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Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Published by Columbia University Press, 1963.

Chapter 2: Christian Principles of Judging Non-Christian Religions

In the discussion of our general subject, "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions," we gave in our first chapter a view of the present situation, a view which was centered in the encounter of the quasi-religions with the religions proper. We discussed the encounter of nationalism (and its Fascist radicalization), of socialism (and its Communist radicalization), of liberal humanism (and its precarious situation), with the primitive sacramental religions, with the mystical religions of Indian origin, and with the ethical religions born of Israel. And we asked the question of the future of all religions in the face of the victory of secularism all over the world. We presented a panorama within which we did not give an elevated place to Christianity, but we now intend to look at the panorama from the point of view of Christianity.

First I want to ask the question: what has Christianity, in the course of its history, thought about other religions in general and certain religions in particular? How did it meet them? To what degree will this determine the encounter of Christianity with the world religions today? And above all: what has been and what will be the attitude of Christianity to the powerful quasi-religions which are, in their modern form, something new for Christianity?

Before going into this problem empirically I want to introduce a rather general consideration concerning all religions and, even more generally, all social groups. If a group -- like an individual -- is convinced that it possesses a truth, it implicitly denies those claims to truth which conflict with that truth. I would call this the natural self-affirmation in the realm of knowledge; it is only another word for personal certainty. This is so natural and so inescapable that I have never found even a sceptic who did not affirm his scepticism while contradicting everybody who denied its validity. If even the sceptic claims the right to affirm his scepticism (if he makes a statement at all), and to contradict those who doubt it, why should the member of a religious group be deprived of his "civil right," so to speak, of affirming the fundamental assertion of his group and of contradicting those who deny this assertion? It is natural and unavoidable that Christians affirm the fundamental assertion of Christianity that Jesus is the Christ and reject what denies this assertion. What is permitted to the sceptic cannot be forbidden to the Christian -- or, for that matter, to the adherent of any other religion.

Consequently the encounter of Christianity with other religions, as well as with quasi-religions, implies the rejection of their claims insofar as they contradict the Christian principle, implicitly or explicitly. But the problem is not the right of rejecting that which rejects us; rather it is the nature of this rejection. It can be the rejection of everything for which the opposite group stands; itcan be a partial rejection together with a partial acceptance of assertions of the opposite group; or it can be a dialectical union of rejection and acceptance in the relation of the two groups. In the first case the rejected religion is considered false, so that no communication between the two contradictory positions is possible. The negation is complete and under certain circumstances deadly for the one or the other side. In the second case some assertions and actions of the one or the other side are considered false, others true. This is more tolerant than the attitude of total negation, and it is certainly an adequate response to a statement of facts or ideas some of which may be true, some false, but it is not possible to judge works of art or philosophy or the complex reality of religions in this way. The third way of rejecting other religions is a dialectical union of acceptance and rejection, with all the tensions, uncertainties, and changes which such dialectics implies. If we look at the history of Christianity as a whole, we can point to a decisive predominance of this latter response in the attitude of Christian thinking and acting towards the non-Christian religions. But it is almost impossible to discover a consistent line of thought about this problem. And even less consistent is the attitude of Christianity to the contemporary quasi-religions. This observation contradicts the popular assumption that Christianity had an exclusively negative attitude toward other faiths. Indeed, nothing is farther from the truth. In this assumption a confusion frequently takes place between the attitude of the Christian churches toward Christian heretics, especially in the late Middle Ages, and their attitude toward members of other religions. The demonic cruelty of the former is in contrast with the comparative mildness of the latter.

The indefiniteness of the attitude toward strange religions starts in the Old Testament. In the earlier prophets, the pagan gods are treated as powers inferior to the power of Jahweh, particularly in foreseeing and determining the future, in hearing prayers, and in executing justice, but they are regarded as competing realities. Of course, in the long run, their loss of power led to their loss of being; a god without ultimate power is a 'nothing," as they were later called. Jahweh has superior power because he is the God of justice. Since Amos, prophecy threatened Israel, the nation of Jahweh, with destruction by Jahweh because of its injustice. The covenant between Jahweh and the nation does not give the nation a claim to Jahweh's championship; he will turn against them if they violate justice. The exclusive monotheism of the prophetic religion is not due to the absoluteness of one particular god as against others, but it is the universal validity of justice which produces the exclusive monotheism of the God of justice. This, of course, implies that justice is a principle which transcends every particular religion and makes the exclusiveness of any particular religion conditional. It is this principle of conditional exclusiveness which will guide our further inquiry into the attitude of Christianity to the world religions.

