Paul Puthanangady, S.D.B.
Our mission as a religious educators bring us face to face with two issues: How to impart religious education to the innumerable young persons belonging to other faiths without in any way being accused of proselytism. The second issue is to impart religious education to our own Christians in such a way that they will be able to live their faith meaningfully in the human community which is multi-religious. I have tried to formulate these two issues under two topics:
In our traditional understanding quite often the terms 'faith', 'religion', 'dogma' etc. are used almost as synonymous. The result was that the test of one's faith was measured using the dogmatic statements as the yard stick; religion was understood as adherence to certain faith formulas. One who did not belong to a particular religion was considered infidel, namely one without faith. Today living in a multi-religious context, where religions are very alive and actively influence people's lives, it is necessary to have a clearer understanding of these terms in order to fulfill our mission as educators.
1. Faith: In our Christian understanding faith is the response of people to a revealing God. We know that revelation of God is self-gift. Response to God is to relate Oneself to this God. The basic elements of faith is not the intellectual activity, but an act of personal relationship. This is not possible without conversion because to relate oneself to the other means to be conditioned by the others. To believe in God means to be conditioned by Him in such a way that we depend on Him existentially. That is why faith is an act of obedience.
Going deeper into the understanding of faith we see that it is not possible to have this faith unless we get involved in the human history because the God who takes the initiative to relate is a God who gives Himself to us through the humanity of people. God can be met only in the context of human relationship and history.
Faith in God is mediated through the human community. Therefore the political, psychological, economical, sociological and cultural factors influence our faith. In this sense faith goes beyond the barriers of religion. This is very clear in the statements of Jesus: "I assure you I have never found this faith in Israel" (Mt. 8: 10).
2. Religion: When faith is expressed in symbols, statements and worship forms we have religions. We may say, therefore, religion is the language of faith. No language is better than the other. Otherwise we have communalism. But every language can express as well as hide, clarify as well as distort the reality. Languages should not be mixed up. Otherwise we will have syncretism. We must not imposed one's language, on the other hand, but try to understand it; by sharing one's insights we can enrich the languages. However it must be noted that at times religion can destroy faith. This will happen when the symbols used are absolutized; then we have idolatry, legalism, ritualism and intellectual formalism. This happened in the history of humankind. One of the tasks of the prophets, including Jesus, was to liberate religion from those elements that distort faith.
3. Dogma: Very often dogmatic statements are identified with faith formulas. When people are initiated into faith they are made to repeat dogmatic statements, the knowledge of which is considered sufficient for one to prove that he or she has faith. It is important to note here that the primary role of dogma is to prevent one from formulating his or her faith in the wrong way. Therefore it has negative role. All those who know dogmas need not necessarily have faith because faith is primarily relationship, and only at a later stage it becomes formulation.
This question might appear strange and it is indeed strange because all these terms, although they have different meanings, are not mutually exclusive. And yet the question can be relevant since we can create a Christianity in which one of these elements can be so prominent that it can absorb all the others and equate them to itself.
When we look at the attitude of Jesus to the religion to which he belonged we see that he found religion opposed to true faith. In fact he destroyed the religion although he said he did not come to destroy but to fulfill. In the early Church we find that the Christian community was not recognized by people as a religion. Their identifying marks were not the so-called religious signs of worship, but the human expressions of relationship (Acts 2: 42-46). Their faith in Jesus led them to build up a human community; their worship was performed by using signs of human relationship. What we see here is faith, that is, response to God expressed to build up a community and not a religious group that separated itself from the others in the name of true God. In that sense we can say that Christianity is an adequate language of faith and hence a religion. But with the institutionalization of the Christian community the aspect of human relationship gave way to organizational structures and ritualism. We see the language of faith undergoing a distortion. With the institutionalization the need to defend itself is very strongly felt. Here we have the origin of dogma. The casualty was faith as an expression. If we can restore to faith the experiential dimension, then it will have a language that communicates, namely it will become a religion that builds up relationship in the human rather than a religion that isolates one group from the other. Dogma will become the wall that defends this isolation. Hence it is necessary to highlight the faith dimension of Christianity in order that it may be true religion, instead of highlighting the dogmatic aspect which can make it become one among the many religions.
The religions of the world are expressions of the human openness to God. They are signs of God's presence in the world; hence they are the results of the action of the Spirit of God.
