Response to Fr. Joseph O’Leary’s “Dogma and Religious Pluralism” Part 1
The Australian EJournal of Theology has published an article by Fr. Joseph O’Leary titled “Dogma and Religious Pluralism.” It is well-written and I believe that it deserves a response from an orthodox point of view. The article gave me a lot of things to think about especially the issue of what makes one a Christian. Can we (re)interpret Christ in such a way that makes us say that other religious people such as Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus encounter the same Christ as a Catholic would? In other words, when a Buddhist takes refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, is he encountering Christ? This is my main concern for this post.
I do believe that Christ is in every person in some way. I also believe that a person outside the visible structure of the Church can be in communion with Christ in some way. Justin Martyr, for example, says,
“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.” (First Apology, Ch. 46)
St. Justin is commenting on whether people before the Incarnation were Christians in some way. His answer, as we can see, is that Christ was the Eternal Logos which every person partakes of. Everyone partakes with Christ because we are made in the image of the Image of God, Christ, the Son of the Father. I do not doubt that it is possible that there may be “anonymous Christians” outside the visible structure of the Church. But even such a concession does not mean that we can agree with the assertion that dogmas should be relativized, as if the dogmas of the Church are the same as the dogmas of other religions. To Fr. O’Leary, however, he places dogma underneath “level of encounter.” He says, “Christians who wish to be faithful to the essentials of the Johannine vision and the Chalcedonian dogma cannot suspend their belief in this claim. But if we differentiate between two levels of faith – the level of encounter and the level of dogma – we may choose to place the primary emphasis on the first level, especially in interreligious encounter, while keeping the second level in the background, and acknowledging that it has become to some degree obscure.” I can agree with Fr. O’Leary with his distinction of the two levels of faith, “level of dogma” and “level of encounter.” But can such a distinction be separated in such a way that the level of dogma can only be placed in the “background”? I can agree with Fr. O’Leary that the level of encounter is an important one especially when dealing with eastern religions like Buddhism. An eastern religious person would probably believe that dogmas are irrelevant and that to encounter peace is much more important. A person with a western mentality might try to debate the religious person, but to the religious person, it may sound like nonsense. It will not simply persuade him. That is why I too believe that sharing our faith with other religions depends on the culture and what they believe. Debating the Bible may persuade the Jehovah Witness to the Catholic faith, but it would not to a Buddhist. To the Buddhist, a better approach would be sharing our experiences with Jesus Christ, telling them how Jesus Christ gives us peace. In fact, I can even agree with Fr. O’Leary with his primacy on the “level of encounter” in the sense that dialogues between other religions must be based on our encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ. To put it in another way, the more we encounter Jesus in our lives, the holier we become, and holiness always attract people to the faith. But I cannot agree with Fr. O’Leary when he says that the level of dogma must be put in the background. In what way is he saying that it should be put in the background? If it means that I do not have to “preach” to the Buddhist every time I talk to him, I agree. I do not have to cite canons of Chalcedon, but at one point or another, it should be talked about. So if he means that it must be to in the background temporarily, in the sense that for now, we should not talk about the dogmas, he may have a valid point. I wonder, however, how long this “temporary setting aside” of dogmas will take. The Christian who believes in his heart that Christ is God may very well be the reason why he loves his neighbor or seeks peace from other religious people. The encounter with Jesus Christ is side by side with his convictions of the dogmas of the Church. Isn’t this what makes a Christian what he is? Not simply who he encounters, but what he professes. To encounter the risen Christ, therefore, means to also profess that “Jesus is risen” and “Jesus is Lord.” But the question some may ask is, how can the profession of faith, that Jesus is Lord, be applied to Buddhists? When he takes refuge in Buddha, isn’t that enough as to implicitly proclaim that Jesus is Lord? If, in his conscience, he believes that taking refuge in Buddha is true, then doesn’t he implicitly have faith in Christ in some way? To answer to that question, I believe that a Buddhist, through no fault of his own, if he truly believes that taking refuge in Buddha must be done, then he in some way have faith in Christ, for Christ is the truth, the way, and the life and to pursue truth is to pursue Christ in some way. But even this admission does not mean that the Buddhist can be called an anonymous Christian nor does it mean that he possesses Christ in such a way all should. He may have an implicit faith, but it is incomplete and imperfect nonetheless. Even Karl Rahner would agree with this, for he says, “If religion were basically nothing but what each individual perceives as the representation and interpretation of his own feeling about existence and his own interpretation of existence, then this religion would lack its essential ground and an essential characteristic” (Foundations of Christian Faith, Seabury Press 1978, pg. 344).
