The Historical Christ in World Religions

The Supreme Being worshiped in Africa

"Every African people has a belief in a supreme being which is central to its religion" writes Robert C. Mitchell, African Primal Religions, 23. He is the All-powerful, The Creator, The Giver of Rain and Sunshine, The Owner of All Things, The God of the Universe. Let us enter the rain forest of the Ituri River drainage system, to experience some of the religion of the Bambuti forest dwellers. Huge trees rise a hundred feet above us, their straight trunks more than twelve feet in circumference; lianas and tendrils drip toward the undergrowth. It is unexpectedly silent here, not like the noisy jungle with buzzing insects and screeching birds; for hours on end there is no sound. The immensity of the woodland muffles noise. The mold of dead leaves covering the ground absorbs footfalls; the general gloom where sunlight fails to penetrate the high roof of foliage has a somber, sepulchral quality (see Timothy Severin in Vanishing Primitive Man, page 69).

This was the home for the Bambuti, about 40,000 of them, when Fr. Paul Schebesta, SVD visited them in 1929, endeared himself to them, and received from them the name "Baba wa Bambutill (The Papa of the Pygmies). These are most at home in the forest, know its ways, live in symbiosis with it; if they leave the forest to live with others, they may soon die of sunstroke or various diseases.

Kalisia is the God of the Bambuti, wrote Fr. Shebesta in his report, Ursprung IV, 257. All things come to the Bambuti from Kalisia. He is gracious to them and kind. To Him they offer the firstfruits of game and of honey. During the night the hunter asks Kalisia for game on the morrow. Kalisia accompanies them on the hunt, drives the game toward them. During the hunt there is an audible slap on the arm: that was Kalisia, who put the hunter on the alert. It is the moment of opportunity! Kalisia helps, guides the arrow to strike unerringly, he bags the game.

Kalisia allows them to find honey, fruits, all that they need. Kalisia directs and controls their entire lives; He leads them in their incessant marches and wanderings, going before them to open the way; He is their reliable leader and pathfinder. During a thunderstorm they call to Him for protection. He knows all things, and so guides them to game and food. The Bambuti do not directly call Him Creator, but imply as much by acknowledging that He is the supreme owner of the animals and plants. The firstfruits of honey found in a tree are scattered on the ground and will not be touched; they are for Kalisia. Firstfruits of game are placed in a fork of a tree near camp.

Father Schebesta moved on to the Efe pygmies in the western part of the rain forest. He learned their code of ethical norms, their version of the "ten commandments" and about their concept of the soul. What do the elders say about borupi, the soul after death, he asked.

Life is the heartbeat, he was told. At death this life, borupi, is taken by the akirao fly from the mouth and flown up to Tore. What things are like up there they do not know. They know only that it is good up there, whereas down here on earth it is bad.

We leave these ancient peoples of the Ituri rain forest, who look to their God hopefully and wait for heaven, believing the tradition which they heard from their forefathers and which they pass down to each succeeding generation. We move next to Australia to sample religion among the Aborigines there.

The Creator Known to Australian Aborigines

About 1000-1500 Kurnai were hunting and gathering in Southeast Australia in what is now called Gippsland when white settlers arrived in 1842. The tribe was isolated by mountains and the sea. A.W. Howitt began his studies of these people in 1865 and continued them for forty years. In an article titled "On Some Australian Beliefs" in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. VIII, 1884, pp.185-199 Mr. A. W. Howitt, Esq., F.G.S. describes the beliefs and practices he found among the Kurnai and other hunter-gatherers. He writes on page 192 that Tharamulun, pronounced in several ways in the different languages, "was the Supreme Being believed in from the sea-coast across to the northern boundary claimed by the Wolgal .... " He continues: The knowledge of Tharamulun, and his attributes and powers was only communicated to the youths at their initiation, and was regarded as something eminently secret and not on any account to be divulged to women or children. It is said that the women among the Njarego and Wolgal knew only that a great being lived beyond the sky, and that he was spoken of by them as Papang (father). This seemed to me, when I first heard it, to bear so suspicious a resemblance to a belief derived from the white men that I thought it necessary to make careful and repeated inquiries. My Ngarego and Wolgal informants, two of them old men, strenuously maintained that it was so before the white men came. (pp. 192-193).

