How Universal is God?
The Many Religions - And We
From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 2006/52, p. 427f
God Became Man
It was perhaps the most cruel, cynical, outrageous "multi-religious" prayer of mankind's history next to each other in a very confined space on 11 September 2001. In front in the cockpit the faithful Muslim and mass murderer Mohammed Atta Allah asked for assistance for his plan to destroy the "unbelievers". A few meters behind him in the airplane Christians and people of a different faith pleaded with God for their lives. Did they all pray to the same God? Which God is the true one?
Allegedly one is no longer allowed to ask such questions in the age of political-religious correctness in which all religious opinions should be (of) the same (worth). Thus the Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner had recently stirred up a hornets' nest when he demanded that Catholic pupils should no longer take part in multi-religious prayers in their classes. Actually such an instruction creates additional problems in the multi-cultural everyday life of schools. Nevertheless thoughtful people do not allow indignant representatives for integration, politicians, pedagogues and sociologists, who are quickly ready with criticism although they do not pray at all, to forbid them their own scepticism. Are there not good reasons for the difference of religions - as for the difference of cultures and languages? And is there not some truth in Meisner's statement, "The image of God of non-Christian religions is not identical with the God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence common services are not possible. Thus each community can only pray alone to its God. If it happens together then the other group must be silent." This is an imposition on children; the Cardinal justifies his opinion, for their faith is not yet so far unfolded that they understand the problems. They are not yet able to make the necessary distinctions that are needed for an understanding of multi-religious prayer services. But then their faith is endangered by confusion. In the whole excited debate one paid little attention to the fact that by the way most rabbis and imams think just as the Cologne archbishop. Faithful Jews and Muslims are much less ready than Christians to pray in the presence of persons of a different faith.
Assisi: Praying in the Face of Others
On the other hand we gladly remember the touching prayer meetings of leaders of religions and churches in Assisi. 'No peace of the nations without peace between the religions!' Hans Küng's reminder still hits just on the core. Pope John Paul II adopted the thought in his charismatic-spiritual way, and took part with highest commitment in two prayer meetings in Assisi. We will never forget the scenes of devout praying people of most different skin colour, garments, headgear and posture. How they struggled sincerely for their religious language in order to pour out their hearts before the Highest, the Holiest, the Grandest - while the bystanders supported with moved souls (and sometimes moving their lips) the great common longing for peace and justice on this earth. Intercessions, candle light, self obligations ... Certainly, that was no childlike praying, no praying of children. Those people who met there were adults. They had already gone through some nights of faith and of God's absence, and they formulated their requests in a way that was anything else but naive. And it was no mixed "multi-culti"-prayer. One prayed in the face of others, not together with them. But it was for everybody a moving new prayer. Many Christians meant they had felt in those minutes actually something like the blowing of the Holy Spirit, a genuine holy atmosphere, despite all separation in languages, cultures and cults, in faith and knowledge. We are only searches, destined for holiness. But only "HE" is holy, holy, holy: put into thousand words but without name, obvious but beyond our knowledge, so near but far away from us, the strongest hold but the most powerful isolation, everything for us but also nothing, talking to us but remaining in silence too. But who/what are you in reality - unapproachable close God?
Not every human being is a mystic. Not every symbol is understandable for everyone. Everybody has his/her own experiences and non-experiences with God, knows affections and dislikes - also in dealing with other religions. "Assisi" too did not mean much to everybody. Nevertheless these events deeply affected many people. We should not destroy the true, good and beautiful things that became apparent there, and we should not let be spoiled our pleasure in it by the many problems in today's "Fight of the Cultures". But pictures are pictures, sometimes "only" pictures. They are time and again caught up by a pretty often relentlessly brutal reality - in the meantime also again by the "holy" sinful war of Muslims against Christians. The events in the Umbrian city of St Francis with their utopian presentiments do by no means want to divert from reality. They do not invite us to be enthusiasts but to look, to look deeper, to have a critical and self-critical faith.
The Creator Wanted Evolution
But there we notice, we have indeed an enormous problem, a God problem, just as believers. How universal is God? Just when we pray, when we believe we are to remain honest. We are not united. The one mankind has never been united, also religiously not. It is and remains probably split eternally into most different views, especially on the divine, holy reality. As we never had one world language and probably can also never artificially create one, so we will never produce a common cure-all "artificial God" who does justice to everything and everyone.
