Ratzinger: Truth and Tolerance

March 5, 2009

Truth and Tolerance
Christian Belief and World Religions
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Ignatius, 2003)
284 p.  First reading.

This volume, which appeared not long before Cardinal Ratzinger’s election to the papal office, collects a number of essays and addresses, mostly from the 1990s, on questions related to religious pluralism.  What is the relationship of Christianity to other religions?  Is it legitimate to speak of Christianity as being true, and other religions being relatively false, or is that an illicit affront to the spirit of tolerance?  How can Christianity respond to modern religious pluralism and the questions it raises?

A friend says, “One would have thought these questions adequately answered when the Christians went to the lions rather than sacrifice to the gods.”  It is a good point, but perhaps there is more that can be said.

Christians have conceived of the relationship between Christianity and other faiths in three primary ways, which Ratzinger calls exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.  Exclusivism holds that Christianity is the unique path of salvation, and that other religions are correspondingly false and damnable.  Those holding this view have a strong record of missionary work, and are deeply committed to the reality of religious truth.  Perhaps the greatest theological exponent of this view in the past century is Karl Barth.

Inclusivism affirms, along with exclusivism, that Christ alone saves, but maintains that he may do so under different guises, and without revealing himself as Christ.  In this understanding, a person may “come to the Father” from within another faith, without being aware that it is Christ who leads him.  Inclusivists tend to regard other religions as being provisional and preparatory, as finding their fulfillment in the Christian gospel.  They try to be faithful both to Christ’s claim that “no-one comes to the Father but by me” and to the promise that God desires the salvation of all.  Inclusivism is by no means a fringe position, for one of its variants is the official teaching of the Catholic Church: she maintains that while the ordinary means of salvation are through the Church and her sacraments, there may also be extraordinary means outside of the Church, yet all are saved by Christ.

The final possibility is pluralism, which asserts that there is nothing uniquely valuable about Christ or Christianity, or indeed about any religion.  Pluralists tend to divide into two camps: the “all religions are valid paths to God” camp, and the “all religions are bosh” camp, but they are united in regarding one as being as good as another. Pluralism is the orthodox position of our modern secular democracies, partly because it is politically convenient to convert difference into indifference, and partly because religious truth claims seem unable to meet the epistemological standards imposed on them. We are all very familiar with this way of thinking: religion is an ornament, or an expression of culture, like cuisine, and to speak of truth or falsity is at best impolitic, and at worst a category mistake (– or is it the other way around?).  The public square is happy to celebrate religious pluralism so long as it is merely colourful and toothless; it must, however, exclude “the garrulous fabulist who knows too much” (to borrow a memorable phrase from David Bentley Hart).

The view that all religions are equally acceptable paths to God, merely different expressions of one underlying truth, or different grammars for speaking one deep language, is the least tenable form of pluralism.  Does anyone really believe that all religions are equivalently good?  Remember the Mayans? The Carthaginians?  It is sometimes expressed in a modified form in which not all religions are equally valuable, but at least “the great world religions” are.  It is not clear why something should be good simply because it is “great”, nor how we should interpret the rise and fall of religions through time (“now they’re great, now they’re not?”), nor even how we ascertain whether a particular religion qualifies as “great”.   Undoubtedly, this view of pluralism is a very nice view to propound in polite company, but it cannot attract serious people.

More honourable is the view, not that religions are equally valid, but that they are equally invalid, on the grounds that religious truth claims cannot surmount the epistemic hurdles demanded by a modern, scientific culture.  In consequence, they are all equivalently uninteresting, and cannot command serious attention.  Religion is harmless enough, in its way, so long as it remains a private interest. Religious commitment becomes a symptom of a psychological problem, and missionary work a noxious form of imperialism and oppression.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes this form of religious relativism very seriously.  He notes that the growing unwillingness, or incapacity, to admit religious reasoning has been accompanied by a parallel decline in other spheres, such as moral reasoning.  He proposes that relativism has arisen in these areas because Western culture has permitted, over the past few centuries, a narrowing of reason.  Modernity took scientific, deductive reasoning as its gold standard, and has gradually forsaken the application of reason in matters not amendable to measurement and public verification.  We have forgotten that older conception of reason, inherited from the Greeks, of the intellect, the aesthetic sense, and the moral sense being united in the rational soul.  We have divided ourselves, privileging one aspect of our rationality and letting the others atrophy. Our scientific society, progressively incapable of heeding the moral order, becomes a threat to itself.  Paradoxically, we end by being unable to defend even that aspect of reason on which we have staked everything, for our minds seem to have been churned up from seas of irrationality.

In its early centuries, Christianity claimed to be, and was recognized to be, the religion that unites faith and reason.  Some relationship between these two is needed, for a religion of reason alone has no vitality, but a religion that is incomprehensible collapses. Christianity, for its part, stakes its claim on historical events, open to refutation as much as any other historical claims.  On a deeper level, it asserts that the universe, human society, and human nature are stamped with the mark of the Logos, the divine Reason.  Though we are finite, and many things elude our means of knowing and our understanding, our reason is nonetheless a reliable guide, and increasingly so as we recover the expansive concept of reason that is the heritage bequeathed us by Athens and Jerusalem.  Any effort at recovery faces deep problems, but should begin by enriching itself with what lies beyond instrumental reason. Cardinal Ratzinger counsels an attitude of openness to truth, a hunger for it, informed by humility and self-discipline:

. . .the scope of reason must be enlarged once more. We have to come out of the prison we have built for ourselves and recognize other forms of ascertaining things, forms in which the whole of man comes into play.  What we need is something like what we find in Socrates: a patient readiness, opened up and looking beyond itself.

