Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue


Chapter 4: Religious Pluralism

The last chapter has provided us with a glimpse of a crisis in Catholic theology which forms the background to what we saw in Part I. Now it can help us understand the contentious Catholic debate on religious pluralism. One of the greatest changes that took place at the time of the Second Vatican Council caused little reaction then, but now has moved to the center of the theological stage. It is a question of God’s universal will that all people be saved, or in its old negative form: outside of the Church there is no salvation.

Salvation Outside the Church

The doctrine of no salvation outside the Church has a history as long as the Church, itself, and this history has been ably surveyed by Francis Sullivan in his Salvation Outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response. What started out as a judgment applied by early Church leaders to those who had separated themselves from the Church by schism and heresy, later, once the Church became the official religion of the Roman empire, was applied to pagans and Jews. The whole world was seen as coextensive with the Roman world, and therefore all people must have heard the message of Christ, and if they didn’t accept it, then they were culpable of rejecting it, and therefore were condemning themselves to hell.

This mentality endured for a thousand years with various degrees of severity until the age of exploration when it became apparent that the world was a lot bigger than Christians had formerly realized, and it was necessary to address the question of the salvation of those people who had never heard the Gospel. Not only had geographic awareness expanded, but a new psychological awareness began to emerge, as well, and some theologians began to realize that there was a difference between living in a society where Christianity was present, and really hearing the message of the Gospel. Theological thinking began to shift, and this shifting reached a certain definitive stage at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and afterwards in the actions and statements of the Popes which clearly state that God calls all people to salvation no matter what their religion or their lack of it.

Karl Rahner called this newly found sense of God’s universal salvific will one of the most noteworthy results of the Second Vatican Council, and remarks on how little controversy it stirred.1 He writes that this development is "one of the most astonishing phenomena in the development of the Church’s conscious awareness of her faith, in this development as it applies to the secular and non-Christian world, the awareness of the difference between saving history as a whole and the history of explicit Christianity and of the Church."2

The old attitude that had existed in the Church up until the Second Vatican Council that those outside it were in peril of their salvation can be likened to a fog that had been thinning, but still chilled the relationship of the Church to those outside it and discomfited many people inside the Church. At the time of the Council it finally burned away, and many people in the Church saw that these old attitudes were untenable. In the preconciliar Catholic world, despite the more progressive statements by some theologians since the 16th century, the general feeling that percolated down to the local churches and the priests, religious and lay people was that all those who did not belong formally to the Catholic Church were in danger of being lost. This was one of the most pernicious effects of the old theology, and so it was hardly surprising that the new theology of openness and dialogue would react against it.

But it was so deep a change that time was necessary for the theological tremors which are now surfacing to become visible. Indeed, we are faced with the question of Catholic identity that we were looking at in the last chapter in another form. If the old neo-scholastic mentality tried to pin down this identity in a thousand details that were not essentially connected to the faith, theology today has been exploring just how much this old identity can be abandoned.


Anonymous Christians

In bare outline what Rahner had to say was this: God wills all people to be saved, and thus, people outside of the Church stand in a salvific relationship to God, but all grace comes through Jesus Christ, and must be received by an act of faith. Therefore, even non-Christians, without an explicit knowledge of Christ, are justified by the grace of Christ which they receive by faith, and therefore could be called anonymous Christians. Just how does this faith come about? The call to grace on God’s part is not just external, but is interior, as well, built in, as it were, in the very way God has created all people to share in divine love. Rahner calls it a "supernatural existential," an interior dynamism at the heart of our being drawing us to God, and this operates in our awareness and actions, but not necessarily in the form of explicit concepts and discernible historical events.

It is here that the idea of anonymous Christians begins to join the mainstream of Rahner’s transcendental theology, and through it some of the basic principles of Thomist theology find a new approach. Grace brings with it a new formal object, a transformation of human nature, fitting it for the supernatural goal of union with God. Rahner’s supernatural existential cannot be limited, as the old theology tended to do, to particular events and circumstances linked with the visible Church, but must be seen as a much deeper and universal transformation of human nature which brings about a change in awareness and the ability to respond to this offer of grace even when there is no explicit awareness of the Christian message. There is a crucial distinction, therefore, between this universal offer of salvation "taking place at a preconceptual level in the roots of man’s spiritual faculties," and the "objectification at the historical and conceptual level of the revelatory self-communication of God."3

In the past theology conceived of grace extrinsically as a discreet reality that could be completely lacking in an unbeliever, but Rahner wants to see it "as the innermost core of human existence in decision and freedom, always and above all given in the form of an offer that is either accepted or rejected, that the human being cannot step out of this transcendental particularity of his being at all."4 In contrast to the attitude of past theology, Rahner holds "that right from the beginning the history of revelation runs parallel with grace and salvation history." And "there has never been a time or place that was not part of the history of revelation."5 For a sense of just how this "preconceptual" offer can be responded to could be pursued and developed by examining Rahner’s ideas on concrete individual knowledge in Ignatius Loyola, which he considered among his most important theological ideas.6


Jacques Maritain and the First Act of Freedom

In 1945, an essay by Jacques Maritain entitled "La dialectique immanente du premier acte de liberté," (The immanent dialectic of the first act of freedom), appeared in Nova et Vetera and later appeared in his book Raisons et raisons in 1947. This virtually uncommented-upon essay is one of Maritain’s finest works, and it provides us with a way with which to delve deeper into what Rahner called a preconceptual offer.

Maritain takes as his starting point "any free act through which a new basic direction is imposed upon my life,"7 but for simplicity’s sake restricts himself to the first free act of a child which is not necessarily remembered or even concerned with an important matter, but nevertheless expresses a deep commitment. But what is the inner dynamism of this act? In it the good is chosen (or not chosen) precisely because it is good. Therefore, this choice transcends the whole order of empirical existence and it demands the existence of a separate good. The act of choosing the good "tends all at once, beyond its immediate object, toward God as the Separate Good in which the human person in the process of acting, whether he is aware of it or not, places his happiness and his end."8

Thus, the child in "virtue of the internal dynamism of his choice of the good... wills and loves the Separate Good as the ultimate end of his existence" and "his intellect has of God a vital non-conceptual knowledge which is involved both in the practical notion... of the moral good as formal motive of his first act of freedom, and in the movement of the will toward this good and, all at once, toward the Good."9 The will is going beyond this or that particular good to the ground of all good things "and it carries with itself, down to that beyond, the intellect, which at this point no longer enjoys the use of its regular instruments, and, as a result, is only actualized below the threshold of reflective consciousness, in a night without concept and without utterable knowledge."10

Further, if such a fundamental exercise of freedom is to be efficacious and love God above all things, it must be transformed and elevated by grace and charity. This is due not only to the wounded condition of human nature resulting from original sin, but due, as well, to the fact that the good which is the ultimate goal of all good acts, "the only true end existentially" of human life, is "God as the ultimate supernatural end," that is, God in His very own life. So the whole order of good, since it deals with what actually is, is concerned by that very fact with men and women in a fallen and redeemed state called to share in God’s own life. Grace is always present to envelop and attract" us, and "our fallen nature is exposed to grace as our tired bodies to the rays of the sun."11

This kind of reasoning faces Maritain with a serious dilemma. If such a first act of freedom is a supernatural act that leads to a relationship of friendship with God, then it must somehow involve faith, for as St. Paul says: "Without faith it is impossible to please God; for he that approaches God must believe that He exists, and is the rewarder of those who seek Him." So Maritain’s dilemma reads: This faith, according to St. Paul’s words, cannot be implicit faith, but how can it be explicit in the case of a child who "does not even know that he believes in God?"12 He resolves this impasse by avoiding the implicit-explicit dichotomy which deals only with conscious conceptual knowledge, and by invoking a knowledge that "reaches its object within the unconscious recesses of the spirit’s activity" in which "the intellect knows in a practical manner the Separate Good per conformitatem ad appetitum rectum (through conformity to the right appetite) and as the actual terminus of the will’s movement."13 Under the light of grace, the good chosen becomes the good by which I shall be saved and the separate good becomes God as savior. In short, the natural dynamism of the first act of freedom is transformed into a supernatural act and "under the light of faith, the right appetite then passes in conditionem objecti (into the sphere of objective actualization) and becomes, in the stead of any concept, the means of a knowledge which is speculative though escaping formulation and reflective consciousness... It is the movement of the will which, reaching beyond this good to the mysterious Existent it implies, makes this Existent become an object of the speculative intellect."14

This process reveals in a very striking way the kind of knowledge through connaturality that flourishes in supernatural contemplation. This knowledge coming through the first act of freedom "remains preconscious, or else hardly reaches the most obscure limits of consciousness, because, for one thing, it possesses no conceptual sign, and, for another, the movement of the will which brings it about is itself neither felt nor experienced, nor illumined and highly conscious as is love in the exercise of the gift of wisdom."15 The knowledge coming through the gift of wisdom becomes conscious and experimental without being conceptual.

