Edited by Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin
Two forces which gathered strength in the last half of the twentieth century now dominate the world religions at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The first is the globalization of religions and their resulting encounter with each other, and the second is the need to redefine attitudes toward gender as women have stepped forward to insist that their full humanity be acknowledged in the religious as well as the social realm.
In a process begun in the nineteenth century and accelerated in the twentieth, the great religions of the world became truly global in the geographic distribution of their adherents and so began to impact and influence each other's adherents in new ways. From Asia, Buddhism and Hinduism began seriously to influence the West for the first time in the twentieth century, in part spurred by the first meeting of the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1893. And while the proselytizing traditions of Christianity and Islam had already become prominent as they spread globally from their inception, after the 1940s the Holocaust and the eventual establishment of a Jewish state brought new worldwide attention and increased global acceptance of Judaism. Many of these great religions had come in contact before this time and even grown up side by side, but a truly global presence of each and the accompanying growth of understanding leading to a deeper appreciation of alternate traditions is a twentieth-century phenomenon.
Among the official decrees of Vatican II, the watershed Roman Catholic Council of 196365, was Nostra Aetate, the Dogmatic Constitution on "The Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions." In Nostre Aetate the world's largest organized religious tradition, which has one billion adherents today and represents fully half of world Christendom, declared that "all peoples comprise a single community" and that
From ancient times down to the present, there has existed among diverse peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human life such a perception and such a recognition instill the lives of these peoples with a profound religious sense. Religions bound up with cultural advancement have struggled to reply to these same questions with more refined concepts and in more highly developed language.
Thus in Hinduism men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an unspent fruitfulness of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek release from the anguish of our condition through ascetical practices or deep meditation or a loving, trusting flight toward God.
Buddhism in its multiple forms acknowledges the radical insufficiency of this shifting world. It teaches a path by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, can either reach a state of absolute freedom or obtain supreme enlightenment by their own efforts or by higher assistance.
Likewise, other religions to be found everywhere [the footnote in the text indicates that this is meant to apply in part to African traditions] strive variously to answer the restless searchings of the human heart by proposing "ways," which consist of teachings, rules of life, and sacred ceremonies.
The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions.1
Nostre Aetate goes on to address Islam "Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem" and Judaism and "the spiritual bond linking the people of the New Covenant with Abraham's stock," in later sections.
Moving into the latter third of the century, the World Council of Churches extended the inclusive and/or pluralistic tendencies of Christendom. Islam became a rapidly growing presence in the United States and other developed nations. Shinto/Buddhist Japan became an economic superpower and just as happened with...