The Supreme Being is presented as the ruler of the entire social organization of the tribe. He is also the custodian, the judge, and the avenger of the moral system of the tribe; this is evident from the fact that the moral prescriptions are closely connected with the central mystery of the initiation rites, the unveiling of the knowledge about the Supreme Being. Religion, then is the pillar, the framework, the glue, and the strength of the social system. It has been estimated that about 300,000 aboriginal hunter-gatherers populated Australia before the white man arrived, that they were divided into some five hundred tribal units of 100 - 1500 each (see Robert Brain, the Last Primitive Peoples, pp. 43-44). Although about 300 languages were spoken, and contact with more distant tribes was minimal, one can speak of a characteristic culture of Aboriginal Australia, whose main strength is derived from adherence to the traditional religion.

Pastor Batchelor Records Ainu Legends

It is commonly believed that the Ainu were once a vast race, widespread in Asia and perhaps in Europe as well (cf. Brain 106). Fortunately for us, Dr. John Batchelor, who first came into contact with the Ainu as a young layman in 1877, joined the Church Missionary Society of London in 1879, and worked closely with the Ainu in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four major islands of Japan, for over 45 years thereafter. He recorded the following Ainu version of the creation of humans in his book THE AINU AND THEIR FOLKLORE, London, 1901: After the world had been created and put in order, God made many of the herbs and trees to grow out of the ground. When this had been done, He proceeded to make man. In forming him He took a piece of wood to use as the spine and framework, and filled in the spaces with earth. Hence it happens that when a person becomes very old his back bends like an ancient tree; yea, it sometimes bends so much that he becomes as stooping as a deer (p.5). The Ainu therefore love to use endearing nicknames such as "Crooked Back" and "Mangy Old Deer".

Another Ainu version of the creation of man has the charm of endearing folklore, not as elevated and elegant as Genesis, but bubbling with the effervescence of the serene Ainu familiarity with their Creator: When God was in the act of making the first man, and had nearly finished His task, it happened to be necessary for Him to unexpectedly return to heaven on important business. Before setting out for the return journey, He called an otter, which happened to be near at the time, and told him that He was going away, but would quickly send another deity to finish the work He Himself had already begun, and he (the otter) was to deliver the message to him, explaining what to do. Now, although this animal said he would deliver the message without fail., he grew careless, and did nothing but amuse himself by swimming up and down the rivers, catching and eating fish; he fixed his whole attention on this, and thought of nothing else. So intent was he on his fishing that he entirely forgot the message God gave him to deliver; he, the otter forgot all about it. This is the reason why the first man was made so imperfect and why all human beings are not quite in the fashion God originally intended (op. cit. pp. 5-6).

Ainu Concept of the Soul after Death

After death all the spirits first travel to the underworld on the road called anna-macer. Below, they come to a fork of the road, one leading up to heaven, the other to Gehenna. There are watch dogs all along the road, who take care that none will enter the better world secretly:

As soon as the spirit from the "upper world" - that is, our earth - passes down to the centre of Hades, a watch-dog informs it that he has received a message from the Creator, sent through the goddess of fire, as to where it is to go. If it has done good during life it passes along the road to heaven, at the doors of which gods and men meet it and lead it inside. If the spirit belonged to a person who did evil during life, it is informed that, a message having been received concerning its evil deeds, it has now to proceed to Gehenna for punishment.

Should the spirit deny having done any wrong, the goddess of fire is summoned, and she causes a great picture, representing the whole life of the spirit, to be placed before it. Thus the spirit stands self-condemned, and there is no escape, for the fire goddess has a perfect picture of every word and act the spirit ever said or did while in its body upon earth (op. cit.568-570).

