How Should We Think about Diversity of Religions?

There seems to be some confusion abroad these days about diversity of religions. We can find in the writings of Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ, as well as in St. Thomas Aquinas, principles helpful on this question. Does every human person need Christ’s Redemption? Even the Muslims in the Mosque down the avenue? Even my Jewish neighbor? How about the Buddhist lady I know? The answer, of course, is yes. Why? First because sin and error spread where Christ is not present. The culture is meant to be redeemed as well as the individual. The human person is created in order to know God, to see Him in His fullness in eternity, and Christ is the One who reveals the face of God and holds the key to each one’s eternal life. A society that has an imperfect or deficient understanding of God makes the goal of knowing God difficult and confusing. Christ’s kingdom of peace does not reign in confusion. Religious indifferentism is a heresy. While this question needs to be addressed with sensitivity, it also needs clarity.

If Christ is the Truth through whom and in whom all things both in heaven and on earth are made, then there is no need for other religions outside of Christ. In fact, other religions are in direct conflict with Christ and present a false understanding of God. For Muslims, the Quran is the Uncreated Word, and therefore in direct competition with Christ who is the Uncreated Word who exists eternally before the world was made. Buddhism does not believe in God, teaches all things are impermanent and that there is no distinct and enduring self. This denies the eternal God, and life in an eternal future for the human person as a unique individual whom God loves. Judaism has an incomplete understanding of God without Christ’s revelation of the Trinity and the central reality of the Incarnation. The fact that these religions have aspects of goodness and pieces of truth does not justify ignoring the errors in them, because a false or inadequate view of God deprives a person of knowing the true God whom their heart seeks. It is also true that we want to approach this question with sensitivity because the religion one belongs to is part of one’s identity, and for those who adhere firmly to a religion, this belonging is an intimate and important part of how they identify themselves. However, there is an identity for the human person that is even deeper. Each of us is a creature made by God and therefore our first relationship is with God. But how can we relate to someone we don’t know? Here is the question we need to gently invite each person to consider in some depth.

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century stated clearly that “our intellect was made for the purpose of seeing God” (De Veritate, q. 10, a.11, ad.7) and “the beatitude of any rational creature whatsoever consists in seeing God by his essence” (IV Sent. D. 49, q2, a7). He also pointed out that “even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end [of seeing God], he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace.” Because of the darkness of sin, not every human thought about God is knowledge about the actual God. We need help to get through this fog.

To deepen our understanding of this, it is helpful to look at the teaching of the French theologian of the twentieth century, Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ. He taught that the human person has an intrinsic capacity for God, a “capax Dei.” He pointed to the ancient Christian teaching that the human being was created for communion with God in Jesus Christ, and that consequently there is a natural desire for the vision of God. Cardinal de Lubac maintained that man’s ultimate finality for the supernatural beatitude of the beatific vision is anchored within his human nature, even though the natural desire for this beatitude can only be fulfilled through the further gratuitous gift of sanctifying grace. He described this as the great paradox of human life.

Since man is made in the image of God, he has a readiness and receptivity for this grace. As an image of God, man bears within himself something of the spiritual depth that exists beyond the limits of human reason, but he needs the help of God to discover this hidden depth. Man as a spiritual being has an intrinsic openness to the infinite, even though as a created being he is finite and incapable on his own of filling this open space within himself. But it is important to stress that his calling to have a share in infinite divine life is not extrinsic to his nature. God gave man not only the gift of being but also, de Lubac maintains, “upon this being he has given me, God has imprinted a supernatural finality; he has made to be heard within my nature a call to see him” (de Lubac, Mystery of the Supernatural, 76).

Creation ex nihilo bears witness to the generosity of the Creator, and that relationship to God is at the very core of man’s essence, since he has been given by God the gift of his existence gratuitously. The readiness of human nature for this relationship and for a supernatural life is made apparent when the Divine Son assumes human nature, which responds to the human desire to see God — most immediately by seeing Christ as the Son of God the Father, and ultimately in the beatific vision made possible by Christ’s Redemption and grace. The Incarnation reveals human nature’s capacity to mediate God’s love and to receive the grace of participation in divine life through Christ.

Certain depths of our nature can be opened only by the shock of revelation,” de Lubac declares. . . . It is by the promise given us of seeing God face to face that we really learn to recognize our ‘desire.’ . . . The bride only knows herself when she answers the bridegroom’s invitation,” de Lubac says, drawing from Paul Claudel who further said, “He will instruct her and teach her who she is, for she does not know. . . . It is Jesus Christ who reveals within us someone whom we do not know, it is Christ who speaks our soul to us. (de Lubac, Mystery, 217)

Cardinal de Lubac explains that the seeking of ancient thinkers in their restless questioning revealed a sense of divine calling but without the means of interpreting the signs pointing to it. He quotes Jacques Maritain’s description of this as “the great pagan melancholy,” commenting that today we still “misunderstand what we are. . . . Turned inward upon our human smallness, we neither know nor even wish to discover within us the void whose capacity will grow as it becomes filled with the fullness of God. . . . All too often indeed we do not discern it. Revelation gives us the key” (de Lubac, Mystery, 136–37).

