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THE CLAIM ABOUT JESUS CHRIST AS UNIVERSAL AND UNIQUE SAVIOR IN INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

 

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Peter C. Phan/Georgetown University

 

Among the many theological issues that may deter adherents of a particular religious tradition from participating in interreligious dialogue is the question of whether such a dialogue would require as a condition of possibility a renunciation or at least a bracketing (epoche) of their belief in the uniqueness and universality of the founder(s) of their religion and of their religion itself.

Understandably, such a question is of utmost importance for people whose central beliefs include the conviction that their religious founder is the only and universal savior and whose fundamental duty is to convert others to their religion through missionary activities. Christians and Muslims, for example, would clearly number among these, the former professing that there is no salvation under any name other than Jesus’ (cf. Acts 4:12; John 14:6), the latter that “Muhammad is the prophet of God”(cf. the shahadah). And for both Christians and Muslims, the mission to convert other people to their faiths is an essential obligation. But not only Christianity and Islam make claims to uniqueness and universality. Among Asian religions, Pure Land Buddhism also claims that salvation is obtained by placing absolute trust in the Amida Buddha and his merits. Also in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that devotion to and love for him will deliver his devotees from the bondage of samsara.

But even religions that do not claim uniqueness and universality for their founders or for themselves as social institutions and do not make mission a basic task for their adherents still affirm that the truth they teach and the way of life they prescribe (e.g., the Veda, the Four Noble Truths, the Torah, etc.) are necessary for salvation or enlightenment or liberation, however these realities are understood. Hence, the question remains whether this more limited claim can and should still be made in interreligious dialogue.

In this essay I will first outline the three objections against the possibility of the claim of religious uniqueness and universality. I will next show how these three objections are not persuasive and that the claim for the uniqueness and universality of Jesus as savior is possible. Finally, I will show how this claim can be made in interreligious dialogue.

THREE ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE CLAIM OF UNIQUENESS AND UNIVERSALITY

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism

For clarity’s sake, a few preliminary observations on the meanings of the key terms in our discussion are in order.

  1. By “unique” one can mean “having no like or similar,” as in the statement “every human being is unique.” Though all human persons belong to the same species, and therefore are equal to one another in this sense, each of them is so distinct as a particular individual that no one else can be said to resemble him or her. In this sense everyone, Gautama or Jesus or Muhammad, can be claimed to be unique.
  2. “Unique” can also mean “being the only one of its sort.” So if Christians claim that Jesus is the unique savior, the claim can mean that Jesus is the only one who saves and no one else can be said in any way to be a savior. In fact, there are Christians who make such a claim and they are called “exclusivists.”
  3. Finally, “unique” can mean “having no equal or equivalent.” Thus, to claim that Jesus is the unique savior in this sense does not ipso facto rule out the possibility that there may be saviors other than Jesus; such a claim however entails that these saviors, if there be such, are either inferior to or dependent on Jesus. There are Christians who make this claim for Jesus and they are called “inclusivists.” There are also Christians who affirm that Jesus is unique in the first sense but deny that Jesus is unique in the second and third senses of the term; in their view, Jesus is simply one of the many saviors in the history of the world. They are labeled “pluralists.”¹

The claim of “universality” for a religious figure, if it is made at all, is of course understood differently depending on the stance one takes with regard to the uniqueness of the religious figure in question. For pluralists no savior can be said to be universal in the strict sense of the term since a savior’s salvific influence is limited to his or her followers. Exclusivists, on the contrary, would maintain that their religious founder is the universal savior in the sense that all salvation comes from that person alone and that, consequently, unless one explicitly acknowledges in faith their religious founder as one’s personal savior, accepts his or her teachings, and follows the way of life he or she prescribes, one cannot be saved. Inclusivists would also affirm the universality of the founder of their religion but, contrary to the exclusivists, would recognize that the founders of other religions can exercise a saving role in the salvation of their adherents and that therefore these religions can be said to be ways of salvation, though, the inclusivists would add, these founders and their religions can only do so in dependence on their unique savior. Thus, the inclusivists’ claim of the universality of their savior, compared with the exclusivists’, is a qualified one. Nevertheless, both exclusivists and inclusivists agree that their savior, being universal, is “definitive,” “absolute,” “normative,” and “superior” to the founders of other religions.

