Dr. Gerard HALL, Head of School of Theology

McAuley Campus


This paper is the text of a talk given at St James Spirituality Centre, Sydney, October 1998




This is an intriguing question, and a good one, because it begins not with the usual question of what religions teach but with the existential question of who we are as human beings. The starting point is anthropological rather than theological. In point of fact, I believe this to be the best way of doing theology, that is, beginning with reflection on human experience and then, in light of those reflections, turning our attention to matters of divine revelation--in this case, interpreted across the major religious traditions, both East and West.

I need to begin by acknowledging some basic presuppositions. I speak not as some ‘universal’ human being, but as a westerner. Moreover, while I speak with some knowledge of the various religious traditions, I am a Catholic Christian--in fact a Catholic priest. I cannot even claim the privileged position of someone like Raimon Panikkar who has ‘crossed’ religious boundaries. (Panikkar says he is a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist and, for good measure, throws Secular Humanism in as well!). Given these limitations, how do I, as a Roman Catholic Australian Christian understand the human spiritual impulse?


Human beings are, first and foremost, a question: not the question that our lives may pose to others ("Who in the hell do you think you are . . . ?"); but the question we are to ourselves ("Who am I? What is my life all about?"). We did not choose to be born, yet here we are in the flux of life; more poignantly, perhaps, we know at some point our human lives on earth will come to an end. The philosopher Martin Heidegger believed that the reality of death hovers over the human person as a constant source of wonderment and anguish, influencing every significant human decision we make throughout our lives. Heidegger also speaks about our "throwness"--we are "thrown" into human existence and find ourselves alive with this people, at this time in human history.

In other words, to be human is to live with this sense of mystery about who we are in terms of our origins, our present existence and our future destiny. Humans are what John Shea calls "middle people":

In the matter of human existence the grave and sensible advice of the King of Hearts--"Begin at the beginning"--cannot be heeded. We have no choice but to begin where we are; and where we are is in the middle. It is not given us to stand on the far side of human space, at a moment before the rush of human time and then, with all deliberation and grace, to enter. . . . Our first awareness is that we are swimming. We wake in the water. Our beginnings are not wholly our own. Our endings will most likely be beyond our control. We are middle people. (Stories of God, Thomas More Press, Chicago, 1978, p. 11)

Exploring this ‘givenness’ of human existence, Shea comments on the environments or relationships that ‘make us who we are’.

1. Ourselves. We are both conscious and self-conscious beings. We reflect on ourselves and our behaviours, our attitudes and values. We talk to ourselves seemingly from beyond or apart from ourselves!

2. Others: Family & Friends. Our lives flow into one another’s. We truly share in their lives, and they in ours. We experience intimacy with them and isolation from them. We love them but sometimes hurt them. They help us become more than we are, but may also act to stop us becoming our truest selves!

3. Social & Cultural Institutions. We are all members of something bigger than our immediate circle of family & friends. We belong to a race, a nation, a sub-culture, a Church and a world. This relatedness is powerful if less immediate than our more intimate relationships. However, even here, we should not see ourselves in a purely passive role; we also influence our cultural worlds and their institutions. Society can be repressive; it can also be a wonderful creative power for human action.

4. Non-human universe. We are material beings who live in a particular topography. We are very much influenced by the wider geography and physical environment where we live. The weather affects us. People from tropical areas tend to be different to those from the snow country. We are earth-beings. Humans evidently affect their physical surroundings: this is especially evident (sometimes with alarming results) in this age of science and technology.

5. Mystery. This is not a separate environment, but a dimension present within every environment. It is the depth dimension that can be encountered in every interaction between the self and its environments. Traditionally, this dimension has been called the Transcendent, the Ultimate, The Sacred, the More, the Whole, Being. Knowledge of this dimension is not knowledge of an ‘object’ that is ‘out there’. One can only know this reality through "participative knowing". It is both transcendent and immanent. It is revealed through symbols or--in religious language--through sacraments and rituals. Every human experience is capable of this revelation of the sacred reality.

