If there is a truth to be found, and if it originates in God, and if he has spoken it to us, it is genuine humility to submit to it, and a service to propose it to others.
Of course we are in dialogue with others who do not yet share our convictions. Of course we should approach it humbly. But in doing so we can never lose sight of the treasure that has been given us.
Our Blessed Mother, confronted with the revelation of God in the very person of her Son, “pondered these things in her heart.” Advent and the coming Christmas season are our invitation to do likewise.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.