The Primeval Revelation and Its Relevance Today

Vatican document on Traditional Religions

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a seminal document on Traditional Religions on November 21, 1993, which highlights the widespread recognition of the Supreme Being. Some excerpts from my commentary on the document follow here, taken from the book The Primeval Revelation pages 86-90.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, President of the Council, is a native of Nigeria, and Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, M. Afr., the Council's Secretary, signed the document. Their knowledge of the subject includes first hand experience.

By Traditional Religions the document refers not to those world religions which have spread into many countries and cultures, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslimism, but folk religions which have survived in their original socio-cultural environment. Traditional in this sense means preserved in the localized cultural matrix. These Traditional Religions embody "a clear belief in One God, in a Supreme Being who goes by such names as Great Spirit, Creator, the Great One, the Mighty Spirit, the Divine, the Transcendent, the One who lives above, Heaven, etc." (No. 3). Besides belief in the Supreme Being, there is also a belief in other beings which may be called spirits. Departed adult ancestors are also objects of belief.

Cult or worship is directed generally to the spirits and the ancestors and sometimes to God. "The moral code is regarded as that which has been handed down by past generations and sanctioned by the spirits and the ancestors, and occasionally by God" (No.3). The riches of the content of these religions is found not in books or articulated statements so much as in cultural celebrations, stories and proverbs, and are conveyed through attitudes. Only rarely do they trace their origin to a founder. Some of the major values are as follows...

4. In many traditional societies there is a strong sense of the sacred. Religion permeates life to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish between strictly religious elements and local custom. Authority is not seen as something secular but is regarded as a sacred trust. People of Traditional Religions show great attention to the earth. They respect life and celebrate its important states: birth, entrance into adulthood, marriage, death. There is a strong sense of the family, which includes love of children, respect for the elders, a community link with the ancestors. Symbolism is important for interpreting the invisible world and the human being's relationship with it. There is an obvious love of ritual.

The document points out certain "shadows" of these religions, such as inadequate ideas about God, superstition, fear of the spirits, objectionable moral practices, the rejection of twins in some places, even occasional human sacrifice...

The Vatican document notes that, despite the adjustments which followers of Traditional Religions make due to contacts with Christianity, with other religions, with Western culture, with modern technological developments, with urbanization and migration, the influence of the inherited Traditional Religions remains strong, especially in moments of crisis. The herald of the Gospel, continues the document, should give attention to the Traditional Religions and the cultures which enshrine them. "Christianity should aim at influencing the whole of life and producing integrated persons, rather than have people live parallel lives, at different levels" (No. 8).

Vatican II, in The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation teaches what is now found in the CCC

3. God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word (cf. Jn. 13), provides men with constant evidence of himself in created realities (cf. Rom. 119-20). And furthermore, wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning. After the fall, be buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption (cf. Gen. 315); and he has never ceased to take care of the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing (cf. Rom. 26-7). In his own time God called Abraham, and made him into a great nation (cf. Gen. 122). After the era of the patriarchs, he taught this nation, by Moses and the prophets, to recognize him as the only living and true God, as a provident Father and just judge. He taught them, too, to look for the promised Saviour. And so, throughout the ages, he prepared the way for the Gospel.

During the new millennium we may see an expanded vision on part of more and more peoples that God indeed prepares people of all ages for the reception of the Gospel. We notice in the passage which follows, from Vatican II, a basic recognition of God's work among peoples not within the Catholic fold, a recognition which has developed more fully since the document was composed in 1965

2. Throughout history even to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life. At times there is present even a recognition of a supreme being, or still more of a Father. This awareness and recognition results in a way of life that is imbued with a deep religious sense. The religions which are found in more advanced civilizations endeavor by way of well-defined concepts and exact language to answer these questions. Thus, in Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love. Buddhism in its various forms testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which men can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or by the aid of divine help. So, too, other religions which are found throughout the world attempt in their own ways to calm the hearts of men by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites.

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 16). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 518-19), men find the fulness of their religious life.

The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions).

Viewed from the vantage point of the Primeval Revelation, we may view the indicated world religions as essentially rooted in the ancient revelation with accretions of varying values made by subsequent human founders.

The widespread existence in society of these traits of Traditional Religions suggests derivation from a common origin in the remote past. I believe it can be no other than the Primeval Revelation which God gave to the founders of our human race. We recognize that various foreign and unauthentic accretions have encrusted the originally pure belief. Yet, deep down, many followers of Traditional Religions possess a ready sense of belief in an absolute Supreme Being, who anchors for them absolute truth and absolute moral values which are unchanging. This awareness of the Supreme Being continues to nourish goodness in the human family as a whole. It is open to further development and perfection through acceptance of the Gospel.

