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Anonymous and Dialogical Religion - Michael Fuss

The Role and Mission of the Churches in the European House, Part II

The second and last part of the author’s look at future challenges to the Churches of Europe.


Not only a new awareness of deep ecology which leads to the elaboration of an “ecological religion”1 based on the mythology of Gaia, the goddess Earth, reminds us of paganism. The elitist convictions of new para-Christian revelations to restore the original church of Jesus is a similar indicator.

Modern man who lives in the anomymity of a consumer society or in the immunity against any official ideology, develops the tendency to retire into small islands with a private view of life, where he may choose a “saving formula” for the solution of his problems, a “holy master” who alone is in possession of truth, and a “holy family” of sect-members as light in the midst of chaos2.

Here one should speak of ‘autonomous religions’, because the inherent structure of religious experience remains ultimately in autonomous self-realization (in meditation or psycho-hygiene) or in the absolutization of established values (persons, doctrines, communities), without transcending oneself to a gratifying and demanding mystery and thus being truly liberated towards a ‘dialogic religion’ in all dimensions of life (relation to God, to his neighbour, to himself). The dialectic problem of ecclesial religiousness emerges not primarily on the level of heretical doctrines or organizational patterns, but rather within the structure of religious experience itself.

The succes of sects and new religious movements reflects   like the “shade”   the inherent ‘autonomous’ structure of the individual, while ecclesial religiousness embraces the integral formation of a personal faith.
The gulf between autonomous and dialogic religiosity

The New Testament shows in many situations this gulf between pre-personal, ‘autonomous’ and personal, ‘dialogic’ religiousness. People follow Jesus to touch him physically and receive his healing mana (vital force; cf. Luke 6.19), yet they would follow any other master who disposes of similar magic forces. This is not a personal relation with Jesus and shows no understanding of his miracles as signs of the kingdom. Contrary to the amorphous crowd3, the New Testament portrays the “disciples”4 as those who by vocation and oral proclamation are constituted a “community of the Word” and thus “Church”.

One will agree with Pope John Paul II when he discloses the basic error of socialism as a wrong conception of the human person. This analysis of his recent encyclical Centesimus Annus does not only regard the economical and social realities, but can be extended in view of a deficent form of religiousness, too.

Even in this intimate realm the dignity and unlimited ‘dialogic’ openness of the person against any ‘autonomous’ abridgement of his desire for salvation has to be stated:

“It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it. The denial of God derprives the person of his foundation, and consequently leads to a reorganization of the social order without reference to the person’s dignity and responsibility”. (CA 13)

“Do not remain within yourself”

Would it be wrong to perceive behind the “cry” of the pre-personal religiousness of new religious movements the existential desire for this distinctive feature of Christianity – namely the salvific ‘dialogue’ of the Logos in our personal lives?

There is a fundamental gap between Christian salvation and spiritual healing, or, between the joke of personal self-perfection by believing in a future reincarnation and a liberating acknowledgement of the “dialogic character of immortality”5 in the resurrection of Christ. It is evident that such a fundamental term as “reincarnation”, more than representing a singular doctrine, stands for a whole cluster of symbols which are incompatible with the Christian “resurrection”.

In the Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church concerning several aspects of Christian meditation (15.10.89) quotes St. Augustine:

“If you intend to find God, withdraw from the external world and come to yourself. Yet do not remain within yourself, but overcome yourself, because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you.” (No. 19; tr. from the German version)

The danger to fold back on the finitude of their own selves, is a characteristic of all sectarian movements, be they of Oriental or Christian roots. The magic element which seeks to control religious forces and bring them into man’s reach, is a dialectic “shade” of every world religion and because of its immediate effects, very appealing at a first stage of religious commitment. It constitutes the common ground of vital religiousness which, however by itself is neutral and needs to be balanced by the liberative potential of religion.

According to 1 Cor 1.20-25, the realm of magic, however, is not confined to the searching for “signs” but includes as well the longing for human “wisdom” (“gno­sis”), and both expressions of this religiousness are opposed to the folly of the cross. The point where magic (sectarian and new) religiousness has to be integrated into ecclesial religiousness, is the interior balance of “shade” and mature faith.

In this sense, every believer experiences a ‘dual membership’ within the polarity of his own commitment:

“The level of paganism is the soil, the place, where the preaching of the gospel reaches the pagans, and leads them from ‘religion’ to ‘faith’. Further, it seems, that even a person who lives in a genuine Christian milieu has to undergo the experience of such a transition, at least for a certain period of his life. Concerning the evangelized person, one may speak very often of a constant to and fro between ‘religion’ and ‘faith’, between pagan and Christian, between human and divinized existence.”6

At this point of our analysis where the missionary activity of the Church is being challenged, we return again to St. Paul’s vision in Acts 16.9 and have to ask once more about the polarity of proclamation and natural religious disposition.

A theological response

The saying “Whoever does not believe in God, does not believe in nothing, but in anything”, again brings to attention the situation of an interior vacuum and helplessness, and thus seductiveness, of people who awaken from a fictitious world of hedonistic consumerism or futile ideology.

From her pastoral concern, the Church should in this context announce the “positive value of an authentic theology of integral human liberation”7 and thus the ‘dialogic’ character of religion. This is what I intend by a “European theology of liberation with the preferential option for dialogue”.

A meaningful evangelization of Europe which starts from the rediscovered fundamental religious disposition of man, cannot be limited with regard to extra-ecclesial religiousness. In other words, a negative apologetic repudiation of heretical doctrines, has to positively present the Christian faith in an attractive general view.

The question is a new inculturation of the Christian faith as an appealing core of a popular culture on the modern Areopagus of the renewed European house.8

The message is a spirituality of liberation which alone is able to set man free from the narrowness of his own self and relate him to the living God in all dimensions of his life.

The dynamic of the Incarnation


“I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6) summarizes the basic elements of such a liberation. The dialectic between the way of hope against a loss of future, of a solid truth against eclectic informality, of the fullness of life against egoistic self-fulfillment, are overcome by the liberating dynamic of Christ’s incarnation into the context of a desparate human longing. The importance of the incarnation is once more discovered in its polarity with the pre-religious attendance (the existential “cry”) of modern man.

The potential of Christian liberation enables man to a dialogue with all dimensions of his life: with God, with the world, with his neighbor, with himself. Therefore the decisive “option for dialogue” which indicates the inner structure of the religious experience, and which is valid not only for the individual but for a culture, too:

“At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted”.9

This quotation allows to define religion as a dynamic inculturation of an encounter with transcendence into the history of a community. Reversing the conclusion, one may from an analysis of culture   and here I refer to the sub-cultures of new religious movements   evaluate their openness towards transcendence. Whenever a pre-personal, ‘autonomous’ religiousness is transferred into a personal, ‘dialogic’ openness towards a gratifiying and demanding mystery, one can speak of a truly religious experience.

Culture lives from dialogue


Every culture is ecumenical, i.e. a living unity in diversity. It unfolds itself in a process of growth, it has to be shaped rather than to be consumed, and it draws its life from the communication of various social forces.

This dynamic integration is the basis of a democratic culture. However, culture is more than just a synthesis of individual forces; not unlike the human person, its physiognomy is animated by spiritual values.

Many of the contemporary new religious movements display a fragmentary idea of human culture. The denial of dialogue indicates a totalitarian mentality. Their “saving formula” demands the total refusal of society or attempts, by massive interference into politics and economy, to realize their model of society. Intolerance combined with benefiting from values to which they are opposed, not only indicates a stepping back into a pre-modern mentality, but because of its dishonesty as well undermines a sincere communication.

A further challenge appears for the Church, since dialogue in religious matters includes argument, too, and deserves constancy as complementary virtue. Religious (and human) dialogue is neither a mere exchange of information nor a coexistence of two monologues, but a listening encounter in the spirit who leads into the fulness of truth.