What we are seeing here is much more than the first free act of the child, for this first act of freedom is at once a supernatural act of faith and the beginning of the mystical life that is rooted in faith. The difficult theological issues that surround the nature of the act of faith can be best approached when we look at them from the perspective of knowledge through connaturality which links together this first act with its higher and more developed expressions. So while this knowledge coming through the choice of the good is not in itself mystical knowledge, it "appears as an obscure preparation for and call to that experimental knowledge of God which is supernatural in its very mode of operation, and which reaches its highest degree in mystical contemplation."16

These remarks of Maritain were written in a different context from the one that faces us here, but it would not be difficult to transpose them into a nuanced explanation of how, from a Christian perspective, we might imagine God’s universal salvation operating in people’s hearts and minds.


Two Fundamental Principles

Neither Karl Rahner nor Jacques Maritain, despite their differences in approach, felt it necessary to alter the central Christian truth of the universal salvific role of Jesus in order to develop an understanding of God’s universal call to salvation, and how it might actually operate outside the Church. Building on what they have said, it is possible to begin to enunciate two fundamental principles. One has to do with God’s universal salvific will, which could be called an existential principle, and the other with how Christians perceive this universal salvific will which works itself out through Jesus Christ. This could be called an essentialistic principle.

The first principle says that God wishes to draw all women and men to share in the divine life of grace. Our hearts are made for this goal, and ceaselessly long for it and try to achieve it. Naturally this is a Christian belief, which our dialogue partners might not explicitly share. But it is a vital principle from the Christian side because it asserts the fundamental equality of the people on both sides of the dialogue. Christians must presume that their dialogue partners share in the life of grace and grow in it by their good actions. They cannot imagine that they, themselves, are actually closer to God, or somehow more pleasing in God’s sight because of their explicit profession of Christian beliefs.

The logic of this position, I think, is quite unassailable. God from the beginning has destined the human race to a supernatural goal, which is to share in God’s own life. This divine intention still exists in a very real and concrete way, and is rooted in the heart of every person. It flowers in grace which grows through all good actions. Thus, there is an intrinsic unity and equality between all men and women, irregardless of their formal beliefs. Our Buddhist and Hindu dialogue partners, for example, are thus our brothers and sisters, children like us of the one God. Let us say that the human race possesses a concrete or existential unity in regard to the life of grace, and our dialogue partners may be more advanced in that life than we are, even if, according to their own belief system, they do not formally admit the existence of God. There is an actual existential pluralism in which people take widely divergent and even conceptually incompatible paths, and arrive at this final goal of union with God.

To say this is not a form of Christian religious imperialism as if this principle was something that Christians were compelled to impose on non-Christians, but rather, it is something that Christians, themselves, need to believe because a contrary formulation is unacceptable. In such a contrary statement, God would be creating people made for a share in God’s life, and then willing that they don’t reach that goal. And this would, in essence, be to will a contradiction. In short, this first principle flows from a belief in God’s essential goodness.

Let’s turn for a moment to the objective means God can use to draw us to our final goal. There is no reason why the universal salvific action of God which touches every heart cannot work through the people and things of this world. It is entirely in accord with the social dimension of our human nature that this would happen. Therefore, our daily lives can be said to be filled with situations which mediate God’s loving presence to us. Our daily acts of kindness and love in regard to our family and friends and the people in our communities all can be means of grace. Further, the religious ceremonies and sacred writings that make up our religion, no matter what it is, can also be used by God to draw us to our final destiny. Even if we have no religious beliefs whatsoever, those acts by which we help those around us can become means of grace for us.

What emerges, then, from our first principle is a view of a truly loving and compassionate God who intends to draw all people to their final destiny and works both in the depths of their hearts and through all the peoples and structures that surround them in order to accomplish this end. Therefore, if we apply this perspective to our partners in interreligious dialogue, we have to approach them with the firm belief that they may, indeed, be closer to God than we are, for they may have responded better to the offers of God’s grace than we have.

We have called this first principle a concrete, or existential, principle. And it cannot be taken out of this concrete existential realm, and be given what can be called an essentialistic meaning. Here we arrive at the second principle. Even though all women and men are destined to the same goal and are concretely achieving that goal according to the means they have available to them, this does not mean that all doctrinal systems or spiritual paths are equivalent. A doctrine of the non-existence of the personal self, or the non-existence of God, is not automatically equivalent to a doctrine of the existence of the self and God. The two may be equivalent if we dig deep enough, but we have to dig in order to find out. Or they may point to different experiences based on different facets of reality, or one or both of them may be partially wrong or poorly formulated. What we believe and how we articulate those beliefs is important.

If the first principle is about God’s goodness, the second is about a quest for understanding. It asks about the nature of the salvation that God wills for all people. How does God desire to bring it about? Traditionally Catholics have held that this salvation is bound up with Jesus. This belief is woven into the very texture of faith which sees Jesus as the Incarnate Word of God who suffered, died and rose again for the salvation of all people. For a long time this understanding of the role of Jesus and the Church was set up against God’s universal salvific will in the form of an "outside of the Church there is no salvation" theology. Therefore, it is not surprising that by way of reaction contemporary theology has insisted on God’s universal salvific will, and sometimes it insists on it in a unilateral way that obscures the role of Jesus in that salvation. The first step in the direction of a solution I believe to be the realization that the two principles don’t contradict each other because they are not the same kind of principle.

The first principle tells us that the humanity of Jesus is not universal in the sense that all people must explicitly acknowledge the role of Jesus in order to come to salvation. But this doesn’t mean that the humanity of Jesus cannot be universal in the essentialistic sense that God wills grace to flow through it so that it is not a contradiction for Catholics to hold to God’s universal salvific will at the same time they believe that salvation comes through Jesus. Obviously, the universal role of Jesus and the Church is not a proposition that Catholics can expect others to believe. My point here is simply that Catholics need not disbelieve it in order to hold to God’s universal salvific will.

This being said, it is important for theology to try to understand just what this universal role of Jesus means. In a certain obvious way, the humanity of Jesus is limited because Jesus was born and lived in a particular time and place, but if the humanity of Jesus is, indeed, the humanity of the very Word of God, then our perspective changes and deepens. This humanity is then no longer one human nature among many, but it is a humanity transformed from within by its assumption by the Word. It becomes a divinized humanity that stands at the very center of the human race, and incorporates into itself all people. It is here we join the traditional theological theme of the mystical body of Christ, and it would be possible to develop this view of the humanity of Jesus at length, as did one of the 20th century’s great theologians, Emile Mersch. I have examined his theology in Mind Aflame. Here it is enough to say that the divinized humanity of Jesus is conceived of as the instrument of all grace and salvation that draws all people to share in God’s own life. This is where dialogue gets difficult. But because Catholics believe in the central role of Jesus in salvation should not in itself be offensive to their dialogue partners as long as it is clear to them that Catholics hold equally firmly to the first principle of God’s universal salvific will. Just about anything Catholics believe is not believed by one or other of their dialogue partners including the existence of God and the notion of salvation itself. Dialogue is not an automatic process of discarding the beliefs that separate us from others, but going on a common search for truth in a spirit of charity. But in Catholic theology we are faced with attempts to wrestle with these kinds of issues that come to very different conclusions. Let’s look at some of them, and then return to these two principles.


Paul Knitter

Paul Knitter, a former Divine Word missionary, has been an important voice in the debate about religious pluralism starting with his No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions which appeared in 1985. He felt that his own life was a microcosm of the developments that gave birth to modern Catholic religious pluralism: his membership in his missionary order, his life as a student in Rome at the time of the Council, his study of the theology of Karl Rahner, and at the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Marburg, and his later activities in interreligious dialogue and social justice. He has moved from an ecclesiocentrism, or exclusivism that we saw under the heading of no salvation outside the Church, to a Christocentrism, or inclusivism embodied in Rahner’s anonymous Christian, to a theocentrism that tried to find a common basis for dialogue among the world’s religions in the idea of the kingdom of God, and finally to a soteriocentrism, or salvation-centeredness born out of his contact with liberation theology that sees the purpose and foundation of dialogue in a preferential option for the poor.

From this perspective Knitter would see our presentation of the old exclusivism being answered by the inclusivism of Rahner and Maritain as seriously incomplete. We need, he would say, to go beyond Rahner and create a genuine religious pluralism. Let’s see how his thought unfolds in his No Other Name? Knitter first sketches the general contemporary attitudes that favor the creation of a religious pluralism like modern ideas on world citizenship and process philosophy, and then he focuses on Ernst Troeltsch’s relativism, Toynbee’s views on a common essence to religion, and Jung’s ideas on how all religions emerge out of the unconscious. Next he takes us on a methodical survey of Christian attitudes towards religious pluralism in the evangelical mainline Protestant and Catholic worlds.

He provides a more detailed view of the development of Catholic theology that we have been seeing: the slow and often one-sided historical development of the two basic themes of God’s universal salvific will and the role played by Jesus and the Church, the work of Karl Rahner and the Vatican Council, and so forth. But he wants to go beyond Rahner even though he makes it clear the Rahner’s position has not only been widely accepted in Catholic circles, but has influenced mainline Protestant thinkers, as well. He finds that even those who disagree with Rahner’s terminology and what they imagine to be its implications often advance similar positions because they see that the role of Christ in the economy of salvation has always been put forth by Christians as somehow unique, or normative. In short, Knitter wants, as the title of his book clearly states, to address whether there is any other name in which people can be saved. He feels that the traditional emphasis on the uniqueness of Jesus in the form of the old exclusivism, or even the inclusive uniqueness like that advanced by Rahner, contradicts our contemporary awareness of the relativity of history, and impedes authentic dialogue. Instead, we have to turn to a theocentrism inspired by people like John Hick, or Raimundo Panikkar, and a relational uniqueness of Jesus. This is going to be a uniqueness "defined by its ability to relate to – that is, to include and be included by – other unique religious figures."17

This, he admits, is a very new way of looking at Christ, but he feels it is justified by the fact that today we have a new historical consciousness of "the relativity of all cultures and historical achievements…"18 And it is with this instrument that he seems to want to forge a new understanding of Christianity, and while he will turn to contemporary New Testament studies to bolster his position, it is this principle that really governs the development of what he is going to say. Under its impact the Incarnation becomes a myth to be taken seriously, but not literally, and it is an expression of the "non-dualistic unity between divinity and humanity."19 This means that there can be "other incarnations."20 This begins to sound like some of the things we have already been seeing in which the traditional understanding of the Incarnation as happening ontologically in Jesus, and in us by grace, has been altered. We no longer look to the uniqueness of the person of Jesus for fear that would impede dialogue.

For Knitter, the old Christologies developed within a classicist culture which people took for granted. For something to be true, it had to be certain and unchanging. But for our modern historical culture this no longer holds. Aristotle believed in first principles of the mind, chief of which was the principle of contradiction. "In its logical form it states that "of two propositions, one of which affirms something and the other denies the same thing, one must be true and the other false." In other words, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time, in the same way. Truth, therefore, is essentially a matter of either-or. It is either this or not this; it cannot be both."21

But now there must be a new understanding of truth. "Truth will no longer be identified by its ability to exclude or absorb others."22 Rather, it has to include them, and instead of being either/or becomes a both/and kind of truth. The classical culture of the past, a culture in which Christianity lived out its life, is irretrievably gone. Now we have a historical culture. Truth is no longer Aristotle’s idea of science as certain knowledge through causes. We need to follow the model of the modern sciences, for it is better to say not that something is true, but that it is on the way toward truth. True understanding is subject to revision and change. We need to recognize the reality of historical relativity which is at the heart of our modern consciousness unless we have succumbed to fundamentalism, or nationalism. While Knitter has some questions about this kind of program, he seems to embrace most of it. Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction is part of this old classical mentality, so it must go, as well. We need a new kind of telescope that will allow us to see the ongoing pluralistic nature of truth.

If we take the "ongoing pluralistic nature of truth" in a concrete sense, we can understand what Knitter is saying. We grope towards the truth in a multitude of ways which are conditioned by the limits of our particular language and culture. The existential quality of this language is brought out when he continues: "More and more Catholics have come to realize that such insistence on truth-through-exclusion easily atrophies personal faith and reduces faith to doctrine, morality to legalism, ritual to superstition. Catholics have also seen how such concern for absolute truth denigrates the value of other religious traditions."23 But Knitter leaves us with the impression that this concrete sense is somehow opposed to what could be called an essentialistic one, as expressed in Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, and we need to choose between the two. But we can’t really dispense with the principle of non-contradiction without destroying the very language we are using, and our contact with reality along with it.

Given this model of truth, Knitter tells us theology can no longer be done within any one religious tradition. Theologians need to pursue the truths that include, and not exclude, others. Christian fundamental theology must be done in a similar fashion. The old theology born of the classical era "asserts that human nature is radically historical, and that in this historicity persons can experience an I-Thou relationship with divinity."24 But this might have to be rethought because of the many people in the world who don’t believe in a personal God. Instead, we might want to create a global fundamental theology around some kind of religious or mystical experience that embraces a reality that can be symbolized as both personal and transpersonal. "All religions, I suggest, could recognize such mystical experience (grace, enlightenment, samadi, satori) as the bedrock for all religion and for all reflection on religion."25 But once you have made the assumption that Christian mystical experience is identical to satori, etc., then you are well on your way, as we have seen over and over again, to a view of the Incarnation in which the "old myth" is replaced by the universal experience of nonduality.

If we then go on to create a global systematic theology on this basis, it will not only understand Christianity better by understanding other religions, but "the cognitive claims of Christian tradition must somehow be true also for those of other religions if these claims are genuinely to be true for Christians!"26 This is to once again confuse the essential and the existential, in this case an acceptance of God’s universal salvific will with the cognitive claims every religion has, and collapse these claims to find a unity upon which dialogue can be built. But this is to eliminate genuine dialogue, which implies different viewpoints, before the dialogue even begins.

By the time Knitter edited The Myth of Christian Uniqueness with John Hick in 1987 he was already shifting away from this position. Just as Hick had moved from a theocentrism to a more general reality-centeredness that he hoped all religions could agree upon, Knitter was moving from his own theocentrism to a soteriocentrism inspired by liberation theology in which a "preferential option for the poor and the nonperson constitutes both the necessity and the primary purpose of interreligious dialogue."27

It is another version of the search for a common essence to religions, but this time not driven by some kind of ontological quest, but by the supposed demands of dialogue, itself, but still a search for the most common denominator in order that dialogue can take place. He wants to use the preferential option for the poor to clear away some of what he sees as some of the thorny obstacles to dialogue.

But there is a continuation here of the same kind of philosophical background music we heard before in terms of historical relativism. Contemporary philosophers have argued against any sort of foundationalism and objectivism. So there is no common essence, no way to assess the tradition from the outside and examine its truth claims, and what we are left with are different religious traditions which are ultimately incommensurable. Raimundo Panikkar, we are told, echoes these philosophers: "Pluralism does not allow for a universal system. A pluralist system would be a contradiction in terms. The incommensurability of ultimate systems is unbridgeable."28 Yet the critics of any search for a common essence, or foundation, will warn against the dangers of radical scepticism.

Knitter, rightly uneasy about how these claims can be reconciled, sums it up as follows: "The philosophers and theologians mentioned above are all, paradoxically, firm believers in the possibility and the value of communication and dialogue between apparently "incommensurable" traditions. They seek a difficult, paradoxical path between foundationalism and relativism; even though there are no pre-established common foundations, we can still talk to and understand each other."29 But he adds, "Just how this works out is not clear."30 And he tries to find a solution with the help of liberation theology. He believes he can do this because of its epistemological claim that without a commitment to the oppressed, our knowledge of self and other and the ultimate is deficient. The struggle for liberation becomes the shared locus of religious experience which allows people of different traditions to speak to one another.

But we are looking at the same kind of problem in another form that we have been seeing. The serious philosophical issues about our ability to know are pushed into the background by being subordinated to a kind of orthopraxis. The question of foundationalism is overshadowed by a confusion between the essential and the existential. The concrete fact of religious pluralism cannot be erected into a philosophical principle of the incommensurability of traditions without once again destroying language and reason. The quest for a common essence, however often it may be used to ignore actually existing diversity, is a reflection of our desire to truly know, and cannot be written off as futile.

If I overemphasize the visible role of Jesus and the Church in salvation, then I end up insisting that all salvation demands a visible connection with the Church. But if, on the other hand, I unilaterally insist on God’s universal salvific will, then I conceive of the process of dialogue as one in which I level all the differences between the dialogue partners before the dialogue has even commenced, and before I truly know what they have to say. I end up saying, in essence, the Incarnation of Jesus cannot be true because God wills all people to be saved, and the majority of people has never known Jesus in any efficacious way. But this is just as one-sided as the old no salvation outside the Church. The new religious pluralism ends up appearing like another kind of reaction theology that is trying to compensate for the deficiencies of the old exclusivism. It is as if it is saying Christians must put into brackets, or put under a methodological doubt, their belief in Christ in order to make dialogue possible. The absolute insistence that salvation demands a visible connection to Christ in the Church is replaced by the relativization of the role of Christ.

Later Knitter, in his Jesus and the Other Names which appeared in 1996, reviewed the objections of his critics and tried to respond to them. At the heart of the problem with Knitter’s kind of pluralism is the fact that the uniqueness of Jesus as the universal savior is rooted in the New Testament, and in the centuries since in the understanding of the Christian community. Therefore, if we substantially alter it, aren’t we tampering with the very identity of Christianity, itself? Can we really separate Christianity from the person of Jesus, and who we say he is? Christianity is not just some core of moral principles, or some universal truths to be found in other religions, as well, but it is about particular historical events given a universal salvific significance. It is hard to imagine how we can put aside what Christians from the beginning have always said because we now say we have a new historical view of language and culture, or a new model of truth. Is it really possible to understand the Incarnation of Jesus in a radically new way by reducing it to a meeting of the divine and the human that happens to everyone everywhere without any real or intrinsic reference to Him?

When Knitter replies to these kinds of problems, at first glance he seems to be conceding some ground to his critics. He hopes to find a way to understand the uniqueness of Jesus that does not impede dialogue. What the New Testament says about Jesus, he tells us, must be held by Christians to be truly said about Him, but not solely said about Him. So as a Christian, I can say that God truly acts through Jesus for me, and Jesus is therefore my savior. But this does not mean that Jesus is the only savior. Christians don’t know if He is the only savior, but they don’t have to know it in order for Jesus to be a savior for them.

But what Knitter is conceding with one hand, he appears to be taking back with the other. Jesus can no longer be called the "full, definitive, and unsurpassable" 31 revelation of God, and he cannot be the full revelation because he cannot contain the fullness of divinity in his humanity. Nor can Christians boast of a definitive word of God in Jesus, for that would be to deposit wisdom in a container and say that nothing else can be added to it. Nor can it be held that God cannot provide a greater fullness of revelation, for that would be to "hold up a package of divine truth" as unsurpassable.

But this kind of characterization of Jesus either states the obvious, i.e., the humanity of Jesus is not the divinity, or views revelation as a static collection of truths. The distinction between truly and only does not really address the fundamental problem of just who Jesus is. If Jesus is, indeed, the Word of the Father, the Incarnate Wisdom, then in a certain way we are dealing with a full, definitive and unsurpassable revelation, as Christians have always believed. But the reason why this revelation is unsurpassable is not because it is not an unsurpassable collection of conceptual statements locked away once and for all, but rather, because Jesus is the very Word of the Father. And because He is the Word, His humanity is flooded with a fullness of grace which constitutes it as a living center of humanity, the principle, as it were, of our divinization.

Knitter will go on with an enumeration of various terms to try to resolve the underlying question. He will say, for example, that Jesus is "God’s universal, decisive, and indispensable manifestation of saving truth and grace."32 He is universal as a call for all people, decisive and even normative for what we should do, but not, Knitter says, final or unsurpassable. He is indispensable so that someone who does not have Jesus in his life is missing something, and in a qualified but real way, is unfulfilled without Christ. But once all this terminological dust settles, we find him saying that Jesus brings a universal decisive and unsurpassable message, but not the message, for there are other messages. Jesus has a relational uniqueness. He does not stand by Himself, but with others. "Jesus is a Word that can be understood only in conversations with other Words."33 It is not hard to imagine that such a program will neither appease his critics nor please the people he is trying to dialogue with. Knitter goes on to ask why Jesus is unique. What is the content of His uniqueness? And he answers: "Ultimate Reality experienced as the God of Jesus is a God who is known in history, who seeks the well-being of the oppressed, and who is faithful to those who work for God’s Reign on Earth."34

Knitter's work, as well as that of the other religious pluralists, were subjected to telling criticisms in Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered, especially in articles by Wolfhart Pannenberg and Paul Griffiths, and more recently in James Fredericks' Faith among Faiths.


Joseph O’Leary

We saw how in Paul Knitter’s theological reflections on religious pluralism the question of historical relativism played an important role. But there it was in the background. With Joseph O’Leary, who teaches English literature at Sophia University, these kinds of issues take the center stage.

In Questioning Back, the first book in a proposed trilogy, in a chapter called "Is It Possible to Overcome Metaphysics?" we are faced with not only the failure of metaphysics that we called conceptualism, but with the charge that metaphysics is no longer possible. We are told that despite the central role it played in the West for 2,500 years, it no longer truly speaks to us, and we need to see its limits in a new way, and in this sense overcome it. We also need to overcome the classical theology that made use of metaphysics, even such a venerable use as found in the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon… "I hold that there is no irenic translation of classical Christian language into contemporary terms. Whatever is metaphysical in that language must pass through the crucible of the critique of metaphysics."35

This kind of overcoming will proceed under the banner of Heidegger with some help from Derrida. O’Leary will admit that St. Thomas gave "an unprecedented metaphysical depth to the notion of "being"…"36 But both his metaphysics and the theology that employed it are "impositions of an extrinsic paradigm on the phenomena themselves."37 Whatever metaphysical and theological depths Thomas glimpsed seven hundred years ago, we can hardly expect them to still speak to us. "Faith and philosophy converged luminously in the thirteenth century, and seemed to have been moving apart again every since."38

O’Leary’s critique of metaphysics and a theology that makes use of it does not attempt to overcome the limits of Thomas’ metaphysics by going back to his primordial insights, and then working forward to see if they could be reformulated more adequately. Instead, he is talking about "a more radical apprehension of the phenomenality of being"39 under the guidance of Heidegger, which is a "phenomenological return to the things themselves, but one mediated by history. We have no experience of things themselves that is not already an interpretation of them."40 It would take us too far afield to pursue the implications of this approach in detail, but this is a view of metaphysics that is at variance with the whole philosophical tradition that leads to St. Thomas because it sees a gap between our experience of things and our deepest philosophical insights about them, a gap into which we are to insert a critique of metaphysics, and thus stand outside the whole of metaphysics and overcome it.

Heidegger, for example, was once asked, "Can God and being be identified?" And he replied, "I have asked a Jesuit who is kindly disposed to me to show me the places in Thomas Aquinas where we are told what "esse" really signifies and what is to be understood by the proposition: "Deus est suum esse."… Being and God are not identical, and I would never attempt to think the essence of God by means of being."41 For Heidegger, Thomas’ ideas on being had lost the phenomenological import they had had in Aristotle, and now he is asking this Jesuit to restore it.

O’Leary suggests that he might have been speaking to Johannes Baptist Lotz who later ventured an answer: "For Aristotle being is still veiled in beings, so that even the divine appears only as the most excellent kind of entity; Thomas Aquinas accomplished within Western philosophizing the hitherto greatest and as yet unparalleled unveiling of being (Enthüllung), whereby he also breaks through to the idea of God as subsistent being… In Aristotle (the ontological difference) is still quite hidden, does not yet really open up; Thomas Aquinas lives in its unfolding (Aufbrechen), thinks fully from the difference and in it… (Nor does) the difference as such remain unthought… In his own way Aquinas really thought the ontological difference itself and so wrested it from forgottenness. Yes, we dare to say that in the thinking of this difference he advanced farther than anyone else."42

But this doesn’t satisfy O’Leary. "I would say rather that, insofar as the truth of being is accessible within metaphysics, Aquinas may have given the most perfect articulation of it possible, but that because he remained within metaphysics he had no access to the phenomenological apprehension of being and beings in their difference. In his system everything centers on the act of being, and this gives it a transparency and a dynamic cast not to be found in the other scholastics, who are generally more oriented to form and essence than to act and being. But does Thomas’s metaphysical lucidity about the nature of being amount to a phenomenological apprehension of the presence of being? In my opinion it does not, though like all great metaphysicians he offers material for such a phenomenology."43

There is a certain fear and loathing of metaphysics here, and perhaps a well-earned one. The metaphysics of St. Thomas was often presented poorly and glibly so that one could hardly be expected to be captivated by its beauty. The result was a reaction against it, and against even the possibility of metaphysics. There needs to be a return to the roots of metaphysics, that is, to the primordial experiences from which it arises, to the things themselves. In this regard, however, I am not sure how much help Heidegger would be. This return is not by some sort of critique of metaphysics that must take place before reason can be employed, but it is a return to the intuitive sources of reason where it encounters actually existing things, where it comes into intimate contact with this oak tree in the garden, or that pail of water, or loaf of bread. This intuitive encounter, however it may come about, is what Maritain called the intuition of being. At these depths we are no longer dealing with an academic philosophy which, even when it is correct in its employment of concepts, is content to let these concepts be in the forefront, and the intuitive insights that gave birth to them remain hidden in the depths of the unconscious. Instead, we are moving towards a practitioner’s metaphysics where there is a conscious desire to contemplate being, and to do metaphysics in the midst of the marketplace of concrete things. We certainly need an overcoming of metaphysics in this sense, but not one that throws doubt on the very possibility of metaphysics, and on the value of concepts in giving us genuine knowledge of things themselves, still less one that puts the phenomenality of things on one side and our deepest insights into being on the other.

There is, however, another very intriguing possibility. What if, in Heidegger’s experience of being, there is a strong element of what in the East would be called enlightenment? Louis Gardet, in L'experience du soi, points to such a possibility: "Is it illusory to suggest that it is a question here of a transcription, in a language informed by the Kantian critique and the phenomenological reductions, of the experience of the Self, of the fruitful grasping (and negatively achieved) of the substantial esse of the soul as spirit in its first act of existence?"44 If this is true, then it would explain the close link between these reflections on Heidegger and O’Leary’s attraction to Buddhism, which we will turn to in a moment. Then what we are faced with under these hermenutical veils is the same issue we have been seeing over and over again. The experience of enlightenment is being held up as the normative way to judge both metaphysics and Christian faith.

In Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth O’Leary uses deconstruction and Buddhism to examine how religious language functions in regard to God and Christ. Given his ideas about metaphysics, we already have an inkling of how things will turn out. The "contemporary epistemological context" "has rendered some forms of faith and religious knowledge obsolete." But all is not lost. New possibilities open up. If only we can tread the narrow way between fixation on the old and modern temptations to dissolve faith away completely, then we can let orthodoxy emerge in a new form.45 If the traditional metaphysics was no longer viable because it didn’t speak to us, in a similar way traditional theology, even the creeds and the Christological Councils no longer speak to us, either. Under these guiding lights of deconstruction and Buddhism we can discover that religious language, even dogmatic language, is upaya, or skillful means. This language is like a finger pointing at the moon, but just for a moment before it is replaced by another finger. Upaya tells us "the language of faith, and the coherent logic of doctrinal reflection, have only an oblique and opaque relation to the noumenal thing-in-itself."46

Not only skillful means, but Buddhist emptiness, can help us deconstruct the old religious language and let orthodoxy reemerge. "The serenity of Buddhist non-theism throws an unflattering light on the rhetoric of monotheism, which is seen as pervaded by illusion. But this does not condemn us to agnostic fumblings, for Buddhism offers a spiritual horizon in which we may be able to convert our language of God into one more adequate to the phenomenality of transcendence."47 While O’Leary is not unaware of the difficulties of using Buddhist ideas that were born in such a different historical context, he perhaps does not appreciate the magnitude of the project he is suggesting. The project of using Buddhist emptiness in a genuine Christian theology probably dwarfs that of using Heidegger’s views on being to create a metaphysics compatible with Christianity. Further, to criticize the relationship between concepts and things because it does not conform to the patterns found in Zen Buddhism is to already make an implicit judgment about the normative nature of enlightenment in regard to Christian theology and mysticism. Concepts in Zen are upaya because of the distinctive kind of nonconceptual experience that is trying to be attained in enlightenment. This kind of skillful means says little about concepts themselves and their ability to know from a philosophical perspective. The upaya of Zen is not the same as the transcendence of concepts found in St. Thomas’ doctrine on the names of God because for St. Thomas the concepts continue to signify, even as their limits are exposed and they are swallowed up by what they are pointing to.

O’Leary insists, along with some Buddhist scholars, that it is wrong to treat emptiness as something having a metaphysical nature, and he takes people like Masao Abe to task for it. "The notion of emptiness serves at the phenomenological level as a therapy against metaphysical delusions. But in Abe’s hands it becomes itself a metaphysical absolute. This leads to a speculative engagement between this absolutised emptiness and metaphysical versions of Christian theology, which themselves need to be overcome by being recalled to their biblical roots."48

But there is something a little too convenient in all this. Despite the validity of the point he is making, these strictures on metaphysics rendered in the style of Nagarjuna fall a bit too readily into the pre-existing modern deconstruction mentalities of both certain Christian and Buddhist scholars, and in doing so we can miss a golden opportunity. Once again, it takes the nonconceptual experience of enlightenment and the nonconceptual means by which it must be reached as normative, not only in the time of meditation, but as a critique on all our ways of knowing. Once this is done, then Christians can’t reflect on their own metaphysical past because it has receded into an impenetrable hermeneutic fog. And Buddhists cannot attempt to grapple in a metaphysical way with the wonderfully rich metaphysical insights that have emerged in Buddhism over the centuries.

Masao Abe suggests that: "Most Buddhist thinkers have rather strong convictions that Buddhism is deeper than Christianity as a religion, both spiritually and intellectually."49 It is hard to see how this impression will be overcome if Christians are not bringing their deepest metaphysical, theological and mystical traditions to the table of dialogue, but rather, are confirming this impression by coming to the conclusion that Christianity, itself, is at heart another example of Buddhist skillful means, and another nonduality, and therefore something that the East knows far more about than Christians.