Human experience, then, is the "reciprocal flow" between the self and these environments. We are the products of our own psyches, of the enabling love and sometimes restrictive expectations of others, of the creative and repressive influences of culture and its institutions, as well as of the geographical landscapes that enscribe our lives. In turn, we know that we also influence each of these environments in diverse ways, great or small. To be human is to exercise freedom--even if, today, we are more aware than our forebears that our freedom is often curtailed, limited, restricted. Freedom and unfreedom are themselves dimensions of the wider and deeper mystery of human existence, a mystery that defines who we are in respect to each of the environments in which we live. Raimon Panikkar calls freedom the divine dimension of Being.

The human spiritual impulse grows out of this responsiveness of the human being to the mystery of existence, not just human existence, but life itself. This impulse is celebrated not only in religion but also in science, as recent astro-physical speculations of Stephen Hawkings and Paul Davies demonstrate.


Here, I will attempt a phenomenological study of four distinct, although interrelated, ways in which humans respond to the mystery of life and existence. They are each ways in which we say ‘yes’ to mystery, to life, to existence--or, according to many a religious tradition, a ‘yes’ to God. By calling these ‘natural’ human impulses, I am underlining their reality as basic human experiences common to all human beings. I do not use the term ‘natural’ in contradistinction to ‘supernatural’; I would prefer to say that the whole world is ‘graced’ by Mystery and Divine Presence so that to speak of ‘natural’ without reference to God does not (for me) make sense. On the other hand, I am not assuming any particular religious belief.

Evidently, the four human traits of which I am about to speak are universal to all peoples, cultures and religions--theistic, non-theistic and atheistic alike. I am beginning with the human in an attempt to describe primordial attributes or attitudes that describe our human-being-in-the-world. In my choice of categories, I am reliant on the helpful phenomenological study of John Haught What is Religion? (Paulist Press, 1990) even though I take full responsibility for the manner in which I develop them.

1. Trust: The Impulse to Order

For all our experience of negativity and evil, our awareness of the apparently limitless depths of human depravity, our understanding of the demonic powers at work in society and the human psyche, human beings exhibit a tendency to trust. Some may wish to call this an irrational belief. However, the point is that it is not an ideology (something we arrive at as a result of rational thought-processes); it is an existential human attitude, a ‘myth’ if you will, that seems to be an indispensable foundation for human life, growth and wellbeing. Certainly there are times when this human trust dimension of life is severely tested, when mistrust, suspicion and cynicism seem to take hold. This may overwhelm the person to the point of mental illness, even suicide. However, for the most part, human beings carry on their business and live their lives with a sense of the fundamental trustworthiness of reality.

Sociologist Peter Berger speaks of the everyday human activities of playing, laughing and giving order to our lives as "signals of transcendence." He suggests that these human activities, at base, testify to people’s core conviction that reality is trustworthy. Human story-telling is a manifestation of the search for an ultimate ground of trust. Often, in the limit-experiences of our lives, we can be faced with psychic disintegration, spiritual fragmentation and even the threat of cosmic distrust. We are faced with the question: dare we trust again?

When we reach our limits, when our ordered worlds collapse, when we cannot enact our moral ideals, when we are disenchanted, we often enter into the awareness of Mystery. We are inescapably related this Mystery which is immanent and transcendent, which issues invitations we must respond to, which is ambiguous about its intentions, and which is real and important beyond all else. Our dwelling within Mystery is both menacing and promising, a relationship of exceeding darkness and undeserved light. In this situation with this awareness we do a distinctively human thing. We gather together and tell stories of God to calm our terror and hold our hope on high. (John Shea, Stories of God, p. 39)

Telling stories is our human way of re-awakening ourselves to the fundamental orderedness of life. This is especially the case when we re-tell the stories of our beginnings. The great religious phenomenologist, Mircea Eliade, says that the most important aspects of religions are the stories of their origins. In the face of the disorder that threatens human societies, telling and re-telling stories of their beginnings somehow legitimates current experience as also meaningful, worthwhile. Chaos and devastation will not have the final word because the world itself is a created order. This is evidently the case with religious traditions, but is not confined to them.

The Puritan beginnings of North American white society reassure Americans that their culture has purpose in the wider scale of things. The scientific story of the universe may be for others the kind of story that enables them to reconnect with some final order or purpose which becomes for them some kind of foundation for trust. The story of our white Australian origins, a story of convicts and bushrangers, may not be so lofty or idealistic; but it does provide a kind of map upon which we read current black-white tensions and the current search for an Australian identity. Story-telling is also for us a way of seeking a foundation for trusting in the future direction of our country. Stories and ritual celebrations help us redirect our lives with trust in the unknown future.

2. Enchantment: The Impulse to Truth

It may be more fitting to term this the impulse toward mystery. However, as noted, each human spiritual impulse is in its own way a response to the mystery dimension of our lives. In speaking of an impulse toward truth, I am including the notion of truth-as-mystery. The experience, which is universal, identifies truth not with the human intellect alone, but with our search for ultimate truth, meaning and value. Panikkar understands this truth in context of eastern philosophy as "the manifestation or epiphany of Being. . . . Truth is not something that we possess but something that possesses us or besets us, something in which we find our being" ("The Existential Phenomenology of Truth," Philosophy Today 2:1-4 [Spring 1958], 13-21). We might identify this impulse with the search for existential truth or authenticity.

Of course, we find ourselves beset with a world of diverse and often contradictory claims to truth. It always reminds me of a poster I once saw with hundreds of squiggly lines and a caption that said: "There are so many kinds of voices in the world." Indeed, there are! The genuine truth-seeker, however, will not be impressed with the approach that says that only one voice is true and all the others wrong. The genuine truth-seeker is more concerned to find truth in each and every voice, and to hear the harmony of the many voices brought together in song. To change metaphors, there is a place for all the colours of the rainbow. If there is only one truth, that final truth eludes us. Eastern philosophy prefers to say there is only one reality and many degrees or expressions of truth.

The truth-seeker is typified less in the academic than the monk--which is not to say that the genuine academic cannot be a monk at heart. Anyone can pray; contemplation is open to all; meditation is today practised by millions both within and outside the traditional religions. The human impulse at work here is the desire for union with the divine power, cosmic energy, spiritual force or ultimate reality that calls us into being. This attitude is not solely an eastern one, even though the Indian sanyasi (one thinks of Dom Bede Griffiths) is its prime exponent. The philosopher Heidegger also wrote at great length on the inter-connectedness of beings (created reality) and Being; he also challenged western thinking to be more ‘contemplative’, more aware of the mystery dimension within all things. Is there evidence, perhaps, that some western scientists are moving in this direction (perhaps ahead of the philosophers and theologians?!).

Another way of expressing this spiritual impulse is the description of John Haught: enchantment with the unknown. This is evident not only in the mystical search for union with the divine, but also in drug-induced experiences leading to ecstatic states of transformed consciousness. Some interesting studies have been done on the comparison of these experiences. The point I’m making here is simply that the attraction of the unknown, whether identified in religious or non-religious terms, is an invariant of human traditions. And it must also be stated that the very success of religious traditions--all of which in one way or another promote union with God and knowledge of the saving truth--, testifies to the universal human impulse to mystical, ecstatic or transformed life.

This mystical aspiration is a natural human tendency to seek coherence or unity or oneness within the great variety, diversity and multiplicity of experiences. In terms of the religious traditions: God is one; all is Brahman; love is all. We want to be united with that which is the source of all life, being, truth. Life is more than a series of disconnected moments and broken fragments. Quite evidently, this is also the aspiration expressed in romantic love--the desire to become one with the beloved even, at times, at the risk of losing one’s identity. Does not Catherine say in Wuthering Heights, "I am Heathcliff!" Or, from the Song of Songs, "I and my beloved are one."