What then is the essential ground and essential characteristic of the Christian faith? Can the Christian faith be relativized? To answer this, we must first have an understanding of the Christian faith. We first begin with the Logos, the Eternal Son of the Father. Without the Logos, there can be no life, no existence. The Father made the world through His Son, the Logos. He created man in His own image as well as having a relationship with Him. But man turned his back against God. He wanted to become like God without God. By doing this, he offended God and wounded his own nature. He can no longer talk to God as a friend would talk to a friend. In other words, his sin led him to a spiritual death, for a life without God within us is death. The wounded nature of man because of his sin is what is lacking in Fr. O’Leary’s article. How else can we speak about the Incarnation if there is no sin? St. Athanasius says, “For in speaking of the appearance of the Saviour amongst us, we must needs speak also of the origin of men, that you may know that the reason of His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, that the Lord should both make haste to help us and appear among men” (On the Incarnation of the Word). St. Thomas Aquinas says that without sin, there would have been no Incarnation, “Hence, since everywhere in the Sacred Scripture the sin of the first man is assigned as the reason of Incarnation, it is more in accordance with this to say that the work of Incarnation was ordained by God as a remedy for sin; so that, had sin not existed, Incarnation would not have been” (ST III, q. 1 a. 3). What other action could God do which would have glorified Himself better than the Incarnation? There were many possible worlds God could have actualized, but he actualized this world so that He may glorify Himself. His self-glorification is the primary reason for the creation of the world and the Incarnation. The glorification of God is the beginning and the end. Even though the Logos became man so that we may become a god, He did it primarily for the glorification of His Father. His nature is to glorify His Father, to love Him like no one can. If saving souls did not glorify His Father, He would not have done it. And what other way can the Son, the Logos, glorify the Father better than the Incarnation? Yes, He could have done miracles. Saving the Jewish people from Egypt glorified the Father, but nothing can compare to the Incarnation, because there, He emptied Himself in obedience of His Father. Gregory of Nyssa explains the mystery of the Incarnation,
"In the first place, then, that the omnipotence of the Divine nature should have had strength to descend to the humiliation of humanity, furnishes a clearer proof of that omnipotence than even the greatness and supernatural character of the miracles…In like manner, it is not the vastness of the heavens, and the bright shining of its constellations, and the order of the universe and the unbroken administration over all existence that so manifestly displays the transcendent power of the Deity, as this condescension to the weakness of our nature; the way, in fact, in which sublimity, existing in lowliness, is actually seen in lowliness, and yet descends not from its height, and in which Deity, en-twined as it is with the nature of man, becomes this, and yet still is that." (Oratio Catechetica 24)
The Son glorified the Father in His Incarnation. Even though man had sinned against Him and His Father, His “divine anger lasts but a moment; divine favor lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:6). He was kind and merciful, slow to anger, and great in kindness. “All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and impulses, and we were by nature the children of wrath, like the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ” (Eph. 2:3-5). The Incarnation, however, was not the last kenotic action of God. In order that the Son will glorify the Father and Himself, He must be obedient to Him even unto death. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26)? "One must dare to say that the goodness of Christ appears greater, more divine, and truly in the image of the Father, when he humbled himself in obedience unto death-death of the Cross-than he had clung into his equality with the Father as an inalienable gift, and had refused to become a slave for the world's salvation” (Origen, In Joannem I. 32).
Because man had sinned against God, sin has become a property of man. Every man is enslaved to it. When God came to this world, He had a Cross prepared for Him. The Son, Jesus Christ, did not come to this world with a Cross. Man had given it to him. By assuming a human nature, Christ, in some mysterious way, took sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus Christ, who did not commit any sin or was stained with original sin, because of His Incarnation, sin became a “property” of His. He possessed the sin of the whole world. In a sense, as Hans Urs von Balthsar put it, the cross is the incarnation of sin. Christ carried His cross, sin incarnated, the cross man gave to Him, all the way to Calvary so that He can restore mankind. He ate with sinners, touch sinners, and will save only sinners. Jesus Christ fully reveals God and He fully reveals Him especially in His supreme kenotic act, the Cross. The Cross reveals the Trinity, for there, Jesus shows that God is a "kenotic being," One who is in perfect self-giving for the Other, and will empty Himself for the love of the Other. The Love of the Father and His Son is revealed and it is the love of the Son which kept Him being childlike even unto death; the Eternal Child was in the bosom of the Father even unto death: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). It was the love of Christ for the Father which gave Him the strength to do His will even unto the Cross. And the love of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. The Son’s cry to His Father, as “Abba, Father” is a cry with the Spirit, for the Holy Spirit perfectly reveals the love between the Father and the Son. And the Son and the Spirit do the same work; both glorify the Father. “The glorified Lord and the Spirit do the same work. The unity of the glorified Christ and the Spirit is functional, that is to say, it is an operative unity” (Yves Congar, The Word and the Spirit, Harper & Row 1986, pg. 25). In the Cross, the weakness of Christ reveals the glory of the Trinity. “This revelation of the Father and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which stamp an indelible seal on the mystery of the Redemption, explain the meaning of the Cross and death of Christ” (Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis no. 9)