Abe will write elsewhere: "Sunyata can be better understood as ultimate reality, without form and content (substantiality), infinitely open and in that sense absolute no-thing-ness. No-thing-ness as the mother of all things, as a creative and dynamic nothingness, transcending the duality of something and nothing."50 A statement like this could be the starting point for a deep metaphysical conversation that could interest both Buddhist thinkers and Christians ones. St. Thomas, for example, was a diligent commentator on the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and it would be possible to create, I think, a genuine existential Thomist metaphysical language, drawing in part on Pseudo-Dionysius, with the necessary correctives, and aimed at expressing metaphysical insights that would be congruent to what Abe is saying. In such a language it would be possible to say not only that God is, but that God "is not."51 Or God "is no thing." This would not have to be a return to a neo-Platonism in which there is the one somehow beyond being. Even a Thomist could say God "does not possess this kind of existence and not that."52 In this kind of language non-being is not mere nothingness, but "an excess of being."53 But if we continue to accuse Abe and the Kyoto School of somehow substantializing emptiness, and turning it into an ultimate principle like God, or being, in the West, and evoking Nagarjuna in order to say that these deep metaphysical impulses cannot be pursued either in the East or West, then such a conversation is ruled out before it can even begin.

The biblical language, itself, for O'Leary becomes a form of upaya "to be deployed skillfully in order to do justice first to the phenomenality of the Christ-event."54 But just how do we come in contact or know this event? The traditional answer was never by metaphysics, but rather, by faith. And faith, in turn, was never reduced to being only conceptual statements. It is certainly important to protect the mysteries of Christianity from being subjected and dominated by metaphysical categories, but in order to do this we don’t need to dig a ditch between faith and reason, and have a fideism on one side, and a phenomenology that cannot really know things, themselves, in a conceptual way, on the other. If O’Leary means that the "phenomena of revelation" cannot be properly contacted or assented to by reason, still less by abstract metaphysical systems, he is certainly correct. But he appears to be saying a lot more than this. "Presuppositionless Buddhist prajna, penetrating discernment, should come before the investment of faith, clearing the ground for a demystified apprehension of the phenomenon of Jesus so that this phenomenon in its ‘thusness’ can draw forth the appropriate response of faith, which may no longer be that of biblical or classical Christian times, but something quieter, subtler, more open-ended."55 Just how presuppositionless Buddhist categories are is, of course, questionable, as we have just seen. We are left with the impression that the whole Christian tradition somehow resists all genuine knowing. "Yet in the end the status of this entire tradition, with all its logical and phenomenological constraints, remains contingent. It is an interpretation whose relation to the truth of things in themselves eludes us, even if we say that in revelation the truth is no longer noumenal but is given as a phenomenon to be lived, that life takes a variety of forms, and is enacted as a series of finite occasions."56

O’Leary’s tentative reflections on how we can remake traditional Christianity by appealing to Buddhist emptiness give scant comfort. First we must see that traditional Christology is "intrinsically "empty","57 and is but a makeshift historical construct, then we can go on to see how Jesus is empty of his own-being and the "emptiness of the risen Christ is one with the emptiness of the eternal Logos, the emptiness of God himself."58

In the end, however, O’Leary wants to hold on to something of the distinctive nature of Christianity, and tells us "we must retain a sense of the irreducibility to Buddhist categories of the incarnational covenant between a transcendent God and human finitude."59 But we can certainly wonder just what is left of traditional Christian doctrine when it has been surrounded in all directions by epistemological "no trespassing" signs.

In a review of Mysticism Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec O’Leary sums up his program. "…certain of the categories governing the debate (e.g., immanence and transcendence, personal and impersonal God, Creator and creature) have reached the limits of their usefulness. For a breakthrough in interreligious thinking these categories must be historicized and deconstructed as Christianity opens itself to the critical impact of Buddhist epistemology and ontology at the level of its most basic self-understanding. Only slight beginnings have been made in this daunting task, but is sure to be a major project of Christian thought in the next century. A ground-breaking contribution is John P. Keenan’s study of Buddhist and Christian mysticism."60

We will look at Keenan’s work in a moment, but this kind of program of deconstruction is the equivalent of dynamiting a building into rubble, then constructing a new building out of the rubble, a building that has no real connection with what went before.


John Keenan

The Episcopal priest and Buddhist scholar John Keenan’s The Meaning of Christ carries the subtitle A Mahayana Theology, and that is exactly what he gives us. This is not the use of Buddhist insights to stimulate and supplement Christian theology, but something much more radical in which the traditional understanding of God and Christ is replaced by Buddhist views. Emptiness and the no essence, or no-self, of Buddhism "entails the rejection of the metaphysical basis of Western theology."61 Once again Nagarjuna is evoked to avoid reflecting on what might be the rich metaphysical dimensions of emptiness and no-self, and we are left with a theological instrument which tells us "all views are seen to be empty of essence and unable to sustain any claim to final validity."62 This will function like the upaya or skillful means we have been seeing. All concepts are relativized, and therefore our traditional Christian understanding of Christ is no more privileged than whatever new understanding we might like to create. In this case we are left with emptiness and dependent co-arising as the fundamental Buddhist categories into which we must now force the Christian mysteries.

Traditional Christology is written off as non-binding because we are no longer Greeks, and therefore need not use Greek philosophy with its tendencies towards essentialism. This is a refrain that we have, of course, been seeing over and over again, but it is rather simplistic because it assumes that theology in the past was simply applying Greek philosophy to Christian themes, and it ignores the transformations that Greek ideas underwent in order to be used by theology to try to articulate something of the mystery of Christ, a mystery that was known primarily not by reason, but by faith.

Keenan tells us that the identity of Jesus as found in the Gospels centers on His perception of God as Abba, or Father, and on His dedication to establish the kingdom of God. But now we have to read them in the register of emptiness and no-self. But this kind of theologizing has already excused itself from what the theology of the past has had to say, and more importantly, from what the Christian community has always held by faith. Instead, Christian concepts are treated as if they can be turned into Buddhist ones, for whether they are Christian or Buddhist, they are simply upaya pointing to the same transcendental experience of enlightenment. Christian concepts no longer have any conceptual continuity with the Christian mysteries. Therefore, we can replace them easily enough without any real damage. In this case, our traditional understanding of Christ disappears and is replaced by a Mahayana one.

But what motivates this kind of project? Christians must stop indulging in "divine hero worship," and "illusory orthodoxy," but rather they must identify with Jesus "in conversion from me-consciousness to commitment to others, an awareness of Abba…"63 which is going to be understood in terms of Jesus as empty of essence and dependently co-arisen. What is striking about all this is that while these central Buddhist ideas could, indeed, enter into a deep dialogue with Christianity, they are wielded here against basic Christian self-understanding. "There is no need to define the specific difference between Jesus and other human beings."64 All are empty of essence. Jesus is not the mediator of divine nature to human nature, but announces "a preverbal mystic awareness,"65 an awareness that is presumably no different than the awareness that Buddhists find in enlightenment.

Even the Abba experience of Jesus, which we were told was central to his identity, needs to be subjected to a merciless critique in the name of creating a Mahayana theology. "What on earth does it mean to say that God is Abba, when he obviously fails to perform expected fatherly deeds on behalf of his children in the world? It is quite all right to say that no sparrow falls without our Father’s knowledge, but he does not in any manner break its fall or save it from crushing itself on the hard surface of the earth!"66

Even though the early Christian community, faced with the death of Jesus, affirmed Jesus as Lord, as well as the faithfulness of Abba: "Yet there is no empirical evidence that they were not simply mistaken and merely projecting their subconscious desires for happiness upon a silent universe. If one actually expects God to demonstrate his fatherhood in an observable manner by saving his children from suffering and dying, one might conclude, with Woody Allen, that, although God does exist, he is an underachiever."67 "Yahweh does not save his people. He allowed them be consumed in the fires of the holocaust. Why bother calling him "Abba" at all then?"68

These are not the reflections of some interested Buddhist serenely meditating on the New Testament in a mountain cave trying to understand Christianity from his Buddhist perspective. There is something else going on here. It is a Mahayana theology that will come to our rescue by telling us there is no personal god, and therefore no loving providence, nor any resurrection of Jesus. Once having said all this, and adding "despite the insistence of manuals of Christian devotion, prayer is not a conversation with God,"69 Keenan will attempt to retrieve some meaning for Christianity. Abba is "the support for a realization of meaning that conquers death by recognizing the dependently co-arisen emptiness of all self-affirmation. It is thus that one participates in the resurrection of Jesus."70 Here we have rejoined in a theological way some of the attempts we saw in Chapter 1 to reduce Christian life to a pursuit of Buddhist nonduality.


