Looking to Other Religions, and to Atheism, for Clarity in Faith

A month ago, when this column traced the argument of a book with the intriguing title of “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,” it was tempting to mention another recent book. “It’s Really All About God” (Jossey-Bass) carries the equally intriguing subtitle: “Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.”

Samir Selmanovic, the author of the second book, even refers to Paul F. Knitter, the author of the first one, as a friend and mentor. Both books insist that other religious traditions can certainly be more than enemies, more even than innocent bystanders or friendly neighbors. Other religions, both authors claim, are essential resources for enriching one’s own.

But the books are very different. Mr. Knitter’s is the personal testimony of a scholar, carefully set out in theological terms. Mr. Selmanovic’s is the impassioned plea of a pastor and organizer, declaimed in ringing statements, sentence fragments, one-line paragraphs and catchy phrases that stop just short of a motivational speaker’s.

He is a storyteller — and he does have stories to tell. On Tuesday he spread some of those stories out on the dinner table of his Manhattan apartment. Here were photographs, taken in a public photo booth, of his honeymooning parents, his mother from a Roman Catholic family in Slovenia and his father from a Muslim family in Montenegro.

Read more: nytimes.com/2009/11/07/us/07beliefs.html

Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

  1. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126); But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

  2. As the Son was sent by the Father,(131) so He too sent the Apostles, saying: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world”.(132) The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth.(133) Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel”,(134) and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby He has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols and incorporates them in Christ so that through charity they may grow up into full maturity in Christ. Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil and the happiness of man. The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state.(21*) Although, however, all the faithful can baptize, the priest alone can complete the building up of the Body in the eucharistic sacrifice. Thus are fulfilled the words of God, spoken through His prophet: “From the rising of the sun until the going down thereof my name is great among the gentiles, and in every place a clean oblation is sacrificed and offered up in my name”.(135)(22*) In this way the Church both prays and labors in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, all honor and glory may be rendered to the Creator and Father of the Universe.


It seems like most Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others insist their religion has all the answers and is the “one true faith.” But that is not the way the world is leaning now. More and more emphasis is being placed less on preparation for the afterlife and more on improving life on earth for ourselves and others. I believe this can be called secularism. Observed as dispassionately as possible, it is obvious that on basic principles the world religions have more in common than their leaders (with vested interests) would have people believe. A result, I believe, is that people are dipping their toes in the waters of more than one religion and using what they find helpful. An example is a Catholic mother doing yoga three mornings a week and reading a book by the Dalai Lhama. Is that wrong?

Provided one does not cross over into indifferentism (the idea that any one religion is just as good/ no better nor worse than any other), or relativism, there is no problem with finding enjoyment or increased knowledge of aspects of nonChristian beliefs. However, it is very easy to wander into indifference and relativism if one is not vigilant.

Reading a book by the Dalai Lhama? Of course not…unless she puts something he says into practice that is counter to the Catholic faith.

Yoga three mornings a week? It depends. People do yoga for health/exercise, but yoga’s religious purpose is to reach a “higher state of consciousness.” If the mother is participating in that purpose as a form of enlightenment, then she may lead herself to serious error.


  1. Eastern Christian meditation has valued “psychophysical symbolism,” often absent in western forms of prayer. It can range from a specific bodily posture to the basic life functions, such as breathing or the beating of the heart. The exercise of the “Jesus Prayer,” for example, which adapts itself to the natural rhythm of breathing can, at least for a certain time, be of real help to many people. On the other hand, the eastern masters themselves have also noted that not everyone is equally suited to making use of this symbolism, since not everybody is able to pass from the material sign to the spiritual reality that is being sought.

Understood in an inadequate and incorrect way,** the symbolism can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God. To live out in one’s prayer the full awareness of one’s body as a symbol is even more difficult: it can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences.**

  1. Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.

Here is another Church resource on the subject - a reflection on New Age beliefs and practices: ewtn.com/library/CURIA/pccpcida.htm

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