Jesus' words are the basic confirmation of this principle. In the grand scene of the ultimate judgment (Matt. 25:3ff.), the Christ puts on his right the people from all nations who have acted with righteousness and with that agape-love which is the substance of every moral law. Elsewhere Jesus illustrates this principle by the story of the Good Samaritan, the representative of a rejected religion who practices love, while the representatives of the accepted religion pass by. And when the disciples complain about people who perform works similar to theirs, but outside their circle, he defends them against the disciples. Although the Fourth Gospel speaks more clearly than the others of the uniqueness of the Christ, interprets him at the same time in the light of the most universal of all concepts used in this period, the concept of the Logos, the universal principle of the divine self-manifestation, thus freeing the interpretation of Jesus from a particularism through which he would become the property of a particular religious group. Further, in the talk with the Samaritan woman, Jesus denies the significance of any particular place of adoration and demands an adoration "in Spirit and in Truth."

Paul is in a situation which is typical of all later developments. He has to fight on two fronts -- against the legalism of Christianized Jews and against the libertinism of Christianized pagans. He has to defend the new principle revealed in the appearance of the Christ. But, as always, defense narrows down. So his first condemnations are uttered against Christian distorters of his message; anathemas are always directed against Christians, not against other religions or their members. With respect to other religions he makes the assertion, unheard of for a Jew, that Jews and pagans are equally under the bondage of sin and equally in need of salvation -- a salvation which comes not from a new religion, the Christian, but from an event in history which judges all religions, including Christianity.

In early Christianity the judgment of other religions was determined by the idea of the Logos. The Church Fathers emphasized the universal presence of the Logos, the Word, the principle of divine self-manifestation, in all religions and cultures. The Logos is present everywhere, like the seed on the land, and this presence is a preparation for the central appearance of the Logos in a historical person, the Christ. In the light of these ideas Augustine could say that the true religion had existed always and was called Christian only after the appearance of the Christ. Accordingly, his dealing with other religions was dialectical, as was that of his predecessors. They did not reject them unambiguously and, of course, they did not accept them unambiguously. But in their apologetic writings they acknowledged the preparatory character of these religions and tried to show how their inner dynamics drives them toward questions whose answer is given in the central event on which Christianity is based. They tried to show the convergent lines between the Christian message and the intrinsic quests of the pagan religions. In doing so they used not only the large body of literature in which the pagans had criticized their own religions (for example, the Greek philosophers), but also made free use of the positive creations from the soil of the pagan religions. On the level of theological thought they took into Christianity some of the highest conceptualizations of the Hellenistic and, more indirectly, of the classical Greek feeling toward life -- terms like physis (natura), hypostasis (substance), ousia (power of being), prosopon (persona, not person in our sense), and above all logos (word and rational structure in the later Stoic sense). They were not afraid to call the God to whom they prayed as the Father of Jesus, the Christ, the unchangeable One.

All these are well-known facts, but is important to see them in the new light of the present encounter of the world religions, for then they show that early Christianity did not consider itself as a radical-exclusive, but as the all-inclusive religion in the sense of the saying: "All that is true anywhere in the world belongs to us, the Christians." And it is significant that the famous words of Jesus, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," (which was always an exegetic riddle) would, according to recent research, be better translated, "You must be all-inclusive as your heavenly Father is all-inclusive." Besides the reception of basic concepts from pagan metaphysical thought, which always means implicitly religious thought, early Christianity adopted moral principles from the Stoics, who represented both a philosophy and a way of life -- a process which is already present in the Paulinian letters. The early Church shaped its ritual structure in analogy with that of the mystery religions, some of which were its serious competitors, and used the Roman legal and the Germanic feudal forms for its social and political self-realization, while on the more popular, but officially accepted, level has, through the veneration of saints, appropriated and transformed many genuine pagan motifs and symbols.


This astonishing universalism, however, was always balanced by a criterion which was never questioned, either by the orthodox or by the heretical groups: the image of Jesus as the Christ, as documented in the New, and prepared for in the Old Testament. Christian universalism was not syncretistic; it did not mix, but rather subjected whatever it received to an ultimate criterion. In the power of this polarity between universality and concreteness entered the Medieval period, having to compete with no religion equal to it in either of these respects. In both the Mediterranean and the northern half of Western civilization the one all-embracing religion and the one all-embracing culture were amalgamated into a unity of life and thought. All conflicts, however severe, occurred within this unity. No external encounters disturbed it.