Every religion is unique and through this uniqueness, religions enrich one another. In their specificity they manifest different faces of that supreme Mystery which cannot be exhausted. In their diversity, they enable us to experience the richness of the one more profoundly. When the religions encounter one another in openness, they build up a community in which differences become complementarity and divergences are changed into pointers to communion.
Religions should not be considered in the first place as obstacles, even if they , at times, contain errors. These are due to the imperfect response of people to the Spirit. They can be removed only if we have a positive approach to them. Hence India's religiosity is not an obstacle to evangelization, but a providential preparation for it. If we find it as an obstacle, the first thing we have to do is to make sure that we are sufficiently open to them. It is also possible that the lack of openness on the other side can also be an obstacle; but we are not responsible for that.
Religion, being a collective expression of faith, is a cultural reality. It evolves symbol systems by which the faith of a community is expressed, maintained and transmitted. In as much as it is a cultural reality it is not possible to fulfill our mission without taking the religions into account. An evangelization that destroys religion will build up a rootless Christianity.
Every religion has a memory of the past and an orientation towards to the future. The past relates it to God who took the initiative to communicate with human beings and the future relates it to the final state of this communication, namely human communion. From the perspective of the past or origin and the future or goal, all religions have a common ground. The differences and at times oppositions come due to the diversity of human responses in the course of history. These diversities of responses can also cause disorientation towards the future. The role of Christianity is not to destroy religions, but to rectify these disorientations by giving a correct response which we believe was given by Christ.
In our approach to faith and religion very often our starting point is God. This is the reason of our failure to arrive at a satisfactory solution. When we start from God we always begin with the idea of God that we have formed. This is a subjective standpoint. The ideal starting point should be human being. In fact this is the teaching of the Church: "Man is the first path which the Church ought to traverse in carrying out its mission" (R.H. 14). "Truth, however, is to be sought in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature" (D.H. 3).
When we start from God our effort will be to affirm God, describe His nature etc.; instead if we start from human being we will be concerned with the search of people. We will find the God whom a person meets in this search. He will be the God of salvation. In the former case we have religion, in the latter we have faith. Since the object that is common to both is God we can say that religion and faith are related to one another in God; but this God is not one who descends straight from heaven, but one whom a person finds in this world. It is in this sense that religion and faith are related. But it is important to note here some of the conditions that will keep relationship genuine so that the opposition that we find between faith and religion may be removed.
i) Faith must rectify religion because the God of faith is the one who comes to meet our need and not one who imposes Himself on us. Religion often begins from a concept of God. This God can be aggressive; then religion runs the risk of becoming fanatic. Instead, the starting point of faith being the need of people engaged in a common search for the goal and the God whom we meet is the God who saves us and builds us into a community, we all become pilgrims in life conscious of our imperfections and shortcomings which liberates us from absolutization. The God of faith can in this way rectify our understanding of the God of religion. Jesus, in fact, corrected the Jewish religion in this way. Let us keep in mind that it is faith that gives origin to religion; it is not religion that gives faith.
ii) Teaching of religion and faith formation need not to be the same. In order to teach religion it is enough to communicate the concepts clearly. Even an unbeliever can teach religion. But to form people in faith it is necessary to get involved in the experience of the others as well as to be open to the experience of God. Faith formation is impossible without establishing relationship with the person to be formed.
iii) At the same time it is important to keep in mind that every genuine faith formation will have to end up in religion because every relationship will have to be symbolized. Then faith becomes religion. For this reason it is not possible to have a supra-confessional faith. But every faith that becomes religion should have a global perspective which consists in being open to others, in being ready to share with others and in being prepared to enter into communion with the others without loosing one's identity. This is a genuinely Christian vision: "The reign of God is the final end of all persons. The Church which is to be its seed and beginning (L.G. 5, 9), is called from the first moment to start out on this path towards the Kingdom and, along with the rest of humanity, to advance towards that goal" (The attitude of the Church towards the followers of other religions, Document from the Secretariat for non-Christians, 1981, n. 25). In the concept of Kingdom of God both faith and religion converge because that is the goal of both.