Two other observations are necessary to clarify our discussion of the claim of uniqueness and universality in interreligious dialogue. First, I suggest that a clear distinction be made between the claim of uniqueness and universality for a particular religious founder (e.g., Jesus or Muhammad) and that for the institution of his or her adherents (e.g., Christianity or Islam as religion). These two claims, though mutually connected, are, as, will be argued later, different as to their theology, history, epistemology, and sociology. Secondly, one should also distinguish between a claim and its justification. A claim is as good as its supporting reasons; however not every reason needs be of a rational type. A claim (especially a religious one) should not be rejected simply because it does not or cannot offer strictly rational evidences for itself.

After these preliminary remarks we can now address the problem at hand. It can be broken down into two distinct questions. First, is the claim of the uniqueness and universality of a particular religious figure and/or a particular religion epistemologically, theologically, and ethically justified? Secondly, if it is justified, should it be made in the context of interreligious dialogue?

Three Objections Against the Claim of Uniqueness and Universality

Proponents of the pluralistic thesis argue that such a claim (in this case the claim for Christianity) is rendered impossible by an epistemology that is conscious of the historico-
cultural conditioning of all human knowledge, a theology guided by the conviction that God is Absolute Mystery, and by an ethics concerned with promoting social justice.

(1) Gordon Kauftmann, John Hick and Langdon Gilkey argue that the modern awareness of the historico-cultural limitation of all knowledge and religious beliefs and of the impossibility of judging the truth claim of another culture has rendered the claim of uniqueness and universality of a particular religious tradition no longer credible. Kaufmann suggests that any religious worldview is an imaginative construction around four structural categories, namely, God, world, humanity, and Christ, and that no one imaginative construction can claim to be uniquely authorized or divinely warranted. Rather it is to be regarded merely as a human attempt at finding orientation for life in a particular historical condition. Hick argues that any claim of uniqueness and superiority for a particular religious institution must be settled by an examination of facts, but of course, he points out, such an examination is impossible or at best inconclusive. Gilkey maintains that given the plurality of competing world views it is impossible to claim that a particular religious tradition is universal or normative for the others.

(2) From the theological standpoint, the doctrine of God as Absolute Mystery who can never be adequately represented by any religion or any theological system is also said to militate against the claim of uniqueness and universality for a particular religion. Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that each religion is an “idol” (i.e., image) of God and that if an “idol” is elevated to the status of uniqueness and exclusiveness, it is turned into an “idolatry.” Stanley Samartha affirms that the nature of God as Mystery forbids any claim of uniqueness and finality for any religion. Raimundo Panikkar maintains that there is an all-embracing myth, a Mystery called the Christ or the Christic principle, which is expressed in various religions so that no one religion can make an exclusive claim for itself. Seiichi Yagi denies that there is any fundamental difference between Jesus and us. Rather the difference is only a matter of degree since Jesus as “the Risen Christ” or “the Son of God” was awakened to the presence of God in him a way more thorough than we are. In this sense he can be said to be the model for others.

(3) Lastly, the claim of uniqueness and universality for any religious founder and/or religion must be rejected because it is alleged to lead to oppression and injustice. Rosemary Radford Ruether and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki draw a parallel between this claim on the one hand and sexism and patriarchalism on the other: in both there is the imperialistic attempt at imposing one dimension of reality as normative for others. Aloysius Pieris argues that the claim of uniqueness and universality is a claim of faith and can be defended not by rational arguments but by action in favor of the poor. In the same vein Paul Knitter suggests that the claim of uniqueness and universality for a particular religious figure and religion can be settled only by examining how much these contribute to the liberation of the poor and the non-persons.