But in the seventh century something happened which slowly changed the whole situation. The first outside encounter took place with the rise of Islam, a new and passionate faith, fanatically carried over the known world, invading, subjecting, and reducing Eastern Christianity and threatening all Christendom. Based on Old Testament, pagan, and Christian sources, and created by a prophetic personality, it was not only adapted to the needs of primitive tribes, but also capable of absorbing large elements of the ancient culture, and soon surpassed Western Christianity in culture and civilization. The shock produced by these events can be compared only with the shock produced by the establishment of the Communist quasi-religion in Eastern Europe, Russia, and China, threatening Western Christianity and its liberal-humanist quasi-religious transformation.

The victorious wars of the Islamic tribes and nations forced Christianity to become aware of itself as one religion confronted with another against which it had to defend itself. According to the law that defense narrows down the defender, Christianity became at this point radically exclusive. The Crusades were the expression of this new self-consciousness. They were the result of the first encounter of Christianity with a new world religion. (This analogy, to leap to the present for a moment, makes understandable the crusading spirit of this country against the two radicalized types of quasi-religions Fascism on the one hand, Communism on the other. The often irrational and almost obsessive character of this crusading spirit shows that here expressions of ultimate concern are at work, though deeply ambiguous ones. Their ambiguity shows itself also in the fact that, just as in the period of the Crusades, they conflict with sober political judgment and profounder religious insight.)

The irrational character of the crusading spirit was confirmed by the fact that the narrowed self-consciousness, created by the encounter of Christianity with Islam, produced also a changed self-consciousness with respect to the Jews. Since the period of the New Testament, and expressed most clearly in the Johannine literature, a Christian anti-Judaism has existed, based, of course, on the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the vast majority of the Jews. Nevertheless, they were tolerated and often welcomed in the earlier period; the Church waited for their conversion. But after the shock of the encounter with Islam the Church became conscious of Judaism as another religion and anti-Judaism became fanatical. Only after this was it possible for governments to use the Jews as political scapegoats to cover up their own political and economic failures, and only since the end of the nineteenth century did religious anti-Judaism become racial anti-Semitism, which was -- and still is -- one of the many ingredients in the radicalized nationalistic quasi-religion.


But the encounter of Christianity with a new and an old world religion in the period of the Crusades worked not only for a fanatical exclusiveness; it also worked slowly in the direction of a tolerant relativism. In the same early thirteenth century in which Pope Innocent III gave the model for Hitler's Niirnberg laws against the Jews, there was created by Christian, Islamic, and Jewish forces the near-miracle of a tolerant humanism on the basis of current traditions at the court of Emperor Frederick II in Sicily. It took one to two centuries for similar ideas to come again to the surface, changing the Christian judgment of non-Christian religions in a radical way.

The great Cardinal and member of the Papal Court, Nicholas Cusanus, was able in the middle of the fifteenth century, in spite of his being an acknowledged pillar of the Roman Church, to write his book, De Pacc Fidei (The Peace between the Different Forms of Faith). He tells how representatives of the great religions had a sacred conversation in heaven. The divine Logos explained their unity by saying: "There is only one religion, only one cult of all who are living according to the principles of Reason (the Logos-Reason), which underlies the different rites... The cult of the gods everywhere witnesses to Divinity... So in the heaven of (Logos) Reason the concord of the religions was established."

The vision of Cusanus was an anticipation of later developments. Ideas appeared which renewed and even transcended the early Christian universalism, but without falling into relativism. People like Erasmus, the Christian humanist, or Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, acknowledged the work of the Divine Spirit beyond the boundaries of the Christian Church. The Socinians, predecessors of the Unitarians and of much liberal Protestant theology, taught a universal revelation in all periods. The leaders of the Enlightenment, Locke, Hume, and Kant, measured Christianity by its reasonableness and judged all other religions by the same criterion. They wanted to remain Christians, but on a universalist, all-inclusive basis. These ideas inspired a large group of Protestant theologians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A symptom of this situation is the rise of philosophies of religion, the very term implying that Christianity has been subsumed under the universal concept of religion. This seems harmless enough, but itis not. In the periods in which the concrete element dominated and repressed the universalist element, the theologians were aware of this danger and they maintained a unique claim for Christianity by contrasting revelation -- restricted to Christianity -- with religion as designating every non-Christian religion. Or they called Christianity the true religion, all other religions "false religions." With the disappearance of this distinction, however, Christianity, while still claiming some superiority, stepped down from the throne of exclusiveness to which these theologians had raised it and became no more than the exemplar of the species religion. Thus Christian universalism was transformed into humanist relativism.

