Religion can be the best of things. It can also be the worst of things. It all depends on whether it is inspired by and inspires the love of God and of other people, or is inspired by fear or hatred. If religion is inspired by hatred, it destroys itself and harms people.
One test of faith is how we respond to other religious faiths and to the people who practise them. Religious difference has often been associated with violence. Conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Island, religious wars like the Crusades and the present 'war' on terrorism come to mind. In most such conflict usually the religious dimension is only part of a complex dispute about power and privilege. But the image of people using religious slogans to justify killing is a mockery of faith.
In Australia religious differences have often been strong, but they have rarely led to outbreaks of violence. They were originally between different Christian churches. But in the last fifty years we have welcomed into Australia as citizens many Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of other faiths. Their faith has also become more visible. We see Buddhist monks on trains in their yellow robes. We pass new Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques.
Universities may provide prayer rooms for Muslim students. Shops provide food that meets the dietary regulations of different religions.
All this challenges Christians, like other Australians, to explore the new world in which we are living. We can meet people of different cultures and religions, appreciate what matters to them and how they see the world. We are invited to overcome our fears of difference and to see it as enriching, not threatening.
Christians in particular are invited to reflect on how we find room for people of other faiths within our own faith. There are so many differences. Do they lead us to say that all churches, all religions are the same? Or do we say that Christianity is the true faith and the Catholic Church is the one, true Church? And if we do say that the one way to God is through Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church, does that mean that people of other churches, other religions cannot come to God?
These questions have a practical side, too. Should we show interest in people's faith, for example, or would that compromise our own faith and our belief that we are saved through Christ? As we come to know people of other faiths, should we pray together? Should we accept invitations to visit their places of worship and invite them to our own?
In this Explorations we shall focus on the perspective on other faiths that Christian faith suggests to us.
Thinking about Christ and other faiths
The Scriptures insist on two things that seem to pull us in two different directions when we think of other faiths. On the one hand, we hear that God wants everyone to be saved, and that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into it. On the other hand, we hear that it is 'only through the name of Jesus Christ that we shall be saved'.
God loves all human beings and desires that they should live happily and generously. In the early stories of Scripture God invites human beings to live well, loses his patience with them when they act badly, but relents and treats them compassionately. In the history of Israel, too, the Israelites are God's special people, but God's interest is broader than Israel.
The New Testament describes God's love for us as more amazing than we could have imagined. God loves us enough to share our life, to suffer from the worst that we can do to each other and ourselves, in order to offer us life. The stories of the Prodigal Son, and of Jesus speaking with the woman who had committed adultery, make it plain that God wants each human being to be saved and will do everything possible to make it happen.
But the Scriptures also tell us that God has acted in our world through making Israel the chosen people, and that God saves all human beings through the life, death and rising of Jesus Christ. Christ is the centre of the drama of God's love for all humanity. So we come to appreciate who God is and how deeply God loves us through our faith in Jesus Christ. In him God shared our life, our misery and our death, and overcame all the powers that fight against love. In Christ's rising, God promises that we too will live as children of God. That is why the Scriptures say, 'By no other name will we be saved'.
So as Christians we ask how it can be true both that we are saved through faith in the name of Jesus, and that God wishes every human being, whatever their beliefs, to be saved. We also ask how people come to God through other faiths, and how these faiths help or hinder them from coming to God.
Should we reach out to followers of other faiths?
Christians have answered these questions in many different ways. Sometimes they have emphasised the need for Christ, and sometimes God's desire to save all human beings. From our perspective today we can see how very few people could ever have heard the Gospel of Christ, and how few believers in the other great world religions have ever become Christian. We take it for granted that non- Christians who have led good lives can be saved. Indeed Pope Pius XII condemned the view that only people who were within the Catholic Church could be saved.
But Christian faith can never accept that all religions are the same, that they simply have the same God but call him by different names, or that Christianity is the true way to God only for Christians and not for other people.
