This speech was given to the Aresty Research Symposium in Rutgers, Spring 2008.
Ever since the beginning of Christianity, one of the main problems was evangelization. How were Christians supposed to propose what they call the “gospel,” the “good news” to all people as Jesus commanded them to (Matt. 28: 19-20)? Most of Jesus’ disciples were practicing Jews, that is, they had the same presuppositions and worldview that Jesus had. Yet, they were called to proclaim the good news not simply to the Jews but to the Gentiles, those who had different worldviews than they. We see examples of this when they had to debate whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law in order to be part of the Church, the people of God (Acts 15; Romans 2-6). The early Church decided not to impose some aspects of Judaism to the Gentiles and yet proclaimed the necessity of Jesus Christ as the only savior. Today, the Catholic Church faces the same problem as the early Church. With so many cultures and religions today, she faces the difficult task of presenting the gospel in a non-imposing way while at the same time proposing an essential element in human life: relationship with Christ. Can the Catholic Church propose the necessity of Jesus Christ while at the same time be tolerant of other religions?
Christ as the Fulfillment of Human Life
The then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily to the College of Cardinals in the Mass for the election of a new pope, said that we are “moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal [in] one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” The Catholic Church, however, proposes that she can know for certain that in Jesus of Nazareth, there is “the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God.” She cannot accept a religious relativism which teaches that each religion in their own independent way is a path to God, and that the revelation of God given by Christ is incomplete and that other religions are complementary to his revelation. Accepting such an idea would be destroying her understanding of who Jesus is. According to the Church, Jesus of Nazareth is the Incarnate Word of God (Jn. 1:14) in whom the fullness of Yahweh dwells (Col. 1:19; Rom 9:4-5). He is the definitive and final revelation of God simply because he is God; there is nothing more to add because God himself has shown himself in person. In Christ we find God’s triune tenderness to humanity and all of creation, which is fully expressed in his dying and rising from the dead. As Karl Rahner said,
By the resurrection, then, Jesus is vindicated as the absolute saviour. We can also say more cautiously at first: as the final ‘prophet… We must bear in mind here that his word as God’s final word can be understood to be definitive not because God now ceases to arbitrarily to say anything further, although he could have said more, and not because he ‘concludes’ revelation, although he could have continued it had he just wanted to. It is the final word of God that is present in Jesus because there is nothing to say beyond it, because God has really and in a strict sense offered himself in Jesus…Jesus, then, is the historical presence of this final and unsurpassable word of God’s self-disclosure: this is his claim and he is vindicated in this claim by the resurrection. He is of eternal validity and he is experienced in this eternal validity. In this sense in any case is the ‘absolute saviour.
It is important to note that because Jesus Christ is God himself, although he is the final revelation of God, he is inexhaustible. Precisely because he is inexhaustible, whatever we think of him falls short of who he is. His “I” is ever greater than any human speech or understanding: “no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them [God and creature]”. Our understanding of Christ in Scripture and Tradition, then, develops as time continues. Although it is a Catholic doctrine that objective revelation ceased after the death of the apostles, there is a sense in which revelation is open. Joseph Ratzinger’s study in The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure wanted to free us from the conception of revelation as an abstract concept. He argued that St. Bonaventure’s notion of revelatio is the unveiling of the hidden. Concretely, it can be referred to unveiling of the future, the mystical meaning and understanding of Scripture, and “the divine reality which takes place in the mystical ascent”. There can be no revelation unless there is an unveiling, which presupposes a person with a veil, a person who has the capacity to learn something new. Ratzinger also emphasized that revelation was never equated with Scripture but rather the understanding of Scripture and this understanding increases as time goes on. To put it in another way, there can be such a thing as “new revelation” insofar as our understanding of Christ increases. According to Ratzinger, we can summarize St. Bonaventure’s understanding on the relationship between Scripture and history this way,
a) Scripture has grown in an historical way. Only he who knows its history knows its meaning. History is a structural element of Scripture’s intelligible form…b) Scripture, however, is not simply a product of a past history, but is simultaneously a statement about and a prediction of the future. Since the Scriptures were written, part of this future has already become past, while part of it still remains future. This means that the total meaning of Scripture is not yet clear. Rather, the final “revelation,” i.e. the time of a full understanding of revelation, is yet to come.
The Church’s understanding of Christ through the Scriptures, then, is not simply understanding the historical Jesus, that is, what he had done in the first century Palestine, but experiencing Christ ever anew in the present moment. It requires that the Spirit takes the word and incarnates it to the flesh of the believer. The Spirit does this throughout history and it is in this way that the life of Christ is not limited to a particular time, but universalized. The work of the Spirit is to universalize the saving act of Jesus Christ. The work of the Spirit is not to be understood as some kind of magical trick of God, but rather, it is verified in the witness of the believers. The Spirit works through and in people and only when the totality of the person is taken into account can the word of God be understood. To put it in another way, God works through human realities and does not take away anything that is good in him; “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” When the Spirit moves a person to turn to Christ, a veil is removed and he is moved from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:16-18). In this way the person becomes a letter of Christ, not made from ink but the Spirit in his heart (2 Cor. 3:1-3).
The experience of the person, the receiver of revelation, then, is fundamental in understanding Jesus Christ. Christ cannot be known apart from the one who receives him. The experience of Christ is so fundamental that the Church is obliged not to forget it. She must keep remembering her life with Christ. Commitment to the experiences of Christ is what we can call Tradition. Tradition, like revelation, is not a set of propositions or doctrines. It cannot be limited to a particular time. It is remembering the life of Christ. By “remembering” we do not simply mean a recollection of the past but reliving the life of Christ. It is the Christian immersing himself to the reality of what he has received. And because every encounter with Christ is a “new revelation” the Church does not remain close to the future but rather takes up her experiences and understanding that will lead her to examine and judge the future in a Christ-like manner. As Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “Her tradition is not so much a link with the past as a marathon relay race in which one runner hands on the torch to the next…the Church is prevented from ever resting on any past achievement; she is continually being spurred on to make a better response.”
