The Historical Christ in World Religions

Anthony Zimmerman
1989, revised 2000
Not published
Reproduced with Permission

The new Catechism teaches that God made Himself known to our first parents by way of revelation. It is a highly significant truth which we practically ignore in theological discourse. To this the Catechism adds that God promised them a Redeemer. This second teaching indicates that Christ is the Redeemer of all mankind.. There is no room, then, for a novel theory claiming a split between works of the Christ-Logos among non-Christian religions, and the redemptive work of the historical Jesus Christ among Christians.

Cardinal Josef Tomko rightly rejected the proposal of R. Panikkar of a Christ-Logos who works beyond the boundaries open to the historical Jesus (see (Missionary Bulletin Spring 1989. p. 60). Pannikar proposed that "There is more in the Christ-Logos than there is in the historical Jesus, so that the Logos can appear in different, but real ways in other religions and historical figures, outside of Jesus of Nazareth."

In this writing I will draw upon myths of hunter gatherer ancestors which indicate that they had faith in God's revealed and supernatural truths and looked forward to a reward in heaven for having performed good works. Their faith was received in anticipation of Christ's redemption, much as God granted that Mary be immaculately conceived in view of Christ's future salvific work. There is no need for the Pannikar split. The Jesus who saved the thief on the cross is the same who saved Adam and Eve, and the saints of all times. For us who are locked into the whirling gears of time on earth there is a sequence of before and after. In eternity, however, time disappears into the eternal and everlasting single now.

When we Christians claim that we are God's "handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to lead the life of good deeds which God prepared for us in advance" (Eph 2:10), shall we pretend to elbow out of our group true believers who still happen to be enrolled in other religious groups? Shall we not recognize with joy what Peter came to understand: "What can stop these people who have received the Holy Spirit, even as we have, from being baptized with water?" (Acts 10:47). The Spirit had been at work in them even before their Baptism. This is not a neo-Pannikarism but a truth that we ought to accept with the same joy as Peter did.

Jesus Christ born in Bethlehem, Redeemer of all mankind

In what manner, then, shall we understand how the historical Christ who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, provided salvation for believers who lived and died before He was born? In Lumen Gentium the Fathers of Vatican II point out that it is the historical Christ who held out the means of salvation to Adam and to all who had fallen in him: "And when they had fallen in Adam, he (the eternal Father) did not abandon them, but at all times held out to them the means of salvation, bestowed in consideration of Christ, the Redeemer, 'who is the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature' and predestined before time began' to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren"' (Rom 8:29; LG 2).

Consistent with this passage of LG is the passage in AG which indicates that Christ's giving of the Spirit on Pentecost was not the first time that He had given the Spirit. "Without doubt, the Holy Spirit was at work in the world before Christ was glorified" (AG 4). A footnote quotes St. Leo the great to this effect: "When the Holy Spirit filled the Lord's disciples on the day of Pentecost, this was not the first exercise of his role but an extension of his bounty, because the patriarchs, prophets, priests, and all the holy men of the previous ages were nourished by the same sanctifying Spirit ... although the measure of the gifts was not the same" (Sermon 76, PL 54, 405-406). That Christ merited all supernatural graces received by fallen mankind is classified as a sententia certa (see e.g. Ott, 190).

Christian salvation history began with Adam and Eve

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that God made Himself known to the first progenitors of our race, and that they did not lose this revelation when they sinned:

54 "...Wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning" (DV3; cf. Jn 1:3; Rom 1:19-20). He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice.

55 This revelation was not broken off by our first parents's sin. After the fall, (God) buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption; and he has never ceased to show his solicitude for the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing" (DV 3; cf. Gen 3:15; Rom 2:6-7).

The Catechism then quotes this passage from Eucharistic Prayer IV:

Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death...Again and again you offered a covenant to man.

Our first parents could therefore launch world culture based upon a sure knowledge of God who had revealed Himself, who called man to live in accordance with the "Ten Commandments of Eden", who invited all men of all times to an intimate relationship with Himself. World culture, founded initially with the assistance of divine revelation, undergirds to some extent the thousand and one cultures of all nations and peoples today.

