“Father, Aren’t You Afraid I’ll Become Muslim?”: The Challenge of Encountering Non-Christian Religions

The reason behind offering a world religions course to Catholic young adults became more apparent: to help them understand Christian Catholic distinctiveness, what separates our faith from others.

 

 Fr. Hardon, S.J., Peter Kreeft, Fr. Roch Kereszty, O. Cist, Pope Benedict XVI

When I was asked to develop and teach a course in world religions for Catholic high school seniors, I wondered about the wisdom of offering such a course and whether I could, in good conscience, teach a class on non-Christian religious traditions. “After all,” I thought, “the students don’t know their own faith well enough, why spend time on other religions?”

As I explored offering the course, I took some solace in finding that well-known writer and apologist Fr. John Hardon, S.J., had taught comparative religions at the university level and had written on the world’s major religious traditions. There were also contributions on the topic from philosopher/theologian and apologist Peter Kreeft of Boston College, and Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger. 1

Believing myself to be in good company with others exploring the relationship of non-Christian faiths to Christianity, I began to understand that the difficulty would not be in offering a course in world religions per se, but in finding the proper approach.  My goal was to respect other religions without passively or actively communicating to my students an acceptance of ideas, traditions, and interpretations contrary to Christian revelation.

As I began teaching the course, the reason behind offering a world religions course to Catholic young adults became more apparent: to help them understand Christian Catholic distinctiveness, what separates our faith from others. By studying other traditions, we attempted to highlight the “what” and “why” of our own beliefs, growing in our appreciation of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

When we studied Islam, we delved into the passages in the Qur’an that mention Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and various other prophets and holy men and women significant to Christians.  We probed the text to see what exactly these non-Christians believed about them and contrasted that with what we believe. For instance, if Jesus is viewed as a prophet within Islam, why do Catholic Christians teach that he is not a prophet, but the Son of God? If Muslims believe that Jesus did not die on the cross, why do Catholic Christians believe that, not only did Jesus die on the cross, but that his willingness to be crucified makes salvation possible?  These are among the questions that were discussed to bring greater focus to what we as Christians believe.

Christian Distinctiveness
It is a common idea in our religiously and ethnically pluralistic society to hold that all religions are the same—that all religions either have the same basic source or the same terminus. Many say that religions are like streams which converge into one great river, or are like many paths up the mountain which join at the summit.  This form of religious relativism seems to have never been stronger.

Admittedly, some students at the conclusion of my course still held to the belief that there is more in common between religions in the world than real differences.  Yet, those who honestly compare Christianity with non-Christian religions must acknowledge that many of the claims made by various traditions are mutually exclusive—not all can be right, not all are fundamentally the same, not all belief is unified.  Simply put, there are rival conceptions of the divine.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that comparing religions is “comparing things that are really quite incomparable.” He continued: “We are accustomed to see a table or catalogue of the world’s great religions in parallel columns, until we fancy they are really parallel. … But in truth, this is only a trick.” This is because the religions of the world “do not really show any common character.” The religions of the world “not only do not resemble the Church, but do not resemble each other.” 2 The differences between religions are real, and no one does justice to the great religions of the world when we attempt to reduce them to some common denominator.

But “comparing the incomparable” provides an opportunity to explore exactly what makes Catholic Christianity unique. For instance, Christianity does not subscribe to the possibility of reincarnation: that souls can transmigrate between beings over time.  Instead, the Church teaches that each human soul is distinct, destined for eternity, and judged individually.  Nor does Christianity allow for karma:  the belief in a kind of moral “cause and effect” in which good actions bring about positive results, and bad actions negative. Christians do, however, believe in God’s Providence, though not in the form of any direct moral causation (at least in this life).

Respectful Dissent
There has been much written about the fundamental shift of Catholicism toward other religions that occurred at Vatican II. Often cited are the words of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in {other} religions” (no. 2). This document highlights a fundamental posture of respect for the truths of other religions, recognizing, however, that the fullness of truth is found in Christian revelation. As C.S. Lewis explains, “As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.” 3 Certainly, there are some religious traditions with which we share more in common than others, some religious traditions that share in the truths of divine revelation (principally, Judaism). Yet, in many cases, Christians must take the role of respectful dissenters, recognizing that there are certain beliefs that are simply contrary to revelation, to Christian belief.

While it is possible to acknowledge truth in other religions, it is a fundamental belief of Christians that salvation comes from Christ alone; even the salvation of non-Christians is made possible by Christ. George Weigel succinctly summarizes the Catholic understanding of other religions, and Christ as the source of salvation, by answering the following questions:

Does the Catholic Church teach that God wishes the salvation of all? Yes. Does the Church teach that salvation was made possible for the world through the cross of Jesus Christ? Yes.  Does the Church believe there is salvation for those who do not believe in Christ? Yes.  Does the Church believe that the salvation of those who do not know Christ is somehow made possible by Christ? Yes.  Does the Church believe that this puts all of those saved in some relationship with the Catholic Church? Yes. 4

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s instruction, Dominus Iesus (2000), also restated this teaching: “It must be firmly believed that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (no. 20).” Any encounter with world religions must have as its starting point this essential truth.

Experiencing Religions as “Other”
A danger in exploring other religions is to attempt to insert oneself into the other traditions.  I have heard stories of Catholic high school students who were asked to meditate as Buddhists, chant Hindu mantras, or voice prayers to Allah. I wonder what members of those traditions think of such practices. Can you imagine Muslims or Hindus trying to learn about Christianity by simulating a Mass or staging a mock baptism? I suspect we would be outraged, and rightly so. It could be seen as equally disrespectful for us to imitate the sacred prayers and rites of others.

In my class, we consciously encountered religions as “other”—from the view of outsiders. When we took a fieldtrip to a synagogue, a mosque, or a Hindu temple, we approached those experiences as respectful and interested observers.  We never prayed as Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims; we never meditated on the sacred texts of other traditions; we never treated another religion as if it were our own.

Resources for Teaching and Preaching
Many of the resources available for school and parish use are essentially relativistic and reductionistic. Many overemphasize similarities between religions, leaving one to ask: “So why be Christian?” “Why be Catholic?” There are, however, some sources that honestly assess similarities and differences in light of the foundational truth that Jesus established the Catholic Church, entrusting to the Church the fullness of divine revelation:

  • Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988). Provides excellent comparisons of Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These essays may also be found at the author’s website: http://www.peterkreeft.com/.
  • Roch Kereszty, O. Cist., Christianity Among Other Religions: Apologetics in a Contemporary Context (New York: Alba House, 2006). Part survey, part comparative study, this fine book provides an authentically Christian Catholic perspective on other religions. It shows both similarities and differences between traditions, what could be seen as congruent to Christianity and what is inimical.
  • John Hardon, S.J., Religions of the World (1963)—now out of print but found online at the Catholic Education Resource Center: http://www.catholiceducation.org/. Hardon’s work is more of a survey of other religions, than a comparative work or defense of Christianity, but it remains useful as an introduction.

Approaching without Fear
Many argue that it is better to experience other religions than simply to read about them. Seeing the architecture and ornamentation, listening to prayers and music, and meeting religious leaders from other traditions can be instructive. When my students and I were visiting a nearby mosque, one of my students asked: “Father, aren’t you afraid I’ll become Muslim?” I responded: “No,” without giving it much thought. But as I thought more about the question, I considered why we need not approach other religions with fear. If we believe in divine revelation, if we believe that what has been revealed through Christ is true, then we need not fear other ideas or expressions of religion.

As I often stated in class, the purpose of studying world religions is not to pick one that sounds interesting and convert. As long as religious education presents the Christian faith in a way that is compelling and unapologetic—as True—there should not be a reason to fear studies in comparative religion.

While other religions may appear interesting or exotic, there have been no conversions among my students, nor do I suspect that in the future any will convert to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. However, I do hope that many of them have a better understanding of their own faith from learning about the beliefs of others.  It is my sincere hope that each of my students comes away with a better appreciation of what makes Christianity distinctive and, ultimately, true: that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him (Jn 14:6).

  1. See Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), which offers a response to the debate surrounding Dominus Iesus (2000).
  2. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1955), 86-87.
  3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 43.
  4. George Weigel, The Truth of Catholicism (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 144-145.
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avatar About Fr. David J. Endres

Fr. David J. Endres is former chaplain and religion teacher at Bishop Fenwick High School, Franklin, Ohio, and currently assistant professor of Church history at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds a doctorate from the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. His last article in HPR appeared in October 2008; he also contributed homilies for the January 2011 issue.

Comments

  1. avatar Bruce says:

    At the university level, perhaps, but not the high school level. With very few exceptions, the Catholic faith is not being taught well in our high schools. To throw this at a group of students who cannot recognize the subtleties of their own faith, let alone the differences among faiths, is simply not going to work. It always ends up being syncretistic and the students (who likely only hear around 60% to 70% of what you’re teaching anyway) will wind up confused and thinking that one faith is just as good as another. What are you teaching in this post is not incorrect, but I do not find it suitable for today’s high school kids. Perhaps a century ago or more, but not anymore. What we have is a crisis of catechesis, and we need to spend more time teaching what it is that we actually believe and far less time teaching them about what the world or other faiths believe (for they get that from simply being in the culture anyway).

