Universal religion does not exist. The only thing in our world that even comes close seems to be an imagined ideal round table where the various religious traditions sit and talk, sharing the understanding of their beliefs with one another. Whatever universal agreements may come out of such exchanges, if they ever actually occur, remain momentary, serendipitous events; they have significance only for the few people privy to it. They are not codified anywhere and generally have no impact on the institutional life of any of the participating members.
Nobody is keeping a record; and for sure no one is building a consensus that might be said to represent a universal understanding of religion and its significance for humankind. The purport of this reflection is to say, very clearly and unambiguously, it’s about time we started doing this. The point of view adopted here is that, much to the chagrin of absolutist authoritarian hierarchies like that of the Roman Catholic Church, religion ― institutional structure, beliefs, ritual and moral behavior ― is undebatably relative to the cultural, historical and linguistic groups that embrace it. Religion is a universal human phenomenon; it is found everywhere, and its factual ubiquity suggests that a thorough, disciplined, sincere, honest, humble, and religiously sensitive study would reveal why. The “why” is the common core of the universal religion we seek. It will embody the reason why humans are religious.
Academic courses and departments of Comparative Religion abound. But I want to emphasize, except for a few creative students of that discipline, the kind of consensus that I am talking about has not emerged there, and in fact is not even contemplated. Comparative Religion is an academic discipline whose objective is the tabulation of the way practitioners of the various religions resemble one another or diverge in the areas of religious life mentioned above. It is a branch of social science; it is not itself either a religion or a religious pursuit, search or quest. Its most accomplished students need not be religious or even have any respect for the relationships that are the objects of their expertise. They are solely interested in the knowledge of what religion is and how it functions for the varied human populations across the globe.
The quest I am talking about, while it might have the same material content as Comparative Religion, is vastly different. I am proposing the religious pursuit of the universal religion that lies hidden and dormant beneath the various historically and culturally conditioned forms in which we actually find it functioning in our world. This proposal obviously assumes that there actually is such a reality, but it also recognizes that such a religious pursuit can only be carried out from inside the religious relationship, by those who know what it is. What is being sought is the accurate identification and description of the human event ― the embrace, the surrender ― that practitioners recognize as the mark of authentic religion.
This essay will be an attempt to confirm the claim that there is such a common core, and that clarifying what it is will enhance and purify all the various traditions. In fact, I hope to show that it is only the faithful conformity to the common core that legitimizes any given religion and serves as a standard by which to evaluate its authenticity.
Hence, this study will be circular in character, by which I mean it is committed beforehand to its conclusion: it presumes that a universal religion “exists,” what it seeks to do is sketch out its contours and understand the dynamics of the religious relationship, how it works in itself and therefore how and why it works everywhere in all the various disparate forms in which it has arisen among us.
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Coming at this question as I do from a Roman Catholic background, I am quite aware that such a point of view contradicts the absolutist claims of the official Catholic hierarchy and dogma, which, I would quickly add, are merely the explicit expression of what is tacitly held by most Christian churches. Christians in general believe their religion is the definitive word and will of “God” which mysteriously confers legitimacy upon all other religions in the world. In the words of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Jesus, August 2000, “ . . . the sacred books of other religions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.” [I,8]
Ironically, what “universalist Christianity” might mean is unusually well expressed in the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of it. The following quotations, interspersed with my observations, reproduce in its entirety a single paragraph of Section V, #19 of the same Vatican declaration cited above. The characterizations that the Vatican finds so abhorrent ― not unpredictably ― are exactly the qualities we desire in an authentic universalist Christianity.
The declaration singles out for criticism:
. . . conceptions [of the Church] which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as ‘kingdom centred.’ They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally concerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a ‘Church for others,’ just as Christ is the ‘man for others’ . . . [elipsis in the original]. Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well.
The document acknowledges “positive aspects” without mentioning what they are. But we have no problem imagining how refreshing it would be to have a Church which was not eternally preoccupied in proclaiming its own importance . . . and so concerned with maintaining an image of holiness before the world that it covered-up the most heinous crimes of sexual abuse of children. Wouldn’t we all rather it be a humble and penetential “Church for others,” aware and forthcoming about its own failings and interested only in promoting God’s image in humankind wherever it is found? The Church we dream of will praise the effectiveness of other traditions’ symbols and practices for the building of the kingdom, and encourage its people to remain committed to their ideals and their traditional practices. But no, instead we get pummeled for having the satanic audacity to put others first:
First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is ‘theocentrically’ based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures, and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.
The universal Christianity that I am speaking about is not at all “silent” about Christ. In fact it is based on the universalist insight that Jesus himself gleaned from the prophets and preached to his Jewish contemporaries. That insight was not about his own “divinity,” it was about the “Fatherhood” of “God,” which means precisely that Jesus himself was theocentric and not self-centered. He explicitly rejected any claim that he was “God.” It is the self-centeredness of the Roman Catholic Church that accounts for its inability to recognize Jesus’ message as a call to be “for others.” It was an insight that called for the rejection of any sectarian claims to exclusivity and uniqueness in favor of the “one divine reality by whatever name it is called” . . . exactly as Paul of Tarsus evoked it at the Areopagus in Athens. It was, moreover, that same Christ-inspired universalism that emboldened Paul to propose a universal membership in the community of the followers of Jesus which eliminated compliance with the conditions of joining the Jewish national sect. It was theocentric; it was not self-centered.
For the same reason, they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed ‘ecclesiocentrism’ of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity”.76 [the footnote references Redemptoris missio, an instruction of John Paul II]. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God.
Indeed, it is the “mystery of creation” that is uniquely responsible for generating religion. It establishes the existential dependency that is the ground for Jesus’ insight into the Fatherhood of God; . . . for the Greek poetic acknowledgement of the divinity in which we ALL live and move and have our being; . . . for the recognition of our common humanity demanding a compassion and moral responsibility that means justice for all, everywhere and without consideration for ethnic origin, language, color of skin, economic condition, or level of cultural development. The “kingdom” ― every last bit of it ― is totally dependent on the “mystery of creation.”
And indeed, the traditional emphasis on the superiority of the Christian Religion is uniquely responsible for the crimes that permitted Christianity to be used as justification for the conquest and exploitation of third world peoples, and for the virulent Christian anti-Semitism that provided the fuel for the Nazi Holocaust. Nor can we forget the horrors perpetrated by the Christians on the Arab world in the Crusades and the expropriation and expulsion of the Moors from Spain. These were undebatably the products of “ecclesiocentrism” whose bitter fruits we are reaping today in the violent attempts of people to regain their dignity, achieve autonomy, create equality, and transcend the debilitating racism that poisons human social interaction. The horrors of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians can be seen as a distraught and grasping over-compensation by frightened Jews and guilt-ridden Christians for the millennia of hatred and genocide born of Christian arrogance. If we set any store by Jesus’ terse wisdom that “by their fruits you will know them,” then by the actual historical fruits of Christian mission to the third world, and its criminally negligent stewardship of the defenseless people under its own roof ― women, children, enslaved Africans and their descendants, Latin Americans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, gypsies ― we know that what supports the outrageous claims for the uniqueness of Christianity must be uniquely inhuman.
My purpose is not to deny the religious legitimacy of Christianity, but I claim the contrary of the arrogant hubris of the Vatican. Far from conferring validity, whatever validity the various Christian sects ― including the Roman Catholic sect ― have, they get from their conformity to the essential characteristics of “religion,” the common legacy of humankind, a natural derivative of the human organism itself.