Commission for Interreligious Dialogue
CHRIST AND THE OTHER RELIGIONS
In his Apostolic Letter for the preparation of the Jubilee of the Year 2000, Pope John Paul II has stated that "The two thousand years which have passed since the birth of Christ ... represent an extraordinarily great Jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity, given the prominent role played by Christianity during these two millennia" (TMA 15).
The Holy Father, underlining «the ecumenical and universal character of the Sacred Jubilee» (TMA 55), envisages the possibility of a meeting of all Christians, organised in a spirit «of grateful openness to those religions whose representatives might wish to acknowledge the joy shared by all the disciples of Christ (ibid). Since the celebration of the Jubilee is to take place simultaneously in the Holy Land, in Rome and in the local Churches throughout the world» (ibid), it would seem that this openness to people of other religions should also be shown at the local level.
What restrictions may be expected from people of other religions? Will they be willing to join Christians in celebrating the birthday of Jesus? What do they think of Jesus Christ? The purpose of this short article is to take a rapid look at how the followers of some religious traditions might answer this last question.
The Jewish Tradition
With regard to the Jewish tradition it is important not to overlook the Jewishness of Jesus. There is not only the fact of his birth, but also his love for the Scriptures and for the Temple as evidenced in his preaching and his ministry in general. It should be remembered too that the first Christians were in fact Judeo-Christians, though very soon Gentiles entered the Church.
In the first two centuries there does not appear to be much opposition on the part of the Jews to Jesus as a human person. From the 3rd century onwards, as the Christian faith in the divinity of Christ became more clearly expressed, and the distance between Judaism and Christianity grew, Jews tended to ignore Jesus. After the year 1000, when persecution of Jews increased, and Jesus was perceived to be the source of all their woes, Jews adopted a more critical stance. Yet some Jewish sages, writing between the 12th and 14th centuries, could speak of Jesus as a "saint", as one who "served to prepare the whole world for the veneration of God in the communion of hearts".
The Enlightenment brought a change. Jesus is regarded as a religious and ethical master, a reformer, a man of faith. He is regarded by some as a "messianic" person, but obviously Jews do not accept him as the Messiah awaited by Israel. The new climate established by the Declaration Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council has allowed both Jews and Christians to take a new look at Jesus.
The Qur' an contains several passages on Jesus and Mary. The virginal birth, the role of Jesus as a prophet, his mission to confirm the Torah, but to abrogate some of its prohibitions, the calling of "helpers" in his mission, - these are all features of the Quranic portrait of Jesus.
There are thus similarities with the Christian understanding of Jesus, but there are essential differences. The divinity of Christ is denied, as is also the reality of the Crucifixion. At the end of his life an attempt is made to kill Jesus, but he is delivered and raised up to heaven. There are a number of references to Jesus in the hadith, the Traditions attributed to Muhammad. These show reverence for Jesus and recognise his importance, but they emphasize that he ranks after Muhammad.
Muslim mystics write of Jesus as a spiritual teacher, one who emphasized fear and love of God, patience in time of trial, abandonment to God, asceticism and poverty, humility and love. For Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240) Jesus is "the seal of holiness".
There may be a temptation to seize some of the expressions used in the Qur' an with regard to Jesus ("Word", "Spirit from God"), and see them as pointers to belief in the divinity of Christ. The whole Quranic context, with its strong denial that Jesus is God, would invalidate such a procedure. When speaking about Jesus with Muslims, it would seem preferable to take as a starting point his message and from here, work back to the person and mystery of Christ.
Hindus, who have heard about Jesus Christ from Christian missionaries, have reacted in various ways. Some have come to admire Jesus, but without any feeling of commitment to him. Others have come to know and love Jesus and have committed themselves to him, but within the context of Hinduism. Still others have responded to the person of Christ by seeking baptism and incorporation into the Church.
Mahatma Gandhi is an example of one who greatly admired the teaching of Jesus but who, as he himself said, was not interested in the historical person of the teacher. He was particularly struck by the Sermon on the Mount. For him Jesus, through his message, became an ethical symbol.
Many Hindus have no difficulty in accepting Jesus as divine. What they find difficult is the Christian understanding that the Incarnation of God in Jesus is unique. Jesus is often seen as the supreme example of self-realization, the goal of the Hindi dharma. He is taken to be a symbol of human progress. For some he becomes more of an ideal than a historical person. According to Hindu traditions, history always provides an imperfect knowledge of reality. In such a context, to identify the mystery of Jesus Christ with historical fact is seen as reducing God to imperfection.
Since Buddha deliberately avoided talking about the existence or non-existence of God, it is obvious that Buddhists will have difficulty when faced with the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, true God and true man. Yet some Buddhists have paid serious attention to Jesus Christ. A contemporary Japanese scholar, Masao Abe, has reflected on the self-emptying of Christ as referred to by Paul (Phil 2: 5-8). He compares this kenosis with the concept of sunyata (emptiness) in Buddhism. Christ is here an example of denial of the self (ego). So it can be said that «Every day, here and now, we die as the old person, and resurrect as the new person with Christ».
Other Buddhists see Jesus as the liberator, because he teaches people the correct view of life, helping them out of darkness and blindness. Jesus does not impose liberation, but offers it, through faith in him. For the Dalai Lama it is the compassion of Jesus that is most striking. He sees the importance of the Gospel teaching on love of neighbour, kindness, forgiveness.
Buddhists naturally tend to interpret Jesus according to their own system of thought. They may be attracted by his teachings and by his example. They may be willing to recognise Jesus as a bodhisatva, one who renounces himself out of compassion for others. Yet there will still remain a fundamental difference, for they accept Jesus as a wise Teacher, but not as a divine Person.
African Traditional Religion
In African Traditional Religions the Ancestors play an important role. Having fulfilled their days, and having observed the traditions, social customs and family duties, the deceased come to be considered as protectors and intermediaries between God and human beings. They are manifestations of a source from which life flows. This life is received from God and has its foundation in His power.
Faith in the Ancestors can be a support for faith in Jesus. The God of Jesus Christ is the God of life. Jesus, who shares in this life in a very special way, presents himself as one who gives life and gives it in abundance (cf Jn 10,10). From this point of view Jesus can be considered as an Ancestor, indeed the Ancestor par excellence.
Another concern of Africans, whether traditional or modern, is sickness and the search for healing. Sickness is not just physical, it also concerns relations. Health lies in maintaining perfect harmony in the natural social and cosmic orders, both visible and invisible. When this harmony is disturbed, remedies will have to be sought.
Now Jesus is presented in the Gospels as one who went about healing. He is both a liberator and a healer. Through his healing action he shows himself to be in touch with human suffering. In healing he calls for commitment. He said to the paralytic: «I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home» (Mk 2,11). This is an invitation to overcome a fatalistic attitude to sickness and suffering.
This very rapid look at different religious traditions will have shown that there are many different approaches to Jesus. As Christians we are rooted in our belief in Jesus as Son of God, Lord and Saviour, and in our love for him. It is this faith and love which allows us to go out to others. We may feel that, though they do not fully share our belief in Christ and our commitment to Him, they are able to walk part of the way with us. This may encourage us to invite them to be associated in some ways with our celebrations for the 2000th anniversary of the Birth of Christ.