It is too easy to say that all religions are really the same and that everyone prays to the same God. The differences between various ways of describing God are vast. It seems condescending to say that differences that are important to people don't really matter.
Of course, these approaches are right to insist that God can work in many ways, but they do not leave room for the central place that the Jewish people had in God's plan, or for God's involvement in Jesus. Jesus does not die for Christians only, but for every human being who has ever come into the world.
Christian faith says that Jesus Christ has a unique place in God's plan, and that faith in Christ will be a blessing for everyone. It also says that God wants to give life to all human beings with their different beliefs. On the basis of these simple principles we can say a few things about our relations with followers of other faiths.
We know that God loves each woman, man and child who has come into the world. So every Muslim, Buddhist and Jew is our brother or sister, not our rival, enemy or inferior. We also know that God is present, drawing us through each event and relationship of our lives, whether we are Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. If people live good lives, we know that they have responded generously to God's invitation.
John and Paul tell us, too, that the Son of God is present in the creation of the world. So all of creation, and especially human beings, reflect the beauty and goodness of Christ as the Son of God. Through the beauty of creation the Holy Spirit leads all people to God. So people in other religions who are drawn by the lovely things of the world to the mystery of God are also drawn by the Spirit of Christ. All things reflect him in their goodness. This means that anyone who responds to the beauty of the world and to the claims that other human beings make on us are drawn by God through Christ.
In addition, it is not only the natural world but what we make of our lives and our relationships, and what we make with our hands, that reflects the beauty of God which we see fully in Jesus. When we read poetry, listen to music, reflect on serious thought about the world, and see art, we are invited to go beyond ourselves to the God who is responsible for them. These things are made by human beings who respond to something beyond themselves. So they draw us to the Son of God.
Religious writing, art and celebrations are among the highest works of human creation. They express people's desire for God and follow the traces that God leaves in our world. They invite people be silent before the mystery of God which is revealed fully in Christ. Therefore, we should respect other religions. That is not to say that they are equivalent to Christian faith, or that they are perfect. But the Spirit of Christ is present and working in the lives of those of other faiths.
What might we receive from followers of other faiths?
If God works through all human encounters, we do not have to be frightened of other faiths and their followers. They can speak to us of God because they have recognised aspects of the mystery of God and have expressed it in their faith and practice. We may have overlooked these aspects in our own religious faith. So, when we meet Hindus and Muslims, for example, and we listen to one another speak of what we believe and practice, we can strengthen each other's faith. We Christians can be led closer to Christ.
I was reminded of this some years ago when visiting a centre where Buddhists and Christians studied and worked together. I saw a painting in which a Buddhist represented what he found unique in Christian faith. The painting was of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, both men and women. I was first surprised that it was not Christ's divinity that he found unique, and then struck afresh, as he had been, that God should choose to act in this humble human way.
When we listen to people we understand them better. But we rarely agree with everything they say. Conversation about faith leaves us with our differences.
Muslims will continue to believe that God has revealed himself fully through Mohammed; Christians will still believe that God has revealed himself fully through Jesus Christ. But we can each pray that God will lead each other more deeply into God's truth.
It is a privilege when someone asks us to pray with them. To share in prayer with a group of other people helps us to understand and love them more. Even though we pray in very different ways, and the God to whom we pray has different faces, we believe that the God of Jesus Christ hears all people who reach out beyond their little world. So we are joined in our difference, each praying in our own way. If we meditate on prayers and texts dear to others, we bring to them the insights of our own faith. Praying together can help us deepen our own faith and open us to other people and their traditions.
For Christians, thinking about other faiths means holding two things together: God's overwhelming love for all human beings, wherever they are and whatever their faith, and the special way in which God has shown that love through Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are invited to approach the followers of other religions in a loving way, and to explore each other's faith. Love makes us curious about the world of those we love, and encourages us to share with one another what matters to us.
Bishops Commission for Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue