When people hear the suggestion that God wills the existence of a variety of religions, they usually read into such a statement all kinds of particular ideas related to it which are not necessitated by it. In reality, without any further context, there are number of ways those words can be interpreted, among which are:
1) God wills a variety of religions, each equal to each other.
2) God wills a variety of religions, which though not equal to each other, all point to and lead to the same universal end.
3) God wills a variety of religions, of which some might point to the truth, but others do not.
4) God wills a variety of religions, all of which are false.
5) God wills a variety of religions, bringing salvation in and through those religions.
6) God wills a variety of religions, bringing salvation to at least one of them.
7) God wills a variety of religions, saving no one in any of them.
8) God wills a variety of religions, each of which offers its own possible, unique end.
9) God wills a variety of religions, each of which bring people to the same possible end.
10) God wills a variety of religions, but some, if not all, of them have been corrupted by their adherents.
11) God wills a variety of religions as a way to test humanity, to see who will discern and follow the true faith(s) and who will not.
Pluralism teaches that there exists a plurality of religions, but different pluralistic thinkers have different ways of reading the relationship between the various religions to each other and to the ultimate, transcendent truth. Some think that because the ultimate truth is infinitely transcendent to the conventional truth, all religions can be seen as representations of that ultimate truth, equally true and false at the same time: true insofar as they point to that ultimate truth, false if taken in an extremely literal and exclusive fashion. This form of relativism is often what people assume is being taught when engaging religions pluralism, but even then, some caution needs to be had: just because the ultimate truth might generate a variety of conventional representations of itself, this does not mean all claims of being such a conventional representation of the truth are true. The fact that there is an ultimate transcendent truth means there can be and will be falsehood, and if people are creating religions to control and manipulate others, it is likely they are not being made to conform to the ultimate truth and so can be said to be false, and not equal to other religions.
From a Catholic, or Christian perspective, the ultimate truth is revealed by revealing itself to us in the incarnation, that is, when God became human. From what is revealed in the God-man, Jesus Christ, a system of beliefs and religious rites have been established, representing the best and truest religion. This does not mean God did not will other religions, but if he did, they would need to be seen as somehow related to and dependent upon the ultimate truth revealed in Jesus Christ. In this way, while God could be said to will many religions, in the end, they should point to and have their adherents unite with the work and accomplishment of Jesus Christ.
Christians could say that God wills a variety of religions in time with the intent that they come together and unite under the final revelation established by Jesus Christ. In this way, God willing a variety of religions can be seen as a part of the evolutionary and pedagogical way God worked with humanity. Scripture itself indicates that God gave angels (“sons of God”) to every nation, messengers seeking to guide and direct those under their authority with Israel being given a special status as being directly under God and not just an angel:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage (Deut. 32:8-9 RSV).
This could be seen as one of the many ways by which the variety of religions have come into existence. God gave angels to particular nations, each angel with their own missions, the revelations which they were to give forth, which were then taken up and adapted by the nations to which they were sent. These revelations can be seen as being pedagogical in nature, preparing the nations (even as God himself was preparing the people of Israel) for the final revelation of the incarnation when God would become man and reveal the fullness of the truth through himself. This notion of God preparing the nations for the incarnation is a fundamental idea found in many early Christian writers, with Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel representing the culmination of this tradition. Such writers, however, also understood that there was interference going on in the development of this preparation, that corruption and demonic powers caused confusion, sometimes making the messages distorted in their transmission. Nonetheless, such Christian authors recognized that enough of the truth was being presented by these other traditions that they could be and were used by God to guide humanity towards the truth in Christ. Likewise, holy pagans could be found in them. Those who followed, to the best of their ability, the revelation handed to them, such as Melchizedek, Jethro, Job, or Socrates, were recognized as following the truth and therefore worshipers of the true God even if they did so imperfectly. Their religious sensibilities could be seen as helping form and shape them, so that the pedagogical work of God through these religions traditions was verified to have some positive fruit.
Thus, we can see in the history of humanity, a history of religious development; the creation of many religions followed the various kinds of revelation given to the people who followed them, inspiration which came from God, though often indirectly (as through an angelic messenger). The rays of truth, the seeds of truth, which God spread throughout the world were the positive foundations for these religions, and they helped direct humanity forward so that all could come prepared, in their own way, to the revelation given by Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, there is a problem: not everyone at the time of Christ, or afterward, had any direct contact with the Christian faith. Likewise, such older religions which existed continue to exist, with their followers not going over to the Christian faith (just like not all disciples of John the Baptist became Christian). For those outside of the missionary activity of Christ, it is easy to accept God was still at work, establishing and willing a variety of religious intuitions and institutions, preparing the way for eventual contact with the Christian faith. But for those near to, or within the confines of Christian missions, even then, many did not have direct contact with the Christian faith, or at least a proper representation of its teaching which would lead them to believe in Christ. God can still be seen to direct and guide them according to the truth they already understood and acknowledged. Indeed, being closer to Christ, they likely were closer to the truth, and can have a place preparing those further from it to come to the realization needed to later accept the Christian faith (this is how some Christians, like Paul of Antioch, understood Islam: it was established to help polytheists come to monotheism even as it gave some initial, if imperfect, knowledge of Christ). In this way, even post-Christian religions can be seen to have some inspiration and mission in the world, so long as the Christian understands they are for those net yet prepared for the fullness of the Christian faith itself.
One question which is often asked to Christians who hold some form of acceptance of God’s role in the establishment of a variety of religions in the world is that if God willed them, what does this mean about salvation? Christian teaching establishes that salvation comes from the grace of God, that it relates in some fashion to the historical accomplishment of Christ in his death and resurrection, and that is spread through the sending out of the Holy Spirit into the world. Two general ways Christians view salvation is through exclusivism, which says only those who come to a belief in Christ and follow his ways in their lifetime, will be saved, and inclusivism, which views that Christ’s work can and will interact with those who do not have a direct, conscious belief of the Christian faith, saving those through his own means (with the belief that Christ’s discussion of the last judgment in Matthew 25 indicates this possibility). There are a wide variety of speculations which emerge in Christian history as to how inclusivism would work, indeed, too many to recount here: the point is that inclusivism does not dismiss the sole saving work of Christ but rather, sees that it is far more extensive than exclusivists would like to suggest. Likewise, the relationship between Christ and the variety of religions which exist, then, would be the means by which this saving grace can be seen coming to people of other religious faiths: some forms of inclusivism would suggest that these religions themselves become vessels of salvation because of that relationship, while others would suggest that people in them will be saved despite their religious adherence. How to work through these questions in an orthodox manner is not within the extent of this overview: what is important is to realize that Christians working in the discipline of theologies of religion ask these questions and set up many possible ways in which they can see Christ’s saving work being inclusive to those who do not end up being Christian in their lifetime, giving hope that Christ’s desire to save the world (and not just a small portion of it) is possible.
Thus, when the Pope said that God wills many religions to exist, the Pope’s words must be read within the context of his Christian faith. He is not saying all religions should be seen as equal. He is not saying that people are going to be saved apart from Christ. All he is saying is that God, in his providence, has set up the world and its history so that a variety of religions can be seen as having been developed in order to direct and guide humanity. What the relationship between those religions is, he did not say, but within the Christian perspective it should be obvious: Christ is the center, and the Christian faith is the ultimate and final revelation of God to humanity. Nonetheless, as truth does not contradict truth, and the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, the truths found in the religions around the world have a place in and with the church, and so with Christ. How this works out is not something for everyone to ponder. But for those who do, there is a wealth of ideas in the Christian tradition which give us the resources we need in order to take on this task.
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