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Approaches to “Religion” Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Saturday, 17 December 2011

The subtitle of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything makes the just deceased Christopher Hitchens’ judgment of religion abundantly clear. Religion is not worth all the heartache caused by crusades and inquisitions, he argues, because it is merely a man-made phenomenon. By focusing on religion’s multiple manifestations, endless disagreements, historical contingencies, and Biblical patriarchy, he has declared that religion can be nothing other than of human manufacture.

Is he right? Is religion merely man-made? Are all religions the same? In the common view of many today, Hitchens is right:  there are innumerable religions, and there seems to be no way to prove objectively which one is true or best. This is the view of religious pluralism espoused by many today, including not a few Catholics: all religions are equally valid since none of them has a monopoly on human happiness. The premise underlying this assumption is that there is no truth among claims to knowledge of the divine, the transcendent, and the moral life.

The Catholic religion throws a wrench into this picture: it claims to be the true religion, with true teachings about God and the moral life. But even more it claims that it is the path to a salvation that lies beyond the threshold of this world. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium teaches “that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism, as through a door, men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (14).

Such is the span of religion: on one end some religions offer a way of living in this world for its own sake, while the Catholic religion, on the other end, promises eternal life in the next world, and in doing so it has declared other religions “gravely deficient” in comparison to it (Dominus Iesus 22). If this is true, then there must indeed be a difference between religions, and this difference reveals that not all religions, the Catholic religion among them, are merely man-made.

In Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger offers an analysis of the origins and nature of religions that penetrates far beyond Hitchens’ superficial generalizations. When philosophers of religion look beyond the sheer plurality of religions, they identify a “commonly shared ‘religious experience’” that stems from “the inner experience of the divine that is experienced in its final common form by mystics of all times and of all places.” But this singular mysticism, whether experienced directly or passed on second hand, is not the sum total of religion, according to Ratzinger.

The history of religion demonstrates an additional manifestation:  the “monotheistic revolution” of Israel, which began not from humanity’s inner experience, but from without, a call from God related through prophets. It is a “revolution” because it was brought about by “a few people who were filled with a new religious awareness and who shattered the myths [of the ancient world] and overthrew the gods of whom the myths spoke.”

For Ratzinger, then, there are two general types of religion. One is mysticism, whereby humanity’s spiritual experience is elevated into an absolute so that man can “plunge” into a passive God. The other is monotheism, which begins from the opposite premise: “man is the passive element upon whom God acts; here it is man who can do nothing of himself, but instead we have here an activity on the part of God, a call from God, and man opens himself to salvation in response to the call.”

Hitchens, like others who see the Bible as mere anthropomorphic fantasy and fastidious rule keeping, misses the uniqueness of the “revolution” that Ratzinger describes. The Old Testament patriarchs, in Ratzinger’s words, “appear practically uncouth”; but it is their lack of greatness – in contrast to the great religious founders Buddha and Confucius – that points to the singular quality of biblical revelation:  God acts first, calling weak humans to Him not primarily to transform them, but so they can love Him. The Bible expresses this reality with human ideas and terms, and the monotheistic religions, though surely full of man-made traditions and elements, have an inner core that transcends human thinking.

Ratzinger states that we cannot scientifically prove which religion – the mystical or monotheistic – is true. The choice is always present to us, and extends beyond the theoretical realm to practical living. How, then, can we understand Catholicism’s claim as the true religion?

Following Augustine, Ratzinger locates the truth of Christian monotheism in its harmony with the nature of the world and with human behavior. Faith aligns with reason, behavior is directed by charity in a compelling synthesis that “constitutes the apology of Christianity as religio vera.” From this general synthesis, which hinges on the reality of the eternal Logos revealing himself as creative love, follows all the particulars of Catholic belief in salvation.

Is the Catholic claim for truth nothing more than religious imperialism? For Ratzinger, the truth must be freely chosen, not imposed. But Catholicism, when offered not just as a religion but also as a world view with a loving and beneficent God at its center, proposes a way of life far more beautiful and profound than any man-made creation could ever do.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
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written by Manfred, December 17, 2011
Christopher Hitchens has already stood before Christ and he has been judged, as each of us in our turn will be also. We will know the disposition of his soul at the General Judgement. He has been judged by Truth and he will have eternity to reflect on whether he was correct or wrong.
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written by tom, December 17, 2011
I think the author conflates "Christianity" with "Roman Catholicism" seeming to imply that since the first (a religion) is 'true' then the second (a denomination) is likewise. I'm not sure that asking the then-Cardinal Ratzinger or the participants in Vatican II if Roman Catholicism is the 'one, true' faith is necessarily the best approach to get an objective answer.
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written by Michael PS, December 17, 2011
I think we can recognize the limits of religious experience, whilst recognizing its limitations.