Christ's role as re-capitulator of the human race through His Incarnation and Redemption forms the core of the theology of Saint Irenaeus (125-202). The saint of Lyons identifies the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as the one who deals with mankind in the Old Testament, even before His Incarnation: "He recapitulates in Himself all the nations dispersed since Adam, and all the languages and generations of men, including Adam himself" (Adv. Haer. III, 22,3; see more in the author's book Evolution and the Sin in Eden, pp. 150 ff).

Admittedly, our modern space age with its strong lights and sounds may tend to submerge the deeper beliefs which undergirded human culture from the beginning. To keep in touch with our ancient heritage requires constant effort, which is not always forthcoming. A practically universal ritualization of the events of birth, of marriage, and of death, however, tends time and again to bring the submerged beliefs to the surface. Thanksgiving Day in the fall of the year was celebrated with solemnity as well as exuberance among by many tribes of Indians in the present USA before the white man arrive. We begin our sampling of beliefs with Iowa Indians - my favorites because I was born in Iowa.

Origin Myth of the Iowa Indians

The Iowa Indians once inhabited the area across the Mississippi River from where Davenport, Iowa exists today. Alanson Skinner collected data about their beliefs, some of which was published by the Heye Foundation, and others by the Milwaukee Public Museum. The following is from the Heye Foundation source (1920).

The forefathers say that the earth and all the elements were made by Wakanda, the creator. He made us, the people, and all things that are possessed of life - the trees, the herbs, the weeds, the grass, and he gave to each a use. All the fowls that fly are his work; all the insects and things that creep and crawl on and in the ground... In the fall festivals the Iowa Indians danced to honor Wakanda, to thank Him, and to ask for all things which they need. At times they raised their arms high and prayed. The leader then took a portion of food on a spoon and asked Wakanda to bless it (Skinner, 1920, pp. 242-243).

When Iowa Indians died, this became a great occasion of common concern. First of all, the face was painted in the exact manner proper to each gens, so that upon arrival in the next world the relatives would immediately recognize him or her as one of their own. Then an elder would pray over the corpse saying: "My relative, you can reach the other world without difficulty. Beware, do not stop at any rivers or other obstacles which you may encounter. Never look back at this earth, but keep on, and when you reach the abode of the dead, your parents will receive you in happiness."

Souls of the dead were supposed to travel over the Milky Way which was called the Wanaki Teina or Road of the Dead, to a spirit city situated in the western heavens. Just before the soul reached the other world, it had to cross a river, after which it was received by its relatives who were already there (Skinner 1926, pp. 252-253).

The Iowa Indians had a special tradition about life itself; its origin could not be found in heaven, on earth, under the earth. Finally they concluded that life is to be found in the special lodge built for the prayer ceremony, and in following the ways of the Great Father, through the rituals and ceremonies in which they have been instructed.

"All we can do is to worship our creator and struggle along in our existence. When we cook food we must let its savor arise to the nostrils of our Great Father the creator, and pour out the fat on Ixuixiwi, our mother, the earth. What we forefathers say and do now shall be the law for those who follow us" (Skinner 1920, pp. 189-192).

Being a native of Iowa myself, the lore of the Iowa Indians holds special charm for me. Their belief in life hereafter was evidently very keen, and their dancing in thanksgiving to God is evidence of a lively faith in the Creator God. Their sure expectation of reaching heaven after death is also evident. Who taught them all this? We will discuss the question later.

The Monotheism of the Lenape

The Lenape Indians once occupied the territories of the Delaware River drainage system in eastern Pennsylvania, southwest New York, and a part of New Jersey and Delaware states. In 1682 they made a pact with William Penn, Governor of Pennsylvania. He wrote about them in a letter dated August 16, 1683 that they believe in God and in the immortality of the soul:

They believe in a God and immortality; for they say there is a King that made them, who dwells in a glorious country to the Southward of them, and that the Souls of the Good shall go thither where they shall live again. (See Harrington, Religion And Ceremonies of The Lenape,Heye Foundation, New York 1921, pp. 18-21).