  2. avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Bruce: Do you live in the 21st Century? Children today have access to every religion, to every idea that strikes the human fancy. If we cannot examine critically the religions of others, we fall into the trap of educating those who are already convinced our way is the only way. If we want critical thinking faithful Catholics we better educate, not train, the young to critically evaluate what they believe in relationship to what they experience.

  3. avatar John says:

    Tom:
    Yes, children in our open society hypothetically can encounter any other faith if they make the effort. However, I am inclined to agree with Bruce that the high-school level is currently a poor place for a multi-religious education. I am sure there are some stellar Catholic high schools out there that successfully carry out the critical duty of strengthening their students in their faith, but mine was not one of them. In fact, I would say that my experience represents a worst-case scenario in some ways. Our Catholic identity was mediocre to weak, and our multi-religious educational courses committed the critical error of emphasizing similarities to the extent that many of my classmates, seeing no meaningful difference between faiths, therefore ceased to practice their faith. Among the rest of us, we were less equipped to defend Catholicism than to defend “COEXIST” bumper stickers. One of my classmates even ended up converting to Islam after encountering it via an official field trip to a mosque.

    I’m in general agreement with the author of the article: Multi-religious education is successful and useful in the context of a strong Catholic environment. The next logical step- and one that must be addressed- is that multi-religious education in a WEAK Catholic environment is incredibly destructive to confident Catholic identity.

  4. avatar Paul Kokoski says:

    The problem with teaching “comparative religion” courses today is the virtual exclusive tendency to stress only the various “comparisons”, “distinctiveness” and “differences” between religions. Nowhere in Fr. Endres’s article, for example, does he emphasize the need to point our exactly and specifically what is “wrong” with other religions and why. It is this political correctness – or Vatican II, non-judgmental mentality – that is dangerous. While comparative religion courses taught this way may not turn someone into a Muslim 9though it very well might) it has proven in many cases to turn Catholics – even priest and bishops – away from the one true faith and toward an indifferent, moral relativistic attitude. It is not enough to teach students that all religions are not the same. We need to teach why non-Catholic religions are fundamentally erroneous.
    Of course this was easy before Vatican II. Vatican II, however, ushered in many ambiguities that make it almost impossible to teach comparative religion without encouraging moral relativism. Case in point: Prior to Vatican II it was believed that only Catholics could be saved. Since that time our popes have taught otherwise – Pope Benedict XVI going so far as to suggest that it is hopeless to try and even convert other religions over to the one true faith.
    Do we really “need not approach other religions in fear”? This very statement demonstrates the necessity of fear – even for those already well learned in the Catholic faith – for as St. Paul says: “we must approach our salvation with fear and trembling”.

  5. avatar Janet O'Connor says:

    I am a cradle Catholic and I myself think that it would be better to simply let the students learn their own faith for now, and after they graduate they can decide on their own to study other religions. This is what I did in my twenties. I started to read the texts and sacred books of other religions and how they think and believe, and to me, it has helped me to be stronger in my faith. As far as Vatican II goes, it has to be remembered that neither Trent nor Vatican I taught that there must be any force or coercion involved in dealing with non-Christians. But as far as respecting them, and their beliefs, at the same time, we canlearn more about our own. The Church still has a mission to the rest of the world. THAT has not changed since the Council, and NO, the Popes have NOT changed the teaching of the past. What has changed is that we treat others with respect and charity, as was practiced in the early Church. Forced conversions cannot be used. Faith is a free gift from God.

  6. avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    In university deparments there are classes in comparative literature , authors, music composoers, chemists, physicists, etc and comparative religions are beneficial. But from systematic theology and the transcedentals we heve those things that do not and cannot change. The revelation of Jesus and the Holy Spirit involving Their truth is freely given to whomever Jesus wishes. The individual person receiving this has that which is unique. We Catholics have the priesthood and the extraordinary episcopal magisterium coming from the Sacramental system that is a moral bedrock based on the Birth of Jesus and the Crucifixion. We believe in things visible and invisible. There is no reason fo a Devout Catholic to give this up.

  7. Try to remember that many people are Catholic by default. If you ask them what they are, they’ll say, “Oh, I’m Catholic.” But what they mean is, “My ancestors were Catholic.” It’s more an ethnicity than a religion for some people. It’s what they are, not what they believe.

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