This situation is reflected in the way in which both philosophers and theologians, in their philosophies of religion, dealt with Christianity in relation to other religions. Kant, in his book on Religion within the Limits of Pure Reason, gives Christianity an exalted standing by interpreting its symbols in terms of his Critique of Practical Reason. Fichte uses the Fourth Gospel to exalt Christianity as a representative of mysticism; Schelling and Hegel consider it in spite of Islam, as the fulfillment of all that is positive in the other religions and cultures; Schleiermacher gives a construction of the history of religions in which Christianity takes the highest place in the highest type of religion. My own teacher, Ernst Troeltsch, in his famous essay, "The Absoluteness of Christianity," asks most radically the question of the standing of Christianity among the world religions. He, like all the other Christian theologians and philosophers, who subsume Christianity under the concept of religion, construes Christianity as the most adequate realization of the potentialities implied in that concept. But since the concept of religion is itself derived from the Christian-humanist tradition, the procedure is circular. Troeltsch was aware of this situation and drew the consequences in his interpretation of history, in which he states no universal aim of history, but restricts himself to his own tradition, of which Christianity is an element. He calls it "Europeism"; today we would probably call it "The West." A consequence of this withdrawal was his advocation of the replacement of missionary attacks on the other world religions by "cross-fertilization," which was meant more as cultural exchange than as interreligious unity of acceptance and rejection. The resignation implied in this solution followed a general trend of nineteenth century thought, positivism in the original sense of the word, as acceptance of the empirically given without a superior criterion.

There was, however, always a majority of theologians and church people who interpreted Christianity in a particularistic and absolutistic way. They emphasized the exclusiveness of the salvation through Christ, following the main line of the theology of the Reformers, their orthodox systematizers and their pietistic transformers. In several waves the anti-universalist movements attacked the universalist trends which had become powerful in the last centuries. Every relativistic attitude towards the world religions was denounced as a negation of the absolute truth of Christianity. Out of this tradition (which is not necessarily fundamentalist in the ordinary sense) a strong particularistic turn of theology has grown. It was called in Europe crisis-theology; in America it is being called neo-orthodoxy. Its founder and outstanding representative is Karl Barth. This theology can be summed up from the point of view of our problem as the rejection of the concept of religion if applied to Christianity. According to him, the Christian Church, the embodiment of Christianity, is based on the only revelation that has ever occurred, namely, that in Jesus Christ. All human religions are fascinating, but futile attempts of man to reach God, and the relation to them, therefore, is no problem; the Christian judgment of them is unambiguous rejection of their claim to be based on revelation. Consequently, the problem which is the subject of this book -- the encounter of Christianity with the world religions -- may be an interesting historical problem, but is not a theological one. Yet history itself forced the problem on Barth, not through an encounter with a non-Christian religion in the proper sense, but through a highly dramatic encounter with one of the radicalized and demoniacal quasi-religions»Nazism. Under Barth's leadership the European Christian churches were able to resist its onslaught; the radical self-affirmation of Christianity in his theology made any compromise with Nazism impossible. But, according to the law mentioned above, the price paid for this successful defense was a theological and ecclesiastical narrowness which blinded the majority of Protestant leaders in Europe to the new situation arising out of the encounters of religions and quasi-religions all over the world. The missionary question was treated in a way which contradicted not only Troeltsch's idea of a cross-fertilization of the high religions, but also early Christian universalism, and it deserves mention that Barth and his whole school gave up the classical doctrine of the Logos in which this universalism was most clearly expressed.

The present attitude of Christianity to the world religions is as indefinite as that in most of its history. The extreme contrast between men like Barth and the theologian of missions, Kraemer, on the one side, and Troeltsch and the philosophical historian, Toynbee, with his program of a synthesis of the world religions, on the other, is symbolic for the intrinsic dialectics of the relation of Christianity to the religions proper. Implications of this dialectics for the relation of Christianity to particular religions, especially those originating in India, will be discussed in a later chapter.


