Religion In European Understanding

Also in another way European modern times were influential for the understanding of religion. For we have not only to watch the cultural regions outside of Europe which so far had not or almost had not been touched by Christianity. We have to connect the outward view - outside of Europe - with the inward view - inside of Europe. Here we become witness of the process of an inner decay and downfall of a Europe which to that time was predominantly united by Jewish-Christian thought. Since the beginning of modern times the one Christianity rapidly lost its central position, and this process of dissolution led to a situation which can be described as a complex reality of a society between atheism/agnosticism/secularism and pantheism. In this context the Reformation was nothing but one step into the direction described.

The dissolution of the unity between state and church(es)1 led to the so called "secularization," a process in which society and state were

1 Here we have to notice that the developments in Europe and America as the "New World" should not be simply identified.

freed from the predominance of (Christian) religion and its authorities; at the same time God as the highest authority disposing about everything in private and societal life was denied or removed. The process is unfinished so far, but it can be asserted that public life develops more and more to a life "without God" - a life in which God does not exist anymore; actually it seems that nothing falls under God's competence any longer, although even politicians start again to leave some space outside the competence of politics and human decision. "God" then becomes the cipher for the "space" which is not at the disposal of human will and authority.

In fact, it seems that we have reached again a turning-point in history. For the idea of a secularist world in which humankind ends in a society without religion and without God increasingly appears to be out of date. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas repeatedly proposed arguments in favor of a "post-secular society" where religion and reason will be equal and independent partners. And yet, at the same time the concept of a personal God is being dissolved. The change of God into a cipher makes clear that we are dealing again with a plurality of concepts and images of God. The German theologian Thomas Ruster speaks with good reason about a "confusing God,"2 so that the question of the "true God' has to be posed again. But when the personal God is turned over into the neutral form of the divine and is to be found wherever, instead of monotheism pantheism gains a new profile. With this even in a secularized world also mysticism regains a new place. In fact we live in an ambivalent and fascinating period of time.3

Today mysticism is by no means anymore an expression for an elite approach to God. It is rather taken for a relation to God which determines the life of an individual person; it is often nourished and formed by non-Christian initiatives, but it is aiming at God-experience. In a spiritual environment in which God is seen as the creator of the universe and humans conclude from him as origin to him as ultimate aim, transcendence is more emphasized than immanence. In our days, however, many humans search for God more inwardly in the voice of

2 See Th. Ruster, Der verwechselbare Gott. Theologie nach der Entflechtung von Christentum und Religion. Herder: Freiburg 2000.

3 See the Asian texts about the beginning of the universe in Appendix 2, nr. 1 and 3.

conscience, but inwardly also with regard to the biographies of other people like the saints. Accordingly they show a new interest in the life experiences of mystics, and that all the more, since to a growing degree mysticism is reclaimed by Asian religions. It is the inner way people are looking for. Hence teachers of the inner desert and of emptiness in general become also teachers in the search for God and of finding of God on the inner way. Often struggle in the world and engagement for freedom and liberation are combined with contemplation. Among the teachers we count the classical mystics at the beginning of modern times, St. Ignatius of Loyola with his Spiritual Exercises, St. Teresa of Avila with her spiritual reports, St. John of the Cross with his spiritual canticles, also the various representatives of Rhenish and Dutch mysticism, finally the mystics of our days like Charles de Foucauld, Simone Weil, Madeleine Debrel and others.


When religion is not so much understood as the concrete relation of a single person with his God, but as a notion pointing to religious communities, their self-understanding and their ways of self-realization, the perspective is totally changed. Religion in singular becomes religions in plural. Where they are to be compared, we need criteria of discernment and judgment, but also authorities who dispose about the criteria and are able to make use of them. Moreover, the definition of religion becomes problematic. Here we only have to take into account how scholars of the different fields of science of religion, philosophy and theology quarrel with each other about the right of definition.

As soon as we have to deal with a plurality of concepts defining religion as organization or system, "religion" turns to become a generic concept. Such a concept is applied to any concrete religion "from the outside." Concretely speaking, it started by applying a concept taken from the occidental/European world where it was developed, to the non-western world, to phenomena, formations and organizations outside of the European/western world. In fact, the concept serves in no concrete religion as original self-definition, and as a result it tends to lead to a complete leveling down of any self-understanding inside a concrete religion. The term "religion" as we apply it today to the various cultural regions, is actually nothing but an attempt to understand the unknown world. Exactly speaking, we use "religion" as predicate of a sentence saying, "Christianity is a religion," "Islam is a religion," "Shinto is a religion" etc. Only in the case of Hinduism we meet with some difficulties. For it is not easy to subsume the manifold features of Indian religion which appeared in the course of history, and which to a high degree display independence from each other, under the concept of religion in singular. Therefore, many scholars prefer to speak about Hindu-religions in plural. It is also difficult to describe the situation of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, where an unequivocal relation to God or the divine is missing. For a long time scholars used to talk about philosophies or social ethics. In a way Daoism can be counted among the religions because its adherents are invited to discover in all this-worldliness something hidden behind and beyond, and are instructed how to reach this beyond by a number of mysterious practices.