4. Worship of the Supreme Being Has A Supernatural Origin

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth (Fides et Ratio, 14 September, 1998).

As I indicated in the book The Primeval Revelation pages 7ff., St. Thomas Aquinas asks why we need revelation at all if we can already know God by reason. He then answers his own question. Few people, he writes, would acquire adequate knowledge about God by mere exercise of the intellect. Some people lack talent to think with acumen; others are too busy with necessities imposed on them by their daily lives and would not "give much time to the leisure of contemplative inquiry as to reach the highest peak at which human investigation can arrive, namely the knowledge of God." Finally, some, being indolent, do not make the needed effort to learn about God properly

In order to know the things that the reason can investigate concerning God, a knowledge of many things must already be possessed. For almost all of philosophy is directed towards the knowledge of God, and that is why metaphysics, which deals with divine things, is the last part of philosophy to be learned. This means that we are able to arrive at the inquiry concerning the aforementioned truth only on the basis of a great deal of labor spent in study. Now, those who wish to undergo such labor for the mere love of knowledge are few, even though God has inserted into the minds of men a natural appetite for knowledge (Summa Contra Gentiles 1,4; trans. Anton C. Pegis).

Thomas goes on to state that it would take a great deal of time to arrive at a proper understanding of God if we use only the powers of reason, because the truth about God is so profound that we can acquire it only after a long training. Secondly, young people are still so much swayed by the feelings and passions that they are not in a condition to acquire enough knowledge about so lofty a truth. "One becomes wise and knowing in repose," he observes, quoting Aristotle. Therefore "if the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of the reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance. For then the knowledge of God, which especially renders men perfect and good, would come to be possessed only by a few, and these few would require a great deal of time in order to reach it" (loc. cit.).

Moreover, continues Thomas, we frequently err in our judgments due to the weakness of our intellect, and for that reason many are deterred by an admixture of errors from even seeing the truth of things that have been duly proven. We even believe that some falsehood is demonstrated and foolproof when it is not. "That is why it was necessary that the unshakeable certitude and pure truth concerning divine things should be presented to men by way of faith" (loc. cit.). Thomas ends the discourse with thanks to God that He has made it easier for us to know Him by providing us with revelation

Beneficially, therefore, did the divine Mercy provide that it should instruct us to hold by faith even those truths that the human reason is able to investigate. In this way, all men would easily be able to have a share in the knowledge of God, and this without uncertainty and error.

Therefore it is written"Henceforward you walk not as also the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind, having their understanding darkened" (Eph. 417-18). And again"All thy children shall be taught of the Lord" (Isa 5413).

The Greek Philosopher Plato wrote"Finding the creator and father of this universe is toilsome and, after he has been found, it is not possible for everyone to speak of him" (Timaeus, 28,c; see Albert Vanhoye, S.J. "The discourse at the Areopagus and the universality of truth" in Oss. Rom. 24 Feb. 1999).

All the more, continues Thomas, divine revelation is absolutely necessary to learn about truths which surpass the powers of reason [such as belief in heaven by hunter-gatherers]. Vatican I, in 1870, articulated as a doctrine of the faith the teaching that divine revelation is absolutely necessary for humans in order to gain access to supernatural truths; heaven and divine adoption are truths that lie beyond the natural sphere, and can be known only through revelation

It is, however, not for this reason that revelation is to be called absolutely necessary; but because God in His infinite goodness has ordained man to a supernatural end, viz., to share in the good things of God which utterly exceed the intelligence of the human mind; for "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 29) (DS, 3005; Dupuis, 114).

The widespread knowledge about the Supreme Being among ordinary hunter-gatherers, and their intimate trust in Him as "Our Father," points unmistakably, I believe, to divine revelation at one time or other, in one manner or other, as the source of that belief. We cannot account for the firm belief of so many hunter-gatherers, I believe, without concluding that they are in touch with divine revelation. Similarly, the pervasive belief in the Supreme Being throughout the world today is best explained, I believe, as founded upon revelation.

We ask, then, whether peoples around the globe received separate revelations about the Supreme Being; or might they all have kept, to a certain extent, belief in the original revelation which was made to our first ancestors, the people we call our Adam and Eve?

5. Connection with the Primeval Revelation

As indicated in the author's book The Primeval Revelation, Chapter One, the fact that the original revelation is associated with supernatural grace and contains truths which the human mind cannot learn unless God teaches them must be kept in mind.

The couple whom the Bible designates as Adam and Eve were most likely hunter-gatherers, living the pattern of life common to humans before animal husbandry and agriculture began some 10,000 years ago. If there is a nexus of continuity between the primeval revelation by which God made Himself known to our first ancestors, and the inspired writing of Genesis, the connection must be one of faith rather than of letters. We cannot know whether some of the hunter-gatherers preserved the original revealed message uninterruptedly in some form or other, or whether God renewed it for them again and again. Neither can we know whether Genesis has an uninterrupted nexus with the original Primeval Revelation, or whether it is a renewal of the same, inspired for the Bible, clothed now in a Hebrew cultural garb.