This is not the place to respond in detail to all the three arguments against the possibility of the claim of uniqueness and universality for a religious founder and/or religion. Suffice it here to say that the three arguments, taken either singly or in combination, do not offer convincing reasons for rejecting the possibility of the claim of uniqueness and universality. For the sake of argument, let us take the stronger version of the claim, namely, exclusivism, and apply it to Christianity. Suppose that a claim is made that Jesus the Christ is the unique and universal savior, that there is no one else in human history that can legitimately be called savior, and that therefore in order to be saved everyone must explicitly acknowledge Jesus as her or his personal savior. Is this claim logically invalidated by the three arguments advanced by the pluralists mentioned above, i.e., historical consciousness, the nature of God as Absolute Mystery, and the ethical duty of promoting justice and peace?

First, that humans are historically and culturally conditioned in all their activities, including their knowledge and language about God, is a truth that modernity rightly drives home to us. But does this conditioning rule out the possibility of affirming something as universally true as distinct from the different ways of formulating this truth in various grammatical and linguistic sentences? It seems not. For even the pluralists must concede that the proposition that historical consciousness rules out the possibility of the claim of uniqueness and universality is universally true, independently of its historico- cultural context, if it is to be taken seriously. This counter-argument, of course, does not settle the truth or falsity of the claim itself which still has to be evaluated on its own merits, but it is illogical to reject it a priori on the ground of its historico- cultural conditioning. Here the distinction mentioned earlier between a claim and its justification applies. The claim itself is logically possible; its veracity may or may not be validated, depending on the strength of the arguments offered in its defense.

Secondly, that God is the incomprehensible and ineffable Mystery is the constant teaching of mystics, both Eastern and Western, and of the theologia negativa. But does the ineffability of God preclude the possibility of affirming that some historical figure is the unique and universal savior? It does not seem so. Suppose that one affirms that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the apostle of God, and that unless one accepts this twofold truth, one is not saved. There is nothing in this affirmation that prima facie contradicts the ineffability of God. The first part of the shahadah simply affirms monotheism, and one may add, the ineffability of God as Absolute Reality; the second asserts that Muhammad is the person in whom Allah has revealed himself. That Allah may reveal himself in a created medium is not excluded a priori by his ineffability, since the doctrine of divine ineffability only denies the possibility of expressing God in an exhaustive way by means of a concept and not of God’s self-expression in a finite reality. Of course, the claim that God makes Muhammad his messenger must be substantiated, and the merits of the arguments in its favor must be evaluated, but the claim itself is not invalidated by the ineffability of God.

Thirdly, it would seem that the argument that the commitment to peace and justice requires the rejection or at least the bracketing of the claim of uniqueness and universality is the least convincing. That believers have been responsible for various acts of injustice and oppression is hardly to be denied, but it is far from evident that the source of their arrogance and malfeasance vis-à-vis adherents of other religions is to be traced to their claim of uniqueness and universality for their religious founders and/or religions. For one thing, believers who do not make such a claim are not innocent of oppressing other believers. Moreover, there are believers who find in the claim of the uniqueness and universality of their savior the moral encouragement to work for the liberation and well-being of other beings. One may want to argue that to derive from such a claim the motivation to do good is misguided or that there are better ways of arousing oneself for the good, but one cannot deny that in fact such a claim has been a cause for benevolence. The point, it would seem, is not whether such a claim should be made or not, but rather the manner in which it is made.

THE CLAIM OF THE UNIQUENESS AND UNIVERSALITY OF JESUS CHRIST

The Possibility of The Claim of Uniqueness and Universality

If the claim of the uniqueness and universality of one’s savior and/or religion is not ruled out on epistemological, theological, and ethical grounds, should it be made in interreligious dialogue? Is not the goal of interreligious dialogue thwarted by such an apparently exclusivistic claim? Here I would argue, along with Raimundo Panikkar, that it is impossible to avoid introducing the claim of uniqueness and universality for one’s religious founder, if such a claim is made at all, into the interreligious conversation. Panikkar refers to the proposal that one should temporarily suspend one’s judgment about the truth of one’s fundamental beliefs and bracket one’s faith in interreligious dialogue so as not to impose it on one’s dialogue partners or at least not to influence them regarding the contents of the dialogue as “phenomenological epoche.” In discussing the merits of this proposal, Panikkar argues that transferring the epoche (bracketing) to a field not its own, like that of ultimate convictions in the interreligious dialogue, is “psychologically impracticable, phenomenologically inappropriate, philosophically defective, theologically weak and religiously barren.”

(1) The epoche is psychologically impossible because interreligious dialogue is more than just doctrinal discussion; rather it is a personal encounter with the whole human person in which it would be a sham to affirm that one does not know or is not convinced of one’s certainties.

(2) It is phenomenologically inappropriate for several reasons. First, dialogue presupposes and follows the use of transcendental-phenomenological reduction in which the epoche is practiced; hence the epoche has its place in the study of religious phenomena, and not in the actual performance of dialogue. Secondly, the phenomenological epoche per se does not require that one bracket one’s convictions and the claim to truth but only the external ‘existence’, i.e., outside the mind of the object under investigation. Thirdly, there are cultures in which the basic presuppositions of epoche, namely, the distinction between truth and belief, between noesis and noema, between the formulated thing and the formula, etc., are not accepted and hence the performance of epoche is not possible.

(3) Furthermore, the epoche is philosophically defective because if philosophy requires an unconditional and sincere search for truth, such a quest is rendered otiose from the outset were the searchers to bracket their own ultimate and deepest convictions.

(4) The epoche is also theologically weak because were one to bracket one’s faith and still is able to encounter the partners in interreligious dialogue religiously, humanly and meaningfully, then faith would be something quite supererogatory and not something that embraces one’s entire life.

(5) Finally, the epoche is religiously barren because with the bracketing of one’s deepest religious convictions, interreligious dialogue will become nothing more than an empty chatter about trivia and bagatelles.

Claims about Christ and Claims about the Church

Granted that one’s basic religious convictions should be maintained in interreligious dialogue, the question still remains as to what exactly can be claimed in terms of the uniqueness and universality of one’s religious affiliation. Here I would like to explore the implications of the distinction between the claims about Christ and the claims about the church. There are, I submit, important differences between claiming uniqueness and universality for one’s religious founder and claiming them for one’s religion. The two claims differ epistemologically, sociologically, historically, and theologically. Failure to maintain this difference has given rise to equivocation in much of current discussions on the claim of uniqueness and universality.

To elucidate this distinction and to make it concrete I will consider the claim made for Christianity as an example. I believe this instance is particularly instructive both because historically it is Christians that have made a most vigorous claim of uniqueness and universality for themselves and because the difference between Jesus and Christianity is easily demonstrable. What is exactly meant by “Christian Uniqueness,” an expression often invoked in interreligious dialogue? The adjective “Christian” can refer to Jesus as the Christ and to the Christian church as a religious institution. Thus, uniqueness is claimed both for Jesus and the church. But to say that Jesus is unique and universal is one thing and to say that the Christian church is unique and universal is quite another. Clearly, there is an intimate connection between them, but no less clearly Jesus the Christ is not the Christian church and vice versa. There are four grounds for this difference.

  1. First of all, theologically, there is a fundamental difference between Jesus and the church. To blur this distinction would lead to idolatry. This difference is expressed in diverse ways by the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels attribute to Jesus various titles such as prophet, messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, and the charismatic holy man; the Johannine Gospel speaks of him as the divine incarnate Logos. Other New Testament writings, especially the Pauline letters, elaborate different aspects of this Christology. The church, on the other hand, is described in relation to Jesus as the bride to the bridegroom, the body to the head, the branches to the vine, the flock to the shepherd, the people to their leader. From these images it is clear that the church and Jesus are intimately intertwined; indeed, one may and should speak even of an ontological unity between the two. In the history of Christian theology, Christ and the church are at times spoken of as one person. Nevertheless, they have never been identified with each other nor should the identification ever be made. In the language of the Second Vatican Council, the church, in relation to Christ, is said to be his “sacrament,” that is, a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among human beings. But the church should not be identified with the Kingdom of God, much less with Christ himself.

I alluded above to the danger of idolatry if the theological difference between Jesus and the church is not clearly maintained. Indeed, Christians believe in and worship Jesus but do not believe in Christianity, much less worship it. The object of the theological virtue of faith can only be a divine reality, and not a created thing, in this case, the church.

  1. Moreover, from the sociological standpoint, the identification, of the church with Jesus is also impossible. Jesus is a historical individual with a determinate identity located in a particular space and time. And even if according to the Christian faith, he is risen and continues to be salvifically effective in contemporary history, he is not a social institution composed of many individuals called the church, however intimate the union between him and the members of this church may be. Contrary to Jesus, the church is an ongoing corporate entity with its organizational structures, its dogmas, its liturgy, its discipline, and so on. As historical and social entities, then, Jesus and the church should not be identified with each other.
  2. If Jesus and the church cannot be identified with each other, whatever is claimed for one needs not and cannot be ipso facto claimed for the other. In particular, the claim of uniqueness and universality, if claimed at all for either, must be understood differently. From the historical point of view, in my judgment, it is the claim of uniqueness and universality of the Christian church that is most problematic, and not the claim of uniqueness and universality for Jesus. Indeed, once the divinity of Jesus is accepted, his uniqueness and universality, at least as understood by the inclusivists, seem to be a matter of course. The question is not whether or not this belief should be affirmed in interreligious dialogue (indeed it should, as I have argued above), but how to substantiate the faith in Jesus’ divinity, especially in interreligious dialogue, and to this I will return in the fourth point below.

On the other hand, what arouses much skepticism and even outrage is a human institution such as the Christian church, with a history of light and darkness, a mixture of good and evil, claims to be the exclusive vessel of divine grace, while there is plenty of evidence that other religious institutions, no less than the church, have been instrumental in achieving good (and, of course, evil as well). Here the pluralists’ charge that the Christian claim of uniqueness has produced much suffering and oppression (the third argument discussed above) has some merit, though, in fairness, it must be said that such a charge should not be pressed too far, since religions (or more precisely, religious people) that make no claim to uniqueness and universality are no less guilty of oppression and injustice than Christians. Clearly, then, the claim of uniqueness and universality of Jesus and that of Christianity must be approached differently.

  1. This brings me to the epistemological issue. How are the two claims to be substantiated, especially in the context of interreligious dialogue? First of all, it is to be noted that the claim that Jesus the Christ is the unique and universal savior, both in the exclusivistic and inclusivistic sense, is grounded in the more fundamental belief that he is no other than God incarnate, or more exactly, God the Son made flesh. Thus, both assertions, that Jesus is God and that he is the unique savior, are faith statements. As faith statements, they intend to affirm something true about Jesus and at the same time express his followers’ loving commitment and devotion to him.

But how do Christians go about “proving” the truth of their claim that Jesus is God and hence the unique and universal savior? Indeed, can this claim be “proved” at all? It is impossible to examine in detail the nature and scope of religious epistemology here, but at least the following observations should be made. First, there is a basic epistemological difference between the statement that, for instance, I am a Vietnamese and the statement that Jesus is God. The former can be directly verified by examining my genetic roots, whereas the second cannot be so proved or disproved because one of the terms of the proposition is by definition not amenable to empirical verification. The two statements belong to two distinct orders of knowledge. As the First Vatican Council puts it, “there is a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only in its principle but also in its object; in its principle, because apart from what natural reason can attain, there are proposed to our belief mysteries revealed by God.”

