This paradigm shift came when Christianity moved out of Europe to other parts of the world, having to interface with other rich religions, like Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism The Church sees all men and women as brothers and sisters of the same Heavenly Father, writes Archbishop William Goh.
Scripture Readings: Ephesians 2:12-22; Luke 12:35-38
All of us desire world peace, beginning with our own nation, our community and our family. Without peace, there can be no unity among the peoples of the world. Division in the world is caused by fear, selfishness and injustices. This is further reinforced by the exclusive approach of most religions. Such exclusive claims of religions make believers of other faiths feel alienated and rejected. This causes religious tension, fanaticism and rivalry. That is why we need to promote a more inclusive approach in dealing with other religions.
This exclusive approach of religions is of course not new. This is true even in the history of Israel. However, it is important to understand the historical background of why such an exclusive position was taken. In those days, Israel was struggling to be a nation. She had to fight against the many other tribes that were already in Palestine. Therefore, it was necessary for Moses to unite the people with a common faith, a common culture and a common identity. The way to promote unity in those days was conceived in terms of homogeneity and uniformity. Hence, it was important that the Israelites distinguished themselves from the rest in terms of religion, culture, politics and values. By the time of Christ, Israel was no longer an independent nation. Indeed, since the exile, they were under the domination of foreign powers. Yet, they still could keep their identity based on race and religion.
Within this context, the Gentiles were considered second class, even if they worshipped the God of Israel. This was what St Paul told the Gentiles. “Do not forget that you had no Christ and were excluded from membership of Israel, aliens with no part in the covenants with their Promise; you were immersed in this world, without hope and without God.” For those Gentiles that did not accept the God of Israel, they were regarded as condemned and lost. No matter what they did, they would never be considered as the Chosen People of God. This belonged exclusively to the Jews. Furthermore, the insistence on observing the laws of Moses strictly created not just division among themselves but also distanced them further from the Jews.
So, with the coming of Christ, Jesus as the God-man broke all barriers between God and man; and among all peoples. As the incarnation of God, Jesus showed us the face of God in person. He told Philip, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (Jn 14:9f) In Jesus, we come to know who God is. It is for this reason that Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (Jn 14:6f)
Jesus revealed to us that there is One God and that we have one Father. God is the Father of all of humanity. We are all His children, therefore we are all brothers and sisters. Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:44f)
What divides us from God and from each other is because of our sins of selfishness. However, Jesus removed the fundamental barrier between God and us by eradicating our hostility against God because of our sins. “But now in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ.” With the death of Christ on the cross, Jesus reaffirms that all our sins are forgiven. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)
Consequently, salvation is no longer by observance of the laws but by faith in God’s love and mercy in Christ. “For he is the peace between us, and had made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, actually destroying in his own person the hostility caused by the rules and decrees of the Law. This was to create one single New Man in himself out of the two of them and by restoring peace through the cross, to unite them both in a single Body and reconcile them with God. In his own person he killed the hostility.”
Christianity has been an inclusive religion right from the start. It embraces all men and women from all nations, cultures, economic and political situations. In Christ, all are loved and accepted by God. This is why the Christian Church eventually became known as the Catholic Church, because of its universality in its identity, openness to all, regardless of who we are. All are loved by God without exception. This was the message of the Good News preached by the early Church.
However, when Christianity broke out of the shadow of Judaism and reached out to the Greek World, where there were many other religions, it had to adapt to the Greek culture and language. In the same way, when the whole of Europe embraced Catholicism, there was homogeneity in politics, religion, culture, language and values. It was thought that Christianity had been spread to the whole world. Again, as Christianity moved out of Europe, it confronted many other rich religions, like Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism in other parts of the world. This called for a paradigm shift in how the work of evangelisation should proceed.
The Church no longer maintains that outside her, there is no salvation. Instead, the Church teaches, “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (LG 16)
The Church even positively affirms the goodness in other religions and their practices. “Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” (Nostra Aetate 2) This is a bold affirmation that not only all can be saved through their own religions but that they also contain different levels of truth and holiness in their way of life.
Having stated these principles clearly, the Church offers from her beliefs and conviction that Christ is “‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” (NA 2) So whilst not denying the value of other religions, the Church offers Christ as a gift to those who wish to seek the fullness of life, love and truth which we encounter in Christ Jesus.
It is therefore critical that in the light of globalization and migration, we increase our understanding of each other’s religion, appreciate, respect and learn from each other the truths they present, the positive values of respect and love, and their spirituality in prayer and worship. Indeed, in the final analysis, all men and women are brothers and sisters of the same Heavenly Father. Instead of seeing each other as enemies and competitors, we must see each other as friends, helping each other to find the fullness of truth, love and life.
This was what our Lord said in the gospel about union with Him. When the servants “dressed for action” and ready to welcome the master who wants to share the joy of the wedding feast with them, the servants would no longer be servants but his friends. Instead of the servants serving the master, he served them in return. When there is mutual love, the distinction between master and servant no longer exists because they are one in love with each other. So too, like the servants, we must be ready to welcome others who might not be believers in Christ but who want to share our love and joy. Let us welcome them with open arms, non-believers and sinners alike, so that entering into this love, they too would be filled with the joy of God’s love.
(The full version of Archbishop’s Daily Reflection was first published on 23 October 2018, Tuesday, 29th Week, Ordinary Time)