World Council of Churches - Current Dialogue
In 1955 Will Herberg published an influential study on the sociology of the dominant and visible religions in the United States. The book was entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew.i Things have changed. There are now more Muslims than either Episcopalians or Presbyterians and, according to some reports, more Muslims than Jews as well. Buddhism is becoming an American religion, and Bah’ais, Jains, and Hindus have built large temples in major American cities.
The questions posed by our new context are important: How should we think about our new neighbors and their religions? How will we as Christians come to understand ourselves and our own religion as a result of our encounter with our neighbors of other living faiths? When we look at the planet on which we live, we see that in India and China today there are two-billion-five-hundred-million people with a relatively tiny Christian constituency among them. If God wanted everyone to be Christian if—it were necessary—would God not make available the means? We cannot help asking the theological question today: does religious pluralism have a positive meaning intended by God?
These questions have pushed us to work on a Christian theology of religions. A theology of religion is different from the science of religion, which observes, evaluates, and compares phenomena from without in the spirit of objectivity and detachment claimed for positive science. But a theology of religions begins and remains at every step within a faith perspective. Every theology—the very term “theology” is of Christian origin—is necessarily “confessional”, expressing the faith commit-ment of a particular religious community.
I have been asked today to provide a concise overview of how the Roman Catholic Church is proceeding in the development of a theology of religions. The most any of our churches can say at this time is that we are moving toward a Christian theology of religious pluralism. There are as yet no definitive answers to the questions being asked, many of which are being experienced by us in this country as new because the context which gives rise to them is new to us. We are in a phase of trying to clearly sort out the issues in the light of the biblical data, authoritative church teaching, and our concrete experience of other religions.
As we engage in this task, it seems worth stating that the emphasis here is upon aChristian theology of religions. A general theology of religion or a general theology of religious pluralism is not possible since theology is a reflection from the standpoint of faith. Inasmuch as theology makes its ultimate recourse to its founding figure and the central texts of that tradition, it is ultimately self-referential and its starting point will differ from that of other religions. This symposium, then, as both its title and its participants indicate, is an intra-Christian dialogue.
In my brief overview, I will present some theological perspectives that indicate the way the Catholic Church, through both its magisterium and a few of its leading theologicans, is working with the questions.
The Second Vatican Council
Vatican II (1962-65) marked a new beginning in the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions. Since that time, a significant shift has occurred from an attitude of tolerance at best and dialectical opposition at worst, to an attitude of positive commitment to dialogue and mutual enrichment. Similarly, the theological evaluation of other religions has gone all the way from the disregard and rejection which characterized much of Christian tradition, through a guarded acceptance and openness, to a positive assessment and the recognition of salutary values.
In the conciliar history of the Catholic Church, Vatican II was the first to speak positively, albeit guardedly, about the other religions. The Council of Florence in 1442 had assumed a narrow understanding of “outside the church, no salvation.” The Council of Trent, a century later, affirmed in it’s teaching on “baptism of desire” the possibility of salvation for those who were outside the church. Later church documents reaffirmed such a possibility for individuals, but did not take a position on religions as such.
What previous church documents had affirmed cautiously as apossibility, Vatican II taught confidently in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes): in ways known to God’s own self, God can lead to faith those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the gospel (7). Further on, the same text explains that this happens through the universal working of the Spirit of God: “Christ died for all (cf. Rom. 8:32), and since all human beings are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being associated, in a way known to God, with the Paschal Mystery” (22).
In three other documents—The Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium); The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate); and The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes)—the Council gave further development to the themes of the salvation of people outside the church, the authentic values found in “non-Christians” and in their religious traditions, the church’s appreciation of these values and the consequent attitude which it takes toward the religious traditions and their members. The Declaration’s general assessment of religions and the attitude that the church should consequently assume toward them is expressed in these words:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. With sincere respect she looks on those ways of conduct and life, those precepts and teachings, which though different on many points from what she herself holds and teaches, yet not rarely reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all human beings…. And so the Church has this exhortation for her children: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness to the Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them (2).
This attitude has been effectively expressed in the highly symbolic actions of Pope John Paul II in his visit to the chief rabbi in the synagogue in Rome, in his speech to young Muslims in the stadium at Casablanca in 1985, in the gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi in 1986, in his visit to Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 2000, and in his visit to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus in 2001. These encounters represent a revolutionary development in Catholic theological understanding.