Secondly, this impossibility of empirical verification does not entail that faith statements are untrue or meaningless. Indeed, with regard to the claim that Jesus is God, then are reasonable grounds to substantiate. One can appeal, for instance, to Jesus’ teaching and behavior to vindicate his divinity. Of course, for non-Christians, such arguments do not amount to convincing proofs. But Christians themselves would readily acknowledge that fact, otherwise the claim of Jesus’ uniqueness and universality would no longer be a faith affirmation but a logical conclusion drawn from evident premises, which would go against the very nature of the Christian faith.

An objection may be entered here: What has been said for Jesus can, on this epistemological principle, be said for Gautama or Muhammad or any other religious figure as well. The answer to it must be, yes, indeed, because the claim of uniqueness and universality understood in the strong sense is, in my judgment, a faith claim and therefore operates with the same logic.

THE CLAIM OF UNIQUENESS AND UNIVERSALITY AND THE AIMS OF INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

But does this logic not make interreligious dialogue an endless monologue of deafs, with each partner making a claim of uniqueness and universality for his or her religious founder without ever being able to settle the truth? The answer to this query brings us to the last issue of our discussion which has to do with the purpose of interreligious dialogue. Four forms of interreligious dialogue have been distinguished, each with its own aim. The “dialogue of life” where people of diverse faiths live together, sharing their everyday joys and sorrow. The “dialogue of action” in which they collaborate for justice, peace, and the integral development of all peoples. The “dialogue of religious experience” where they, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches in forms of common prayer, worship, asceticisrn, and so on. Lastly, the “dialogue of theological exchange” where scholars of one faith seek to deepen their understanding of the religious traditions of another faith and, when necessary, to correct the misunderstandings of their own faith by others.

Only the fourth form of dialogue interests us here. The question is whether, on the epistemological principles adduced above, it would be condemned to the participants’ endless and irrefutable profession of faith in dialogue in the uniqueness and universality of their own religious founders. It would seem that such a conversation will never lead to a consensus capable of producing a sort of ecumenical esperanto with which to construct a “universal theology of religion.” In reply, it should be noted first of all that the goal of theological interreligious dialogue is not to construe a universal theology of religion whose possibility is predicated upon a core religious experience. The existence of this common religious experience has been proved to be highly improbable; at any rate, there is no scholarly agreement as to the essential features of such alleged common experience. Rather the goal of the “dialogue of theological exchange” is seeking understanding of the other faiths and one’s own faith in the light of other faiths. Such understanding may and should lead to the other three forms of dialogue, without having to postulate the existence of a core religious experience.

Secondly, the practice of interreligious dialogue can indeed focus on the issue of uniqueness and universality without being bogged down in interminable protestations of faith. An example will clarify this point. It is well known that in Mahayana Buddhism Gautama, who in the Tripikata did not claim to be identical with the Saving Truth or the Liberating Path but only to be the Path-finder and Truth-discoverer, was gradually transformed into the eternal Truth that preexists Gautama (the Dharma), the Lord of the Cosmos (lokanatha), the Knower of the World (lokavidu), the Great Being (mahasatta), the Lord (bhagavan) to be worshiped and praised. In the history of Christian thought a similar process can be discerned in the development of Christology, for instance, from the Suffering Servant of Markan Christology to the Incarnate Logos of Johannine Christology. There has been a transformation of Jesus as the preacher of the Kingdom of God into the Christ preached as the embodiment of the Kingdom, of the Son of God into God the Son to be worshiped and praised.

