As we now draw very close to Christmas, a friend asked me how I understand the relationship between Christianity and other world religions.
My own theological understanding of world religions has been greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic 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 at the Catholic University of Leuven, then called “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 people, 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 own theological understanding has moved beyond three “traditional” viewpoints about Christianity and other religious traditions: pluralism, exclusivism, and inclusivism.
Pluralism. Pluralism is generally the position that all world religions are true and equally valid. Jesus becomes just one more historic religious founder like Mohamed or Siddhartha Gautama, etc. Well, I respect other religious traditions but I remain a committed Christian. We all live and grow where we have been planted. I remain rooted in Christian faith in God as mediated by Jesus of Nazareth, who remains uniquely the center of my faith.
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. The main objection to exclusivism, however, is that it contradicts the essential message of the New Testament. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all and not to members of just one religious group.
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 (1904 – 1984) popularized this “anonymous Christian” understanding.
I would suggest, however, that a close and careful reading of the New Testament runs in a direction quite contrary to inclusivism. The message of Jesus is theocentric. It is about God. God who saves and God who is love. Jesus is the great symbol and reality of the proclamation of God’s salvation. I would stress that a theocentric perspective on Jesus – where we are today — enables Christians to be fully committed to Jesus Christ and fully open to other religions.
Considering the world’s religions, I suggest we need to work together in what the US American theologian, Paul Knitter (currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions, and Culture) has called “unitive pluralism.”
We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions. We need to develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We need to move 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. We can no longer travel arrogantly alone.