May 3, 2019

Theological understandings change over time. My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by 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 at the University of Louvain/Leuven.

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.]

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about Christianity and would religions 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.

My own understanding has moved 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.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we have to work together in what the 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.

Yes. We are all on this journey together. Our enemies are not Jews and Muslims but arrogant self-righteousness, ignorance, and xenophobic paranoia……

12 thoughts on “My Religion, Your Religion, Our God

  1. A sound assessment, well stated. Jesus preached the reign of God, the “new covenant” of love as fulfillment of the law. Love of God and neighbor as “all the law and the prophets” calls us to live beyond ourselves and sees different religions, with their own distinctive conceptualizations of “all the law and the prophets”, as still on journey toward a catholicity which recognizes the diversity of these journeys. Our Catholic Church continues its journey toward incorporating this recognition into its own distinctive conceptualization. Your cited sources evidence progress on this journey. Thank you.

  2. I hope that all my friends and family will read this and take to heart. Thanks Jack

  3. Dear John
    I enjoyed the thoughtfulness and scholarship in this letter to us. I agree wholeheartedly. I have found in my interfaith life that being ‘grounded’ in ones’ chosen faith helps people feel safer about diving into these kinds of discussions. We are in such great need of this kind of conversations. Thank you so much

  4. Thank you, Jack, for encouraging us to have a more expansive view of our Christianity. Like you, I am happy with my Catholic faith despite the obvious flaws and inconsistencies. But your words make it even more important to share what I consider the strengths of our faith as I look at other belief systems and see what they offer to bring me closer to God. Isn’t it humorous to think of zealots on all sides acting like kids on the playground arguing, “My God is better than your god!!” As difficult as it is for us to define, describe, or explain what God looks like, isn’t it silly to think that one’s own faith system has got it all covered. You have uncomplicated it for me: love God with all your heart, and love and learn from your neighbor because she may offer something that you hadn’t thought of before. Thanks, Jack. You have done it again! 🙂

  5. Jack

    Jesus would be the last man in history and in the future to complain that another person did not recognize him. He would always be the first to support a loving relationship with that person, even if he chose to repudiate Jesus. This is where reflecting on grace has led me. The documents of the Church about no salvation outside Catholicism have blinded us to grace. Sadly, few of us recognize that we might be the person described above. My view is extreme, but it is the only way that my understanding of grace remains unconditional.

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