We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were mistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.
Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.
The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.
It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.
Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.