However, while the Declaration Nostra Aetate proposed a certain ethic of dialogue with other religions, it did not provide a theological basis that could clearly justify the dialogue encouraged by the Church. Just how effective for salvation is what is “true and holy” in these religions? Do followers of these religions attain salvation outside of or within the life of their religions as such; because of or in spite of their religions? Although much of what the Council affirms suggests a positive answer, the question is not explicitly answered. We come closest to an affirmation of a positive role of the traditions in a document jointly published in 1991 by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, entitled Dialogue and Proclamation.
Concretely, it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious tradition and by following the dictates of their conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their Savior (29).
This goes beyond whatever Church documents had stated before regarding the role played by religious traditions in the salvation in Jesus Christ of their followers. For the first time, the door seems to be opened at the level of the Church’s magisterium for the recognition of a “participated mediation” of religious traditions in the salvation of their members.
In general, however, both conciliar and post-conciliar teaching is inconsistent, registering ambiguities and fluctuations, and offering no continuous theological viewpoint on the religions. Several commentators have opined that the most adequate reading of the council’s basic attitude is summarized in a minimalist position that sees the world’s religions as the expression of humankind’s quest for ultimate meaning and value; others have argued that a case can be made for a more positive appraisal of non-Christian religions in the council’s teaching.ii The fact that there is debate about this at all testifies to the ambivalence.
The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration in 2000 On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, perhaps better known as Dominus Iesus, encouraged theologians to seek to understand more fully the question of “the way in which the salvific grace of God—which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church—comes to individual non-Christians” (21).
Much of recent theology of religions in Catholic circles has been a response to the demands to take religious pluralism seriously as a cultural and religious fact, and to recognize the “spiritual and moral goods”-- of which Nostra Aetate spoke—found in other religions. In both cases, what is being demanded is nothing less than a wholehearted recognition of the others’ intrinsic right to be “other,” and of the intrinsic value of their “otherness.” To accept the first is to accept the fact that most people in the world are not and will likely never be Christian. To accept the second means accepting that the doctrines and the spirituality found in other religious traditions are also capable of engendering an impressive practice of virtue. iii
The theologian who has gained most notoriety for his ground-breaking theological work on understanding the place of other religions in God’s one economy of salvation is Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis, who spent 36 years in India before settling in to teach at Rome’s flagship pontifical university, the Gregorian. His 1997 book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism has been the object of more reviews and articles than perhaps any other since Vatican II, and has been the occasion for many Christians to wrestle with the question of God’s saving plan for the entire human race. The current president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, said that this book “will probably remain for a long time the standard work of reference in this field.” iv
Dupuis’ great contribution to the theology of religions is his willingness to “explore the frontiers”, the limits of prevailing views—but carefully so. He is described by his colleagues in a recently published book of essays in his honor—In Many and Diverse Ways (Orbis, 2003))—as a painstakingly thorough thinker who balances insights from the core of tradition with an openness to the holy mystery of God’s presence in the world. His writings were examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and he was summoned to reply to their questions. He emerged from this process with a mild warning to be mindful of what officials felt were several “notable ambiguities and difficulties on important doctrinal points which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions.”
While the CDF requested that the text of its “Notification” be included in any subsequent editions of the book, it did not ask him to change a single line. He professes to have responded to the CDF’s concerns in his most recent book Christianity and the Religions, in the postscript of which he writes “I once more submit my efforts and endeavors to the consideration of my theological peers and to the judgment of the church’s doctrinal authority.” In the remainder of this presentation, then, let us consider the perspectives of the Catholic Church’s leading voice on Interreligious Relations, as summarized from three of his books:Jesus Christ at the Encounter of the World’s Religions; Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism; and Christianity and the Religions.
