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Many religions understand themselves as fundamentally aligned to a given
culture or people. Hinduism is intrinsically connected to the Indian culture
and caste system. Daoism and Confucianism are highly integrated into the
Chinese spirit and the cultural mentality of the Orient. Shinto’s cosmology,
myths, and rites concern themselves solely with the Japanese. Even in the
West, Judaism locates itself with the people of Israel. Jews welcome converts,
but Judaism has never seen itself as a proselytizing religion. Islam
is convinced that Muhammad’s message is both universal and constitutes
the highest revelation. Thus, it is a proselytizing religion. But Muslims historically
and today believe that non-Muslims can be saved in the context
of their own religious traditions, particularly if these are monotheistic.
Christianity perhaps stands alone as a religion that has historically believed
that membership in the church is necessary for salvation. Add to this that
Roman Catholicism had believed that Catholic membership was necessary.
As the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared, “There is only one universal
church of the faithful, outside which none can be saved.” More recently,
most Christians, including Catholics, think that God’s saving grace is available
outside its ecclesial boarders, but this is a modern idea.
What then to think of the religious other? In the seventeenth century,
a Catholic had few conceptual choices. One was to consider religious others
and their sacred texts as valuable preparation for the gospel, and thus
admire what could be admired in them. They had something of what St.
Justin Martyr called the Logos spermatikos, seeds of the Word. This included
the principle of inculturation whereby European culture was not to be
conflated with Christianity. This principle became policy, at least in theory, ...