The one God in whom we as Christians believe in the course of our life - from brain to brain in a quite different and multicoloured way - will never be the one God in whom everybody can believe in the same way. It seems almost as if God by his diverse Creation wanted to save his creature 'man' from a religious "monoculture". Anyhow, we must take seriously the fact that the world created by God is a world in constant motion, growth and permanent evolution - also with regard to the question of God.
The variety of faith, of forms of piety as well as of theologies through space and times belongs to our life like the variety of languages. Already the early human beings racked their brains over its cause, for example in the myth about the building of the tower of Babel. According to a newer interpretation the abundance of languages is everything else than a punishment of God, it is rather a kind of new Creation of creation - filled with creativity and fertility. Languages are food, are life. No uniform mash. They let people differentiate themselves from each other, compete with one another, enrich each other, merge horizons and ideas - and populate the whole world. Without "confusion" and "scattering" there could not have been that unbelievable multicolored variety of peoples and cultures spread over the whole planet. In "Babel" the tremendous plurality of mankind is reflected, the evolution of man - hominization! God wanted the differences of variety against the monotony of simplicity. HE wanted many genes and not only one gene, many species and not only one species. God wanted evolution. Did God thus also want the evolution of many religions?
Anyhow, it is certain - according to all the findings of palaeo-biology, archaeology and history of religion - that there have been many similarities already in the early religious systems, for instance with fertility cults, burial rites and the calculation of heavenly bodies, but there has never been a uniform religion, or a uniform faith. The Homo sapiens emerged as "wise human being" from a long temporal as well as spatial journey throughout continents. The one mankind was from the outset a various mankind; the "one" God has always been imagined variously as obvious God in many cultures, tribes and nations.
Revolution of Faith - Christ is God
Compared with the 100.000 years since modern man saw the light of day and developed further, the a good 3000 years history of Biblical revelation are only a tiny section on the religious-spiritual 'time arrow'. But this tiny epoch produced great things. For in the course of this extremely short phase of mankind's history the image of God revolutionized itself. It became more and more complex, transcendental and abstract. God - no longer one of us, imagined anthropomorphically and more or less "worldly". But quite the reverse: man is the image of God. To the extent to which people met other cultures, they found themselves forced to give serious thought to their own all too provincial tribal views that saw God more or less only as tribal God for me and my family. They also began to widen step by step their religious thinking. If there are so many "Gods", which of them then is the true one? And if my God is the true one, why then do others not have it? How could my God become also the God of those strangers? A God that is only a bit of God cannot be God! The problem of God's universality came into the world - and it is unsettled up to this day. But thoughtful people have been seized by this uneasiness already at the time of the prophets of the Old Testament. Is God only a subjective projection, a fancy according to my needs and interests? Or is God God, is it an objective reality?
God is to be God, not man. But to whom does God belong? And who belongs to God? Already the third book of Jesaja, the so-called Tritojesaja (from chapter 56) tries to deal with this problem. God - so the basic insight - can actually be true only if it is the God of all people. But how can all human beings come to this God? There is needed an enormous effort of thinking. In that Biblical passage it is expressed by a lively circling language, and is directly fixed to concrete life, to a universal longing for right and justice. "The Lord says so, 'Maintain the right and take care of justice, for soon salvation will come from me, my justice will soon reveal itself. Blessed is the man who does so. Blessed are those who stand by the Sabbath and do never profane it, and who preserve their hands from any bad deed. The foreigner who follows the Lord is not to say, 'The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.' The circumcised is not to say, 'I am only a dry tree.' For so says the Lord, 'To the circumcised who hold my Sabbaths, who do gladly what is pleasant to me, and who hold on to my alliance, for them all I establish in my house and in my walls a monument, I give them a name that is more worth than sons and daughters. I give to them an eternal name that will never be obliterated. The strangers who follow the Lord, who serve him and love his name, in order to be his farmhands ..., I will bring them to my holy mountain, and in my house of worship I will fill them with joy.' ..." Hence God unites people by their prayer: those who revere him, and those who do not yet know him in this way, but who look for him, search him, look out for him and who are curious.