Two fundamental axioms of Christian faith
The difficult task of a Christian theology of the religions is thinking about a multiplicity of ways to God without compromising the uniqueness of Christ’s mediation and without selling short the unique privilege of Christianity whose founder, according to faith, is God come to live among human beings. The declaration Dominus Iesus is most accurately assessed as a serious warning addressed to certain theologians who, for the sake of interreligious dialogue, are tempted to call into question the saving universality of Christ.v
Two fundamental axioms of Christian faith are expressed in 1 Tim 2:4-6: “God wants everyone to be saved and to reach full knowledge of the truth. For there is only one God, and there is only one mediator between God and humankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” The first axiom is the will of God to save all. The second relates to the central place of Christ in God’s plan to save all and places Christ in the role of universal Savior. These two axioms—that God’s salvific will is truly universal, and that salvation comes through God in Christ—are the touchstones of orthodoxy in any Christian theology of religions. This is the message of the New Testament in its entirety, the assertion underlying every part of it, the deep faith without which none of the books that comprise it would have been written.vi The primary purpose of the New Testament is testimony. As a whole it testifies to the primitive community’s belief that Jesus the Christ is the universal and final Savior of the cosmos.
Contrasting attitudes toward these two axioms account for the three basic typologies of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism which appeared in 1983. Exclusivism claims that no one can be saved who does not make an explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Inclusivism insists on neither an explicit confession of Christ nor explicit membership in the Christian Church, but it does claim that Christ is always implicated in the salvific process and regards explicit Christian faith as the completion of every religious system. Pluralism claims that salvation is possible in and through a variety of independent and more or less equally valid religious traditions.
Exclusivism relies on the second axiom—the necessity of the mediation of Jesus Christ—and neglects the first, the universal salvific will of God. Pluralism relies on the first (the universal salvific will of God) to the detriment of the second (the necessity of the mediation of Christ). Inclusivism alone succeeds in holding both at once. On the one side, in inclusivism Jesus Christ is clearly asserted to be God’s decisive revelation and constitutive Savior; on the other side, the door is opened to a sincere acknowledgement of divine manifestations in the history of humanity to be found in other religious traditions.
While the inclusivist position has character-ized the Catholic Church’s approach, of late there has been increasing recognition among theologians that this position does not take seriously enough the fact of the religious otherness of the “others”. Further, this enduring pluralism cannot be simply the consequence of culpable human blindness over the centuries, and even less the sign that after twenty centuries the Church’s mission has met defeat. There must therefore be a fourth position, which stops just short, as it were, of the pluralist claim that the world’s religions are more or less equivalent as ways of salvation.
In exploring the frontiers of inclusivism, Jacques Dupuis has proposed thinking in terms of an “inclusivist pluralism” that holds together the constitutive and universal character of the Christ event and the salvific significance of other religious traditions within one manifold plan of God for humankind. If “other paths” have authentic religious value for salvation, then it is possible to speak in principle of religious pluralism, for the ways that people can find God have been traced by God’s own self.
To say that Jesus Christ is the “constitutive universal savior” means that the Christ event belongs to the essence of salvation for all human beings; in particular, that the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection are truly “cause” of salvation for all human beings. The Christ event seals a bond of union between the divinity and humankind that can never be broken, and it constitutes the privileged channel through which God has chosen to share the divine life with human beings. Correctly understood, faith in Jesus Christ then does not simply consist in trusting that he is the way of salvation “for me”. It means believing that the world and humankind have been saved and find their salvation in him and through him. Nothing less than this is sufficient to do justice to the firm claims of the New Testament.vii
In his encyclical on the missions, Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II teaches: “Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his” (5). The way is open to reconcile a constitutive Christology with an inclusive pluralism insofar as, in keeping with the Council’s teaching, the positive values and “the elements of truth and grace” (see Ad Gentes 9) found in other religions are taken seriously.
To assert the “constitutive” uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Christian tradition seems to require does not necessarily lead to the result of making insignificant other religions and their “saving figures”. To the contrary, faith in Jesus Christ requires being open and committed to encountering them.
When does salvation history begin?
The Church father Irenaeaus (ca 130-200) distinguished four successive periods in the history of salvation, each one corresponding to a divine covenant. First, the covenant with humanity in Adam and Eve. Second, the covenant with Noah, who symbolizes the religious traditions of the nations. Third, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant with Israel. And finally, the covenant established by God in Jesus Christ. The covenants stand to each other as so many ways of divine engagement with humankind through the Logos. They are “Logophanies” through which the divine Logos “rehearses” as it were breaking into human history through the incarnation of Jesus. viii
The covenant with Noah constitutes the lasting foundation for the salvation of every human person. In its entirety, it appears as an outline of the covenants with Abraham and Moses. Israel and the nations thus have a common base: they are in covenantship with the true God and under the same salvific will of that one God. The covenant with Noah thus assumes a far-reaching significance for a theology of the religious traditions of peoples belonging to the “extrabiblical traditions”. Because they too are covenant peoples, they deserve to be called “peoples of God.”ix
How is God’s covenant with Israel to be understood? Has it been abrogated, as the Christian tradition has often affirmed? The apostle Paul gives this answer: “Has God rejected his people? By no means! The gifts and call are irrevocable” (Rom.11). Israel remains the people to whom “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4). There is something “new” in the new covenant: it is given in the Incarnate Word; the “form” of the covenant is radically new and it unveils the covenant with Israel by spreading abroad the splendor of the Lord which the first contained without revealing it fully.