Harrington adds other testimonies:

Zeisberger makes it even stronger, for he wrote, about 1779: "They believe and have from time immemorial believed that there is an Almighty Being who has created heaven and earth and man and all things else. This they have learned from their ancestors." Heckewelder (page 205) adds more details in his book, originally published in 1818: "Their Almighty Creator is always before their eyes in all important occasions. They feel and acknowledge his supreme power... It is a part of their religious belief that there are inferior Mannittos, to whom the great and good Being has given command over the elements" (see Harrington ibid.).

The soul or spirit, after the death of a Lenape Indian, was thought to hover near the body for 11 days, and then to depart for the next world:

On the twelfth day the spirit leaves the earth and makes its way to the twelfth or highest heaven, the home of the Creator, where it lives indefinitely in a veritable "Happy Hunting Ground," a beautiful country where life goes on much as it does on earth, except that pain, sickness, and sorrow are unknown, and distasteful work and worry have no place; where children shall meet their parents who have gone before, and parents their children; where everything always looks new and bright. There is no sun in the Land of Spirits, but a brighter light which the Creator has provided. All people who die here, be they young or old, will look the same age there, and the blind, the cripples, - anyone who has been maimed or injured, - will be perfect and as good as any there. This is because the flesh only was injured, not the spirit.

This paradise, however, is only for the good, for those who have been kind to their fellows and have done their duty by their people. Little is said of those who have done evil in this world, except that they are excluded from the happy Land of Spirits (Harrington 1921, pp. 52-53).

Frank G. Speck adds that the Lenape frequently addressed the Creator as "Our Father," and that He specifically makes the good deeds of the present life become a "white path" which the soul follows after death to its eternal destination. This "Path of Accounting" comes to a parting of the ways, where the bad are shunted to a side track and an unhappy fate, whereas the good continue to follow the path until it brings them to the abode of the Great Spirit (Speck p. 174).

We ask how the Lenape reached the Delaware River area, after traveling during the centuries and millennia from the original human nest, where Adam and Eve initiated our race. Was it in the African savannah that the future Lenape began their travels; did they take the southern route through Asia, part there from the future Australian Aborigines, salute the Ainu after turning north, cross over to America via Beringia during an ice age, spend some time in the Arctics, then travel south, cross the St. Lawrence when frozen (the latter as their Walum Olum suggests)? And did they, during all this time, remember their Creator and eternal life? And did Christ meet their ancestors after His passion and death, and introduce them to the beatific vision?

There are many other records of belief in God and eternity among Indians of North America, where from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Florida and Mexico to the Arctics, Indians told and re-told their traditions to the succeeding generations. But let us move to the tip of South America, to the distant land of Tierra del Fuego, perhaps the farthest point on earth from the original human nest if that was African, and if a land route was used.

"Our Father" Known to the Indians of Tierra Del Fuego

Father Martin Gusinde, SVD, made four expeditions to the Indians living on the southernmost tip of South America during 1919-1923. He tells about the beliefs of the Ona Indians in Schmidt, Der Ursprung Der Gottes Idee, Vol. 2, 892-897. 1 select and summarize, translating from German.

The older members of the Ona Indians who had practically no relations with the Catholic mission and kept themselves distant from the white people, spoke with profound earnestness and absolute conviction about their Supreme Being. The younger members, however, who had much contact with the whites had lost a certain amount of interest and the Supreme Being appears to have been pushed far into the background of their lives.

The Supreme Being, called Temaukl, has always been alone, and has no wife nor children. He is a Spirit, a Kaspi, like human beings after they die. He neither eats nor drinks; no one can explain how He keeps Himself alive. He never feels tired, does not sleep. He lives above the firmament, beyond the stars. He never comes down to earth, but He sees and knows all that goes on here. No one can hide from Him, because He sees everyone and everything. He hears exactly what everyone says, knows even what one thinks and intends.