From what we have said above it is clear that what we have to communicate to our youth is not religion, but faith. In the multi-religious contexts of Asia we need to spell out some of the characteristics of this faith so that we may be effective in our mission.
i) The educator communicates his faith, not necessarily his religion. At times there arises a question: should we teach Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism to our students who belong to these religions: "Students belonging to other religions in our schools and colleges should be given every opportunity, encouragement and tactful guidance to grow up as truly and personally religious believers. Otherwise, especially if the students are under our exclusive care for a long time, they may drift into a religious vacuum. As Christian educators, we have no authority, and perhaps no sufficient competence, to teach Hinduism to Hindus, Islam to Muslims, Buddhism to Buddhists" (Guidelines for inter-religious dialogue, published by CBCI Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenism, second edition, 1989 no. 104, p. 83). The Christian educator, by virtue of his faith and the mission he has received from the Lord has to communicate his experience of God in Christ to others. Nobody has faith in God which is not expressed in a religious form. Hence it is impossible to speak of faith in the abstract. For us our faith is Christian and so we share our Christian faith. Theoretically we can speak of making a Hindu a better Hindu, etc., but practically when we proclaim the Gospel this will not be our aim. If it helps the Hindu to become a better Hindu through our proclamation it is well and good. We cannot have two focuses in emotional communication, while two or more focuses are possible in intellectual communication. Proclamation is an emotional communication by which we share our experience of Christ. In faith education we are sharing our faith-experience and not having a session of comparative religion. Now in doing this we have need not to spell it out explicitly as Christian because it is here that at times we meet with opposition from people of other religions. If the experience is accepted by the students they will do the spelling out either in terms of Christianity in which case they will become Christians or in terms of their own religious categories, in which case they will continue to belong to their religion but with a faith that is renewed.
ii) It is a faith that emerges from the human situation. Since the starting point of faith is the human quest for fullness of life, our faith education should begin with human situations which are common to all. We should facilitate the discovery of the presence and action of God in human history and struggle. This is a very typical Christian approach. Initiation to faith will consist in enabling people to respond to this God of history. In order to discern the presence of God we can use not only the Bible, but also the scriptures of other religions. If the students of other religions need the help of the members of their tradition in the understanding of these scriptures we should be able to provide them with this help. (Guidelines n. 104).
iii) When faith is translated into action it becomes love. Inherent in the core of the love commandment is a demand for unconditionality. It means outreach of love that knows no conditionality of race, colour, caste, ethnicity. The unconditionality of love as love of neighbour is realized in the affirmative recognition of every human person in his or her basic human worth which transcends particular or specific identities. Therefore it is a faith in human being. Here, too, we are perfectly in the Christian understanding of faith because Christianity is nothing but to accept God in the humanity of Jesus.
iv) This faith will be secular. Here the word 'secular' is not opposed to 'God' but it may be at times opposed to 'religion'. Asia needs very much this secular faith. This is a faith which makes us see God as the Father of all, that is, as the one who makes the sun shine on all. This can be fostered through inter-religious prayer sessions. "Though actual worship places for the diverse religious groups (temple, mosque, gurdwara etc.) are naturally not provided in Christian establishments, at least a common prayer room, distinct from the Christian chapel, without anything that might offend the feelings or convictions of any group of students, could be set aside for students for private or corporate prayer and meditation and they should be encouraged to used this room for this purpose" (Guidelines no. 106).
v) This faith will be sacramental in the sense that it will be expressed through signs. Here the signs will be taken from the culture of the people. When this happens it will become more intelligible to people. There will be worship forms in which we can all share.
vi) The faith of the Christians also should be purified by creating in them an openness towards the others. This must not be done by watering down our convictions, but by bringing about a realization that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. Our own Christianity needs to be purified from its narrow-mindedness or sectarianism. Inculturation of signs and symbols of worship or reformulation of faith in Indian categories as well as a proper knowledge of other religions will be of help in this. We should try to initiate our Christians to a dialogical faith.
We can never be faith educators unless we have faith and have it in its specificity, but not in its narrow, sectarian or fanatic form. What we have to communicate is our Christian experience which is not opposed to the faith experience of others. What we aim at is to purify this faith and make it become a commitment to build up the human community of love. No one is saved through religion, but only through faith which has been translated into love (Cfr. Mt. 25). When we promote this type of faith we may not always build up the Church, but we shall surely be contributing to build up the Kingdom of God.