3. Adventure: The Impulse to Beauty

We experience ourselves as incomplete, unfulfilled. Karl Rahner’s description of the human person as "self-transcending being" captures this aspiration. We not only search for the truth that is beyond us, but for the truth-of-ourselves. We experience an at least vague desire for perfection. "Our hearts are restless," said Augustine; and restlessness leads to journeying or adventure in search of a different experience that may answer our felt lack of fulfilment. Along with the search for novelty is the prerequisite of leaving the familiar world. We need to renounce who we are in order to arrive at where we are not yet: this is a classic expression common to all the religious traditions. The human spirit needs order and familiarity; however, it also needs a little chaos, the moments of surprise, the experience of the different and the ‘other’. I might add here that the so-called post-modern sensibility is especially a sensibility that is open to the experience of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness.’

Another way of expressing this spiritual impulse is with reference to the common human experience of disillusionment, tragedy, suffering in life. The desire for adventure is also the desire to overcome the evil in the world. All religious and secular ideologies are concerned with the problem of evil and suffering even if, at this stage in human history, few seem capable of doing much to transform the current situation. However, what many today are beginning to realise is that what is needed is a total metanoia, a complete change of mind, heart and spirit.

The experience of the need for deep, personal conversion is of course at the heart of every religion. This is where secular ideologies--marxism or liberalism for example--fail to capture the imaginations of human societies for very long. Changing the system, or perfecting it, is never enough. T.S.Eliot expressed it more eloquently: "dreaming of systems so perfect that no-one will need to be good!" What is needed, rather, is a commitment to interior transformation which experiences the reality of evil, names it as such, and then moves to an experience of redemption, liberation or transformation.

This is the place of silence and fasting; it is symbolized in the hermit or ascetic of the major religious traditions. The approach to mystery here is less one of mysticism and contemplation than silence and emptiness. It may involve both a personal and cultural experience of what John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." If the sense of the divine mystery, by whatever name, is being lost from much of contemporary experience, there is a sense in which we too (religious or otherwise) need to experience that alienation and sense of loss. We are, after all, beings in solidarity with every living creature; we are in solidarity with the whole of creation. This then may not be the time for talk-of-God; it may be, rather, a time to experience the abyss or silence of God. In Christian parlance, we need to experience the reality of the Cross in order to experience the beauty of Resurrection.

In Australia, this impulse is experienced as a reticence to speak of God, a kind of metaphysical silence before the great questions of life. There is something about Australians that prefers to speak in silences rather than words. We feel safer with the ultimate things being left unsaid. At its best, the beauty of the sacred is held in silence--in much the same way as one appreciates the beauty of a morning sunrise or a rose that has just bloomed. This way of silence can be understood positively as an expression of the distaste for any too narrow vision. We need to ‘let go’ our too familiar and over-comfortable ideas of what reality is and who God is--to let things ‘speak’ for themselves or, indeed, "to let God be God!" (Meister Eckhart).

4. Morality: The Impulse to Goodness

Humans also demonstrate an aspiration toward moral goodness. This is what we call conscience, that innate sense of right and wrong experienced as desire to do the right thing or guilt when one has done wrong. Of course, humans are not only attracted to goodness; they are also attracted to evil. Different traditions place different emphases on this fundamental orientation toward goodness or evil; they also differ in the way in which they interpret moral goodness. Religious traditions have often been criticised for their narrowness of vision in regard to ethics and morality. Western culture generally can be criticised for an over-emphasis on privatized morality and individual conscience at the expense of social and political ethics. Nonetheless, there is little dissention from the fundamental idea of a human moral aspiration toward goodness at least in terms of an ethical ideal. And as is often said, "there is honour even among thieves."

Moral perfection may elude us, but to he human is to live with the experience of dislocation between what we are and what we feel called to be. Moreover, we know that our call to be other is a call to be-for-others: we feel at least some responsibility for shaping the world in which we live, to make it a better place in which people can live in justice, love and peace. The impulse toward goodness is, then, an aspiration to love others, even those who may not love us in return. Self-sacrificing love is epitomized in all the great religious leaders and reformers without neglecting the secular saints who were prepared to live their lives, and even to die, for the sake of some greater good for society and humanity at large. In our judgment, these people may have been misguided in their particular visions for a better world; but we do not doubt their witness to the human urge to overturn inequality, promote justice, defend liberty.