With the Jesus Christ Event those religious horizons were widened again critically and humanly for Christians. The Messiah for the chosen people becomes now the universal Saviour and Redeemer of the entire chosen mankind. In Jesus Christ - so the Christian faith - God becomes flesh, up to the resurrection of the dead. It is a God of life for all mortals; for "unbelievers" too. In the great intercessions of Good Friday the Catholic Church intercedes for people all over the world, for all who are looking for God. Do Muslims in their liturgical prayer also regularly intercede for Jews, Christians and others? Above all in prayer, the deepest human expression, the progress of religious awareness becomes apparent.
It is no coincidence that Christianity in the course of only two millennia became the only true world religion, globally present in nearly all languages, peoples, cultures and regions. Certainly, also in the biblical and after-biblical age faith, that had been substantially renewed by the New Testament Christ-event, continued to waver to and fro between the free grace of vocation and the free decision on matters of conscience. But despite everything, only Christianity was so far able at least intellectually to overcome gradually the old model of a mere tribal religion, of a God only for me and my family (remember, "Outside of the Church no Salvation"), only Christianity hopes for the vocation and reconciliation of all people by the all-embracing merciful God. In no other religion there is so far such a wide critical awareness of divine liberty and universality - whether it is the model of the universal, cosmic Christ of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - following St Paul's ideas, or Karl Rahner's idea of the "anonymous Christian". Yes, also the disputed pluralistic theologies of religion developed characteristically on Christian soil and not in Islam, the second largest world religion, where one has still no problem to see the "unbelievers" sentenced to eternal damnation, and where God remains further a tribal God.
But any triumphant behaviour should be far from Christians. All too long they have thought in tribal terms. But they showed greatest courage and did not shrink from intellectual efforts to go on finally, to correct historical-critically their teaching, to supplement, to reform and to open it. We are not yet through with God. God is not through with us. Also when praying we always experience and suffer our inner turmoil: that we would gladly have God only for us, but that we cannot have him for us alone, if he really is to be God - and not an idol just to satisfy our obvious needs and interests, a pure projection. Hence all Christian praying begins consistently 'in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit', and it ends with releasing God to be the dynamic, free God, 'Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit'. It is God's will that steers - not we direct God. That means consequently that not only the images of the God of non-Christian religions are not identical "with the God who is the Father of Lord Jesus Christ", as Cardinal Meisner emphasized rightfully. Our Christian images and conceptions of God too are not identical with God.
God alone is God. Nevertheless we are allowed and we must pray in spite of our earthly limitations with all our heart, celebrate and enjoy God, and put our faith in him. Since we are human beings, this is human. God alone is God - and greater than our heart.
To Pray Not in an Infant But in a Grown-up Way
When we then occasionally pray before and for persons of a different faith to God, this is the highest honour that we can render to them - and together with them to the free God. In this sense we needed many further "Assisis", a praying truly on eye level, critical - not naive, differentiating - not monopolizing, going into the depths - not superficially cheap. Such a praying is not there to be used for our social-cultural problems with integration. This praying requires an awareness of the horizon, of the importance of those problems. It is a critical, anything else than a cosy harmonizing prayer. Dangerously, uncomfortably it casts doubts on us, on persons of a different faith, on God.
Such a prayer among religions has first to be learned, cultivated and developed by adults - with an adult, anything else than infantile faith. They may and must not - as an evasive manoeuvre - delegate it to children. It is our affair - and everything else than an appeasing or calming down ourselves. To the true adult praying belong true penalty, examination of conscience, confession of guilt, repentance, turning back. All those who are indignant and criticize the statements of the Cologne Cardinal were to be asked, 'Where then do you pray - and how do you pray in the honest, critical spirit of Assisi, as adults, ready for a personal reformation and renewal of the Christian faith delivered to you? Of course, those who struggle praying for God and the world, have the right to express themselves in the whole critical width of faith and hope.
"Our Father in heaven ..." Thus Jesus taught his disciples to pray, not provincially but universally. So Christians should learn to pray ever again, openly and competently, distinguishing the spirits, with a high standard. God blows up all our pictures and conceptions. He blows up also our prayer. God is not harmless. Prayer is not harmless. Only a universal God is God. We know that at the latest since Christ. Thanks be to Christ!