Asia is a continent of religious pluralism. By and large, the various religions have not only been co-existing peacefully, but have lived together in mutual appreciation and collaboration, and let themselves be inspired, challenged and edified by one another. It is into this society that the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes its appearance. Christian revelation has to be seen from within this multi-religious context, because it is not a manifestation from above, but an emergence of the divine from within the human history and life. Faith is our response to this revelation. If revelation is made from a multi-religious context, faith-response has also to be in the same context. This calls, definitely for a new approach to the faith formation of our students.
The faith formation of our Christians, particularly from the 16th century onwards has been characterized by a response to revelation in a different context; hence there has not been really a response, but answers to questions as based on the response of someone else. This led to a particular style in our faith-education. Some of the characteristics of our evangelization style were the following:
This was the position of the I Vatican Council. The best expression of this type of faith-formation is that which is given through the penny catechism: doctrine expressed in intellectual categories, faith-formation independent of the human reality of the believer.
The mystery of Christ is bigger than the Church. "Thanks to the opening made by the Council, the Church and all christians have been able to come to a more complete awareness of the mystery of Christ." (Redemptor Hominis 11). Our faith-education should lead towards an encounter of this wider mystery of Christ. This is possible only if we adopt a dialogical approach to our faith-formation instead of the affirmative and apologetic approach which we have so far adopted.
Our catechism books and our catechetical sessions are more pre-occupied with the content rather than with the method. The formative power of education, instead, is resting on the method. Our effort to impart adequate formation should mainly consist in the search for a proper methodology. I would like to propose here a few indications for evolving a relevant methodology.
a) Dialogical approach (cfr. Document on "The attitude of the Church towards the followers of other religions" 1981). This will enable us to deal with the basic realities of our faith in a new light which is perfectly in accordance with the biblical data, placing us in wave-length with our sisters and brothers of other faiths:
i) The starting point is the need of human beings, both social and personal. Social analysis should become the starting point of our faith-formation process.
ii) The Fatherhood of God should be presented in terms of the basic religious unity of all people.
iii) Jesus is the redeemer present with grace in every human encounter to liberate us from our selfishness and to make us love one another as he has loved us (Doc. cit. n. 23).
iv) The Holy Spirit is the one who acts in the depths of peoples' conscience and accompanies them on the secret path of hearts towards the truth. The Spirit also works 'outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body' (R.H. 6, L.G. 16, G.S. 12, A.G. 15).
v) The kingdom of God is the realization of that goal towards which the whole humanity is advancing.
The Second Vatican Council has already initiated the dialogical approach by asking the Church to discover the elements that are true and good in the religious traditions of other religions (O.T. 16). There exists in them 'seeds of contemplation' (A.G. 18), 'elements of truth and graces' (A.G. 9), 'seeds of the Word' (A.G. 11) and rays of truth which illumines all mankind' (N.A. 2).
b) Anthropological approach. It is an accepted Christian truth that God reveals himself through human reality. He becomes flesh in our day to day life. Faith is to respond to this God of our life. Starting our faith reflection, therefore, would demand that we take seriously all the human realities including the religious reality.
c) Experiential approach. Experience is of the whole person with the whole gamut of relationship. Signs and symbols play a great role in creating experience. Since signs and symbols have their origin in the human, they are common to all persons in a given historical and geographical context. Here we meet our brothers and sisters of other faiths on a common ground. This will enable us to understand our faith in categories that are common and express them in signs and symbols that are intelligible to all. Undoubtedly this will bring about a society in which there will be unity without uniformity, and diversity without division, but harmonious unity in an enriching diversity.
The God-with-us series for High Schools and the text books for the degree courses prepared by the NBCLC has been an attempt to facilitate faith-education according to this methodology.
When we apply this methodology to faith-formation of our students, it can take many forms according to the creativity of the educator. What I want to do here is not to propose some techniques, but to point out some areas and possibilities.
a) Information. Many of our negative attitudes are caused by ignorance of the other. It is necessary, therefore, to instruct our christian students on the content of the other religious faiths. Who should give it? Although it would seem better to ask a member of the other religions to do it, I personally prefer a competent christian for this task because it is not a mere communication of information, but a faith communication. If this communicator is a man or woman who is deeply a christian and at the same time one who has entered into the religious ethos of the other, the communicator will be capable of contributing towards the deepening of the faith experience of the christian.
