Nostra Aetate, Ecumenism and Interfaith

I met an elderly nun in the 1990s who made a point of telling me about Nostra Aetate (Our Times/Age) because she knew I was interested in the comparative study of world religions. Hans Kung mentions Nostra Aetate in Chapter 3 of “On Being Christian” and points out that in less than 400 years the Church did a 180 degree about face from stating at the Counsel of Florence (I think) that there IS no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church to Nostra Aetate saying that it is the duty of Catholics not SIMPLY to respect non-Christian religions but to recognize that God’s saving Spirit is present in the scriptures of such religions. I am recalling this from memory so forgive any errors or omissions. For many years I was in error about one of the final Surahs of the Qur’an believing that it said “Say therefore unto the unbeliever the GOD which we worship is not the GOD which you worship” but what it actually says is “the RELIGION which we worship is not the RELIGION which you worship.” Also I was in error regarding Surah 5 verse 48 thinking that it said “Had I wanted to I could have made you all as one RELIGION (but what it actually says is one culture/nation/people/language/ethnicity) but for my own reasons I made you as different peoples so if you must compete then compete in doing good works and when you return to me I shall explain the reason for the differences.”

Talmudic scholars point to one verse where God says to Abraham “do not worship the stars for that has been given unto the nations” and conclude that there may be other valid religions in the world as well as the 5 Noahmite laws. You know, as I write this and muse, I am struck by the term “law.” Someone who seems to hate organized religion tried to ask me my definition of “sin” and then pointed out that the “big ten” commandments do not talk about kindness or compassion. But what strikes me is people’s emphasis upon judicial notions of “laws and commandments” “dos and donts” “thou shalt and shalt not” and the entire notion of sin or wrong doing. What strikes me at the moment is that there is a dimension of religious devotion which Hindus would call Bhakti and it is Miriam dancing and singing or David dancing before the Ark of the covenant. It is at those moments that we are not thinking about law. Rumi’s saying comes to mind “there is a field beyond notions of right-doing and wrong-doing; I shall meet you there.” If we consider what Paul says in Romans about those nations which have a law in their hearts then we may conceive the possibility of a secular order of righteousness which is purely state and separate from religion. But there is still the dimension of bhakti devotion which is needful to the human spirit.


There is an old Zen saying (actually there are quite a few) which states “The difference between heaven and hell is the breadth of one hair.”
Jonathan Swift, in “Gulliver’s Travels” speaks of the dispute between the “Big-endians” and the “Little-endians” who argue about whether the hard boiled egg should be opened at the large end or at the small end. When Gulliver inquires the source of the dispute they open their sacred scriptures and show him the verse: “Open thy egg where thou will.”

One Russian Orthodox Bishop, Anthony Krapovitsky, wrote that our salvation was worked in the garden of Gesthemene when Jesus prayed “Heavenly Father, all those whom Thou has given to me, may they be ONE even as you and I are one.” We must constantly remind ourselves that unity is important. Jaroslave Pelikan in his five volume history of Christian doctrine points out how Paul said that of the three things, “faith, hope and love” the most important is love. Pelikan takes the liberty to construe “faith” as meaning dogmatic, doctrinal belief rather than Paul’s definition of hope and confidence of what is not seen. I had to google to remember: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It is worthwhile to note that the term “faith” only occurs twice in the entire Old Testament. The first time it occurs IN THE NEGATIVE in Deuteronomy Ch. 32 “because of your FAITH-LESS-NESS my anger has been kindled like a fire and shall burn from the highest mountain tops to the base of the mountains and down to the lowest Sheol-Hell and shall WITHER the fruitfulness of the land.” The second occurrence is the one famously used by Martin Luther in Habbakuk “for the just man shall live by HIS faith” but the Greek Septuagint reads very differently and says “for the just man shall live by MY [God’s] faithfulness to my covenantal agreement.” The same word in Hebrew is used both times and it is a word which means honoring the terms of an agreement and not Paul’s sense of faith as “pistis.” And the Septuagint verse in Habbakuk goes on to say “but IF that man draws back [i.e. reneges] then my heart shall take no delight in him.” Perhaps one can add a third instance of “faith” in the sense that “Abraham BELIEVED and his belief was counted TOWARDS his righteous works.” You see, belief itself and profession is a also a work or deed. But Abraham was not righteous SIMPLY because of his belief but also because of his deeds. By the same token Job was not righteous simply because of belief or faith but because of his righteous deeds and actions. It seems to me that a person’s righteous and just deeds attract the attention of God and then God ADDS faith or belief to that person, which means that faith is a gift and a gift which God offers to some but not all based upon a foreknowledge of what a given individual would do with the gift of faith (which is why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart ten times.)

I am aware that the doctrine of Papal infallibility was only formally asserted in the 19th century and then used to proclaim the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. The Eastern Orthodox maintain that doctrinal infallibility is only present in a properly convened Ecumenical Council of which there have only been seven by their reckoning. Hans Kung questioned the doctrine of Papal infallibility and for that his license to teach was revoked and he moved from the theology department across the hall to the philosophy department but retained his priesthood and his right to celebrate Mass (at least this is my poor understanding.) There is even some evidence that [then] Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledged some merit to Kung’s ideas. Personally I have come to equate the doctrine of Papal Infallibility to Plato’s “Noble Lie” although in the Greek it is not really a “lie” so much as a tale/fable/myth/story/account. People always focus on the “lie” aspect and never think about the “noble” aspect. What the magisterium has produced is a body of one billion Catholics who enjoy the greatest dogmatic and doctrinal and liturgical unity of any religion in the world. If you go to Mass in Tokyo, you may not understand the Japanese but the same things will be read and sung as Masses around the world for that day. And if you want to know what the Roman Catholic Church believes then you have only to obtain a copy of the 900 page Catechism which covers every conceivable aspect of human life and relations. I know of no other religion which can provide a similar document. And as for those Churches which boast of being “Bible based” I can only say that the very first portion of the New Testament to be written was not a Gospel but Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians which was around 51 C.E. which means that for 10 or 20 years the Christian church existed with NO New Testament and most likely with little access to the Old Testament in the form of the Greek Septuagint since literacy was not widespread and there was no printing press. The earliest known complete Bible in approximate canonical order is the Sinai Codex in Greek which dates from the 4th or 5th century.


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