Dialogue and encounter


This leads to a gradual difference between interreligious dialogue with world religions and the ecumenical dialogue with Christian brethren and sisters on one hand, and an encounter with new religious movements on the other.

By its inherent structure, an ‘autonomous’ religion will not be disposed towards dialogue, because it does not raise the question of truth, while a religious dialogue can flourish only in the realm of an interpersonal openness towards a transcendent mystery.

This criterion is expressed in the words of the recent encyclical on mission:

“This gives rise to the spirit which must enliven dialogue in the context of mission. Those engaged in this dialogue must be consistent with their own religious traditions and convictions, and be open to understanding those of the other party without pretence or closed-mindedness, but with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement on the road of religious inquiry and experience, and at the same time for the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings. Dialogue leads to inner purification and conversion which, if pursued with docility to the Holy Spirit, will be spiritually fruitful”.10

In the light of these affirmations the Church has to further develeop a methodology of dialogue, as it once had developed a methodology of apologetics.

A capacity for synthesis


What would be typical European elements for such a proposed theology of liberation?

First of all, the European capacity for synthesis has to be taken into consideration. The formation of European culture can be traced in history by the confluence of mainly three factors: the world of classical Greek culture and the Roman empire, the Germanic culture and religion, and Christianity.

Changing emphasis of various aspects of this equilibrium has marked European history for centuries, and is once more challenged today by the influence of a rediscovered gnosis (theosophy), elementary religiousness (Germanic, Celtic, etc.), Eastern religions, and even the fearful fundamentalist clinging to security in times of change. The attractive market of many modern “saving formulas” has to be understood on the background of this changing paradigm11.

The European capacity for synthesis may also be illustrated by the observation that Europe has never brought forth any of the great religions; it has willingly offered its own cosmic religiousness as fertile soil for the inculturation of mainly Asian ideas. In a similar way one speaks of the depth of the Russian soul.

Acknowledgment of the spiritual vacuum of modern Europe   usually with a deploring undertone regarding the loss of traditional values, yet positively indicating a spiritual receptivity   brings along the challenge of a new creativity.

The reception of oriental ideas indicates that East and West today do not only meet geographically, but even religiously within the dynamic polarity of the human heart. The dazzling New Age movement points to the desire of modern man to draw from the hidden, ‘oriental’ side of his soul, while enthusiastic pentecostalism testifies to a holistic regeneration in the healing fountain of vital and elementary religiousness.

Only if the Church succeeds in penetrating these deeper, emotional levels of the soul, will Christianity again shape a new culture.

A European option for dialogue


The liberating dynamism of a theology which starts from the “cry” of the people, sketched above, demands in the European context a preferential option12 for dialogue as a theological principle within the whole Church. It implies a deeper realization of the eminently personal and dialogic character of salvation by a God who saves by being served (Math 25).

Jesus was able to quench the thirst of the Samaritan woman in a compassionate dialogue and to reveal to her his most precious gift of the water of life13. Inspired by this biblical model, I shall briefly outline a few elements14 as a basis for further elaboration.

From the peculiar European capacity for synthesis follows the importance of developing a theology of religions and inter-religious dialogue, not just among a few specialists but on the practical level in our Christian communities.

Such a dialogue will not be complete unless it touches the interior dialogue within the polarity of oriental and occidental realms of one’s own heart; this personal dialogue15 is indeed a necessary presupposition for any theological understanding of the history of religions.

Far from an eclectic syncretism the Christian approach must be a sincere dialogue in truth16. The challenge of many syncretistic movements demands a greater commitment to this special form of dialogue which has to take into consideration the insights of phenomenology of religion as well.

