Epiphany, Philosophy, religion, revelation

Frank Answers About Truth in Other Religions

Question: Is there truth in other religions, or did God give his truth only to Christianity?

Frank answers: yes and yes.  There is truth in other religions. Christian theology proposes that God reveals himself in two ways: through general revelation and special revelation. General revelation refers to the general truths that can be known about God through nature. Special revelation refers to the more specific truths that can be known about God through God’s direct communication of his word through the law and the prophets and his Son in the history of his people.

The Bible itself points to both kinds of revelation. Psalm 19:1 declares, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” St. Paul declares in Romans 1:20, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” Something of God can be discerned from the natural world. But in Acts 4:12 Peter declares concerning Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

We celebrate on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) the visit of the wise men (magi) from the East to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12).  They had been studying the stars (astrology was big in ancient Babylon), probably combined with a study of the Hebrew Scriptures (much of the Old Testament came together during the Babylonian exile of the Jews), and concluded that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, had been born.  They went searching for him, but in the wrong place.  So their science wasn’t exact. They went to Jerusalem and King Herod, who was understandably nervous about this, summoned his wise men (the scribes) to ascertain where the Messiah should be born.  The Jewish scribes advised Herod that a king of the house of David should be born in the city of David, Bethlehem.  So the wise men knew something had happened from their star-gazing; they didn’t know the particularities of what had happened except through study of the Scriptures.  The general truth could be known through science as they practiced it; the saving truth was known only through special revelation.

Philosophy, as Plato understood it, is a search for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Christian theology from the third century on regarded philosophy as the “handmaid” of theology (although the north African Christian lawyerTertullian represented a contrary view that asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”).  Philosophy is a discipline that tries to make sense of reality as we experience it through observation and reason.  During the period of antiquity church theologians like Augustine of Hippo were influenced by Platonism and Neo-Platonism.  But in the high middle ages in the West Christian theologians like Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas rediscovered Aristotle. This rediscovery came from contact with the Muslim world (ironically because of the Crusades) and through the Jewish philosopher Maimonides in Moorish Spain.

The Catholic Church has always been open to knowledge and truth that comes from sources other than the Scriptures, including from other religions.  Martin Luther took a dim view of “whore reason” and rejected philosophy in favor of “Scripture alone.”  Yet even Lutherans in the age of orthodoxy after the Reformation found cause to rehabilitate Aristotle.  Moreover, there have been “Lutheran” philosophers who have had considerable influence on theology in the 19th and 20th centuries. I would name especially Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Pope John Paul II was influenced by the philosophy of phenomenology in his theology of the body, and I have personally become interested in the “philosophy in the flesh.” This is a way of viewing reality from the perspective of the body as it engages with the world, as proposed by the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Theology has always held that universal truth—what can be known about life and the world from nature and reason—should be held in tandem with particular revelation—what can be known about God’s will for us (that all should be saved) from particular revelation—the Bible.

Interestingly, the Second Vatican Council, which met fifty years ago, espoused a kind of universalism as the official position of the Catholic Church. Nostra Aetate, The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council), held that “we affirm what is true and holy” in non-Christian religions.  What had long been the case was now reinforced for ordinary Catholics.  Whether there is any direct connection between this declaration that there is truth and holiness in religions other than Christianity and the fact that many American Catholics and other Christians are taking up Buddhist mindfulness meditation, practicing yoga, and studying the Kabbalist mysticism that comes from medieval Jews, is hard to say.  This may be the consequence of living in a religiously pluralistic and generally tolerant society.  But certainly many Catholics understood this declaration as a license to study and practice other faiths in conjunction with their own religious tradition.  This has become all the more urgent as we experience interfaith marriages and the question of how the children should be raised religiously.

The question posed here has to do with truth and not with salvation.  So we won’t get into the particularities of salvation in Christ or the complicated question of whether people who espouse other religions (or none) can be saved.  Actually, as I said in my very first Frank Answers on the Immanuel web site when I was the pastor (now posted on this blog as “Frank Answers About Whether All Religions are Equally Valid”), some other religions aren’t even interested in salvation as Christians understand it — as being rescued from sin, death, and the devil.  I’ve never been comfortable with the imperialist Christian view espoused even by great theologians like the Protestant Karl Barth and the Catholic Karl Rahner, that God will finally save everyone just because he is a God of love, whether they want to be saved or not.  I’ve always believed that who gets saved is God’s business, not ours.  Our job as Christian teachers and preachers is to teach and preach what we know from what is revealed to us in Bible — and correlate the gospel with issues in contemporary culture as we do so. That’s why I’ve always preferred the Lutheran Paul Tillich over the Reformed Karl Barth.

I should also note that Jesus proclaims himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” not the church. So it’s not the case that God gave truth only to Christianity. Christianity is a religious system and the churches in all their variety are the institutional manifestation of this religion. Churches have sometimes obfuscated the truth of Christ.  That’s why the church must always be reformed; truth must always be rediscovered.  In the year past, in which we observed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should have been reminded of the first of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: that repentance, changing course if we’re going in the opposite direction, is the ongoing necessity of Christian life—as it is, in fact, the necessity of every human life.

Truth can be known through human experience and reason. But sometimes we can’t even see that truth because our minds become captive to ideologies about the human condition that actually deny our experience and reason. G. K. Chesterton once said that people believe in the goodness of humanity, which they can’t imagine in their wildest dreams, but didn’t believe in original sin, which they could see in the streets. People want to believe in free will, but upon self-examination discover that their decisions and life choices are often based on social influences (family and peer pressure), cultural learning (what we have been taught), and biological and environmental limitations. So our will to choose is limited and our best intentions often fail to be realized. We should have come to these conclusions  just through experience and reason.

When people do recognize these captivities of the mind and limitations of our bodies, they embrace the particular paths or revelations offered by the religions, among them: harmony with nature (the myths and rituals of traditional people), social propriety (Confucianism), devotion to God (Hinduism), spiritual awakening (Buddhism), means of developing a flourishing life (Daoism), moral law (Judaism), submission to God (Islam), reason and ethical humanism (modern science). Christianity offers salvation from captivities to sin, death, and evil through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and hope in a new creation.

There’s a lot of wisdom in the religions of the world. I can’t deny that truth is manifested to and through non-believers.  As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany with its gospel of the visit of the magi from the East to the Christ-child born in Bethlehem, we are led to recognize that however they received their information, it led them to worship the Christ-child.  And they were neither Jews nor Christians.

Pastor Frank C. Senn


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