Jacques Dupuis

After these radical theological attempts to restructure Christianity in the light of, or even in the name of, interreligious dialogue, we might imagine that Jacques Dupuis, having been taken to task by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, would be equally radical to have merited such attention. But we have already seen his judicious remarks about Abhishiktananda, and when we look at his book we see that we are faced with a well-grounded theologian with a fine grasp of his subject who is presenting us with an inclusive Christology, yet one that he hopes will be truly open to other religions, and thus, could be said to be relational.

Dupuis starts by giving us an overview of the history and development of Catholic theology in regard to religious pluralism, starting with God’s covenant with Israel, and then going on to the New Testament, the pluralism to be found in the Fathers, the axiom no salvation outside the Church, and he continues all the way to the Vatican Council and the modern debates about pluralism.

But the heart of the matter is his Christology. While Knitter, for example, had thought it necessary to alter classical Christology in order to advance the cause of dialogue, Dupuis does not. He sums up his perspective: "In agreement with the uninterrupted, mainline Christian tradition we have maintained the constitutive uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ. This means that the person of Jesus Christ and the Christ-event are "constitutive" of salvation for the whole of humankind; in particular, the event of his death-resurrection opens access to God for all human beings, independently of their historical situation. Put in other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, God’s Son made flesh, is the sacrament of God’s universal will to save. Such uniqueness must not, however, be construed as absolute: what is absolute is God’s saving will. Neither absolute nor relative, Jesus’ uniqueness is "constitutive"; in addition, we called it "relational"."71

The challenge is to articulate this in a way that satisfies both the demands of the classical Christology and the new Christian sense of how God wills all to be saved. This is not an easy task, and we will misunderstand what Dupuis is saying unless we realize that he is looking at the matter from the perspective of God’s universal salvific will.

He will argue that the revelation of God in Jesus is limited because the human nature of Jesus cannot comprehend the totality of the mystery of God.72 And he will write that the word absolute ought to be avoided in regard to Christ and Christianity, "The reason is that absoluteness is an attribute of the Ultimate Reality of Infinite Being which must not be predicated of any finite reality, even the human existence of the Son-of-God-made-man. That Jesus Christ is "universal" Savior does not make him the "Absolute Savior" – who is God himself."73 At the same time, he tries to find his terminology that will safeguard the unique role of Jesus. "Jesus Christ, it will be suggested, is, among different saving figures in whom God is hiddenly present and operative, the one "human face" in whom God, while remaining unseen, is fully disclosed and revealed."74

Dupuis will make a distinction between the non-Incarnate Logos, or Logos asarkos, that is, the Word of God itself, and the Logos ensarkos, that is, the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus. In this way he hopes to find a way that will preserve the universal salvific role of the Word of God, and yet not limit this role to the action of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus. But he realizes the difficulties in such a procedure.

"Admittedly, in the mystery of Jesus-the-Christ, the Word cannot be separated from the flesh it has assumed. But, inseparable as the divine Word and Jesus’ human existence may be, they nevertheless remain distinct. While, then, the human action of the Logos ensarkos is the universal sacrament of God’s saving action, it does not exhaust the action of the Logos."75 In advancing in this direction, Dupuis finds support in the work of Claude Geffré, Edward Schillebeeckx and others. And all the while he is trying to honor the traditional understanding of the universal role that Jesus plays in the salvation of all people: "…salvation as revealed by God in Jesus Christ is the universal destiny devised by God for human beings, whichever situation they may find themselves in and whichever religious tradition they may belong to. The living Christian tradition implies no less."76

A final passage allows us to sense the real challenge that we face when we want to integrate our two fundamental principles. The "…Word’s "humanization" marks the unsurpassed – and unsurpassable – depth of God’s self-communication to human beings, the supreme mode of immanence of his being-with-them… However, the centrality of the incarnational dimension of God’s economy of salvation must not be allowed to obscure the abiding presence and action of the divine Word. The enlightening and saving power of the Logos is not circumscribed by the particularity of the historical event. It transcends all boundaries of time and space. Through the transcendent power of the Logos, Trinitarian Christology is able to account for the mediatory function of religious traditions in the order of salvation, thus laying the foundation for the recognition of a pluralism in God’s way of dealing with humankind."77


Dominus Iesus

Dupuis’ struggles did not go unnoticed. He was questioned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and when it published its letter Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, it was not hard to see that he had not been forgotten. Dominus Iesus wants to "recall to Bishops, theologians, and all the Catholic faithful certain indispensable elements of Christian doctrine,"78 which could aid theological reflection in dealing with these kinds of issues. In the document’s own words:

"The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle). As a consequence, it is held that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth, the unity of the economy of the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit, the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability – while recognizing the distinction – of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church."79

Dominus Iesus goes on to insist on this "fullness and definitiveness of the revelation of Jesus Christ," as opposed to theories that consider Jesus "a particular, finite, historical figure, who reveals the divine not in an exclusive way, but in a way complementary with the other revelatory and salvific figures… More concretely, for some, Jesus would be one of the many faces which the Logos has assumed in the course of time to communicate with humanity in a salvific way.

"Furthermore, to justify the universality of Christian salvation as well as the fact of religious pluralism, it has been proposed that there is an economy of the eternal Word that is valid also outside the Church and is unrelated to her, in addition to an economy of the Incarnate Word. The first would have a greater universal value than the second, which is limited to Christians, though God’s presence would be more full in the second… In this regard, John Paul II has explicitly declared: "To introduce any sort of separation between the Word and Jesus Christ is contrary to the Christian faith…" "80

Just what is the relationship between what Dupuis is saying and Dominus Iesus? They are both addressing the same central questions, but from different directions. Dupuis, with his keen sense of the exigencies of the East-West dialogue, is advancing on the problem of the universal role of Jesus and the Church from the direction of the universal salvific will of God. Dominus Iesus is coming from the other direction. It wants to assert, against the threats it perceives, the universal role of Jesus and the Church, but it needs to take into account God’s universal salvific will. It is this difference in direction that probably more than anything else stands in the way of a meeting of the minds.

Dominus Iesus insists on "certain indispensible elements," but it does so from the starting point of the universal role of Jesus, and in a language that makes it inevitable that it will be read against the background of the old "outside of the Church there is no salvation" theology, and reacted to accordingly. This is why it insists on things like a distinction between faith and belief, and that the inspired texts of the Bible differ from the inspired texts of other religions, and how the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Let’s look at the distinction it makes between faith and religious belief in order to see how it is proceeding. It insists that we have to distinguish between the theological faith by which Catholics assent to the truths of the faith as revealed by God, and religious belief in other religions "which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals Himself."81 But in doing so, it is concentrating on the role of Jesus and the Church in making these truths present to us, and losing sight, for a moment, of the implications of the doctrine of the universal salvific will of God. If faith is necessary for salvation, and God calls all people to be saved, and all people do not know the role of Jesus in the Church, then we have to say that they still exercise faith, that they interiorly assent to God, without that knowledge. Explicit faith in Jesus and the Church is not essential in order to have this interior assent to God.

Not only are Jacques Dupuis and Dominus Iesus coming from different directions, but the principles they are advancing from have different characters. The principle of God’s universal salvific will we called an existential principle, while the universal role of Jesus in the Church, an essentialistic one. The first deals with the concrete state we find ourselves in, while the second looks at the nature, or essence, of things. The first brings us face to face with an intimate mystery of love that is working itself out in all our hearts, while the second with the quest for truth. What we are seeing in Jacques Dupuis and Dominus Iesus is not a winner-take-all kind of battle where one or the other of these principles must gain ground at the price of the other. Instead, we are looking at two very different kinds of principles that operate at different levels while addressing the same problem.