Theologians employ different language to describe the relationship of Jews and Christians in covenant with God. Norbert Lohfink leans to a ‘one covenant’ theory which embraces Jews and Christians, whatever their differences, and proposes that we speak of a ‘twofold way of salvation’ within the one covenant. These two ways will eventually converge, even if only in the end-time. Gavin D’Costa prefers the language of “one normative covenant, within which there are many further legitimate covenants”. His formula is designed with an eye to extending the question beyond the case of Jewish-Christian relations to that of other religions to which it also applies. x
Whatever formula may be preferred, two extreme positions are to be avoided in the present context of Jewish-Christian dialogue. There is no substitution of the ‘old’ people of God by a ‘new’ people of God. Rather, there is an expansion of the boundaries of ‘one people’ of God, of which the election of Israel and the covenant with Moses were and remain “the root, the source, the foundation, and the promise.” Jesus’ own claim was to “have come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them.”
Also to be avoided, on the other hand, is any semblance of parallel ways, e.g. one way destined by God for the Jewish people, the other ordained by God for the gentiles in Jesus Christ. The middle-way position in Jewish-Christian dialogue, from a Christian standpoint, seems to be that of one covenant and two interrelated ways within one organic plan of salvation. Therefore, salvation comes to the Jews through the covenant made by God with Israel and brought to perfection in Jesus Christ. Israel and Christianity belong together in salvation history under the compass of the same covenant.
The revelation in Jesus Christ represents the apex, the center, the key for understanding any divine revelation. Vatican II’s constitution On Divine Revelation makes an important distinction between the fullness of revelation in the Jesus Christ event and its transmission in the New Testament. The fullness of revelation is not the written word of the New Testament which simply constitutes the official record and interpretation of that revelation. That to which the accredited witnesses give testimony—the very person of Jesus Christ, his deeds and his words, his life, death, and resurrection—in a word, the total Christ event itself: this is what constitutes the “fullness of revelation”.
Further, the “fullness” of revelation in Jesus is not to be understood quantitatively—as though after Christ everything related to the divine mystery were already known and there were nothing further to learn—but qualitatively. It is of a singular intensity, owing to his personal identity as Son of God. No other human experience of God was comparable to his. At the same time, Jesus’ revelation of God does not exhaust the mystery of God. Even though it is unsurpassed and unsurpassable, it remains limited by virtue of the innate limitations of human nature and human words. The qualitative fullness, the intensity, the depth of revelation in Jesus does not present an obstacle to the continuation of a divine self-revelation through the prophets and sages of other religious traditions. Prophecy can recall truths or aspects of truths that have been revealed. God continues to speak to our world to this day. Yet no revelation, before or after Christ, has ever been able or ever will be able to surpass or equal the one that has been granted in him.xii
There nonetheless remains room for a complementarity of God’s word, not only between the two testaments of the Christian Bible, but also between biblical and non-biblical scriptures. The latter may contain aspects of the Divine Mystery which the Bible does not equally highlight. Some examples of this might be, in the Qur’an, the sense of the divine majesty and transcendence of God, and of the human person’s submission to the holiness of God’s eternal decree. And in the sacred books of Hinduism, the sense of God’s immanent presence in the world and in the recesses of the human heart.xiii This comple-mentarity between the “seeds of truth and grace” in the other religions and the “fullness” of the divine manifestation in Jesus Christ, while being reciprocal, is understood as an “asymmetrical” complementarity.xiv Not to be missed, however, is that God can speak to us Christians through the prophets and sages whose religious experience constitutes the source of the sacred books of such traditions.
