Cardinal Ratzinger Considers Whether Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Are Compatible
Jesus Christ is the only savior, says Christianity. "Can this absolute claim still be maintained today?" That’s the question addressed by the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his new book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.
When, in 2000, the Catholic Church reiterated its teaching about Jesus in its declaration Dominus Iesus, "a cry of outrage arose from modern society," notes Ratzinger, "but also from great non-Christian cultures such as that of India: this was said to be a document of intolerance and of religious arrogance that should have no place in the world of today." Ratzinger argues that the Church’s teaching is not intolerant but true.
How can Christianity insist it is true in the face of other religions and philosophies making competing claims? Do truth and tolerance inevitably conflict with each other? Does respect for others mean all religions are equally true? Does the diversity of religions prove there’s no such thing as religious truth? Or do all religions ultimately teach the same thing? Are all religions capable of saving their adherents?
Truth and Tolerance is Ratzinger’s careful answers to these important questions.
Ratzinger confronts head-on the claim that Christianity has imposed European culture on other peoples. "Christianity … originated, not in Europe, but in the Near East, in the geographical point at which the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe come into contact," he writes.
Yes, Christianity has a European element. But above all it has a perennial message that comes from God, not from any human culture, argues Ratzinger. While Christians have sometimes pushed their cultures on other peoples, as have non-Christians, Christianity itself is alien to no authentically human culture. Its very nature as a free response to God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ, means that Christianity must propose itself to culture, not impose itself.
The issues of truth and diversity in religion are also tackled by Ratzinger. Some people relegate religion to the realm of feelings and taste. As people’s feelings and tastes vary, so, too, do their religious ideas and practices. Ratzinger responds by presenting what he calls "the inevitability of the question of truth."
Other people argue that all religions essentially affirm the same things. Truth and Tolerance points to fundamental, non-negotiable differences among religions, as well as certain common elements.
Ratzinger distinguishes two main forms of religion. On the one hand, there is a kind of mysticism in which one seeks to merge into or become identical with everything, in an all-embracing, impersonal unity. Many Eastern religions and the New Age movement are religions of that sort. On the other hand, there is "a personal understanding of God," in which one is united in love with a personal God and yet remains distinct from him. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are examples of the latter kind of religion.
A first-rate theologian, as well as a church leader, Ratzinger also assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the three main contemporary approaches to a "theology of religions": exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
Exclusivism holds that only those who explicitly accept Christ and the Christian message can be saved. Inclusivism is the view that non-Christian religions implicitly contain Christian truth and therefore that their adherents are "anonymous Christians." Pluralism holds that there are many valid ways to God among the various religions.
At the heart of the discussion about the diversity of religions, contends Ratzinger, is the identity of Jesus Christ. Is the he the sole savior, prefigured by other religious leaders perhaps but nonetheless unique? Is he one among many religious figures who bring salvation? Is he the one true God in human flesh, rather an avatar or one among many different manifestations of the divine?
Christianity has always held that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is definitive, argues Ratzinger. The divinity of Jesus is "the real dividing line in the history of religions," which makes sense of "two other fundamental concepts of the Christian faith, which have become unmentionable nowadays: conversion and mission."
Relativism, which Ratzinger calls "the central problem for faith in our time," lurks behind most modern mistakes about faith and morality. The net result is a deep skepticism about whether anything is true or can be known to be true.
Christianity can help modern thought overcome its relativism and skepticism by presenting the One who is the truth, Jesus Christ, the one who sets people free by their coming to know, understand and love the truth. Ratzinger explains how tolerance, reason and freedom are not only compatible with truth, but ultimately depend upon it.
With respect to the difficult subject of things interreligious, Ratzinger strongly supports interreligious dialogue, so long as it isn’t understood as assuming all points of view are and must be, in the end, equally valid. About interreligious prayer—understood as prayer together by Christians and non-Christians, with widely different religious views—he is more skeptical. He distinguishes multireligious prayer, where different religious groups come together but pray separate from one another, and interreligious prayer.
Ratzinger doubts whether reasonable conditions for interreligious prayer can generally be met. Still, he lays out careful criteria for such prayer, which include agreement about the nature of God, and the nature and subject of prayer, as well circumstances that don’t lend themselves to misunderstanding such common prayer as relativism or a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith.
Truth and Tolerance is a book for anyone interested in how Christianity, world religions, faith, truth, and freedom fit together.