9 March 2017
A couple days ago, a friend asked me when I began my theological questioning. I remember the event that really triggered it….
I was in fourth grade in St. Mary’s Elementary School in Paw Paw, Michigan. It was a Monday morning. The local Catholic priest, a rigid but friendly fellow, had come for his weekly classroom visit. He started by asking everyone who had not been to Mass that Sunday to stand up. (Fortunately, that Sunday I had gone to Mass and was saved the embarrassment of standing there in my shame.) He then launched into a tirade against Protestantism as “a false religion.” My Dad was Protestant. I raised my hand, stood up, and challenged our Catholic pastor. With a bit of youthful bravado, I asked him how there could be anything “false” about my Dad. I said that he was a Christian, a good man, read the Bible, and said his prayers. That evening, I told my Dad what had happened. He very calmly said “I am sure Father is a good man. He’s just a terribly ignorant and narrow-minded priest.”
We learn. We grow. Theological understandings change over time.
My reflection about Jesus, Christianity, and other world religions comes as a reaction to the recent vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats (now close to a hundred) against Jewish community centers, anti-Islam violence, and the destructive burning of mosques by crusading Christians. I find it particularly repugnant when Christian leaders like Franklin Graham call Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.”
In Roman Catholic theological reflection, especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), we not only understand that Protestants and all Christians belong to the Body of Christ; but in our respect for and appreciation for other world religions, there has been a tremendous development as well. Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking are: Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999) by Roger Haight, S.J., and Theologies of Religion (also Orbis Books, 2002) by Paul Knitter.
Theological understanding changes over time. My own thinking is moving beyond three more or less rigid viewpoints about the relation of other religious traditions to Christianity: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.
Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Well, I remain a Christian and an historical theologian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. The essential structure of the Christian faith in God is that it is mediated by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus remains uniquely the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the medium and focus of a Christian’s faith in God. I would suggest that the validity or truth of Christian beliefs is displayed by a thoughtful examination that shows its reasonability and credibility within common human experience.
Exclusivism. Exclusivism is the theological position that maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Exclusivists insist that there is no salvation in non-Christian religions. This position, today, is most often identified with conservative evangelical Christians. The main objection to exclusivism is that it contradicts the message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. When we read the New Testament, we see absolutely no indications that the God proclaimed by Jesus was interested in saving just a distinct minority of human beings.
Inclusivism. While exclusivism is clearly a minority theological position today, the same is not true of the inclusive view that Jesus causes the salvation of all. In one form or another this has been the dominant theology of mainline churches for some time. Inclusivism maintains that God is present in non-Christian religions but only through Christ. This viewpoint gave rise to the concept of the “anonymous Christian” by which God saves through Christ, even when the believer knows nothing about Christ or Christianity. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding.
I am not ready to be burned at the stake but would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the texts indicates that the witness of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. Theologians like Roger Haight and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus did not preach himself but the Reign of God.
The message of Jesus is theocentric: God saves and God is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. A theocentric perspective on Jesus – where I am today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions. I remember very well the words of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It was issued on October 28, 1965, shortly after my arrival as a younger man and a theology student in Louvain.
“In our time,” the document stressed, “when day by day humankind is being drawn closer together, and the ties between different peoples are becoming stronger, the church examines more closely its relationship to non-Christian religions. In the church’s task of promoting unity and love among all men and women, indeed among all nations, it considers above all, in this declaration, what people have in common and what draws them to fellowship. One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God. God’s providence, God’s manifestations of goodness, God’s saving design extended to all people.” [My inclusive language translation.]
Yes of course, Jesus is the center of Christian faith insofar as it is he who was and is the focus of a Christian’s faith in God. The God of Christians, however, (and here we do have what for many believers amounts to a paradigm shift) cannot be conceived by Christians as just some kind of local or tribal God, who exists only for themselves. Christians can indeed regard other world faiths as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.
Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the Roman Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter, has called a kind of “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer…. Moving from tolerance to collaboration. From collaboration to genuine appreciation. From appreciation to learning from the other.
Global understanding, anchored in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration, is essential for everyone’s life and future. Our goal does not have to be the reduction of all faiths into one. We do need to look for commonalities, different expressions and understandings of the Sacred, and a base for common ethical responsibilities in a turbulent and anxious world. And yes, all participants in the conversation must remain humbly open to the challenges of mutual criticism and correction. No faith tradition has all the answers. We are all learning believers.
Inter-religious dialogue is not just something that is a nice thing to do. It is appropriate and absolutely essential for our survival in a world of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multinational interdependence. We cannot survive by “going it alone,” even if we think we are great.
I conclude with another citation from the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions:
“People expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of all men and women: What is the human person? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment, and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?”
Yes. We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews and Muslims but arrogant self-righteousness, ignorance, and xenophobic paranoia……
Dr. J. A. Dick
3001 Heverlee BELGIUM