When the Congregation finally issued its notification on Dupuis’ book it stays within the perspective it took in Dominus Iesus: Jesus as the Word is the universal mediator of salvation, and revelation in Him is not limited, incomplete or imperfect; a separation cannot be made between the salvific action of the Word and that of Jesus, and so forth.

We are caught, as it were, between these two perspectives. On the one hand, I need to say that God wills everyone to be saved, and this will is efficacious in the sense that everyone has the opportunity. This means that God makes this offer of salvation to us both in our hearts and in the outer events of our lives, especially through our religious practices and sacred writings. Therefore, we can say that people can be saved without any conscious explicit knowledge of Jesus.

On the other hand, Christian faith proposes that God wills this salvation through Jesus, and theologians have attempted to understand how this takes place. If Jesus is the very Word of God, then His humanity, transformed by its union with the Word, undergoes a transformation, or we could even say a deification, but it is not, itself, divine, for it is a true human nature just like ours, and so in this sense it is not absolute, for it is not divine by nature. But neither is it a limited human nature in the way we possess ours. This transformed human nature takes up within itself the already existing unity of the human race and deepens it so that Jesus stands at the center and is the efficacious sacrament of the divinization of our humanity, which is the salvation that God wills for us. What Jesus is by nature we are called to by grace, and so grace, itself, has a Christological character.

This kind of Christology, rooted in the Scriptures and the Fathers, found one of its highest theological expressions in the work of Emile Mersch, to which I alluded earlier, and it is the kind of Christology being advanced in their own ways by Rahner and Dupuis. Dupuis, for example, will say: "Jesus lived his personal relationship to the Father in his human awareness. His human consciousness of being the Son entailed an immediate knowledge of his Father, whom he called Abba. Thus his revelation of God had its point of departure in a unique, unsurpassable human experience. This experience was actually none other than the transposition to the key of human awareness and cognition of the very life of God and of the Trinitarian relations among the persons."82

But this classical Christology has only begun to be brought into conscious contact with God’s universal salvific will. This is what Dupuis and others like Michael Amaladoss in his Making All Things New are trying to do. Clearly, it is incompatible with a perspective that would make Jesus one savior among many, or with a view that the revelation that took place in Jesus is somehow limited and deficient, and needs to be supplemented by other revelations. But our sense of the fullness of revelation, and its definitive nature in Jesus, does not tell us how all this works out in the concrete. Our viewpoint is too limited. We see things in a linear historical fashion of before and after, and can scarcely imagine how God sees the same things. In short, there is a trans-historical dimension to Christology that must be honored because it is based on who Christians say Jesus is, but this does not reveal to us how Jesus’ salvation takes place in history, and does not spell out for us God’s salvific intentions and actions in all times and places. The fact that we believe that Jesus is the definitive Word of the Father, and thus the unsurpassable revelation of God, still leaves us struggling as Christians to embody this understanding in our lives, and wondering what gifts God has given to others in order that the salvation achieved in Jesus can take root in their minds and hearts, as well.

When Dupuis makes a distinction between the action of the Word and the action of the Word made flesh, he is perhaps using a language that is unnecessarily complicated. It might be enough to say that as Christians we believe in the definitive role that Jesus plays in the salvation of all people, but we realize that this salvific action plays itself out far beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, and beyond any conscious knowledge of Jesus. Once we see the different perspectives from which Dupuis and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith are coming from, much of the tension between these two views disappears.

Why did the Congregation give Dupuis such a hard time, especially since his work represents a basically sound attempt to work out a theology of religious pluralism? Part of it has to do with the different perspectives we have just been seeing. But perhaps they wanted to send a message to the Catholic theological community, and criticizing Dupuis suited their purpose because then it would be a message heard not only in Europe and North America, but in Asia because of Dupuis’ long sojourn in India, and by the Jesuit theological community, as well. Whatever the actual reason for the Congregation’s action was, it should have realized that its words were going to be read against the background of the century-long struggle that began with modernism, and especially against the polarization that exists between the Vatican and a large part of the theological community since the time of the Vatican Council. It would have been much more effective, and fruitful, for the Church as a whole if they had sat down with Dupuis and had an open conversation about the issues that bothered them in his book. That would have been a step towards confronting the crisis that exists in Catholic theology, and trying to resolve it.

We have gone from looking at Catholic attempts to dialogue with Buddhism and Hinduism, to the theological background of these attempts, and now we need to return to the possibilities of East-West dialogue, itself.



  1. Rahner, Karl. "Observations on the Problem of the ‘Anonymous Christian’." p. 284.
  2. Ibid., p. 286.
  3. Rahner, Karl. "Observations on the Problem of the ‘Anonymous Christian’." p. 293.
  4. Rahner, Karl. Faith in a Wintry Season. p. 21.
  5. Ibid., p. 48
  6. Rahner, Karl. The Dynamic Element of the Church.
  7. Maritain, Jacques. "The Immanent Dialectic of the First Act of Freedom," p. 218-235.
  8. Ibid., p. 69.
  9. Ibid., p. 69-70.
  10. Ibid., p. 70.
  11. Ibid., p. 73.
  12. Ibid., p. 76.
  13. Ibid., p. 77.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., p. 78.
  16. Ibid., p. 83.
  17. Knitter, Paul. No Other Name? P. 171-172.
  18. Ibid., p. 173.
  19. Ibid., p. 191.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., p. 217.
  22. Ibid., p. 219.
  23. Ibid., p. 218.
  24. Ibid., p. 227.
  25. Ibid., p. 227-228.
  26. Ibid., p. 228.
  27. Knitter, Paul. The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, p. 181.
  28. Ibid., p. 184.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Knitter, Paul. Jesus and the Other Names, p. 73.
  32. Ibid., p. 76.
  33. Ibid., p. 80.
  34. Ibid., p. 94.
  35. O'Leary, Joseph. Questioning Back, p. 5.
  36. Ibid., p. 9.
  37. Ibid., p. 10.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., p. 12.
  40. Ibid., p. 13.
  41. Ibid., p. 18.
  42. Ibid., p. 19-20.
  43. Ibid., p. 20.
  44. Gardet, Louis. L'experience du soi, p. 347.
  45. O'Leary, Joseph. Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, p. 159.
  46. Ibid., p. 179.
  47. Ibid., p. 191.
  48. Ibid., p. 197.
  49. Abe, Masao. As cited in Buddhist-Christian Studies, 1990, p. 260.
  50. Abe, Masao. As cited in Buddhist-Christian Studies, 1991, p. 291.
  51. Pseudo-Dionysius. P. 98.
  52. Ibid., p. 101.
  53. Ibid., p. 73.
  54. O'Leary, Joseph. Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, p. 213.
  55. Ibid., p. 241-242.
  56. Ibid., p. 240.
  57. Ibid., p. 251.
  58. Ibid., p. 256.
  59. Ibid., p. 257.
  60. Japanese J. of Religious Studies 23/1-2, p. 202.
  61. Keenan, John. The Meaning of Christ, p. 224.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid., p. 238.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid., p. 239.
  66. Ibid., p. 243
  67. Ibid., p. 243-244.
  68. Ibid., p. 244.
  69. Ibid., p. 250.
  70. Ibid., p. 251.
  71. Dupuis, Jacques. Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. p. 387-388.
  72. Ibid., p. 249, 271.
  73. Ibid., p. 282.
  74. Ibid., p. 283.
  75. Ibid., p. 299.
  76. Ibid., p. 312.
  77. Ibid., p. 320-321.
  78. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Dominus Iesus. No. 3.
  79. Ibid., No. 4.
  80. Ibid., No. 9-10.
  81. Ibid., No. 7.
  82. Dupuis, Jacques. Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. p. 249.






Chapter 5