Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Faith to faith

I have become convinced that what is largely missing from the Catholic scene is a serious engagement with other religions and spiritualities in the name of an uncompromising quest for the greatest possible truth. Such an endeavor is risky but necessary. I attempted such an engagement in The Radiance of Being, published by Angelico Press in May 2013. Some readers will be disturbed by the book – especially by the sympathy with which it treats Islam, not to mention problematic Christian thinkers such as Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Valentin Tomberg, and the Russian Sophiologists. I wrestle with many of the questions I know are of great concern to others of the present generation – many of them still outside the Catholic Church, and unwilling even to consider its claims as long as these questions remain unaddressed.

The methodology is somewhat unusual for an orthodox Catholic. Whilst firmly believing that Catholic Christianity is true, I also perceive other traditions to be rich in elements of goodness, beauty, and truth. I believe that wherever
Christianity flatly contradicts another faith, it is Christianity that is true; but I also believe such contradictions may be rarer than at first appears, once the complexity of religious language and different cultural contexts are taken fully into account. Of course, when they do occur, contradictions are extremely interesting and not to be glossed over.

The guidelines for interfaith dialogue, and the Church’s teaching on the subject, are summarized in my booklet Catholicism and Other Religions (CTS). In it I describe the various types of dialogue in which people engage, and several important principles enunciated by Pope Benedict XVI: that there must be no renunciation or compromise of truth for the sake of achieving a false unity or peace; that we must be prepared to listen to criticisms of our own religion, which is always in need of purification; and that dialogue does not replace proclamation, that in fact the two should interpenetrate. In other words, if we believe our faith to be true, we must hope to persuade the other of this, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. But friendship does not depend on our believing the same things.

Nor does salvation. I point out in the booklet that the Church has long taught the possible salvation of non-believers, based on the fact that invincible or non-culpable ignorance of the faith excuses a person from believing (see Lumen Gentium, n. 16). For example, a person may have been brought up on a desert island, or in a community hostile to Christianity, and never have heard the Gospel preached, or preached in a way that makes sense. Anyone who would have sought baptism if they had been taught the faith properly may be counted as having been baptized. According to William Chittick, Ibn Arabi has a similar teaching on behalf of Islam: “If God does not provide a given messenger with proofs strong enough to convince everyone, this means that many who deny the messengers will suffer no punishment as a result. They will be punished only if they are convinced by the proof, but then, out of obstinacy or spite or envy or some other blameworthy character trait, they refuse to accept the message.”

As for why Muslims and Jews never accepted the Trinity or understood Jesus Christ to be the “Son of God”/ “God the Son”, it is perfectly simple. When you think how mysterious those statements are and how difficult it can be to accept them on faith, or on the authority of a Church that may even be fighting you, and when you are already committed to a religious tradition that has great clarity and history and splendor, mystical teachings and great art of its own, surely it is hardly surprising.

St Thomas certainly didn’t think it odd. In a little-mentioned section of the Summa (Part 3, Question 3) where he argues that it would be possible for the Trinity, or the Father, or the Holy Spirit, to be incarnate as well as, or in addition to, the Son, he even asks whether the divine Nature as such, rather than the Trinity or one of the Persons, might become incarnate, concluding yes – since our intellect can “understand the divine goodness and wisdom, and the like, which are called essential attributes, without understanding Paternity or Filiation, which are called Personalities.” And in such a case, “there will remain in our thoughts the one Personality of God, as the Jews consider” (Article 3).

This is what happens in the case of Muslims as well as Jews, for whom God is clearly a personal divinity, rather than an impersonal Force, but simply not Trinitarian. It is possible, and may even be part of a saving faith, for the faith without which it is impossible to please God is merely to “believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). This they surely do believe, and if they remain in ignorance of the Trinity through no fault of their own they will surely be saved, even if, in the end, it is by a Christ they hardly recognize.

So why do we hope and pray for the conversion of the whole world to our own faith? We believe it to be true, a truth that gives joy and liberates from sin, and we want all men and women to rejoice in this truth.


  1. I'm always reminded of C.S. Lewis: When he was an agnostic, he had to believe that all religions were equally wrong. As a Christian, he could believe that all religions were at least partially right.

    Also, do you think there will ever be a time when the great Meister Eckhart will be rehabilitated and canonized? He really ought to be, and, as far as I understand, he never taught anything explicitly heretical. Or is he doomed to always remain on the fringes and lumped with the Beguines?

  2. I think he will come to be accepted as non-heretical, for sure. But a saint, or a doctor of the Church? I don't quite see it happening - which is not to say it won't. Maybe in the context of a great revival of the interior life and mystical prayer. I recommend C.F. Kelley's 'Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge' (recently reprinted).