The drama does not end on the Cross but with an empty tomb. The reason why the Christian faith grew was because of the early Christians’ conviction that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an empty faith, a dead faith. The resurrection is what gives life to man: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). We also do not separate the “pre-Easter Jesus” with the “post-Easter Jesus” as the biblical scholar Marcus Borg does, or “pre-paschal Jesus” with the “paschal Jesus” as does Fr. O’Leary. As Hans Urs von Balthasar said about Catholics who maintain this kind of Christianity, “It is almost beyond comprehension that Catholic theologians can maintain this schizophrenic attitude themselves and recommend their students both to adhere to the Church’s faith (which presupposes this figure) and to adopt their kind of ‘knowledge’ which dissolves the confession of faith” (Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him?, Ignatius Press 1983, pg. 65). The resurrection only makes sense in the context of which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed himself as, as the Son the Father sent to the world for their salvation which is done in his kenosis on the Cross. Without this context and without his recognition of his mission from the Father, the resurrection does not make any sense. The early Christians did not make up stories about Christ because they believe they experienced the risen Christ, rather, they saw the stories of Christ in light of the resurrection. They finally saw what Christ has been teaching them all a long. They were not creative theologians who tried to make up stories so that they could get a following. Such a telling of the drama of the Cross is a scandal. Rather, we can say with St. Maximus the Confessor that “Whoever, lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning” (Capita Theologica et Oecumenica I, 166, taken from Mysterium Paschale by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ignatius Press 2000, pg. 22). Everything that God did from the beginning with His allowance of His Son’s death makes sense through the eyes of the resurrection. Jesus is no less of a theologian or a teacher, or one who has a radical idea about eschatology before his resurrection. Rather, because God raised him from the dead, God had vindicated his interpretation of the Scriptures. “We may perhaps be allowed to look forward to a new day, in which Jesus himself is acknowledged, in his own right, as a thinking, reflecting, creative and original theologian” (Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright, Fortress Press 1996, pg.479).
Through and in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we can, with the Holy Spirit talk to God as a child speaks to a father: “As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal. 4:6). Von Balthasar says, “The Spirit whom the Son sends to us from the Father on Pentecost is the Spirit of the eternal dialogue of love between Father and Son. He is the speech of God become a person. We are introduced into this language; until now it had been for us a mysterious foreign language, but when the tongues of fire came down upon the Church it became out real ‘mother tongue’” (The Threefold Garland, Ignatius Press 1982, pg. 121). The Church’s soul is the Holy Spirit and “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The Holy Spirit guides the Church and unites us with Jesus Christ. The communion between Jesus Christ then becomes a communion with our Father in heaven. The Church proclaims that Jesus is Lord and have been given a mission by Christ to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). It is therefore clear why St. Peter told the people to “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The Church must profess the mercy of God. Being a channel of God's divine mercy is the reason for her existence. In fact, she was conceived from mercy itself. It is a common teaching of the Church Fathers that the Church was conceived when Jesus' side was pierced. Blood and water flowed from His side, manifesting the mercy of God as seen in the picture of the Divine Mercy that was given to St. Faustina. That side, the side of which blood and water comes out of, is where the Church was conceived. Just as the woman Eve was conceived from the side of Adam, so too the woman, the Church, was conceived from the side of Christ, the New Adam. The Church, therefore, came into existence from mercy.
After explaining briefly (and maybe poorly) the Christian faith, it is now time to ask, what makes a Christian what he is? If I can explain briefly what it means to be Christian, it means one who surrenders his total self for Jesus Christ. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains what true self-surrender means,
“True self-surrender consists in our giving ourselves to Christ absolutely, in a spirit of loving adoration; in our full renunciation of our sovereignty; in our becoming empty with regard to all other things. It means that we make no reservation whatsoever; that no province subsists in our personal world over which we still want to reign in our own right or in which we still are somehow asserting ourselves.” (Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude, Ignatius Press 2001, pgs. 487-488)
The explanation of von Hildebrand needs a little more tuning up for the fact that some people might say that true self-surrender to Christ is being done in other religions. What does giving ourselves to Christ absolutely mean? As I have explained above, Christ cannot be separated from Jesus of Nazareth. Self-surrender means to give oneself to the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. If we are going to have a dialogue with other religious people, help the poor, or go any charitable acts to people, it must be because of our convictions in our encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth: ‘If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a cripple, namely, by what means he was saved, then all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed. “He is the stone rejected by you, the builder, which has become the cornerstone.” There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved’ (Acts 4:9-12). For the Buddhist or any other religious people to fully encounter God, he must see Him in Jesus of Nazareth. To separate Christ from Jesus of Nazareth, as if a Buddhist can encounter Him by taking refuge in Buddha, who is not Jesus of Nazareth, is to divide the natures of Jesus which should be united. Jesus Christ is unique and particular, in the sense that He is a man. He is not interchangeable with other gods. Religious people can speak of their gods, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things are and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things are and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6).