There is much more to this book that I have been able to indicate in this short summary: discussions of evangelization, the nature of genuine freedom, the dynamics of cultural evolution, and more.  Because it is a compilation of shorter pieces there is some repetition, but each piece contains something of unique interest. Contrary to his fearsome reputation — now muted with growing familiarity — the Cardinal’s tone is unfailingly serious, thoughtful, patient, and gentle.


[Conversion and the Church]
Anyone entering the Church has to be aware that he is entering a separate, active cultural entity with her own many-layered intercultural character that has grown up in the course of history.  Without a certain exodus, a breaking off with one’s life in all its aspects, one cannot become a Christian.  Faith is no private path to God; it leads into the people of God and into its history.  God has linked himself to a history, which is now also his history and which we cannot simply erase.

[Misunderstanding the Church]
Either the faith and its practice come to us from the Lord by way of the Church and her sacramental services, or there is no such thing.  The reason many people are abandoning the faith is that it seems to them that the faith can be decided by some officials or institutions, that it is a kind of party program; whoever has the power is able to decide what should be believed, and so it is a matter of getting hold of power within the Church or, on the other hand — more obviously and logically — just not believing.


Related reading:
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – God and the World
Joseph Ratzinger – Introduction to Christianity

4 Responses to “Ratzinger: Truth and Tolerance”

  1. Matthew Says:

    I think you (or Cardinal Ratzinger) may be dismissing pluralism too quickly. Obviously, not all religions are valid, just think of all the fringe beliefs that have been called religion in the last century. So, if we focus on the “great” religions, I can think of two standards on which they can be judged. The first standard is simply the number of people that follow them. On that basis, the great religions would be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Judaism makes it in because, although small, it is related to Christianity and Islam). The second standard is the fact that the listed religions more or less agree on a common set of morals. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, murder, rape, or pillage. For the most part, these religions have lead to stable, harmonious societies (although there are fringe groups in each).

    As for the decline in both religious and moral reasoning, it is a disturbing trend. Speaking as a secular humanist (although you would call me a lapsed Catholic), I do worry about the decline in moral reasoning in particular. I think too many things are done because they are possible without examining the consequences. I believe that humans are capable of moral reasoning without religion, but I can see that that doesn’t necessarily happen naturally (it is perhaps the last thing considered rather than the first). For instance, there are valid reasons to oppose human cloning, and it shouldn’t be just the Church that objects to it. Therefore, I see a need for clear voices such as the Church’s in the definition of moral boundaries. When it comes to religious reasoning, however, I don’t think that I am alone in worrying about elevating it. Let’s be clear that the Christianity that you and the Cardinal, now Pope, are talking about is really mostly Catholicism, where an attempt is made to balance reason and faith. However, where it matters, in the US, the Church’s reasoned view is not likely to be the one that is elevated. More likely it will be the entirely faith-based literalist interpretations of the Bible made by the evangelical and fundamentalist movements. Their beliefs tend not to hold to together as theologies and they often see reason as antithetical to faith.

  2. cburrell Says:

    It is good to hear from you again, Matthew. I hope that all is well with you and yours. Thanks for your comment.

    I am pressed for time, but I’ll try to say something intelligible in response. As I see it, the main problem with the first form of pluralism that I discussed is that it does not do religious traditions the honour of disagreeing with them. It attempts to move religious claims out of the realm of truth and falsehood and into an aesthetic or therapeutic sphere. It assumes that there is such a thing as “religion”, instances of which can be meaningfully grouped together and treated as different manifestations of something — something that is not what they themselves claim to be. You yourself made a gesture in that direction by arguing that the “great” religions appeal to a common, underlying moral system. This could be taken to mean (although I do not say that this is what you meant) that the real point of religion is to teach morality, and since the “great” religions teach more or less the same morality they are more or less equally valuable. But the purpose of Christianity is not to teach morality; morality, from a Christian point of view, is a means to a properly religious end. Pluralism tries to abstract away from the particularities of religious claims, doctrine, and history, and I am in doubt as to whether this can be done while still maintaining an honest and meaningful discussion.

    As to the propensity of some Christians to view the neglect of reason as a pious exercise. . . well, life is complicated. They are allies, but we do occasionally have to fight an educational skirmish on our flank.

  3. Matthew Says:

    That’s the best quick response I’ve ever seen you write. Well said. It is true that morality is a consequence and not a purpose of Christianity, and much the same could probably be said of other religions. However, defining pluralism using morality makes sense when viewed from my perspective. I lost my faith when I grew old enough to understand the concept of exclusivism and to realize that more than one religion claimed it. The only explanation I could come up with was that God must have revealed himself in different ways to different people. A good and loving God, I reasoned, would not want the majority of mankind to go to hell, especially the ones who had never even heard of Christianity. My proof was in the shared morality of the great religions. I now take a more anthropological view, but the result is essentially the same: the popular religions share the same morality for a reason. The point is that from an outsider’s view, it is easy to see the similarities between religions without having to worry about the theological incompatibilities. I know, however, from a theological perspective, that it is difficult to surmount even the “small” incompatibilities between different sects of Christianity let alone resolve them between Christianity and other faiths. For an outsider, it is also easy to see the shared morality as a good and stabilizing force in society, which is why I think that religion is seen in most modern liberal democracies as a personal choice rather than something in need of regulation by the state (regulation that has a history of not working).

  4. cburrell Says:

    Well, pluralism is a possible response to the proliferation of religions. It’s not the only one, and I think it’s not the best one, but I think I do understand why people can come to that position. I agree with you (it sounds like) that there is a core of morality held in common across cultures — with local confusions and corruptions, as one would expect. You are right that fidelity to religious traditions can be a source of social friction, which is why the early modern political thinkers set out to privatize and marginalize religion. Probably this strategy does serve civil order; whether it also serves truth is another question.

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