Expressed more concretely, this is the way of action and hope. Jesus becomes the "Man for Others"; Buddha becomes the source of compassion for all living creatures; Allah is the one who inspires merciful praxis; Marx is committed to the liberation of the proletariat; even liberal capitalism wants to promote the wellbeing of the individual. We hear now of option for the poor, solidarity with others, co-responsibility in the human enterprise. All these are metaphors which express the moral aspiration toward social and political ethics. At base, they represent the urge of the human spirit to transform the world. The prophet--in religious or secular guise--is the pre-eminent spokesperson for this way of ethical justice.

* * * * *

The impulse toward goodness inspires ethical action and is focussed on world-transformation. The impulse to beauty inspires sacrifice, silence, renunciation with the aim of self-transformation (self-emptying) in the adventure of the human spirit. The impulse to existential truth is born out of the experience of enchantment with the unknown with which it seeks mystical union (self-transformation / self-fulfilment). The impulse to order inspires trust in a symbolic or sacramental approach to the mystery-dimension of life (cosmic-transformation) While authentic religious traditions will reflect all these dimensions of the human spirit, they will also emphasise one approach more than the others in a manner that we can now investigate.


1. Primal / Folk Religions: The Way of Ritual & Sacrament

Primal religions, also called animistic, cosmic or earth-based religions, are grounded in the trusting attitude of the first-described spiritual impulse. They exhibit a profound symbolic sense in their awareness of nature and the cosmos: every created reality is sacred. Indeed, there is little if any sense of the separation of the sacred and the profane. Every living reality--and the earth itself is seen to be alive--is animated by a higher, divine or spiritual power. This kind of religious consciousness originated with nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. Around 8,000 BCE, with the advance of agriculture, new importance was given to the fecundity of nature and the life-cycle of birth, death and re-birth. It was at this time that the mother-goddess figures as prominent in some human societies. There is evidence to suggest that, at least in some tribes, the figure of a remote father-god or sky-god appears. However, for the most part, people give more attention to their personal gods, goddesses and spirits.

The need to trust is evident with reference to the overwhelming sense of nature’s power that dominates their lives. Primal religions respond with a great variety of rituals, sacrifices, rites of passage, sacred dances, fertility rites, story-telling. These are symbolic activities insofar as they enable the people to experience the cosmos as an ordered place in which their lives have purpose and meaning. Sometimes, it has been suggested that fear of nature, sex and death was the primary motive or instinct behind such activities. However, primal religions also exhibit a great sense of celebration: they enact offerings of praise and thanksgiving; enjoyment of life is as much a primary instinct as fear. The human has been described as a symbol-making and ritual-enacting being. Such activities have the power to connect people to the mystery-dimension of life in ways which have tended to be submerged in other religious traditions.

Nonetheless, the sacramental celebration of trust in the cosmic processes has continued in the religious lives of the ordinary people in most religions. Certainly, great religious prophets and reformers including Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Shankara and Martin Luther have warned people against the excesses of sacramental piety. The fear of idolatry, magic and superstition has always accompanied religious reform movements. Still, the Protestant reformers’ suspicion of Catholic sacramental practice, the Brahamistic critique of Vedic religion, Mohammed’s preaching against idolatrous practices, and the Buddha’s hesitation regarding Hindu pietistic excesses did little to stop people’s need for a more sacramental-symbolic celebration of life. Admittedly, there is a vast difference in the theologies or worldviews of Mediterranean Catholics and, say, Australian aboriginal spirituality. Nonetheless, there is this shared sense of kinship with the cosmos and reverence for all nature and life. Many today agree that any genuine ecological consciousness needs to rekindle such a sacramental sense of the divine presence in the universe. The ordinary things of life can be, indeed are, revelatory of the sacred mystery.