There are compelling reasons why peoples of all times and places would be inclined to build their cultures around the Primeval Revelation first given to our first parents. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is also eminently suitable to guard the trust because the people depend entirely upon the gifts of God in nature for food and living. Moreover, their lifestyle is conducive to monogamy and close knit family life and to tribal celebrations in which the Revelation can be passed on from generation to generation.

The Primeval Revelation that God gave to our first ancestors filled a great need in the lives of man ever since. For man passionately seeks to know what purpose his life has, how he began, and what will happen to him after death. And he desires enduringly to act in accordance with his deepest yearnings and insights. Schmidt observes plausibly that knowledge about the Supreme Being, once grasped by humans, has an in-built tendency to perpetuate itself; for man continuously searches for those very items of truth which revelation teaches with certainty, with lucidity, and with convincing finality

This exalted figure of the Supreme Being with all the attributes which man seeks, furnished primitive man with the rationale and strength to live meaningfully and to love sincerely, to trust and to work, to engage in the quest of becoming master of the world and not its slave, and to aspire to strive toward still higher goals beyond this earth.

Only through this image of God does the dynamic progress of humanity at its origin become intelligible; even today the replete energies of humans to work, to be responsible, to strive for better things, and to aspire toward human togetherness, have their roots in the ancient culture. It is therefore a significant and well structured and functionally efficient religion which we meet here among a whole series of tribes of the ancient cultures [the hunter-gatherers] (Schmidt, Handbuch Der Vergleichende Religions-geschichte, 282-283; trans. by author).

This describes well the powerful and enduring dynamism which belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, lends to humans. This belief is the source of spiritual, psychic, and cultural power that enduringly supplies humans with the energy to find life worth living, to pursue a meaningful life individually and to develop and maintain orderly social structures through all times and ages.

David Rooney finds it plausible that the monotheism we discover among so many scattered and diverse peoples may be an echo of the revelation of God Himself to the first human creatures; and for an echo to survive the countless opportunities for tergiversation during the long span of millennia, there must have been a tremendous and memorable event to begin it all. He quotes Wilhelm Schmidt's characterization of that primeval revelation

Something tremendous must have presented itself to them, an experience which gripped and shook their whole being to its inmost depths, and which in its overwhelming power immediately caused that unity and solidarity in their religion.

This something cannot have been a merely subjective process within man himself; for it would have produced neither the power and the coherent solidarity of that religion as a whole, nor the clarity and stability of its beliefs and forms of worship. Neither can it have been a purely impersonal, uncommon experience; else it would be even more inexplicable how from these purely impersonal entities such effects of power, stability, and clarity could have been exerted upon the personalities of these people.

No; it must have been a tremendous, mighty personality which presented itself to them capable of captivating their intellect with luminous truths, of binding their will by high and noble moral commands, and of winning their hearts through ravishing beauty and goodness (W. Schmidt, Primitive Religion, tr. Joseph Baierl, Herder, 1939, pp.182-183; quoted in Rooney, p. 217).

Although our Homo Sapiens race launched itself in the one single geographic locality - whether in Africa or Asia - in which God granted them the primeval revelation, subsequent generations fanned out eventually into all the continents, even to the edges of the habitable world. It is a fact to be marveled at that in the five continents in which hunter-gatherers eventually settled (we have no record of them in Europe) they give testimony to a belief in the Supreme Being.

It is regrettable that theological manuals and biblical studies generally ignore the data about the belief of hunter-gatherers in the Supreme being and in the after life. All peoples on earth today, and all scholars, are descendants of hunter-gatherers, the key culture of all humanity until about 10,000 years ago. Our descent from hunter-gatherer believers who observed the primeval revelation supplies a plausible explanation why monotheism, worship of the Supreme Being, monogamous marriage, Ten Commandments to order social life - all these and more are a common heritage of most ordinary people of all the world, no matter to which religion they may formally adhere. For all have descended from original hunter-gatherer societies in which monotheism prevailed everywhere around the globe.

6. Christ, Savior of all descendants of Adam and Eve

Pope Saint Leo the Great proclaimed that the saving power of Christ extended not only to the sons of Abraham, but also beyond his time to the even more ancient peoples who lived before the Deluge all the way up to the very beginning of human generations (Christmas Sermon X7).

