A Religion Beyond Appearances

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In the early twentieth century, certain religious reactions to the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment attempted to place religion out of reach of scientism and determinism. The twentieth-century German theologian Rudolf Otto described religiosity as a ‘feeling of the numinous,’ meaning an encounter with ‘the holy’ which transcended reason in every way, and yet was undeniable in its reality. ‘The holy’ here is experienced as an overpowering mystery in which we encounter that which is wholly other, and feel ourselves drawn to it.

Although ‘the holy’ can be found in all human religions, Otto felt that Christianity enjoyed a primacy when compared with other belief systems. But for Otto its value is not in dogma; Christianity is valuable for its religious intuition as a human expression of numinous experience. Otto says that “we recognize in Christ the portrayal and presentment of God… the abyss between creature and Creator, ‘profanum’ and ‘sanctum’, sin and holiness, is not diminished but increased by the deeper knowledge that comes from the Gospel of Christ.” It is not the codification of truth claims that gives Christianity its religious value, but our receptivity to the numinous:

too commonly we dogmatize and theorize… deducing… ‘necessary truths’ of exegesis or dogma (which are in fact always dubious), and so failing to recognize them for what they are, free-floating utterances and trial flights at expression of the numinous feeling; and that too often we give them an emphasis which puts them unwarrantably at the centre of our religious interest, a place which nothing but the experience itself of God ought to occupy.

This kind of religious pluralism did not originate in the twentieth century, however. Writing over a century before Otto, William Blake expressed a similar sentiment. In his poem, “All Religions Are One,” Blake writes:

The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius, which is everywhere called the Spirit of Prophecy… As all men are alike (though infinitely various), So all Religions: and as all similars have one source.

As something common to all that expresses the best of what is human, the ‘poetic genius’ forms a single source for all philosophical and religious expression. It could be said that, despite outward appearances, Otto’s underlying sentiment is not so very different from Blake’s: while he affirms a source for religion beyond the grasp of rational determinism, the numinous reality he speaks of is still partly of human origin; at any rate, the expression or intuition itself, which forms religion as Otto understands it, is quite definitely of human design.

Otto’s book 1917 Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy) seemed to strike the spirit of the age not only in his native Germany, but all over the world. (Translations of this work have extended its cultural influence even to Japan). Despite his emphasis on emotional experience, Otto was not a subjectivist in the post-modern sense of the word – he not only believed in God, but encouraged a cautious return to Christianity, as a kind of comfort to the post-Kantian mind after the intellectual turmoil of the Enlightenment and the carnage of the First World War. It would remain for later generations to remove these cultural institutions fully. For the moment, Otto sees a solace in the notion of the holy as it is encountered in Christian practice, that restores peace to a human person whose psychological equilibrium has been disturbed by rationalist dogma, and whose human dignity has been threatened by the moral horror of modern warfare. For some, Otto offered an emotional incentive to return to the socio-religious structures of their own culture, while at the same time introducing the idea of an encounter with holiness, manifested in a variety of concrete forms: while it can be found in traditional places, holiness itself is universalized.

But such a return to the religious structures of the past did not appeal to everyone. In 1928, Frost had this to say of the enduring value of traditional political, economic and religious institutions:

If heaven were to do again…
I should be tempted to forget,
I fear, the Crown of Rule,
The Scales of Trade, the Cross of Faith,
As hardly worth renewal.

For these have governed in our lives,
And see how men have warred.
The Cross, the Crown, the Scales may all
As well have been the Sword.

For some, the cultural trauma that began in the early twentieth century did not provoke an emotional (let alone doctrinal) affirmation of existing religious institutions, seeking in their familiarity a measure of comfort. In the end, it seems that Otto’s numinous intuition could just as easily cut in the opposite direction.

Perhaps Blake is the most correct of these three in asserting that, in the absence of revelation, dogma, creed, and even natural reason itself, emotion can only affirm the convictions we already hold.

During the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, a great many prominent theologians and Catholic thinkers had begun to turn their attention towards the question of other religions. During this time of confusion and excitement, many attempted to import certain elements of the pluralism already afoot in the wider culture into the world of Catholic theology. In light of this, the young Joseph Ratzinger sought to craft a constructive response. Rather than adopt the ‘anonymous Christianity’ of Karl Rahner, Ratzinger opted for a more balanced approach. In 1964, he warned that gathering all religions into a pluralistic unity was a great danger for contemporary culture:

Today’s man has a concept of religion that is always very much a matter of symbols, heavily spiritualized. Religion appears as a world of symbols, which despite the ultimate unity of the language of human symbols… vary in many details but nonetheless mean just the same thing and really ought to begin to discover their deep, underlying unity… that is the most attractive illusion that particularly those people with religious awareness see before them today as a genuine hope for the future.

Against this tendency, he observed that the Christian theologian could appear as “a dogmatic stick-in-the-mud.” In response, Ratzinger argued that a re-articulation of the fundamental difference between Christianity and other religions is absolutely vital. If Christianity is simply one religion among many, its absolute truth claims (and the condemnation of others as false) could only appear as an arbitrary dogmatism.

Writing some decades later, Ratzinger turned to the anthropology of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is able to affirm both natural religious sentiment and expression, and articulate the unique and privileged quality of theological faith in Jesus Christ. Ratzinger says that Aquinas’ understanding of religion as a natural virtue that is distinct from the theological virtue of faith can help us to balance the tendencies of our age. All men are inclined to belief, and to religious worship of their creator. In this much Aquinas and Otto are in agreement. Religion as a natural virtue has a universal quality, not only because of its common possession by all men, but because of its ability to gather all other human pursuits and virtuous actions under itself – religion, even on the natural level, can include levels of personal and emotional fulfillment that are not as it were strictly rational. In this much, however, religion is a human expression – an extension of the person towards the eternity of God, as a creature reaching for his Creator.

The gift of faith, however, is unique to Christianity. Rather than a strictly natural exercise of human religiosity, in theological faith God initiates within the person a participation in His own life, fulfilling all natural desires – both rational and emotional – and at the same time gathering these desires into a higher (and saving) fulfillment.

The uniqueness of Christianity in this regard does not diminish the human dignity of other believers, or the value of their religiosity. Rather it is in the supernatural order that Christian faith is distinguished both in kind and in purpose: the infused life of faith is built upon natural human inclinations as a supernatural complement; more to the point, however, because it is rooted in the eternity and goodness of God, faith in this sense is not only capable of achieving a passing sense of human fulfillment, but can actually work towards our salvation. In this way, the uniqueness of salvation through Jesus Christ is not a competitor with other religions – it is the eternal completion of the goodness we see already reflected in the lives and religious practices of the entire human family.

Image: William Congdon, The Church of the Redeemer-Venice

By | 2015-02-11T15:30:09+00:00 January 12, 2012|Books, Theology|

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