2. Hinduism: The Way of Mystery & Mysticism

Hinduism can be read according to the particular human spiritual impulse for existential truth. Just as it is difficult to categorize primal religious traditions under a single heading, it is quite misleading to speak of the Hindu religion whether in terms of its current manifestations or in its historical development. For example, the Vedic period (approximately 1500 to 600 BCE) has much in common with primal religious consciousness--with the notable exception that it was a literary religion, evidenced in the great writings of the Vedas. For the purpose of this brief expose, I will concentrate on the development of Hinduism after 600 BCE--here we are dependant on another body of writings known as the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are famous for the manner in which they interpret the Vedic Scriptures as indicating there is an ultimate one and only reality called Brahman who is greater than all the gods (currently numbered at some 300,000!). The very purpose of existence, according to the Upanishads, is to come to consciousness of our union with The One, with Brahman. Brahman is the ultimate unity that gives all things their being. In this scheme of things, multiplicity, diversity, separateness or even human selfhood are illusory categories that are not finally real. Suffering is also an illusion since, if we could experience our original connectedness to Brahman, suffering would be vanquished. In order to be released from the sufferings of our human impermanence, we need to expand our consciousness. We do this through yogas, special meditations and practices that enable us to see beyond the illusory world to the real and only world of Brahman.

The other special work of Hinduism is the Bhagavadgita. In its own way, the Gita also advises on the human dilemmas of death and suffering. Contrary to some opinion, the Gita does not encourage a flight from the world of human co-responsibility; however, it relativizes our human efforts by placing them in the greater picture of the knowledge of our unity with the indestructible nature of ultimate reality. We must act to transform the world, but all our human efforts are finally relativized with respect to the higher, deeper reality of Brahman. Finally, we surrender ourselves to the greater mystery of existence, the mystery of the transcendent. Only here will final or true liberation be achieved. This is the experienced truth of those who follow the path of mystery and mysticism.

Because the notion of Brahman is impersonal, it is wrong to simply read it according to the personal deity of monotheistic religions. In Hinduism itself, this difficulty is met by the role of the other gods who are true symbols of Brahman. These are the deities with whom Hindu believers are able to enter into dialogue. In summary: we live in a world of suffering and impermanence; we are limited by our place in society (the caste system or our individual talents); we face the impending reality of death; we find temporary joy in our consort with a variety of gods; we perform our meditations and yogas; we do what we can to improve the world. Yet, our true reality is our final union with the one and only ultimate reality, Brahman. All else is illusion. Our authentic self (atman) is union with God (Brahman). Hinduism is pre-eminently the religion of (divine) wisdom. No other religion is more attuned to the notion of the soul’s search for God.

3. Buddhism: The Way of Renunciation & Silence

All life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; release from desire and suffering is achieved through the right practices of thinking, acting and meditating. This may not seem, at first, to sound much like an adventure or an expression of the human spiritual impulse for beauty. Moreover, when we hear of the Buddha’s silence regarding God, we may be inclined to dismiss this path of renunciation and silence to a kind of human stoical philosophy rather than a religion. On the other hand, no post-axial tradition is more attuned to the cosmic sense of our connectedness to the whole of creation and every living creature (Buddhists are obliged not to kill anything--which is why you will do well to sell mosquito coils near the temple rather than mosquito-rid!). No tradition surpasses Buddhism with regard to the need for the purgation or emptying of the self. The sense of beauty in the silent mystery is evident in the lives of the Buddhist saints. The sense of compassion is a markedly Buddhist trait. The path to nirvana or ‘enlightenment’ is certainly, in theory and in practice, a movement of self-transcendence.

The Buddha nowhere denies the reality of God. What the Buddha advocates is a silencing of the question of who we think God is, a silencing of all our metaphysical speculations about ultimate reality, a silencing of all our God-talk. In fact, this exhortation to silence about God is not peculiar to Buddhism. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told: "Be still and know that I am God." The mystics of all theistic traditions know more than the theologians that most of our talk-about-God does little to add to our sense of the mystery and reality of God; and it often belittles the divine reality. The Buddha evokes for us a way of ‘stilling’ ourselves before the mystery. In fact, as Buddhism developed, it found it could not do without God-symbols, God-icons, even the Buddha as a God-person. The human desire for incarnation, that sacramental aspiration, cannot be totally eradicated. Many forms of Buddhism today often resemble their Hindu cousins with their list of deities, rituals, prayers, festivals and other forms of worship.