Corresponding to this desire and destiny in man, then, is the revelation of Christ’s saving act which offers to man the possibility of becoming “a new creature in Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 5:17), reborn in Him as adopted sons of God. This is the knowledge that is needed to dispose man to receive the grace Christ won for us on the Cross. This re-creation in Christ is a completely gratuitous act on God’s part, offered to our freedom. It is an invitation to “a human exaltation from which man participates excellently in the things that are God’s,” as described by St. Bonaventure (Bonaventure, 2 Sent. D27, al q.3, 158). It is a real deification which also perfects all that is good in man. It is, in fact, this supernatural reality that fully explains human nature, fully develops its faculties of intellect and will. This is the end for which rational nature is created, its highest good which is above it and yet for it.

Some followers of St. Thomas Aquinas have claimed that man’s finality for a beatific vision of God is not embedded within human nature, as de Lubac maintained, but that supernatural grace adds on top of human nature a new finality. However, this is a form of dualism of nature and grace. This claim ignores the actual reality of salvation history recorded in Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments. It leaves open the possibility of a purely natural end that satisfies the human heart without the gift of grace. This provides man with the question of why bother with the extra excellence of grace if one can be happy enough without it. The Christian life of grace became one of several “options” available for human life. This cuts out the link between human desire and the Christian mystery of salvation, leaving men with a profound loss. There is no natural human life that exists without this call and no ability of man to follow through on it without the intervention of grace, won through the redemptive act of Christ.

What is particularly distinct, in contrast to the pagan notions of God, and to the Muslim understanding of Allah, as well as to Jewish monotheism, is that the Son, in showing us the Father and the Holy Spirit, reveals that God is a Trinity of Persons whose very substance is love. “In the gift of himself that God wills to make, everything is explained — in so far as it can be explained — by love, everything, hence including the consequent desire of our nature” (de Lubac, Mystery, 229). Unfortunately, in our current society the word love has been too closely associated with “eros.” Therefore, de Lubac points out, it is important to understand that the “desire” spoken of is different from the desires of our common experience and must go through a transformation in order to attain its goal. The form of this love is revealed in the Word that is uniquely begotten by the Father and is “the reason for all things.” The love between the Father and the Son is the foundation of the world. This love (the Holy Spirit) is freely given to the world, and God’s will to love creates the human being to whom he desires to give himself freely.

Once the soul is awakened to the infinite horizon of God’s goodness and beauty, the human innate desire to know and to love God opens up to a vista that continually expands, and as one responds, the desire grows as well. The early Greek father St. Gregory of Nyssa declares,

For those who run towards the Lord, there will always be a great distance to cover. When he says, ‘Arise and come,’ the Word demands that one constantly arise and never cease to run forward, and every time he gives the grace of a greater advance. (Gregory of Nyssa, Canticle of Canticles, homily 5)

However, this journey toward God should not be considered to be without a determined goal, de Lubac points out. The intellectual soul reaches its finality in the beatitude of knowing and seeing God in a happiness that satisfies, in a perfect rest from its restless seeking.

The reason this is important to consider currently is that there are Christians as well as secularists that emphasize the natural goodness of various cultures that have not been evangelized and, they seem to say, do not necessarily need redemption through Christ and His Church because they have their own goodness which we need to respect by leaving them as they are. The error of seeing supernatural finality as extrinsic to human nature has led some to consider the Church’s evangelizing and sacramental life as something that is being imposed arbitrarily. But if the call to see God is intrinsic to human nature, and Christ is the revelation of God to men, then all are called to know Christ and receive his redemptive grace.

However, many people either do not recognize this vocation within themselves, or do not know how to fulfill it. How can they know if no one tells them? This is our challenge. Since Christians are called to always respect each person’s freedom, sharing this vocation to know the Father through Christ, the Son, is always a matter of gentle, loving education and persuasion. But we should not allow the difficulties to keep us from taking up this task as best we can. Unfortunately, an attitude of indifference among not a few Christians has undermined the will to share the treasure of divine life entrusted to us by Christ. This indifference deprives not only individuals but also the culture and the wider society of truth it needs. Perhaps a better understanding of de Lubac’s contribution could restore our motivation. His teaching has been confirmed in Vatican II’s statement in its document Gaudium et Spes (one of Pope St. John Paul II’s favorite quotes):

Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. . . . Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, §22)

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.


