Eastern Religions

Monday, March 08, 2004



I have written articles on Protestantism compared and contrasted to Catholicism, the salvation of the Jews and the possibility of salvation among Muslims.

I would venture to say that the most fascinating questions Western Christians are facing today on salvation outside of the Church lies in the question of salvation for practicioners of Eastern religions. It will be impossible to adequately treat this subject in depth, but I want to wet appetites to explore this fascinating topic.

By Eastern religions, I am referring to the ancient religions of Asia, and particularly in India, China and Japan. The major religions of the East are Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Parsis (Zoastrianism), Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. There are also smaller cults and some areas where animism is practiced.

According to this site, globally, Christians make up the largest religion with 33 percent of the global population, and nearly 2 billion adherents in 2001. Just over half of all Christians are Roman Catholics. Thus, Roman Catholicism taken by itself has long been the world's largest single religious religion with about 1.06 billion adherents.

Islam has very recently outpaced Roman Catholicism with just over 1.3 billion adherents, and makes up about 22% of the global population. However, like Christianity, Islam does have sects such as Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis. The division between these sects seems less significant than the lines between some Christian denominations.

There is a significant Islamic presence in Asia, and a smaller, but significant Christian presence as well. There is even some Jewish presence. Atheistic communism might be considered a significant influence on the current religious practice of Asian religion today, since it dominates China, North Korea and was powerfully present in the former Soviet Empire. While there is a growing atheistic, agnostic and human secularist segment in Europe and the Americas, the highest concentration of non-religious people are in Asia and Eastern Europe. Non-religious people make up approximately 14 percent of the world population.

Turning our attention back to Eastern religions, Hinduism makes up about 15% of the global population and has close to 900 million adherents. Buddhism has about 6 percent of the global population with about 360 million adherents. Chinese traditional religions combine to a total of about 225 million people comprising 4 percent of the global population. The other Eastern religions combined make up less than 3 percent of the global population.

Since at least the late 1960's, many Americans, including American Catholics, have been fascinated by Eastern religion. The Beatles learned yoga meditation from a Hindu guru. Yoga classes are now part of almost every health club. The Dali Lama has been an intriguing figure who has grabbed news headlines, and popular actors such as Richard Gere have become followers. Shirley McClain also popularized some Eastern religious thought through the New Age movement. We have seen a proliferation of Martial arts films that introduce Eastern philosophy and religion to the Western mind.

There is something intriguing about a monastic life-style such as the Buddhist monk, and the deep sense of inner-peace that seems apparent in those who spend a good deal time in meditation. Those who feel alienated from Western religious practice and the perceived legalism of some Christian churches often find the eight-fold path of the Buddha, or the way of the Toa more attractive.

Many Catholics come to ponder Eastern religion through the writing of a Catholic Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Merton, whom many people now consider a saint, was very interested in the commonalities between Buddhist monasticism and Christian monasticism. Other Westerners have noticed that there are similarities between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha.

The current Pope, John Paul II has been criticized by the right and the left for his views on ecumenism. Conservatives find him too ecumenically oriented, while liberals think he has not gone far enough. In his example, more than his words, the Holy Father has demonstrated a great interest in Eastern spirituality. He has met with the Dali Lama and invited Hindus and Buddhists to pray with him in Rome.

On the other hand, through some of his letters and actions, the Holy Father has also been critical of Catholics mixing Eastern spirituality with Catholicism in a syncretic fashion, and has tried to organize apologetic and evangelistic resistance to the spread of Eastern spirituality in the West.

The Second Vatican Council makes specific mention of the Church's relationship to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians, Jews and Muslims (in that order). In all cases of the monotheistic religions that look to Abraham as a father in faith, the Church admits a close union. The Church has never made specific mention of the Eastern religions by name in Council documents.

On salvation outside of the Church, the Church essentially teaches the following principles, which I confess I am re-phrasing in my own words:

1) There is one true Church comprised of those who are responding to the grace of Jesus Christ, and the reality of this Church is ultimately a mystery - the mystical Body of Christ.

2) There is no salvation outside of the true Church.

3) The true Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.

4) The fullness of truth necessary for salvation is found in the Roman Catholic Church, which has received the promise of teaching authority directly from Christ.

5) Yet, the ultimate reality of the Church is an invisible and mysterious reality that extends beyond the institutional boundaries of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. All who seek God with a sincere heart are somehow prompted by grace and are therefore united to the true mystery of the Church.