b) Use of Scriptures of other religions. If the scriptures of the other religions contain the seeds of the Word of God, we cannot neglect its presence if we want to arrive at the fullness of revelation. But these seeds cannot be discovered except in the context of an experiential and prayerful reading and listening of the same.
c) Celebration of the religious and national feasts. The celebration of the feast is an expression both of our solidarity with human beings and our communion with God. Very often the divine is celebrated in His relationship with the human community. We can find a common point of contact with people of other faiths in this process. Besides, the celebration of christian feasts, using the signs and symbols of the place a new meaning of the very same feasts may emerge as we have experienced in the celebration of the Easter Vigil with adaptations.
d) Sharing in worship. Here we are in a delicate area. This was considered dangerous to faith. Under a new and changed perspective this can become an occasion to deepen our faith. There are many levels in this sharing. However, there is one aspect in it which would enable us to have a very positive approach to the problem. We all know that a worship that is limited to the rituals is superficial and may even be considered false worship. The problem with regard to sharing worship is often in the comparison between the ritual and the intellectual content of worship. At the depth level, on the experiential plane, there is a very powerful common ground which enables us to meet all together the God of our life and destiny. Anyone who reaches this level of worship has truly deepened his or her faith, because the Mystery which is worshipped is the ineffable God who transcends all religions, rituals and dogmas. This is the real depth of faith.
e) Respect for all religious realities. Our faith education leads people to discover the living God. Now, wherever there is a religious act, there takes place an encounter between people and God; God is alive even though the encounter may be expressed by people in a defective, unimpressive and at times erroneous expressions. One who has a real sense of God will be able to discover the presence of the divine and respond in devotion and veneration. We should enable our students to arrive at this discovery in the religious acts of the people of other faiths.
Christianity is the unconditional opening of God to people and people's total response to this God. We can meet this God only in the measure in which we are open to Him. This openness necessarily requires from us our openness to all our brothers and sisters. It is impossible to be authentic christians in Asia without openness to the religions of Asia because the God whom Christ revealed is present for us, the people of Asia, there, where men and women are seeking Him. Only when we can join them will our response be authentic. Christ has taught us to respond to this God as He responded. This is our specificity. But this specificity, far from separating us from the other beings, brings us into greater solidarity with them. This is the true aim of faith-education.
Inculturation plays an important role in this, because it initiates us into the community of seekers which is a faith community in pilgrimage towards the goal. We translate our faith into experiential categories and bring it to the level in which it can be shared. This is a very important sign of our maturity of faith. If our christian community does not show many signs of radical faith-commitments, one of the reasons seems to be the lack of capacity to arrive at a genuine level of experience. This in its turn is due to the use of signs and symbols that are alien to us. Through inculturation we can enter into the very core of the human community with whom we have very deep bonds and express our commitment to Christ, in a way that is meaningful to us, as well as powerful in witness for others. Ultimately it will lead to the building up of a wider faith community, not by converting others to our faith, but by mutually sharing our faith with one another. That is the real goal of faith-formation.
Earnest and authentic dialogue is motivated by a sincere quest for mutual sharing. It includes accepting from other religious experiences as well as giving one's own.
a) Some basic principles of dialogue
i) Dialogue is primarily between persons and not systems.
ii) It is not merely an explanation of one's religious rituals or practices to another, not an intellectual exchange of ideas regarding doctrines or codes of the different religions, it is not a debate on religious ideas.
iii) It involves a tension between differences and identity. (i.e. accepting the position "you be yourself and I be myself" and yet finding a ground for 'commonness' on the basis that we both are searching for God-experience)
iv) Matter or content is not important for inter-religious dialogue. What is important is attitude and approach.
b) The Rules for Successful Dialogue between Religions
"The primary purpose of dialogue is to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality and then to act accordingly."
Inter-religious dialogue must be a two sided project - within each religious community and between religious communities.
Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity.
Each participants must assume a similar complete honesty and sincerity in the other partners.
Each participant must define himself.
Each participant must come to the dialogue with no-hard-and-fast assumptions as to where points of disagreement are.
Dialogue can take place only between equals.
Dialogue can take place only on the basis of mutual trust.
Persons entering into inter-religious dialogue must be at least minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious traditions.
Each participant eventually must attempt to experience the partner's religion "from within".
Dialogue is meant to 'communicate' and not to convince others. It is a mutual sharing, it is not a means of converting the others. It is meant for converting all the partners.