The Ainu are thus motivated to be good in this life in order to gain the eternal rewards of heaven; and to avoid evil in order to escape the eternal cold, dark, and wet winter of Gehenna; or, as others say, the eternal fire of Gehenna. The Ainu then have many, many delightful tales and stories which teach goodness and badness, and the way of life of a proper and resourceful Ainu.

Penumbrations of the Supreme Being in modern day Japan

Doctors here say that at the times of birth and death they feel a quiet awe descending on them. They seem to stand in the presence of great and mysterious events, being swept into the world beyond. At funerals, people dress in black, fold rosaries in hand, pray for the eternal rest of the departed. Reverence for the event of the departure is manifested by all, by silence, by tears, by offering of incense.

When parents bring their infant to the Shinto priests for the first blessing, the ceremony is highly ritualized, breathing mystery and a sense of reverence, of communion with the world beyond. The child is presented to the Powers that Be, and returned to the parents as now consecrated.

Even aborted children are given a ritualized commemoration by millions in Japan. In a Mizuko Kuyo ritual (ceremony for the unborn) the Buddhist priest prays that the child be given safe passage into the world where its ancestors dwell, to live there at peace. The ritual with its associated statues and plaques and cards is available to parents of aborted offspring in all parts of Japan, enabling them to grieve and to wish comfort and peace and love to their departed child now living in eternity. Mother Teresa struck a sympathetic cord in the hearts of millions when she spoke to them about their aborted children. She, while in Japan, sensed a feeling of unease among mothers when she spoke about abortion. She has this to say to them to help them grieve and repent:

My dear Japanese Mothers... It is true, some of you have done the wrong thing in killing the unborn child in your womb through abortion; turn to God and say: 'My God, I am very sorry for killing my unborn child; please forgive me. I will never do it again.' And God, being our loving Father, will forgive you. Never do it again. And believe me, God has forgiven you... The child is with God. Your child loves you, has forgiven you and is praying for you. The child is with God so it cannot do any harm and can only love you. I am praying for you all and I hope to come again to Japan-and we will meet together. I love you all because God loves you. God bless you. Mother Teresa. (Asahi Daily, March 19,1984.)

Mother Teresa did not ask whether her listeners, her readers and her TV audience believed in God and eternal life. She intuited that they do, and communicated with them on a level field beyond mundane affairs. She spoke these prophetic words to hearts throbbing in grateful response.

Pastors sometimes have a problem when a Buddhist marries a Catholic: into which heaven will the bride (or groom) enter, and to which will the children be assigned: to the Buddhist heaven, or the Christian heaven? A marriage implies departure for one of the two from his or her family into that of the other. Relations with the family one leaves are broken off almost totally. For some the problem goes into the next life as well: will they remain separated from each other in eternal life as well? Will the person who leaves her or his family through marriage, also remain isolated from them in eternal life? The problem is sometimes so real that it must be dealt with. Pastors give assurance that in the next life the Buddhist heaven and the Christian heaven are one and the same under the kindly eyes of God.

At funerals people may weep loudly, asking the departed to remember them, to wait for them. I was moved when Nanzan girls cried out at the funeral of Fr. Oberle SVD, their beloved teacher: "Do not forget me!" "Wait for me there!" These are not Catholics or Protestants, but Buddhists or Shintoists, or both.

Hunter-gatherers are our ancestors

Since all humans were hunter-gatherers - including our own ancestors - until about 10,000 years ago, our own beliefs, our family life, our human culture, were given shape in situations akin to those sampled above. It is not only we Catholics who have inherited the ancient faith; all the children of Adam and Eve - all humans - had believing ancestors, at least somewhere up in the family tree that is traced back to Adam and Eve - our ancestral line which may go back 200,000 years. At the very beginning God had revealed Himself to our ancestors, enabling them to know Him personally as Father, Lord and Creator, and giver of the ten commandments.

We know that only God is absolute, is true, just, and holy; if He did not exist, truth, Justice, righteousness would not exist either. If humans demand justice, honesty, love, punishment of wrong-doers, faithfulness in marriage, is this not an enduring cultural response which we inherited already from Adam and Eve, a pattern in which we have lived down through the millennia?

