A Note on Restricted Indifferentism

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Restricted Indifferentism is the belief that all religions are on an equal footing and are simply different pathways to the one God. Although such a position sounds positive and "inclusive" - and its denial negative and exclusive -, Restricted Indifferentism is in fact a heretical position that has never, throughout the history of Christianity, been seriously entertained either by the Catholic Church or mainline Protestantism. In fact, Religious Indifferentism is ultimately a kind of relativism in disguise that in the long run begets unrestricted religious indifference.

There is something very appealing about this heresy, and I believe its appeal lies in the fact that it tends to gloss over the difficult reality of the fallen human condition. As such, it is a kind of "good news". In other words, if all religions are on an equal footing and are simply different paths to salvation, then man is not lost. He can save himself.

Indeed, this news sounds good, but it is true? If it is, it renders the good news of the gospel completely redundant. Moreover, it actually refutes itself; for this kind of Indifferentism is the belief that all religions are equally legitimate attempts to explain the truth about God. Such a claim, however, completely undercuts the claims of Christ. At best, then, all religions except Christianity are legitimate attempts to explain the truth about God.

Indifferentists often employ the metaphor of the wheel. Just as the spokes on a wheel all lead to and converge upon the hub in the center, so too all religions are regarded as various and diverse ways that lead to the one God at the center of existence.

This is a very positive and reassuring image. If it is accurate, it is difficult to understand why the vast majority of people would not, in the end, find their way back to the center. But this is a very subtle denial of the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, namely Original Sin. We believe that the human race is fallen, broken by sin, over its head in a debt that it cannot hope to repay. In short, man cannot save himself. Recall when Jesus said to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. They said in reply: "In that case, who can be saved?" Jesus gazed at them and said, "For man it is impossible, but not for God: because for God everything is possible" (Mk 10, 26-27). And so a more accurate illustration of the human condition by means of the metaphor of the wheel might be the following:

Man has been cut off from the source of divine grace through sin. It is simply not within any man's power to rise above his inclination to sin and make satisfaction for himself or anyone for the infinite gravity of sin against God. That is why man needs a saviour. The faith of Christians is that God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, joined a human nature, dwelt among us, suffered and died to reconcile the world to God. And so the wheel should look more like the following:

It is now possible for anyone on the rim of the wheel to make it to the center, but he or she can only do so by the wood of the cross. This does not mean, as Fundamentalists tend to believe, that only professed Christians will be saved. Far from it. But it does mean that if anyone makes it to heaven, be it a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew, he or she does so only because two thousand years ago, the Word was made flesh and died for us all on Good Friday, and he or she cooperated with the grace that Christ made available by virtue of his death. In short, if we made it, we made it through Christ: "No one can come to the Father except through me" (Jn 14, 6).

And so Restricted Indifferentism, although apparently positive, is insidious in that it subtly denies a fundamental truth about sin and redemption, namely, that the gravity of sin against a God of infinite dignity is nothing less than infinite. It is a denial of Original Sin and its radical wounds that have infected human nature. And it denies that the world needs a redeemer who is both fully God and fully man, who as God can cancel a debt of infinite gravity, and who as man can offer a sacrifice on our behalf. Indifferentism is simply another example of how something that looks and feels good on the surface is, underneath the appearance, very harmful.

The World Religions and Christ

If Jesus is who he claims to be (the Son of God), then it follows irrefutably that he is everything that every religion is looking for. What exactly does this mean? This is where we have to be careful. Does it mean that non-Christian religions are false? No, it does not. Allow me explain.

When carefully studying the religions of the world, we notice that one religion in particular stands out from all the others, and this is the religion of Judaism - and by extension, Christianity. In Judaism, God takes the initiative, reveals Himself to Abraham and makes a covenant with him. But the other great religions - except Christianity - do not claim to be anything more than man's word about God. It is true that Islam claims that the Koran was given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, but the contents of the Koran do not require an act of faith as such, that is, an assent of the mind to truths that transcend the grasp of human reason. The content is accessible to human reason. In this sense, Islam is a natural religion; in fact, probably the perfect natural religion. The religions of the world are packed with profoundly insightful truths about God, man, and human nature. But the claim of Judaism is unique. Here, God establishes a covenant with Abraham and promises that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars of the sky, and that in him all nations will find blessing (Gn 12, 2-3).

Judaism is a history of a relationship, a covenant relationship that was initiated by God. It is a revealed religion, not a natural one. Christianity is rooted in Judaism, and it too claims to be a revealed religion. In fact, Christianity believes the covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper is the New Covenant foretold by Jeremiah and Ezekiel: "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jer 31, 31). No other religion makes such claims. And so we must be sure to approach these religions on their terms, and not on our terms. We need not demand from them anything more than what they claim to offer. When we adopt this approach, we allow these religions to enrich our lives and actually help us to understand our own faith better.