We must still ask the question, at least in general terms, of what the attitude of Christianity to quasi-religions is. The answer presupposes a discussion of the attitude of Christianity to the secular realm in general. I do not say to secularism, for there is no problem in this. Secularism, i.e., the affirmation of secular culture in contrast to, and to the exclusion of, religion can only be rejected by Christianity as well as by every other religion. But the secular realm does not necessarily affirm itself in the form of secularism; it can affirm itself as an element within an overarching religious system, as was the case in the Middle Ages. Under such conditions Christianity has used the creations of the secular realm, wherever found -- in Egypt or Greece or Rome -- for the building of its own life. In our own period Christianity has been able to accept the different technical and economic revolutions and, after some brief reactions, the scientific affirmations which underlie these transformations of our historical existence. The relation of Protestantism to the secular realm is the most positive, due to the Protestant principle that the sacred sphere is not nearer to the Ultimate than the secular sphere. It denies that either of them has a greater claim to grace than the other; both are infinitely distant from and infinitely near to the Divine. This stems from the fact that Protestantism was largely a lay movement, like the Renaissance, and that in its later development a synthesis between the Enlightenment and Protestantism was possible, while in Catholic countries, even today, Christianity and the Enlightenment are still struggling with each other. The danger of the Protestant idea, of course, is that the acceptance of secularism can lead to a slow elimination of the religious dimension altogether, even within the Protestant churches. The general attitude of the Christian churches to the secular realm determines their judgment about the quasi-religions which have arisen on the basis of secularism.

First of all, it is obvious that Protestantism is more open to and, consequently, a more easy prey of the quasi-religions. The Roman Church has denied to all three types of quasi-religion -- the nationalist, the socialist, and the liberal-humanist -- any religious significance. It did not reject the nationalist or socialist idea as such; the social ethics of the Catholic Church could deal positively with both ideas under the criterion of the church tradition. More complex, and on the whole negative, is the Catholic attitude to the liberal-humanist quasi-religion, for it is hardly possible to purge this movement of its religious implications. Totally opposed, however, is the Catholic Church to the quasi-religious radicalizations of nationalism and socialism, namely Fascism and Communism. The religious element of neither can be denied -- even if this element is a dogmatic "atheism." This leads to the uncompromising rejection of Communism, and to the less passionate, but equally unambiguous, rejection of Fascism by the Catholic Church.

Its positive valuation of the secular makes the relation of Protestantism to the quasi-religions much more dialectical and even ambiguous. Protestantism can receive and transform the religious elements of the quasi-religions. It has done so in different ways with all three of them, but it has also partly -- though never totally -- succumbed to their radicalized forms. The Catholic Church has not been open to such reception of and subjection to the quasi-religions.

A few facts may show the ambiguous character of Protestantism in relation to the quasi-religions. The national idea was, since the reform councils of the fifteenth and the Reformation of the sixteenth centuries, a decisive tool in the fight of Christian groups against Rome. This was seen more clearly in England than anywhere else; Holland followed later, while in Germany Luther used national protests against Rome in defense of the Reformation without having a German nation behind him. Only in the late nineteenth century did the nationalism of the newly founded German Empire come into conflict with the Roman Church. When Nazism radicalized the nationalistic faith, certain Protestant groups succumbed to it, while the majority repulsed the demonic attack of the nationalistic quasi-religion. In the United States there is a kind of conservative Protestantism (religiously as well as politically) which supports, often fanatically, the nationalist quasi-religion. It is a symptom of the openness of Protestantism to the danger of what one could call nationalist apostasy.

Protestantism had, in its earlier stages, less affinity to movements for social justice than Catholicism. Its negative judgment about the human predicament made it conservative and authoritarian. Nevertheless, there were the spiritually strong (though politically weak) movements of Social Gospel and Christian Socialism, which tried to discuss and transform the religious element in the Socialist faith and to use it for Protestant social ethics. Against the Communist radicalization and demonization of Socialism, the Protestant churches were as uncompromising as the Catholic church, but there is a strong desire in many Protestant groups not only to reject, but also to understand, what is going on in one-half of the inhabited world.

Protestantism has its most intimate relation with the liberal-humanist quasi-religion. In many cases, as in all forms of liberal Protestantism, a full amalgamation has taken place. In the first chapter I called both Protestantism and liberal humanism spiritual but fragile; in the last chapter we will deal more fully with their relation.

One thing should have become clear through the preceding descriptions and analyses: that Christianity is not based on a simple negation of the religions or quasi-religions it encounters. The relation is profoundly dialectical, and that is not a weakness, but the greatness of Christianity, especially in its self-critical, Protestant form.



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