Christ's role as recapitulation of the human race through His Incarnation and Redemption forms the core of Irenanian theology, as noted in my book Evolution and the Sin in Eden pp. 150 ff. 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. Indeed it is the Son of God who creatively designed the universe, who tailored it to be a fitting environment for His future habitation. The thought is in accord with Hebrews, where the Father addresses this profoundly significant witness to Christ as Founder of the cosmos"Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands"(Heb 110). St. Irenaeus follows through with the insight that Christ is not only Creator of the universe, but is also its raison d'etre, the reason for its creation in the first place. All lines of the cosmos therefore focus on Christ. Christ is not an afterthought conceived in God's mind as a response to the sin of Adam; on the contrary, Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the cosmos in the first place; Adam is fitted into the cosmic plans as the strategic gateway through which Christ will enter it

He recapitulates in Himself all the nations dispersed since Adam, and all the languages and generations of men, including Adam himself. That is why St. Paul calls Adam the "type of the One who was to come" (cf. Rom 514), because the Word, the maker of all things, did a preliminary sketch in Adam of what, in God's plan, was to come to the human race through the Son of God. God arranged it so that the first man was animal in nature and saved by the spiritual Man. Since the Savior existed already, the one to be saved had to be brought into existence, so that the Saviour should not be in vain (Adv. Haer. III,22,3; trans. by John Saward, 64).

Note this singular and exceedingly meaningful final sentence. It makes Adam into a "front man" to pave the way for the main event, the arrival of Christ. Irenaeus presents Christ as the towering and dominant figure who is central to divine planning. Christ, Pantokrator, is the focal point in God's design of the cosmos to be created, the central figure for whom God measures the layout of the universe. The saint of Lyons looks to Christ as the keystone of the cosmos, whereas Adam enters it secondarily in the train of logic following Christ, "so that the Saviour should not be in vain." Adam is created to provide Christ with a worthy cause to activate His great love. In Latin this extraordinary sentence reads: Cum enim praeexisteret salvans, opportebat et quod salvaretur fieri, uti non vacuum sit salvans. Adam is ushered in to become the beneficiary of Christ's work of love.

The root and trunk of the Primeval Revelation is kept alive and ever fresh in the hearts of many, I believe, by Christ and His Spirit. Surely, many people cherish a profound sense of the Supreme Being deep down in their hearts, even though externally they profess to be Buddhists, Shintoists, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, Animists - any name religion. We Christians, too, are nurtured by our belief in the message of Genesis as well as in the message of the Gospel, the latter being built upon the former. As Christ stated"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Mt 517).

7. Incorporating the Primeval Revelation into Evangelization today

The Vatican, some years ago, changed the name of the "Pontifical Council for Non-Christian Religions" to its present title "Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue." The Vatican does not make such changes without a reason. The newer title reflects awareness, we assume, that Christ is entirely in charge of the human race. Therefore no real religion which is a bridge between God and man exists in the entire world which is non-Christian in nature. Christ is not "one of the ways to God" but is THE way, the one and only bridge between people and God. He is the WAY to the Father. All who are saved, are saved through Christ, whether they are explicitly aware of it here on earth, or whether they are not yet aware of it. The change of names made by the Vatican brings us one step closer to those of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are not yet aware of their Christian benefits.

We must become more and more accustomed to cherish the fact that Christ makes all true believers in the Supreme Being to be brothers and sisters in faith, in hope, and in charity. Indeed, we are blood brothers and sisters because Christ perpetuates the shedding of His blood for us at the daily Sacrifice of the Mass.

Though separated from other believers in body, Christ lives in the souls of all true believers. More and more during the new millennium we should exercise a heart in charity that is global, that is co-extensive with the work of Christ in all true religious believers. Many believers, by reason of culture and history, are ignorant of Christ and oft-times hostile for political reasons, but Christ is patient, is kind, is charitable and continues to work in individuals with His Spirit for their eternal salvation. Our evangelization can take into account the realistic nature of distance from Christ expressed externally in various religions and cultures, without forgetting that Christ works in them internally. For the time being, then, we evangelize among them with the Gospel of the Primeval Revelation with its belief in the Supreme Being, its code of global ethics, and its prayer of the Our Father.

The prayer of the Our Father is the kind of prayer that the people of Tierra del Fuego can pray with us, which the Lenape have been praying in their own manner for countless generations, which all believers in the Primeval Revelation can pray together with Christians. Until now during the Assisi - Rome events the religious adherents retire to separate quarters to engage in multi-religious prayers. Might it be feasible in future to also schedule a common prayer meeting, for example to sing the Pater Noster together in Latin chant, and to chant lessons from Genesis likewise in Latin, in those magnificent tones we once heard at Holy Saturday Vigils.

For He is the Lord, the Mighty God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen.

Blessed are you, Lord,
in the firmament of heaven.
Praiseworthy and glorious
and exalted above all forever.


1, 2,