It is Temaukl who made the still undifferentiated earth and the empty firmament at the beginning; further arrangements He then delegated to the first human K'enos. Temaukl then withdrew. Others say, however, that Temaukl Himself did some of the detailed work, and then delegated further work to K'enos the first human. Temaukl rules from above with a power which nobody can oppose, and all have reverence for Him.

Temaukl is the originator of all the prescriptions and regulations by which the lives of individuals are arranged, and by which relations with others are prescribed. He made all these commandments known first of all to K'enos, who was commissioned, in turn, to instruct all the people. Temaukl then oversees the loyal fulfillment of all the commandments, down to this day. The older men, for example, warn the younger against consorting with the wife of another man by telling them: "The One Above is always very near. He hears everything that you whisper, like to that woman. He will punish you if you play with the woman and allow yourself to be touched by her. Pain will strike you in the loins. So don't become involved with the wife of another. The One Above is very near and sees you." There is hardly a phrase as frequently heard as this: "Temaukl punishes with sickness and with death."

At the time of death the soul of a person, the Kaspi, is called by Temaukl, and goes up to heaven where Temaukl lives. But the Ona Indians know nothing about conditions in heaven, whether they associate with Temaukl, or with each other. They know only that the souls do not return to this earth, so they have no fear of them. It is only the souls of sorcerers who do not go to heaven; these stay on earth to roam about until they enter another sorcerer.

To live peacefully with Temaukl it is necessary to observe all His commandments exactly. Then Temaukl protects the person, who can be very confident. People offer the first piece of meat to Temaukl as a kind of first fruits sacrifice. "This piece is for you," they say before they eat, casting a piece of meat outside the door. Prayers are short and to the point: "Temaukl, preserve us from grave sickness." "Temaukl, be gracious; do not allow my child to die, who is still so young." They say that prayer is "speaking with the One who lives in Heaven." Temaukl is for them what God is for the Christians, explained Hotex to Fr. Gusinde.

The other tribe in Tierra del Fuego among whom Fr. Gusinde spent considerable time, and into which he was formally initiated, is the Yamana Indians. They call their Supreme Being by the name of Watauinewa. The following data is recounted in Ursprung 2, 924 ff., and tells about the experiences of Fr. Koppers and Gusinde among the Yamana in late 1922 and early 1923.

The name Watauinewa is from the root wata which means old, very old; so we may translate it as "The Ancient of Days," or "The One Who Does Not Change." More frequently they salute Him as Hitapuan, "My Father." Their prayers include complaints: "Watauinewa in Heaven, He has taken away from me (my dear one) Talawaia!" "I am annoyed with my Father, Talawaia!" "I wish I could meet with Watauinewa in Heaven, Talawaia!" (to make Him justify Himself for what He did to me). They also pray frequently for protection and favors: "My Father, please, be good to me today!" (spoken before work, hunting, fishing, journeys). And they have prayers of thanks and contemplation: "Thanks, my Father was kind to us! I am happy with my Father!" "Wonderful! The new summer for us! Thanks, for us the winter is gone!" "Wonderful! My Father allowed us to see the new summer!" For parting greetings before a journey: "So be it, goodbye for ever, if it pleases Watauinewa to take one of us today." Fr. Koppers observes that some of the prayer words are archaic, a proof of their great age. The prayers indicate that the Yamana have a lively inner relationship with the Supreme Being, which expresses itself in these frequent and warm communications. They bring all the experiences of their daily lives, the joyful and the sorrowful, into interior communion with Watauinewa.

Like the Ona, the Yamana know only that the soul, the Kaspi, goes to heaven after death, but they know nothing about conditions up there. This makes them very sad when one of them dies and leaves their company forever. They complain bitterly, passionately, audaciously to "My Father" after funerals, wanting to know how He, who is so good, can do such a thing to them. But after having calmed down, they may turn to Him again and ask for pardon for having overdone their reproaches. Fr. Gusinde sat through such a complaint ceremony for seven hours, during which time the community vented their sorrow before Watauinewa, "My Father!"

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