  1. Avatar Ørnulf Wang-Sandaas says:

    As a protestant I suppose I would like to add that there is no need to go further than the Bible. Both Jesus and St.Paul is 100% clear. It is either Jesus Christ or that other fellow. Every single religion represent the devil. In saying something else we would both be saying that God had needlessly sacrificed his Son (if any religion goes, then why bother with making another), and we would be carrying a false witness to our fellow humans, telling them them something else then what God has told us in His holy word. We shall of course respect everybody’s right to believe what they want (or nothing), and their right to propagate their beliefs, but for those who have met the risen Lord there is but one answer.

    Besides, I do not think that the relativists understand the can of worms they would be opening if they were right. I do not know if anybody here is familiar with the old Norse religion, the Åsafaith? It is a religion as good as any other religion (if they are all equal), but they would give even a certain desert religion a run for the money when it comes to violence. They lived for it, for revenge, and for fooling strangers. But it was party on, dudes! The only sin was cowardice. The ONLY sin.

    Let ut be true to the Bible, for who are we to set ourselves above the word of God?

    • Avatar Kathleen Sweeney says:

      To Ornulf,
      Thank you for your affirmative comment. Yes, the Bible is our source, thanks to the Catholic Church which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, during the first 3 centuries after Christ, discerned, compiled and approved the final authoritative books of Scripture. It is important to remember that without the authority of the Church, there would be no Bible. For those first 3 centuries Christian faith was based on the oral teaching and correspondence of the Apostles and their successors the bishops, which only gradually were gathered into the books of the Bible.
      I love the firmness of faith of so many Protestants and admire the practical ministries they have developed. But I long for the day when all can come into the richness and depth of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Protestants disagree and hold contradictory interpretations of Scripture, which is confusing for many Protestants who don’t know whose interpretation to believe. So the Bible alone is not enough, (nowhere in the Scriptures does it say it is.) The authority of the Catholic Church is needed to bring unity to our understanding of Revelation. Christ established one Church under Peter, and not many disunited churches. Christ called us to be one as He and the Father are one. It is the sacraments that Christ gave to the Catholic Church which provide the fullness of grace needed—especially the Eucharist, the Real Body and Blood of Christ, in which we share in Christ’s divine life. It is the real Eucharist which actually perfects our unity in Christ and deepens our understanding. It is with this authority of Christ in the Church He founded that we can fully address the challenging issues of today.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Kathleen Curran Sweeney I appreciate your article. After reading it, I considered two things. 1. I wonder if people do not recognize their vocation because they have never encountered Christ. They lack the experience of divinization. The divinization prayer is a secret in the Mass: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” With no experience of sharing divinity, we have an intellectual way of being Christian that appeals to some, but not to most. 2. We need a new language, new cosmology that takes into consideration the diversity of understanding that exists among people. A language that will lead to experience of knowing Christ, not knowing about Christ. Indifference in some way comes because people have no way to understand what you described in this article.

    Ørnulf Wang-Sandaas points out, “The only sin was cowardice.” That is true of the narcissistic world view that dominates so much of the public narrative. Something to reflect on for sure as we listen to and participate in the public discourse.

  3. It is not just “some followers” of St. Thomas Aquinas that have claimed that man’s finality for a beatific vision of God is not embedded within human nature, but that supernatural grace adds on top of human nature a new finality. It is St Thomas himself, and he is a much surer guide in theology than de Lubac, a modernist and even an admirerer of the deceptive and perniciously heretical thought of Teilhard de Chardin.

    • Avatar Kathleen Sweeney says:

      To Darrell,
      The view of neo-scholastic critics of DeLubac that you refer to seems to be based on the need to preserve the principle that the final end of nature must be proportionate to nature’s capacity. This is Aristotle, however, not Aquinas. Aquinas explicitly rejects the Aristotelian principle as applied to the final end of human nature. He argues that when the end of nature is beyond nature’s ability, it is looked for “from another’s bestowing.” This is appropriate for man whose nature is from another–from the hand of God. Man is created with the infrastructure of dependence and receptivity that opens it to the gift of deification. This sharing in divine life through grace is the fulfillment of man’s nature, and therefore the ultimate finality inscribed in his nature. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God before sin entered their life. So this original life of Adam and Eve is what was intended for us by God and it has only been the sinfulness of humanity that has been a block to seeing this. As I pointed out in my article, the extrinsic view of our finality in God has led to a failure in spreading the gospel as we encounter other cultures and religions. (See also “Henri De Lubac on Nature and Grace,” by Nicholas Healy, Communio, Wtr 2008; and Introduction to The Mystery of the Supernatural by DLSchindler)
      DeLubac wrote approvingly of the orthodox aspects of Chardin’s vision, as did Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. From what I know of this, it was primarily in the last few years of Chardin’s life that he developed some heterodox views that depart from true Catholic theology.