Consider that Jesus said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Jn 14, 6). Moreover, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul says that it is in him (Christ) in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2, 3). If this is true, then the more I know Christ, the more readily will I be able to discover the real truths in the religions of the world. Or, consider this from another angle. One does not find in me the fullness of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, but only in Christ. If I love Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, then I will love all that is true in the world religions, and I will reject nothing that is true and good. Since that fullness lies hidden in him -- not in me -- then these other religions can help me to discover truths that I already have potentially, but which lie hidden in the Person of Christ, truths which I would otherwise have overlooked.

Who can deny the truth of the fundamental insights of Buddhism, for example? That the suffering of this world is caused primarily and for the most part by inordinate desire? What Christian is not impressed by the beautiful tales of almsgiving found in The Sayings of Muhammad or the profound wisdom of the Sufi writers? What Christian cannot find food for thought and inspiration in The Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, the writings of Chuang Tzu or Confucius, or from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin? Christ does not render these treasures superfluous. Rather, he opens us up to their true splendour, and through them we can indeed come to know ourselves better, and know Christ better; for if Christ is the Truth, then he is the source of all the truths we find in them. Thus, knowing these truths helps us to know their source more perfectly.

But if Christ is the source of grace, can a non-Christian be in a state of grace? Strictly speaking, it is not possible to know with certainty if anyone in particular is in a state of grace, including ourselves. When asked if she knew she was in God's grace, St. Joan of Arc replied: "If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there" (Acts of the Trial of St. Joan of Arc). But just as truth is found among the nations, so too is grace (Cf. Vatican Council II, Ad Gentes 9). In Psalm 145 we read: "The Lord lifts up all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down...The Lord is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth...The Lord keeps all who love him." For there is no doubt in my mind that the Mahatma Gandhi was a much greater man that I will ever be. Many of us know Muslim students in our schools that pray and fast faithfully every day during the month of Ramadan. How is it possible for a Muslim teenager to be so devoted to God and faithfully carry out such personal sacrifice and not be in a state of grace?

Being in the state of grace is not about having correct theology or knowing specific truths. A Muslim may respond to the movements of interior grace to a much greater degree than the lukewarm Catholic, who is so indifferent to the demands of his religion that he does not even bother to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, let alone an entire month of the year. If Christianity is the right religion, Catholics may have more cause for fear and concern, for they will have a great deal more to answer for on the Day of Judgment. If I have been given much more than Mohandas K. Gandhi, what excuse do I have for giving back to God so much less than he did? If one has been baptized, confirmed, given the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity as well as the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, the grace of regeneration, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins and the grace to overcome those sins in the future, strength in sickness, graces in matrimony, the revelation of the Old and New Testaments, sacramentals and the lives of the saints, how is one going to render an account for the fact that one's life is outwardly no different than the average Hedonist, while the Muslim student prayed five times a day facing the East, gave a rather large percentage of his income to the poor, and did not allow even a drop of water to pass between his lips during daylight hours for an entire month of the year, without even half of the resources given to the Catholic?

It seems to me that the world is centuries away from real unity and religious peace, and I believe that the two extremes of religious self-righteousness (an attitude which we tend to encounter among Christians and Muslims of the fundamentalist stripe) and Restricted Indifferentism (made popular by Rousseau) do not serve the ends of religious peace. The former -- at least with regard to Christians -- fails to grasp the positive implications of the Incarnation of Truth, while the latter is a subtle denial of the claims of Judaism and Christianity. It seems to me that Catholics can only be front-runners in the movement towards religious dialogue. And this dialogue cannot be genuine if there is a relinquishing of our convictions or a watering down of the contents of faith. Genuine dialogue (dia logos) is a movement towards the Word (Logos), and the Word (Christ) is the measure of what each of us has to say. "In arche erin Logon" (In the beginning was the Word). Arche is the foundation of the real, the source and origin of things. This is what all of the Greek natural philosophers were seeking, which is why theology can and has benefited so much from the ideas of natural philosophy. And so arche (beginning) does not mean "beginning" as in the temporal beginning of a motion. It refers rather to the beginning of a principle, and a principle is that upon which something depends. The reason behind everything that is, is the Word (Logos), who is in God and who is God (Jn 1, 1ff). He became flesh and dwelt among us. By loving and embracing this Word more intimately, we make ourselves more able to enter into genuine dialogue. The world religions are there for us, and we are there for them. Our only duty is to enter into dialogue, as opposed to directing this great conversation to an end that we have envisioned.

This conversation and its final outcome are too large for us to comprehend. The Logos will govern the movement of the dialogue and bring it to its perfection, for everything depends upon the Logos. Our task is to become a part of the current of that discussion. When we try to control it, we begin relinquishing essential tenets of our faith, and this renders dialogue impossible. We end up creating an artificial unity, which does not, will not, and cannot last.