A friend commented after reading last week’s post on Islam: “Can one really be saved without becoming Christian?” I replied that I am certainly not anti-Christian but that God is bigger than Christianity. I also reminded him that the historical Jesus was a Hebrew not a Christian.

Two books that have helped me refine my own thinking about inter-religious understanding are: Jesus Symbol of God by Roger Haight SJ, and No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward World Religions by Paul Knitter.

Roger Haight SJ (b.1936), is currently a scholar in residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York. This year in June, the Catholic Theological Society of America honored him with the John Courtney Murray Award for Distinguished Theological Achievement. In December 2004, however, his now greatly respected book Jesus Symbol of God had brought a notification from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that it contained serious doctrinal errors. Well, institutional change happens but sometimes very slowly.

Paul Knitter (b.1939) is currently emeritus professor at Union Theological Seminary, where he was the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture. He is also Emeritus Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he taught for 28 years before moving to Union. Knitter is well known for his work on religious pluralism, especially Buddhism and Christianity. He also came under criticism by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then-prefect of Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and later Pope Benedict XVI, for his alleged “relativism.” 

In 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document Dominus Iesus, which pointed out the dangers of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” Well we do – or we can – grow and change. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child,” Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:11. 

We can grow in our search for truth, realizing that understandings change over time. As believers we have moved far beyond the medieval mindset, as well as the mindset of the 1950s, which I knew so well and once lived. There will, of course, always be some people who want to resuscitate archaic perspectives, for a variety of reasons. But are they healthy?

When it comes to non-christian religions, my own thinking has moved beyond a couple more or less rigid theological viewpoints: “exclusivism” and “inclusivism.”

“Exclusivism” maintains the absolute necessity of faith in Christ. Today major Catholic and Protestant theologians find exclusivism problematic. Jesus announced God’s salvation for all. There are no indications that God, as proclaimed by Jesus, was interested in saving just a distinct group of human beings. Jesus of course was a Hebrew believer.

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 inclusivism with his “anonymous Christian” understanding. Rahner was a great theologian but I would suggest, however, that we have now moved beyond his inclusive perspective. 

Theologian Roger Haight (b.1936) and contemporary biblical scholars are strong in their assertion that Jesus was not self-centered but other-focused and God-centered. 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. 

Christians can indeed regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they too are mediations of God’s salvation.  As Roger Haight has stressed: “The normativity of Jesus does not exclude a positive appraisal of religious pluralism. Christians may regard other world religions as true, in the sense that they are also mediations of God’s salvation.

Considering the world’s religions, I suggest that we have to work together in what Paul Knitter has called “unitive pluralism.” We need to move beyond a simple tolerance for other religions and develop a positive appreciation for what they have to offer. We 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. 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 basis 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. 

I would stress, however, an important addition to the discussion. Inter-religious dialogue is essential for our survival today, but what is also essential today – and what I rarely see — is serious and respectful dialogue with those who are not religious: the “Nones,” people without a religious affiliation. When asked on surveys to identify the religion to which they belong, the “Nones” check the box that says, “no religion,” or “nothing in particular,” or “none of the above.” 

Starting about thirty years ago, the percentage of Nones in the United States, for example, has risen dramatically from 5 percent, according to the University of Chicago’s well-regarded General Social Survey (GSS) in 1990, to something like 25 percent today. That’s roughly 60 million US Americans. But…God loves them as well. And what do we do? Last week I got an email from one of my former students, a very bright and kind young man. He wrote that he needed to talk with me and then added: “Once a Catholic, I am now a non believer.But if I could experience the presence of God, I would commit my whole life to God.” I wrote back to him: “Be patient and open. God is closer to you than you realize. And of course we will continue this discussion.” There are so many like him…looking today for answers. Looking for that taste of the Divine.

We are all learners about that ultimate inexpressible Mystery which encompasses our existence. We are all on this journey together. The problematic people are not necessarily Muslims and people from other religions. The problematic people – regardless whatever religion they belong to — are the arrogantly self-righteous and the willfully ignorant.


13 thoughts on “Inter-religious Dialogue: Some Theological Reflections

  1. Wow! What a great suggestion: “serious and respectful dialogue with those who are not religious.” It’s a badly needed and overlooked area of conversation. We have so much to learn by listening.

  2. Dear Jack,
    Your words always seem like the voice of God whispering in my ear, but even more so in this epistle. I am presently reading “Eager to Love” by Richard Rohr explaining the alternative way of Francis of Assisi. In it, Rohr explains how Francis and Clare both sought to detach themselves from the rigid structures of religion that actually seemed to separate them (and us) from true and meaningful living in/with God. This line in his book particularly hit me as I connected them to your words: “All religion, without actual God experience, remains immature and largely self-referential.” I fear that “religion,” as it has been practiced, separates us into camps, groups, or tribes with following rules/regulations being the definition of goodness. I wonder if the “nones” find little meaning in the practice of faiths which expect compliance to the rules rather than living a life as kind, compassionate, and respectful followers of a loving God. Listening to the esoteric differences between religious denominations doesn’t inspire practical daily living with God in our hearts, minds, and souls. As for having Christ alone as the access point of entering heaven, how does one explain the billions who have predated Jesus or have never heard of him? I can’t help but think that those in these times who claim to be able to pick out who will and will not be saved have a miniscule concept of God’s love.
    Again, Jack, thank you for being a channel of God’s peace.
    Frank Skeltis

    1. Frank
      Thank you! Richard is right of course as you are!
      People like you and Betty keep me alert and going.
      Next week mire thoughts about the religious no-religion questioners…

  3. Jack, once again you remind me how much we agree about God, Jesus and our relationship with the divine. I remember when Cardinal Ratzinger put out that statement, Dominus Jesus. I had a discussion one evening with Cardinal George after he affirmed it. I tried to let him know that one does not need to even believe in Jesus to be saved; of course, he tried to tell me I was incorrect. Also I always had trouble with Rahner’s anonymous Christians theory while I admired much else that he wrote. So thanks for your remarks and thanks for simply inviting people to be open to the divine. Sorry you live so far away from me in New Orleans. Would love to chat as we are close in ages. I am about to turn 84 at end of month. Peace always and keep on sharing the Good News.

  4. How very reassuring to read your thoughts about religion,both specifically about the mystery of God,and in general about religion.These thoughts have for a long time aligned with my views,albeit not as articulately as you have expressed them .What has generally struck me about the ‘nones’ is that they are quite specific about what they do NOT believe but mostly have no clue about what they DO believe .My response to them always refers to their faith ,ie ‘thought-less’ belief in ……nothing in particular! I leave them with the thought that ignoring the mystery of creation,and placing their faith in the current BIG BANG consensus is,ultimately ,no more credible than the faith of any religious adherent.
    I have forwarded your thoughts to a friend who falls into the ‘nones’ category !

    1. Sorry….my response got cut off.

      I would say that salvation means first of all that a person finds respect, self-worth, dignity and a meaningful life. People found salvation here and now in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. A short-sighted view of salvation focuses just on what happens to people after death.

      1. Makes sense. I see it about the same, a sense of ongoing fulfillment in this life, sensing perhaps some kind of an ongoing relationship with something/ Someone beyond the self we are aware of here. Maybe a sense of being on some kind of a journey with an increasing sense of wholeness of some sort with all that is. I think it is so grand that it is hard to put into words.

Leave a Reply