Religious experience is like bathing in a fathomless ocean, or breathing an intangible and limitless air. It gives contact and certitude, but not understanding: as breathing or bathing give us certitude about the air and the ocean, but no information about their chemical constitution.

In that way, it is not a rival to faith.
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written by Tony Esolen, December 17, 2011
Hitchens was a colossal hypocrite. He himself, for most of his adult life, was a member of a movement that promoted violence and destruction throughout the world. The only good thing one can say about Leon Trotsky, whom Hitchens adored, was that he might have fallen somewhat short of being as bloodthirsty as Stalin; which is something like saying that Tamerlane wasn't as horrible as Genghis Khan.

Some things, alas, are too big to see. Hitchens didn't see. Malcolm Muggeridge, who also was raised as a Fabian socialist, did come to see -- he was humble enough and human enough to recognize the beauty of Mother Teresa.
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written by Kevin in DC, December 17, 2011
Re: Tom
"I think the author conflates "Christianity" with "Roman Catholicism" seeming to imply that since the first (a religion) is 'true' then the second (a denomination) is likewise"

Tom, the Catholic faith is the fullness of Christianity and was indeed the first (and only) denomination until 1066 A.D.,when the schism that led to the Orthodox religions of the East occurred. Then a number of centuries later, Luther, Calvin and their followers broke away heretically from Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. Now the Protestant denominations run well over 30,000 in the U.S. alone, certainly belying any claim to being the one, true, catholic and apostolic faith, which Catholicism alone claims to be.
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written by Graham Combs, December 17, 2011
Over at CNA, in an article about Hitchens, Cardinal Ravasi who recalls a conversation between Jean Guitton and the dying Francois Mitterand. Guitton says humanity has the choice between absurdity and mystery. Mitterand asks are they not the same. Guitton replies that absurdity is an impenetrable wall against which mankind commits suicide. Mystery beckons us upward to hope and understanding and God. I've been watching Prof. Brian Cox's fine documentaries on the universe and the word "strangeness" is spoken again and again. Also the fact that our robotic and telescopic explorations of the universe lead not only to answers but more questions, more mysteries, more of the unexpected. Science itself, whether its practioners want to admit it or not, continues to affirm the religious disposition.

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written by tom, December 17, 2011
Kevin, you are right. There may be one, or more, Protestant denominations claiming to be the 'one, true, catholic and apostolic faith' but most do not make any such claim.
One could argue, I think that the Orthodox and the Anglican churches, at least, could make the claim if they were inclined to do so. Also the Old Catholic churches (which reject the doctrine of papal infallibility) can legitimately make the claim. As for the reasons behind the breaking away "heretically" of the Protestant denominations, I refer you to the history of the Medieval papacy.
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written by Louise, December 17, 2011
Tom:
Belloc said it best:

"There is and always has been the Church, and various heresies
proceeding from a rejection of some of the Church's doctrines by men who
still desire to retain the rest of her teaching and morals. But there
never has been and never can be or will be a general Christian religion
professed by men who all accept some central important doctrines, while
agreeing to differ about others. There has always been, from the
beginning, and will always be, the Church, and sundry heresies either
doomed to decay, or, like Mohammedanism, to grow into a separate religion.
Of a common Christianity there has never been and never can be a
definition, for it has never existed." (Belloc: The Great Heresies, Chapter 7, "The Modern Phase.") Available on line, free.
And the lovely title of this site is also taken from Belloc, so he is held in high esteem. Our own Fr. Schall quotes Belloc in "The Regensburg Lecture." It's always a delight to find Bellocs lucid and profound words quoted.
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written by Mark, December 18, 2011
"As for the reasons behind the breaking away 'heretically' of the Protestant denominations, I refer you to the history of the Medieval papacy."
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Rather than vague bugaboos such as "the Medieval papacy" as the origin of Protestantism, one would better look long and hard at Martin Luther's lack of faith in God's willingness to forgive sinners. Luther's persistent fear, rooted in a perverse form of pride, that he was so sinful that God couldn't forgive him is what drove the Augustinian monk away from the Church and toward creating a fractured world where what is true in Rome isn't true in Wittenberg.
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written by Elizabeth D, December 18, 2011
I have the book "Truth and Tolerance" and if I recall correctly the essay referred to in this article was an early work about which Ratzinger notes he would no longer make a contrast between monotheism and mysticism, it is not a good use of words. In fact true mysticism is the love relationship between God and the soul which can be truly fulfilled only in union with God in Christ. Buddhist or Hindu "mysticism" is not true mysticism in the fully Catholic sense of the word. Of course, one can still find value in Ratzinger's essay and understand what he is trying to say about the different religions, and of course God is present to every person and every soul longs for Him, but this is a needed caution. To reiterate, Christianity or monotheism is not opposed to "mysticism", since ultimately the only true mysticism is Catholic.

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