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.


9 thoughts on “Fourth Sunday of Advent

  1. Thanks, Jack – your insights are invaluable. This seems to me to be totally consistent with my Christian belief in a loving God who expects us to use our God-given brains and conscience to seek answers to Lonergan’s ‘eros of the mind’ – why do we exist. As an Australian, I’ve learnt a lot from indigenous spirituality that looked to our natural environment for the answers – well before the time of Jesus.

  2. “a positive appreciation for what they have to offer”!! Thank you for this excellent reflection and vital message!! All your readers are grateful to have access to such an inspirational theologian and teacher!

  3. right on Much as I love Rrahner that phrase always bothered me. Jesus was not a Catholic nor even a christian. He was a Jew. He didn’t belong to any church. Give Karl his due, at least he didn’t say anonymous Catholic!

  4. Dear Jack,
    Once again you have clearly, concisely, and lovingly explained who and where we are! Your last two sentences simply and beautifully summarize: “We are all on this journey together. We can no longer travel arrogantly alone.” What warm and wonderful words to ponder as we await the birth of our Savior! Bless you, Joske, Brian and all of your loved ones!

  5. ​Thank you for lining out the melody that has so much implied harmony: tolerance, collaboration, appreciation and learning the dignity of differences.​ ​Your ruminations about moving beyond are a refreshing deep breath in the midst of preparing once again for Christmas as a celebration of the Incarnation, midwinter-version. ​Like an old ox or donkey, I am chewing on what you just wrote.

    Racing ahead​ through Advent​, our customary trappings and symbols of “Christmas” guide us out of darkness by means of light (“Star of wonder, star of might…” as the carol goes)​. It is a “matter” of ​ a natural, cultural, physical, terrestrial cycle of seasons, an annual axial shift or tilt of Earth’s relationship to the Sun. This happens for all of Sapiens everywhere on this planet, mark​ing​ ​the rebound from dark to light, ​celebrated variously. Sapiens is special, a species within a genus, ​generating​ famil​ies​: the ​word​ etymologies are rich in disclosing what is right in front of us, a thin veil over epiphanies far vaster than “We Three Kings.” We as a species have always studied stars​ (​though​​ Hollywood​’s​ tr​y​ to eclipse the realities of the universe​)​. It doesn’t really “matter” that the ​point of ​light, the streams of photons that eventually reach us on Earth​,​ ​is​ not actually out there anymore​,​ because we are enthralled by the “Spirit” our Paraclete, who, beside us,​ ​uncovers the mysteries of cosmogeny.

    ​I​n another ​sphere​,​ we consider that​ the World tilts to the Son​, the Word,​ who shifts our familial relationship to ​the ​Creator​ ​God, and to one another.​ What you wrote – ​”God is present … only through Christ”​ – takes me to the root meaning of “Messiah,” the herald and champion of the Creator God who rescues, accompanies and heals us. This theocentric Jesus reflects his own father-image, the Creator God, a model that is dear to many of my friends, but also lacking in the early formation of some other friends. I agree with my friends, some of whom are culturally Christian, some militantly Christian, and some not at all, but we do collaborate in forefending nihilism amidst the absurdities of daily life in a fractured world of our own making.​ In this we share the “spirit” of “tikkun olam,” of repairing creation, fixing it as we go along, an everlasting origination.

    There is another father-figure in the narrative: Joseph the Obscure, the fixer, handyman, a craftsman who settled his family in Nazareth with Mary, last seen at “the Finding in the Temple​”​ He ​then ​is ​disaparate​d​ from the gospel narratives​.​ Jesus never denied that he was Joseph’s son​: one could speculate that privacy was important for the sake of his family.​ ​ ​But it seems the evangelists were keen to skip over what Jesus learned from Joseph about skilled labor. I bet he learnt a lot about Nature and the techniques of construction, foundations, ​fixing things right, ​and harvesting at Joseph’s side​ for maybe twenty years​.

    As you say, ​​”a theocentric perspective on Jesus – where we are today” ​is an historical fact of our own life and times in the flshy-now: we cannot wander two-thousand years backwards in nostalgia about the daily life of “the Holy Family.” Jesus didn’t: he was a reformer, going on ahead of us. He calls to us, “Follow me,” and even to Lazarus entombed at Bethany, “Get out, Now!” Mary’s advice about her Son? Her last words recorded: “Do whatever he tells you.”

    The thrust of the gospel moves consciousness to​ an​ aperspectival ​way of ​thinking, not just ​a single​ perspective, one slice​ only​, but rather an implicate, spherical ​contemplation​ of the transparency within which we live, move, and have our being (to quote Epimenides again).​ Even the economist Thomas Picketty writes, “Global understanding… is essential for everyone’s life and future”​ (A Brief History of Equality, 2021). ​ Global, poly-dimensional​​​ thinking is learned at home, then gets out around the corner, and down the street.​

    Merry Christmas!

Leave a Reply