A new ecumenical challenge


The many attemps to “unify” the Christian denominations by extra-ecclesial movements as well as their search for the centrality of “Christ” outside the Church put a serious challenge to ecumenical efforts. In view of an emerging planetary religious consciousness, the ecumenical movement of the Christian world appears in some way anachronistic: “The places of a future ecumenism will be neither Rome, nor Geneva, Nairobi nor Vancouver, but Esalen, Findhorn, Auroville —”17.

In question is not the confessional character of Christianity; the invitation to “transcend” traditional convictions in an evolutionary mysticism reveals rather a radical challenge to the basic foundations of Christianity. Here is another field for dialogue in view of a common testimony of the Christian ecumenicity towards the world.

In the future, fundamental theology cannot overlook the emergence of cosmic religiousness as a common basis for any theological discourse; for “traditional” Christians the foundation of faith has to be oriented towards their everyday experience, too. The few Christian elements in our society are more remnants of a civic religion18 than sound cornerstones for the construction of future theology.

If this observation might look too pessimistic, the apparent break-down in the catechetical transmission of faith to the younger generation will definitely sweep aside any illusions. Far from the former spirit of apologetic defence, reflection on a fundamental theology is a creative process to be accomplished in dialogic interaction with the context19.

The Trinitarian dimension


The core of Christian theology as well as the foundation of its dialogic character is the Trinitarian dimension. The inexhaustible fountain of divine love is the source and end of any divine initiative and human strife for liberation.

Modern man rejects an external God with the image of a supervising judge, but longs for the ultimate mystery which discloses himself in motherly compassion. Trinitarian theology has to unfold in new language the patristic terms in order to render account on our hope (1 Pet 3.15).

Emphasis on a Trinitarian ontology20, founded on the vital dynamism of love, coincides with mankind’s changed image of itself. The communal dimension (between genders, people, cultures, ecosystems) of contemporary anthropology opens a new access to the inner-Trinitarian complementarity of the divine persons, while the discovery of a “cosmic dance” in the physical world provides an analogy for the Trinitarian pulsation of love. As the self-giving of the three divine persons provides a model for God’s relation to creation, humanity can experience itself as personally addressed by God’s loving dialogue which tenderly embraces its whole existence. The Trinitarian mystery of the Christian God contains the key for a meaningful theological discourse in a changing culture.

The Church: a mystical body of Christ


New ecological awareness challenges catholicity in regard to a three-fold relationship: humanity   God, humanity   nature, person   person. Like three mirrors, these dimensions mutually reflect humanity’s position in the face of the transcendence of its world.

When K. Rahner points to the priority of creating a new “mystagogy”, i.e. the need for a new initiation of man into the ultimate mystery of himself and God, he leads right into the cave of our heart where humanity encounters the transcendence of all creation. There he experiences the world both as sharing God’s nature and tending towards divine fulfilment, and yet as distinct and ever newly born of his free self-disclosure.

This mystery cannot be reduced to a human faculty for transcendence; the ever unspent divine dynamism discloses ever more its own depth which lies at the basis of all being and hence irradiates itself. To speak of “creation” is to refer the interrelatedness of two distinct partners embraced by a dynamic pulsation of love. Any mystical intuition of God’s own light has to stand the test of everyday interaction with this created world in a responsible stewardship (Gen 1) of the entire eco-system. Christian commitment to ecological issues draws its inspiration from the divine economy of salvation and extends beyond a mere preservation of the environment to an ecology of human and ethical values.

The spirit of dialogue has to be visible in living Christian communities. Against the menace of solitude and alienation the Church has to become a true family in brotherly and sisterly love and, during her humble pilgrimage as God’s own people, give witness to the world of her vocation as the mystical body of the saving Christ.

Religious and human hunger

“Think globally, act locally”   the slogan of New Age   is more than ever a challenge to create networks of animating communities knit together by the life-giving spirit of God. The anomymous European society deserves more than ever a renewal of human relations and social values, oriented to the tenderness of divine love for every single creature.

