To most contemporary people, many of the claims of Christianity in general and of Catholicism in particular can only come off as hopelessly cruel or arrogant. It is the second category which prompts the question at issue here. How dare Catholics claim that they alone among the billions of people who have ever lived have got it all right?
To answer that question, it might be helpful to look at the Old Testament, which describes God’s relationship with Israel: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 24:17). This covenant formula makes many appearances in the Old Testament. What is going on here is Divine election: God is choosing Israel among all the peoples of the earth to be a people uniquely his own. God calls Israel his segullah – his special possession. This seems completely bizarre, and Jewish people from the time of Moses to this very day have been wrestling with the scandalous particularity of God’s love.
Think about how much the Jewish community has survived over the last 3000 years: the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the oppressive rule of Greek dynasts (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and Roman puppets (Herod the Great), the destruction of two Temples, the exile, the pogroms, the banishment from European cities, the Holocaust. And yet, this small group of people from a tiny strip of land along the Mediterranean still exists today, with an uncanny influence on world culture and history. Yes, God’s special love for his people seems like a fantasy – until we appreciate the sheer unlikelihood of their continued existence! This is especially remarkable when we consider that most of their great persecutors, including the Roman Empire and the Third Reich – among many others great empires – are all gone.
If we cannot get comfortable with God’s scandalously specific love, we will not appreciate the Christian claim. Perhaps we prefer the God of the Deists, who winds the watch and lets it go. This kind of God is indifferent to the affairs of the world. But this is not the God of the Christian.
The claim of the First Letter of John is most relevant here: “Our faith consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:10). Here we arrive at an often misunderstood but crucial aspect of Christianity: we have not “discovered God” at all, as if he were some riddle waiting for a bunch of really smart people to figure out. It is not our successful attempts to crack his code which have yielded the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Rather, it is God who has found us! The Canticle of Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke says this well: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel: he has come to his people and set them free” (Lk 1:68 – note how similar this is to the Jewish Psalm 72, vs. 18). Jesus hits on the same reality in his Parable of the Lost Sheep: God is not a distant potentate waiting to be found by a few clever ones, but the shepherd who goes out in search of his people, even – no, especially – those who walk away. He is the one who pours out his blood on the Cross “for many” (Mt 26:28). In the search for God, he himself always takes the initiative. A practical outcome of this theological truth is that there is absolutely no room for arrogance or triumphalism among any Christian – especially Catholics.
Faith is the assent to the revelation of God. God’s revelation is ipso facto supernatural, which means that our unaided human reason cannot know God as he is. Our human reason is capable, however of receiving God’s revelation, his self-disclosure, but only because he first reveals himself to us. But isn’t that the way it is with all persons? Think about a human being you love – a spouse, a child, a friend. Isn’t there perennially something mysterious about that person? Aren’t there things about him or her that you could never know without being told? Even after many years of marriage, there are spouses who – if they are open to it –are constantly amazed by the depths of their partner’s humanity and love. That is revelation on a human level. The coming of Christ is the coming of God himself to earth, definitively telling us who he is. That is the basis of our claim.
So then, what about other religions? If Christianity were just the best version of religion that we humans could come up with, then they would be more or less equal to Christianity. Some would work better for others, or perhaps be better expressions of faith in a particular culture, but nothing more. In the end, we would be dealing with differences of taste and effectiveness. But if, instead, the Church is not merely the best human way of serving God but the boat in which God truly sails along the tides of history, then we are in fact dealing with a category error. Christianity is not in the end a collection of well-intentioned and like-minded people. Rather, it is the Church of God, a mystery with human members but also and firstly founded and led by the eternal Son of God.
The great religions of the world are not completely worthless by any means. But in themselves, there is something of an advent reality. All the great religions – and I leave Islam aside here because of its unique claims – have within them, even if implicitly, the characteristic of expectation. They are all waiting for completion – just like Judaism. Dare I say that Christianity is the fulfillment of all religions? Is it possible to imagine that God can use the sincere attempts of the peoples of the world to worship him as preparation for the Gospel of Christ? We should recall here that religion and culture go hand-in-hand. In fact, the root word of culture is “cultus,” which means “worship.” For this reason, we can affirm the elements of truth found in the classic religions of the world. Truly, any culture that does not have a determinative sense of God is not a culture at all, but an anti-culture. (This, by the way, should make us very reticent about our current society.)
We Christians and Catholics especially refer to our faith as religio vera – true religion. That sounds on the surface like some sort of claim of superiority. And it would be, if what I say above about God’s seeking us out were not true. But if it is true, then true religion is not the boastful claim of the Smartest People in Human History, but a declarative description of what Christianity is. It is not true at the expense of other religions; it is true because Christianity describes reality as it is. The paganism of the Greeks was a dominant religious enterprise for thousands of years. And yet, the notion that competing claims among squabbling gods and goddesses leads to major wars on the earth is simply untrue. The worship of the Baals – an aspect of the Canaanite religion which was a perennial temptation for Israel – consisted of human beings falling down in adoration of objects they themselves had created for the sake of fertility and harvest. This, again, was shown to be untrue, even dangerously so.
And yet, authentic religions are not abandoned wholesale. Saint Paul epitomized the fact that “whatsoever is true, whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is worthy of praise” has a place in Christianity (Phil 4:8). He himself had no problem using the Greek culture as a vehicle for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Acts 17, Paul visits the Aereopagus in Athens, where he attempts to incorporate the sensitivities and patterns of the prevailing culture into his preaching of the kerygma. He first refers to the altar addressed to an unknown God and says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Then he demonstrates his knowledge of Classical culture, enlisting the support of two Greek writers, Epimenides and Aratus:
Yet he is not far from each one of us, for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring’ (Acts 17:28).
This passage of Acts has been incorporated into one of the Prefaces for use during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass (Preface VI of the Sundays of OT). Grasp what that means for a second: the words of pagan authors – Epimenides and Aratus – are used to praise the Father, the Son, and the Sprit during the high point of the Catholic Mass, which is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. In this, we see that nothing that is true or good or beautiful in the religions of the world – or in the philosophical quest for truth – will be wasted. All can be incorporated into the beautiful symphony of Christ and his Church.
But yes, in affirming this, we must affirm that it is neither Buddha nor Zeus that saves, but only Jesus Christ. What God truly wants is for us all to “COEXIST” – not just now but forever in heaven. But we can only ever do that if we are grafted onto Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
[This post is part two of the series, Questions Millennials Ask their Seminarian Friend.]