Suppose now that a Buddhist (mahayanist and not theravadin) believes that Gautama is the unique savior and that a Christian believes that Jesus is the unique savior (either in the exclusivistic or inclusivistic sense). Imagine that these two believers meet for an interreligious dialogue. Rather than bracketing those beliefs, they should express their claims as accurately as possible and present as clearly as they can the arguments that undergird them. It is hoped that the partners in dialogue go away from this intellectual exchange with a better understanding of the nature and scope of the claim of uniqueness and universality, of the reasons for which Christians and Buddhists make such a claim for their respective founders, and of the historical development of such a claim. Presumably they will have understood that the claim of uniqueness and universality is a faith claim, that as such it has its own criteria of verification, that it should not be confused with the claim of uniqueness and universality of the social institutions that these founders have spawned (the sangha or the church), and that there is a homology between the development of Buddhology and Christology. Such an understanding should be a more than satisfactory goal of interreligious dialogue. Of course, it is quite possible that as the result of the conversation the Christian or the Buddhist will be more convinced of the grounds of their respective claims, or that one is so persuaded by the arguments of the other and so decides to convert to the other’s faith. At any rate, they are urged to move beyond the dialogue of “theological exchange” to undertake the other forms of dialogue of “life,” “action,” and “religious experience.”

Finally, what about the claim of the uniqueness and universality of the religious institutions founded by or at least somehow connected with religious charismatic figures, or to continue with our example, Christianity? I propose that it should be abandoned altogether in the context of interreligious dialogue. There are four reasons for this. First, historically, this claim has always been presented as an empirical claim, at least by the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican I declared: “To the sole Catholic Church belong all the manifold and wonderful endowments which by divine disposition are meant to put into light the credibility of the Christian faith. Nay more, the Church by herself, with her marvelous propagation, eminent holiness and inexhaustible fruitfulness in everything that is good, with her Catholic unity and invincible stability, is a great and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefutable testimony of her divine mission.” As an empirical claim, its validity must be tested by an examination of the facts. And it is quite unlikely that such a sweeping claim can be borne out by the facts.

Secondly, this claim has often been associated in the past with colonialism and religious imperialism. The history of Christian mission furnishes ample evidence of this. It is the triumphalistic claim for Christianity as a social organization, and not the claim of the uniqueness and universality of Jesus as the crucified Christ, that produced in Christians self-righteousness, contempt for other religions, and lust for domination.

Thirdly, this claim, often encapsulated in the formula “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“No salvation outside the church”) has been shown to be historically and culturally dependent. Historically, Christians who made this claim were convinced that the only world that existed was Christian Europe. This conviction was shattered by Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World. Culturally, the Christian’s limited grasp of human psychology led them to think that those who refused to accept the Gospel were guilty of sinning against the truth. Contemporary psychology allows us to understand the various factors that influence a person’s decision and of which he or she may not be conscious and therefore not responsible.

Fourthly, in recent Catholic theology, there has been a widespread consciousness of and theological reflection on the “sinfulness” of the Church. Vatican II speaks of the “Church, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and in need of purification.” Hence, the empirical claim of uniqueness and universality of the church must be abandoned, or at least severely curtailed, in view of this renewed sense of the church’s imperfections.

In conclusion, here are in brief my proposals with regard to the claim of uniqueness and universality in interreligious dialogue:

  1. Such a claim, if it is a fundamental article of faith of one’s religious tradition, must be maintained in interreligious dialogue. The pluralist thesis is therefore rejected.
  2. A distinction must be made between the claim of uniqueness and universality of one’s religious founder and that of uniqueness and universality of one’s religion as a social

organization. The former claim is an affirmation of faith, the latter is an empirical statement. Different epistemologies and criteria of verification obtain in each case.

  1. Whereas the faith claim of the uniqueness and universality of one’s religious founder must be clearly maintained and defended, the empirical claim of uniqueness and universality of one’s institutional religion must be abandoned or at least extensively qualified in the context of interreligious dialogue. In other words, in interreligious dialogue it is possible and necessary to combine a “high” Christology (or Buddhology) with a “low” ecclesiology (or sanghology).

4. Finally, a “high” Christology need not adopt the exclusivist thesis but is compatible with a Christian inclusivist theology of religions.


Journal <Theology & Solidarity> Vol.4  2010