Other Religions

Respect for Other Religions

by Art Sippo

One of the sad corollaries of the divisions -- racial, social, political, economic, cultural and religious -- among all the people of the world is the suspicion that respect for the heartfelt beliefs of others is necessarily a betrayal of our own position. In the religious realm, many people see respect for the religious beliefs of others as disrespect to God.  The systematic intolerance in the OT towards paganism and idolatry has been used as an excuse for continuing an attitude of intolerance even today.

More recent Biblical studies have shown that the intolerance shown towards the false religions in the environs of Israel were attempts to keep Israel "pure" as a preparation for the coming of Christ.  Many people in the OT who did not become Jews were thought of very highly by the biblical authors. Nebuchadnessar is seen positively in Daniel.  Cyrus the persian is actually called "messiah" (i.e., Isa 45:1 - the Lord's anointed.)

The words of Ezekiel are worth repeating here:

Ezekiel 33:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman; 3 and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people; 4 then if any one who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes, and takes any one of them; that man is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman's hand. 7 "So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way; he shall die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life. 10 "And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: `Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?' 11 Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 12 And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. 13 Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die. 14 Again, though I say to the wicked, `You shall surely die,' yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. 16 None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live. 17 "Yet your people say, `The way of the Lord is not just'; when it is their own way that is not just. 18 When the righteous turns from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, he shall die for it. 19 And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live by it. 20 Yet you say, `The way of the Lord is not just.' O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways."  

The NT has several more references of interest.  The Magi were very likely Zoroastrians.  Jesus himself went out of his way to say that Samaritans could
be good, Publicans could be justified and that a Roman centurion could have more faith than any other man in Israel.

Then there are the words of St. Peter at the house of Cornelius that for some reason no one wants to remember:

Acts 10:34 And Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

We Christians of ALL denominations have constructed vast theologies to justify our vilification of the "outsider" and to make it appear that God only favors us and the people who think as we do.  In reality, Christ came not to save the righteous, but sinners.  By definition, that means all men. When there was dissension among his disciples about the extent of the franchise of the Gospel this is what Jesus said:

Mark 9: 38 John said to him, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us." 39 But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. 40 For he that is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward. 42 "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

The NT makes this clear elsewhere as well:

1 Timothy 2: 1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. 3 This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.

Titus 2: 11 For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, 12 training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, 13 awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

2Pet 3: 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  No one is saved apart from him.  The way we are joined to him is by incorporation as "members" (more correctly "organs")  in his Mystical Body, the Church.  If the good Samaritan could be held up to us by Christ as an example for right conduct, he must have been "saved" even though he was a Samaritan, not either a Jew or a Christian.

Because of our fallen nature, we know that God is far more compassionate than we are.  When we try to preserve the dignity of God we forget that after the humiliation of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, God has no dignity left to defend.  As St. Paul said in Phillipians:

Phillipians 2: 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

We do not need to defend God's dignity.  He has already given that up for us and, frankly, he can defend himself if need be.  What we need to defend is the integrity of his Word and his good will towards all men.  We need to witness to this in our own lives by how we live and in how we treat other people.  To do that we do not need triumphalism, intolerance, or a condescending attitude towards our fellow man.

After all, what would men have been without the great religious leaders like Buddha, Mohammed, or Zoroaster?  Hasn't Hinduism had a positive impact on life in India despite all of its deficiencies?   Hasn't the Church made good use of the Sibyls, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Cicero, and other pagans?  Can we not respect what is good in other religions and recognize the prevenient grace of God in them as a preparation for the Gospel?  Hasn't the Catholic Church already done that?

Whatever Catholics may have done in the past with regard to encountering other religions, there are alternative ways of showing the love that Christ has shown towards sinful man without always having a chip on our shoulder and being ready to argue.  We have an obligation to evangelize the world and to preach Christ and him crucified in the hopes of converting people to the truth.  But we don't need to convert everyone to our way of thinking.  We must also help the world come to know Christ through us so that they "will not be quick to speak evil" of him.  For some people, by the grace of God, that may be as far as they will be able to go in this life.  Bearing witness to Christ is not a matter of debating fine points of doctrine, but of practicing what we preach and preaching what we practice.  And most importantly, of showing to other people the same love and acceptance that God has shown to us.  It is no accident that the greatest public outpouring of love towards a Catholic in this century occurred when the nation of India gave Mother Teresa a state funeral.  Is it possible that her legacy will bear fruit in the future?  It is far more likely than those "missionaries" whose major theme is the antithetical rejection of the cultural and religious legacy of India.

Our Lord , as always, said it best:

Matthew 5: 14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

The rest we must leave in God's hands.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate
July 20, 2004