6) While there is salvation outside of the institutional boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church, there is no salvation apart from the Roman Catholic Church. All who are united to the invisible Church are somehow aided by interaction with good Roman Catholics and their prayers. Even those who have never heard the Gospel might be saved!

7) In turn, while all that is necessary is within Roman Catholicism, members of the Roman Catholic Church are aided in their own journey of faith by interactions with other people of good will, and by their prayers. Dialogue and cooperation with non-believers in a spirit of humble charity is a moral obligation upon the Roman Catholic adherent.

As stated already, the Second Vatican Council describes the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to Eastern Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians, Jews and Muslims in the order presented. Then the Church turns her attention to those who are invisibly united to the Church even if they do not know the Gospel of Christ:
Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience -- those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life. (LG no. 16 - emphasis mine)
The profound nature of what the Council said should not be underestimated. Two important points must be made, and they are made in the bolded sections.

First, grace is operative in the hearts of some people who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is by grace alone that we are saved, and grace is nothing less than a participation in the very life of God (see Paragraph 1997 of the CCC)!

When we hear Easterners describe mystical states of prayer, meditation and contemplation, it may very well be that the person is experiencing something of the same mystical encounter with Christ that was experienced by Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, or other great saints. The test of true prayer is a growth in holiness and love, and we see this in many practicioners of Eastern religions.

The second important point affirms the first. The Council clearly indicates that there is goodness and truth to be found among non-believers! This is not to say that the "fullness of truth" does not subsist in the Catholic Church. Yet, goodness and truth inspired by grace ought to be affirmed wherever it is found.

What Catholic has seen Muslims bowed in prayer and not felt inspired to greater prayer ourselves? What Catholic has not looked with some admiration at the way Gandhi seemed to live the Gospel as well or better than most of us? We can be inspired by the goodness and truth found in the East!

Taking these principles a step further, we might consider that a particular truth may be present in Catholicism, which contains "the fullness of truth". Yet, this same particular truth may be better expressed in another religious body. As a less controversial example, the Catholic Church teaches that the Bible is inspired by God, and the Church encourages all Catholics to meditate on Scripture and hold the Word of God in reverence. Yet, who would deny that the average Protestant knows the Bible better than the average Catholic? It's not that the Church teaching is lacking, but somehow, it seems better expressed among some of the Protestants.

The same can be true on any particular issue when Catholicism is compared to another religion. I believe that the East has a better focus on the subjective aspect of religious experience and a stronger emphasis on the importance of meditation and contemplation. Roman Catholicism does have a long and strong tradition of monasticism and contemplative prayer. However, the East gets it filtered down to the average adherent better than we do.

If anyone were to read through the Tao te Ching, it is similar in tone and content to the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The thought of Zen Buddhists find some echo in Thomas Aquinas' meditation on God as Absolute Being. The social order promoted by Confucius could be allied with Christian family values.

It is true that when comparing two religious bodies, we Catholics will always maintain that whatever is true and good can be found in some manner - even if seminally - within the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, even if the Church does hold a truth that is shared by the East, it is entirely possible that a particular individual Catholic person may have never heard that truth. For example, I do believe that a particular baptized Catholic with poor prayer habits could learn from a Buddhist monk what true prayer is and learn some ways of growing in prayer.

In other words, I am emphasizing that we Catholics can and even should be open to learning from our Eastern brothers and sisters. Whatever goodness and truth they possess is inspired by grace, and though the same truth may also be expressed seminally in Catholicism, you may hear it as an individual for the first time from an Easterner, or you may hear it expressed better by the Easterner!

Inevitably, anyone who grows deeply in their Catholic faith will also recognize that there are points of incongruence and incommensurability between Catholic faith and the East. In these cases, I have always chosen to side with the Church. For example, I cannot simultaneously believe that the dead will be resurrected and believe in reincarnation. I cannot feel comfortable with the Hindu practice of praying to lesser gods or spirits than the One who is the source of all. I also believe that Christianity has something to say about the injustice of the caste system.

Yet, even if there are areas of Eastern thought that Christians reject or critique, we should not lose sight of the fact that everyone of us can learn from the East. In the future, I may write a more in depth comparison and contrast between Eastern thought and Western Christian thought. For now, suffice it to say that the East has much to offer the West, and we should not ignore our Eastern siblings.

Peace and Blessings!


Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net

posted by Jcecil3 2:46 PM

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