In the discussion with extra-ecclesial critique of religion – the divine treasure which the Church carries in earthen vessels – shines with new splendour in the face of the tremendous challenge of the present historical moment where the map21 of traditional religions is overlapped by a transformed consciousness which again cries for liberation. One is as well challenged by the missionary impulse of Jesus’ compassion with the crowds: “They were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9.36).

As the menace of systematic atheism had to surrender in front of the humble provocation of Christian witness, today even the humble service of Christian mercy in quenching the religious and human hunger of mankind might find its ‘dialogic’ fulfilment in the dialectic of “seeing” and “acting” (Mt 25).

In this sacramental depth, the Christian faith will manifest its very own force for the integral liberation of man in East and West.


This article was first given as a lecture at the conference on The Religious Encounter in the European House, September 1992, at Aarhus University, Denmark.




1 H. Mynarek, Ökologische Religion, München, 1986, 215: “Ecological religion means the end as well as the completion of all religions”.


2 This terminology is borrowed from F.-W. Haack, Jugendreligionen, München, 1979.


3 Lk 6.17 “óchlos”; the observation that this crowd is composed both of disciples and ordinary people, underlines the fact that the realm of pre-personal religiousness exists equally within and outside the Church.


4 Lk 6.13; Lk 6.19-27 reveals a twofold polarity: “Crowd”   “disciples”; “they sought to touch him”   “you that hear”.


5 J. Ratzinger, Eschatologie   Tod und ewiges Leben, Regensburg, 1978, 127ff; G. Nachtwei, Dialogische Unsterblichkeit, Leipzig, 1986.

6 H. Maurier, Theologie des Heidentums, Köln, 1967, 86 (Essai d’une Théologie du Paganisme, Paris, 1965).


7 Centesimus Annus 26.


8 “Inculturation means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”   “At that time the Areopagus represented the cultural centre of the learned people of Athens, and today it can be taken as a symbol of the new sectors in which the Gospel must be proclaimed.” (Redemptoris Missio, 52, 37).


9 Centesimus Annus 24.


10 Redemptoris Missio 56.


11 Cf. G.K. Nelson, Cults, New Religions and Religious Creativity, London: Routledge, 1987, 11: “For religious creativity to blossom on a large scale, it is therefore necessary for society to become secular and pluralistic. Such conditions tend to exist only in periods of rapid change which may be either the result of internal conflict or of conflict with alien cultures.”


12 In continuation of the “option for the poor”, adopted by the Latin-American Church; a Church becoming poor with the poor, enters into a “dialogue of life” with her cultural context.


13 Jn 4, 1-42. This episode contains all the elements of my theological assessments.


14 For other elements, especially for pastoral implictions, see the survey of the Holy See Sects or NRMs: Pastoral Challenge (1986). A first theological draft has been presented by E. Biser, Die glaubensgeschichtliche Wende, Graz-Wien-Köln: Styria, 1986. For a methodology of dialogue, see U. Schoen, Dialog, in: K. Müller   Th. Sundermeier (ed.), Lexikon missionstheologischer Grundbegriffe, Berlin: Reimer, 1987, 65ff.


15 The Letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation, published on 14.12.1989, is a first step in this direction.


16 Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Liberty, 3.


17 H.G. Stobbe, Hoffnungslos mental?, in: Una Sancta 41 (1986) 280 (adapted).


18 It suffices to point to the (commercialized) superimposition of Santa Claus on Chrismas and of a joyful spring holiday on Easter.


19 Very useful is H.W. Turner’s scheme, A Further Frontier for Missions: A General Introduction to New Religious Movements in Primal Societies, in: Missionalia 11 (1983) 108, regarding the interaction of evangelization and cosmic religiousness. Isn’t the emergence of so many “independent Churches” in Africa expression of a “realized” new fundamental theology in response to the failure of traditional theology to give due attention to the context?


20 K. Hemmerle, Thesen zu einer trinitarischen Ontologie, Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1976


21 Cf. Redemptor Hominis 11.