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Guest Perspective

Message of love gets sidetracked in dogma


Pope John Paul II’s latest encyclical, Fides et Ratio, claims that faith can be illuminated by reason, and reason can be guided by faith. In the abstract, this is valid. Reason without faith may lack meaning for life; faith without reason may end in sentimentalism and various forms of fundamentalisms.

We can understand and appreciate, too, the pope’s concern about such philosophical positions as scientism, historicism and pragmatism, as well as his concern for ethical permissiveness and pessimism. These cannot give ultimate meaning to life.

The encyclical claims for the church and its magisterium the authority to guide humanity to absolute truth on the meaning of life, on God and human destiny. Further, the pope states that “in engaging great cultures for the first time, the church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought.

“To reject this heritage,” he wrote, “would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides the church down the paths of time and history.”

There is validity to this, too.

Yet, when the encyclical speaks of the church “engaging great cultures for the first time,” how far is this an accurate historical position?

For its first three centuries, Christianity bore witness to this universal message of love and concern for all, without being limited to Greco-Latin categories for explaining its belief. This was a most glorious period of Christianity -- the age of martyrs.

The teaching of Jesus himself as recorded in the New Testament cannot be said to be inculturated in Greco-Latin thought. His teaching was directed at the problems of the day-to-day life in his society and was often expressed in story, parable and poetic language. His teaching concerning the love of God and neighbor, as expressed in Matthew 25, was intelligible to all peoples, of all cultures, with or without any formal education, leaving aside philosophy.

When Christianity compromised with the Roman Empire and began to define its doctrines in Greco-Latin terminology and concepts, it tended to claim for its dogmatic definitions a universal validity for all humankind. ... But the dogmatic definitions of the church, from 325 onwards, in Greco-Latin thought patterns were a source of division within the church itself. Official teachings were often legitimated by the imperial authority and even buttressed by use of secular power, leading to exile of dissenters. Greco-Latin thought itself was not of one view concerning the nature of the divinity of Jesus or concerning the human condition and original sin.

Further, Christianity was more pluralist in its outlook, more open to different cultures and philosophies, before the dogmatic definitions of the Augustinian and post-Augustinian era. In fact, the closer we are to the historical Jesus, the more universal is the teaching of Christianity.

The encyclical seems to begin with the conclusion or presumption that whatever the church has decided or whatever is thought by the magisterium is the universal truth and is valid and binding for all times, places and persons. It does not deal with another important issue: how to develop criteria for evaluating theological elaborations in different cultural contexts and thought-forms. Reason is not only philosophy, and faith is not only theology. When we relate faith and reason, many other factors have to be taken into account: will and heart, desires and emotions, social and cultural conditioning, myths and prejudices among peoples.

A problem arises when a teaching of the church is harmful or dehumanizes a group of human beings. ... Is not the history of Catholic thought one of long-term condemnation, marginalization and alienation of very large sectors of humanity ... people viewed as not being children of God, of being pagans, even of being outside the pale of salvation?

The interpretation of the teaching on original sin has been a basis for regarding unbaptized persons as pagans. This, in turn, was linked to the encouragement given by several popes to the imperial powers of Spain and Portugal to go and conquer other peoples and bring them to the faith.

When Christianity’s inculturation in the Greco-Latin world was harnessed to the imperial power of Rome and, later, of Western Europe, the result was not gains for the church or humanity. The church’s claims to absolute truth, to being the only means of salvation, were linked to the greatest violations of human rights and human dignity that history has known: the Western European colonial expansion. ...

The dogmatic theology of the church facilitated such conquests. The moral teaching of the church, explicitly or implicitly, legitimized this intolerance and violence in the service of truth. At best, some Christians did charitable and social works that mitigated the damage. If the church had had a correct moral teaching and bravely witnessed to it, Western civilization would not have taken such an inhuman form.

It is painful for the colonized when the church’s teaching authority does not condemn such grave evils. It is worse when the pope speaks of the “providential plan of God who guides his church down the paths of time and history.” It is not to the credit of God to claim such a providential plan. In fact, it is a dishonor to God, as when people fight wars claiming God to be on their side. ...

While this papal encyclical has much that is valuable for Western culture, it would seem that it does not appreciate adequately the presence of the divine in other cultures and religions. The pope, who taught long in the University of Lublin in Poland, is a specialist in Western philosophy. He perhaps has had little opportunity to be in communion with the thought of the Indian sages and with the liberative life and message of modern Indian thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. ...

As the Indian sages teach us, the truth is one, but the paths to truth can be many, as the paths to a mountain top. God is One, but the names of God are many. This is not a pluralism of gods, or a relativizing of God, but a plurality of human understandings of the Absolute that is beyond human reasoning and expressions.

Jesus was not a philosopher or theologian in the academic sense. The life of Jesus was the living out of the truth that God is love. His life was his theological reflection and message. It was a praxis, not a dogma. His concern was orthopraxis, rather than orthodoxy. He did not teach about God in dogmatic formulations or definitions. He taught that God is love and God is just.

The central command of Jesus is that we love God and neighbor. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” This is the central message of Jesus. It is the mystique of the identification of God with humans, especially those suffering and in need. This message has been neglected, sidetracked in the dogmatic definitions of the church. ...

The encyclical seems to presume that the only revelation on earth is the Judeo-Christian revelation, and that the only true faith is the Christian faith. If, on the other hand, we accept that God could manifest the divine message in manifold ways to different peoples, there could be several faiths that are true. The message of love can be taught by God in different ways. This need not be a permissiveness or a dilution of the truth.

Unfortunately, Christian theology expressed in Greco-Latin thought deviated from the central message of Jesus and has been intolerant of other ways of expressing the divine calling, even when in substance the message was the same. Is it surprising that during the centuries of Christian intolerance and violence, study of the Bible was neglected, if not discouraged? ...

Unfortunately, the Christian faith has long been interpreted as an ideological legitimization of powers of Christian domination over others. This is far from being the providential plan of God for the victims of such power. Jesus came to serve, and not to be served; to set free the oppressed so that all may have life, and life in abundance.

May these thoughts help bring further dimensions to the understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, and a return to the living of the love command of Jesus in our unjust, male dominated, racist, capitalistic global society.

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, founder of the Center for Society and Religion in Sri Lanka, has been accused by Vatican officials of denying church teaching on original sin, redemption and the divinity of Christ in his efforts to justify Christianity to his Asian audience. Balasuriya was excommunicated in early 1997 on formal charges of heresy. He was reinstated a year later without admitting error.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998