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, we say. "One indeed is the universal Church, outside which no one is saved" (Lateran Council IV, 1215; DS 430). The Church of Adam and Eve has now been subsumed into the Catholic Church under Peter. The ancient and inherited faith, once made alive by the historical Christ in our ancestors, is surely still made alive by Christ in many today who visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, who celebrate the Sabbath in the Synagogue, who visit the mosques, and the Hindu temples, who misdirect prayers and petitions to sun, moon, and stars.

Corporate so-called religious bodies - legal, social, political, and economic structures - may be in an attitude of competition or even enmity against the Catholic Church, but if their people are alive with the faith handed down from Adam and Eve, and animated by Christ today as in past ages, then these people are all our brothers and sisters in Christ, not at all strangers to us. Christ now calls them to celebrate His wedding feast - His historic wedding with humanity. Non-Catholic religious structures, insofar as they have been carriers of the original revelation and faith given to Adam and Eve, and insofar as they have been platforms on which people could celebrate their faith meaningfully, have served their purpose. Like John the Baptist, they should now point to the historic Christ saying: "There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I was talking about when I said, 'A man is coming after me, but he is greater than I am, because he existed before I was born" (in 1:29-30).

Christ has given us the mandate to "Go out to the country roads and lanes and make people come in, so that my house will be full" (Lk 14: 23). Missionaries are messengers sent by Christ to call all people to the great family re-union; to bring the family together under one roof again, which was once happily united under the roof of Adam and Eve.

The same historical Christ who had for so many millennia nourished believing Africans in their savannas and rain forests, who had hunted and gathered with Australian Aborigines, with the Ainu, with Indians, Eskimos, and other gatherers around the globe, who had accompanied our ancestors when they invented farming and herding 10,000 years ago, who remained with believers to pray in a variety of situations - in temples, shrines, synagogues, along river shores, under trees and on mountain tops - this same Christ is now saying to us:

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age (Mt 28:18-20).

Christ Himself showed us the way to announce the Good News, objections of existing religious structures notwithstanding. He moved in with the people of the Synagogue and began to preach His message: "Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near!" (Mt 4:17). He was aware that the Synagogue was very much in place, that it was structured and solid, that it had been teaching His own older message: "Until the time of John all the prophets and the Law of Moses spoke about the Kingdom" (Mt 11:13). Nevertheless He summoned the Israelites into His new Kingdom, organized now under Peter and the College of Apostles. He knew the trauma it caused the early Church to be thrown out of the Synagogue. He knew also the trauma that comes to others who leave their accustomed mosque, shrine, temple, or riverside to worship now where Peter presides. But He knew also how much all human sinners - all humans, that is - need His Church, His Sacraments, His, His Liturgy, His Community, to achieve salvation. Missionaries must not be deterred from their vocation by maudlin pity. They must remember that "whoever turns a sinner back from his wrong way will save that sinner's soul from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins" (James 5:20). Conversion from whatever other religion to Catholicism is worth it all, Christ promised. It is here you will find eternal life in abundance:

For you gave him authority over all mankind, so that he might give eternal life to all those you gave him. And eternal life means to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, whom you sent (Jn 17:2-3).

For Us, Christ-Logos Is the Historical Christ

Christ-Logos has put on the historical Jesus, and "All the people of Israel, then, are to know for sure that this Jesus, whom you crucified, is the one that God has made Lord and Messiah!" (Acts 2:36). People who presume to ignore the crucified Jesus while trying to appeal to the Eternal Logos should know that "If a person is ashamed of me and of my teaching, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the angels" (Lk 9:26). On the contrary, "If anyone declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same for him before my Father in heaven. But if anyone rejects me public I will reject him before my Father in heaven" (Mt 10:32-33).

Because Christ explicitly requires that we recognize Him, the historical Christ, publicly, that we become His disciples and receive Baptism, we have only ourselves to blame if we reject the historical Christ in favor of the Logos-Christ, and so find ourselves rejected by Christ before His Father.


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