The aim, thus far, has been to show that a well-grounded assertion of the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ as the “only begotten” Son of God leaves space for an open theology of the religions and of religious pluralism. A Trinitarian Christological perspective allows us to recognize the ongoing presence and activity of the Word of God and of the Spirit of God. Such a perspective makes it possible to affirm a multiplicity of “ways” toward human liberation/salvation, in keeping with God’s plan in Jesus Christ. It also opens the way for recognizing other “saving figures” in human history.
According to Old Testament biblical tradition, the divine Wisdom-Word and the Spirit serve as “mediums” for God’s personal interventions in history, both in Israel and outside it. In the New Testament, the Logos-Wisdom and the Spirit, already operative in “pre-Christian” history, will be understood by retrojection as two distinct persons within the mystery of the Triune God: the Son, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and the Holy Spirit, on the other. The two divine persons had been present and operative in the pre-Christian dispensation without being formally recognized as persons.
The Christ-event constitutes the goal of the anticipated action of the Logos-to-become-man, and of the Spirit’s universal working in the world before the incarnation. The action of both is oriented toward the Christ-event, making it possible to consider the Spirit as the “Spirit of Christ” from the beginning of salvation history. The action of the Logos, the work of the Spirit, and the Christ event are thus inseparable aspects of a single economy of salvation. St. Irenaeus expressed this understanding with the image of God as a potter who, with two hands—the Word and the Spirit—produces a single work: salvation. But both of God’s “hands” have and keep their own personal identity in the divine activity. The Word is the light “which enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), and the Spirit “blows where he wills” (Jn. 3:8).xv
An important implication of a Trinitarian Christology is that Jesus Christ is never allowed to replace the Father. The Gospel according to John calls Jesus “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), never the goal or the end. The same gospel makes clear that the goal of human existence and history is the unfathomable mystery of God, who has been made known to us by his Incarnate Son. The object of faith, according to New Testament theology, remains primordially God the Father; likewise, according to that theology, it is primarily God who saves, through his Son: “For God sent his only Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:16-17). In Paul’s words, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The Christocentrism of Christian tradition is not opposed to theocentrism. Jesus is the “medium” of God’s encounter with human beings. Christian theology is thus theocentric by being Christocentric. xvi
Also in a Trinitarian Christology, the Spirit of God is universally present and operative in the religious life of “the others” and in the religious traditions to which they belong--just as among Christians and in the Church. This is the theological warrant in the Catholic Church’s shift from holding that salvation occurs only in explicit, formal and conscious relationship to Christ to a position that respects other traditions and that teaches that sincere followers of other traditions will be saved by a loving God even without becoming Christian.
The particular contribution of Pope John Paul II to a theology of religions consists of his emphasis on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the world, in the members of other religions, and in the religious traditions themselves. Some of his main ideas are: that the “firm belief” of the followers of other religions is “an effect of the Spirit of truth operating outside the visible confines of the Mystical Body” (Redemptor Hominis, 6); that the Spirit of God is an active presence in the religious life of the “others,” especially in their prayer: “We may think that any authentic prayer is aroused by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every human being” (11); and that “The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures, and religions” (Dominum et Vivificantem, 1986, 28).
While the Church is the place of the sending of the Spirit, the Spirit is not, however, so bound to the Church, to its ministry and institutions, that its presence and work of salvation are impaired outside of it. Salvation outside the Church through the Spirit implies, nevertheless, an orientation, a reference to the Church which, if it comes to full effect, emerges as belonging to the Church through membership.
In his encyclical The Mission of the Redeemer (1990), Pope John Paul II, after affirming the unique and universal mediation of Christ, spoke about “participated mediations” of God’s saving grace. This is a recognition that, while God’s grace is certainly one, it is visibly mediated in different ways, not only in degree but in nature. On the one hand, there is a recognition that people’s religious practice gives expression in their own cultural and religious context to their experience of God and of the mystery of Christ. Their practice both sustains and contains their encounter with God.
On the other hand, the religious practices and rites of other religions are not understood to be on the same level as the Christian sacraments deriving from Christ, though a certain mediation of grace, essentially connected to the unique meditation of Jesus Christ and deriving power from it, is to be attributed to their religious practice (MR, 5). While acknowledging the same, Dominus Iesus adds a cautionary note: “Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God,” but it cannot be overlooked that some rituals, “insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors, constitute an obstacle to salvation” (21). What is clearly affirmed is that, while there is only one mystery of salvation in Christ, this mystery is present to human beings outside the bounds of Christianity.