However, when "religion" becomes a predicate, it can be asked with good reason whether the sentence corresponds to reality. In this way Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in our days Thomas Ruster asked whether Christianity is rightly counted among the religions. The same question could be asked about other "religions," about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism. The decision of the Fathers of Vatican II to enumerate Buddhism among the religions mentioned in the declaration Nostra aetate appears somewhat arbitrary and marks an intervention in a current debate. We also cannot overlook the fact that Asian theologians like Aloysius Pieris object that Buddhism is more than a philosophy because it brings a way of liberation to humanity and implies a doctrine of salvation.4

This leads to the result that we have to be more careful in using a generic concept of "religion" and in negotiating about a segment of life which we call "religion," disregarding its concrete forms and appearances. Indeed, sociologically speaking, "religion" ends up in being one sector of life among others. Against this outcome we have to insist upon the fact that religion is concrete, that also religions in plural are concrete and consequently have to be perceived in their concreteness. Moreover, we should not omit that the generic concept of religion was coined in Europe in view of Christianity so that the basic criteria of judging other "religions, though unintentionally, were mainly deduced from the knowledge of Christianity as religion.

4 See A. Pieris, Love meets Wisdom: a Christian Experience with Buddhism. Orbis: Maryknoll, N.Y. 1988.

That brings us again to our mutual relationships. For time has ripened in which we have not to deal any longer with "the religions," but with concrete religions and inside of these religions with believers who find their concrete orientation in the determined religion to which they belong. Thus the "encounter of religions" will not become easier, but it should become clear that in the future we will no longer be allowed to speak and to judge about "the religions." And since Christians are invited not to speak so much about Christianity in general, but about Jesus Christ, also other religions have to be seen from their origin: who was the founder, how did people succeed and follow him, how do they follow him today? In other words: we have to understand other religions concretely from their self-understanding and self-realization today.

That brings us to the point that also the patterns of understanding cannot be any longer simply our patterns so that everything strange and alien is measured with our norms and is perceived and judged in comparison to our point of view. Of course, considering the whole field of religions, at the moment the representatives of other religions are by no means better off than the Christians; also they have to develop their appropriate methods in dealing with others. However, precisely because from the outset the attitude toward others was a problem for Christians, they have to start reexamining their real attitude toward others and strangers, and to everything other and strange in the neuter sense; for we are living in a world which grows in pluralistic thinking and acting. The danger that the theory is good, but the practice fails, is great. Therefore, we cannot deny and repeatedly forewarn that all participants of today's dialogue are still tempted to make their own standpoint the norm of judging everything different and strange, and we invite them altogether to overcome their deficiencies in dealing with each other.

In view of pluralism especially two things have to be considered:

(1) Because nowhere as in Judaism and Christianity personality and thus the dignity of the single person has been emphasized so strongly, we are obliged to respect any other person in his or her personality, his or her uniqueness, his or her subjectivity and his or her dignity. We are not allowed to make others only the objects of our occupation and research, and by no means are we allowed disposing about them; on the contrary, every other person must be my personal face-to-face, a subject about which I have no right to dispose.

(2) This leads to the question which Jacques Dupuis has considered: What is the positive significance of pluralism, also in the terms of history of salvation? Actually the reflection about this question just began. Certainly we do not gain much when insistence on one's own view is hastily qualified as an attitude of arrogance and superiority and reversely - contrary to hasty rejections of the strange in the past, almost in the way of quick reparation - from the very start preference is given to everything strange which differs from one's own.

Both are a task for the future: The practical encounter between people of different origin and belonging occurs again and again anew, and confronts us with the request of a deepened mutual respect. The second task refers more to theoretical reflection and deliberation; it cannot be negotiated any longer in an ivory tower where we are occupied just with ourselves. Of course, we insist on a deep-rooted grounding in our own conviction, but at the same time we have to enter the open dispute with others which should not exhaust itself in pure apologetics or in the presentation of arguments in favor of one's own way. Otherwise we will not be astonished if people - independently from the various standpoints of belief - try to find for themselves an apparently "neutral" place about or beyond all positions of faith, where they can form their own judgment and defend it. Ultimately the alleged "objectivity" and "neutrality" imply an existential loss of standpoint and are a guarantee of false tolerance.

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