Buddhism is sometimes called the apophatic way which simply means the way of silence. Despite some exceptions, Buddhism has developed a deserved reputation for its tolerance and, as such, stands in notable contrast to the polemics, dogmatism, arrogance and hostility that have too often accompanied other (especially monotheistic) traditions. More pointedly, the place for renunciation, asceticism and silence is an acknowledged dimension of all religious traditions. In Christianity, we speak of kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, which resembles the apophatic call of Buddhism: to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life, to learn the path of compassion, we must first learn to still our minds.

4. Abrahamic Religions: The Way of Prophecy and Action

Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are prophets who speak to their followers of God’s intentions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are often bracketed together as monotheistic religions. It is also helpful to see them as followers of Abraham sharing with him a vision for future fulfilment. Moreso than either primal or eastern religious traditions, the followers of Abraham seek the divine promise in history. They are religions that perceive the inbreaking of God in the course of human history; they understand that salvation, liberation or fulfilment are integral to the divine promise. In this sense, they are eschatological religions which can be especially characterized according to the theological virtue of hope.

These religious traditions are deeply covenantal. That is, they are founded on the belief that God is not only present in the world of nature and the cosmic rhythms, but is a God pre-eminently involved in the march of humans through history. In fact, God partners the people, forms a special relationship or covenant with them, promises to be with them, chooses them. In return, the people are obliged to the life, covenant and commandments that God sets out for them.

A prominent theme of the abrahamic religions is love: love of God, love of neighbour; love of enemy. Some may see the theme of love reaching new heights in the pathos of Israel’s God, the sacrificial love of Jesus or the merciful love of Allah. Be this as it may, it should be noted that the theme of love is also prominent in Hinduism and Buddhism, as in fact in all the post-axial religions. More than love, it is the notion of justice that stands out in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Justice is understood in different ways: it is God’s justice or kingdom or reality that will finally reign; it is also God’s intention that justice be practised, that is, become manifest in human society and relationships. What is clear in the teaching of the Abrahamic religions is that justice is both a theological notion (telling us something important about God) and an historical challenge (telling us something about God’s intentions for human history).

The commitment to world-transformation is evidently much needed in our world today. In this sense, the prophetic religions have a most important contribution to make. However, they also need to realise that their commitment to social ethics can easily degenerate into a secular humanism if it is not complemented by a commitment to sacramental celebration, mystical contemplation and apophatic patience. "History is full of instances of the horror wrought by impatient activists and social visionaries who are unwilling to practice the apophatic virtue of silent waiting" (John Haught, 142).


The human spiritual impulse is fundamentally located in human responsiveness to the mystery-dimension of life. This mystery is co-present in every dimension of our lives, especially in our relationship to ourselves, our family and friends, our social institutions, and the non-human or cosmic realities that enscribe our lives. Ways of naming these impulses are: a fundamental human confidence in reality itself; the special kind of enchantment we have with the unknown and our desire for existential truth; the experience of suffering and disillusionment that lead us to a sense of restlessness, the desire for adventure and the impulse for beauty; and the moral aspiration toward goodness, action and world-transformation.

All authentic religious traditions will find a place for expressing each of these aspirations. Nonetheless, each religious tradition will tend to place emphasis on one specific path of transformation: the cosmic transformation of primal and folk religions (the way of ritual and sacrament); the self-fulfilling transformation of the hindu religious traditions (the way of mystery and mysticism); the self-emptying transformation of buddhist and other non-theistic religions (the way of renunciation and silence); and the world transformation of the prophetic religions, especially the abrahamic religions--judaism, christianity and islam (the way of prophecy and action).