The reign of God and the necessity of the church
Up to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church’s tendency was to identify the Church with the Reign of God. The development in Catholic thinking is illustrated in John Paul II’s encyclical letterThe Mission of the Redeemer. It is the first document of the Roman magisterium to distinguish clearly, while keeping them united, between the Church and the Reign of God in their pilgrimage through history. The Reign present in the world is a reality which is broader than the Church. It extends beyond its boundaries and includes not only the members of the Church but also the “others”. The document Dialogue and Proclamation (35) also distinguishes the two by affirming that the Reign of God is a wider reality than the Church, indeed, a universal reality.
The Reign of God is the very reason for the being of the Church. The Reign, God’s gift and initiative, is already begun and is constantly being realized through the Spirit. Where God is accepted, where Gospel values are lived, where the human being is respected, there is the Reign of God in process. The Church, for its part, is destined to proclaim not itself but the Reign of God.
The universality of the Reign of God consists in that Christians and the “others” share the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ, even if the mystery reaches them in different ways. As we have earlier described, the “others” have access to the Kingdom of God in history through obedience in faith and conversion to the God of the Kingdom. The Reign of God is present in the world wherever the “values of the Reign”—love and justice-- are lived and promoted. According to The Mission of the Redeemer, the Kingdom is present in the whole of humankind “to the extent that they live ‘gospel values” and are open to the working of the Spirit.” (20)
Under the Lordship of Christ, God has destined this Kingdom to grow towards its final plentitude. While the believers of other religions perceive God’s call through their own traditions and respond to it in the sincere practice of these traditions, they become—even without being formally conscious of it—active members of the Kingdom. Further, their religions contribute, in a mysterious way, to the building up of the Reign of God among their followers and in the world. They exercise, with regard to their members, a certain mediation of the Kingdom—different from that which is operative in the Church—even if it is difficult to give a precise theological definition of this mediation. xvii
There are important consequences that follow from these assertions for interreligious dialogue. Dialogue takes place between persons who already belong together to the Reign of God. This explains the deep communion in the Spirit which interfaith dialogue can establish between Christians and other believers. This shows as well that interfaith dialogue is a form of giving and receiving; it is not a one-way process. The reality of the Reign of God is already shared together in mutual exchange. We are traveling together toward the fullness of the Reign, toward the new humanity willed by God for the end of time, of which we are called to be co-creators by God.
All of this begs yet another question of importance: what then is the specific and necessary role of the Church in salvation? The proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments constitute a true mediation of the action of Jesus Christ in the ecclesial community. The grace of the eucharist for those who celebrate it is their own unity in the Spirit, their own unity in faith, life, and witness. Vatican II affirms the necessity of the Church for salvation, and describes the Church as “the universal sacrament of salvation”. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 48).
Dialogue and Mission, in speaking of the evangelizing mission of the Church, describes it as being in time and space a living sign of the Mystery of God present in the world (13). A sign points to something beyond itself—to the work of God in Jesus Christ, rendered credible by the lives of Christians themselves everywhere in the world. This becomes infinitely more demanding than just baptizing people.
The Church, then, is the visible expression of grace present in the world. It is the sacrament of the Reign of God, visibilizing it, ordained to it, promoting it, but not equating itself with it. In it we find the visible manifestation of the project that God is carrying out throughout the world. It is the place where a maximum concentration of God’s activity can be found, and gives access to the Reign through Word and Sacrament.xviii
While membership in the Church is not necessary for access to the Reign, the presence and expression of the Reign of God in the Church is a privileged one, for it has received from Christ “the fullness of the benefits and means of salvation’ (Mission of the Redeemer, 18).
These theological perspectives clear a space in which a new generation of Christians can enter into dialogue with a new generation of followers of other religious ways. They free us from the burden of thinking that we must always be proclaiming a message and help us to see that listening is called for as well. They make it possible for Christians today to rethink our mission in the world without denigrating other religious ways and traditions, and to carry that mission to the ends of the earth in witness to Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed One.xix
Rev.Thomas Ryan, CSP directs the Paulist North American office for ecumenical and interfaith relations in New York City. This keynote speech was given in Boston on 27 March, 2004 at a symposium sponsored by the Massachusetts Council of Churches on Christian understandings of other religions. It earlier appeared in Ecumenical Trends (June 2004).