Another factor to be kept in mind about experiencing Christ is that the receiver of revelation has his own environment and context he is living in. The Spirit does not work in a void or a tabula rasa but rather works through the human person as he is. A person, then, who is trained in Aristotelian philosophy will not have to abandon the truths that he has learned in that discipline. Rather, Tradition purifies his understanding within that context, saving whatever is good in that philosophy and turning away from what leads to error. This is why throughout Christian history, we find that non-Christian cultures had made a big impact on Christianity, up to the point of impacting the way Christian theology is presented. One cannot doubt, for example, that Hellenistic culture was not absent in the development of Christian thought. The fact that the concept of transubstantiation has become a Catholic dogma manifests the Greek influence in Christianity.
By understanding the concept of revelation in Catholic theology, it seems that we can say that there is a type of religious pluralism that can be accepted. As the Second Vatican Council taught,
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. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 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.
The Church can accept that there are rays of truth in other religions because they all partake in the Logos in some way, that is, they are made in the image of God. In fact, St. Justin Martyr even went further to note that Christ is the “Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists.” Such a daring statement leads us to conclude that there are those outside the visible structure of the Church who hold certain truths that we can learn from and that she cannot abolish. God could have worked through the religious traditions of those outside the Church so that when they encounter the Gospel, they understand Christ in their own way. As Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, “[T]he range of Jesus’ eschatological work is such that he can operate directly outside the Church; he may give grace to individual persons, and perhaps to groups, enabling them to act according to his mind; the Church must allow for this possibility…it can happen that, bringing her light into some new area, she finds his light shining there already.” Christ cannot be reduced to a particular experience such as encountering him within the Hellenistic culture. Nor can the Church Hellenize or Latinize those countries that have different worldviews. Catholic theology seems to have a hopeful future in that although her understanding of Christ increased throughout the centuries, especially in synthesizing Hellenistic philosophy and Patrology, the inexhaustible Christ can be understood apart from a Hellenistic worldview. The Catholic Church does not stress on uniformity, but rather unity in diversity. This is the mentality of the Church ever since her beginnings. In the first century, there were many Christians who were still practicing the Torah and there were those who did not because they were former Gentiles. Even today there are many examples of diversity such as the different theologies of Thomism and Molinism, and different Rites of the Mass. There may one day be a different kind of Catholic theology that had its origin in Buddhist thinking or Hindu thinking.
Allowing non-Christian religious traditions play an important role does not take away the Church’s mission to spread the Gospel. Every human person has a desire to know the reason to be alive, to be free from his errors and degrading slavery of becoming a caricature of himself. The good news of Christianity is precisely that it proposes that the answer to the longings of the human heart is Jesus Christ. To encounter the fact of Jesus Christ is to encounter an exceptional reality, a presence that corresponds to the deepest needs of the human heart. His death and resurrection is the visible sign of the triune tenderness of God. Although the Church must not Latinize, we must say that she must Christianize. This is not imposition, but proposing to every human person that the Church had experienced a joy in encountering this man from Nazareth. There is a joy in Christ that cannot be found elsewhere, a joy that is essential in every human person (Jn. 16:22). This commitment to her experiences, that is, Tradition, can purify the religious beliefs in non-Christian religions. It does not destroy other religious traditions but rather uplifts and perfects it. Just as an Aristotelian does not have to cease to be an Aristotelian to be a Christian so too a Buddhist does not necessarily have to give up his Buddhist traditions in order to be a Christian. Christian truth is not uniform but symphonic. What is essential is the Person of Jesus Christ encountered in the Church because Christ alone “fully reveals man to himself.” The essence of Christianity is the Incarnate Word of the Father who infuses into the human person a love that lasts forever, a love that produces a joy that cannot be destroyed.
 Dominus Iesus, 6.
 Ibid. cf. K. Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, (Seabury Press, 1978), pg. 344: “If religion were basically nothing but what each individual perceives as the representation and interpretation of his own feeling about existence and his own interpretation of existence, then this religion would lack its essential ground and an essential characteristic.”
 Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis no. 9: “This revelation of the Father and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which stamp an indelible seal on the mystery of the Redemption, explain the meaning of the Cross and death of Christ.”
 Foundations, pgs. 279-280; emphasis author.
 Franciscan Herald Press, 1971
 pgs. 58-59
 cf. Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) pg. 260: “The two classical terms for the moment at Sinai are mattan torah and kabbalat torah, ‘the giving of the Torah’ and ‘the acceptance of the Torah.’ It was both an event in the life of God and an event in the life of man.”
 Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory vol. 2, (Ignatius Press, 1990), pg. 104: “Christ himself is so much the Incarnate Deed and Word of God that it would be quite inappropriate for him to write anything. When, nonetheless, his history comes to be written down, the writing of it shows, not (as in the Old Testament) progress in revelation itself, but progress in understanding and reflection upon it.”
 Pgs. 83-84.
 “This revelation of the Father and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which stamp an indelible seal on the mystery of the Redemption, explain the meaning of the Cross and death of Christ” (Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis no. 9)
 pg. 75
 Nostra Aetate, no. 2
 First Apology, ch. 46
 Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory vol. 3, (Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 282.
 Cf. Luigi Giussani, Is it Possible to Live This Way? Vol. 1 Faith, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), pgs. 25-41.
 Gaudium et Spes no. 22