By Eleazer S. Fernandez
A Note from the Editorial Team: Dr. Eleazar S. Fernandez, sheds light on the relativity of religious truth claims. We think readers who have always questioned the idea that “salvation” can be exclusive for Catholics or Christians will be particularly interested. Our thanks to Dr. Fernandez for allowing us to publish his article and our thanks to Jim Moudry, Minneapolis, for bringing it to our attention.
Dr. Fernandez, Professor of Constructive Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN, presented the following address at the Evangelical-Liberal Dialogue, November 8, 2007.
I find it a challenge to answer our question, “Does Christianity have a monopoly on salvation?” on at least two counts. First, it presupposes a shared understanding of what salvation is. This in itself is a complex and controversial topic. Our understanding of salvation will in some ways inform how we respond to the question before us. Since I do not have much time to dwell on this topic and would like to proceed as quickly as possible to the issue of the Christian monopoly on salvation, I can only offer a terse and limited account. I speak of salvation as the liberation, healing, and reconciliation of the whole creation both within history (as we know it) and beyond, which, from the Christian lens, is the work of God in Christ through, but not limited to, the particularity of Jesus. Second, it is a challenge to answer our question from a liberal or a progressive Christian perspective because there is no single voice that can fully represent the complexities and nuances of the whole liberal/progressive theological spectrum. Even Friedrich Schleiermacher who is considered the father of modern liberal theology, is, for many, not really liberal enough in relation to the issue. Schleiermacher continues to put Christianity at the peak of humanity’s religious evolution while relegating other religions to the lower rung. (1) Moreover, from the point of view of postcolonial discourse, his hierarchy of religions is infected by the virus of Euro-centrism. (2) Nonetheless, there are main tenets that characterize the liberal theological position that we can name and articulate.
At the heart of the liberal tradition is a protest against an external authority that claims to be the sole possessor of a divinely-mandated truth and which imposes this truth claim to the rest of humanity. Failure to accept this truth, it is argued, is not only to go against the divinely ordained earthly authority but also to go against God, the consequence of which is eternal damnation in hell where the damned will damned will be weeping and gnashing their teeth. “How about those who do not have teeth,” I jokingly asked a friend. His answer was quick and swift: “Don’t worry brother, God will provide.” The liberal theological tradition exposes the historical character of the external authority’s truth-claim, particularly its alliance with oppressive power. It subverts heteronomous discourse by locating its historical origin and pointing to human beings as active interpreting subjects. With human beings as active interpreting subjects, truth is not only historicized, it is also pluralized.
What does this critique of religious truth-claim mean in relation to how liberal or progressive Christians take account of the Christian claim vis-à-vis the claim of other religions? What does this mean in relation to Christ’s saving act in Jesus? Does Christianity have a monopoly on salvation?
First, from a historical and hermeneutical point of view, liberal or progressive Christianity affirms that as historical creatures we do not see reality from the point of view of eternity (sub specie aeternitatis), but only through our limited socio-historical and geographical location. Historical beings that we are, what we see is a part and not the totality of reality. If our perception is limited by our historicity and circumscribed by our relationship with the world around us, then we should not close ourselves to other dimensions of the total reality or to other expressions of truth that our neighbors may see and experience. We should not be threatened when our neighbors affirm something as true, because his or her truth affirmation does not necessarily cancel out what we deeply hold as true. The Nobel Prize physicist Neils Bohr puts it well: “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth. (3)
When we apply this insight to Christianity and the question of salvation, I say that what we know of God and God’s salvific acts in the world is limited to our historical window—the Christian window. This is not bad in itself. In fact, we see only because we see through a particular window. Not only is it impossible for a single human being to see through all the windows: there is no way of seeing apart from our particular window. This Christian window may become our Christian box -- our prison cell -- if we do not embrace it consciously and take account of it critically. When we are conscious and critical of our Christian window, we know that even the way we have framed our topic -- “Does Christianity have a monopoly on salvation?” -- is already set within the Christian framework. Believers from other religious traditions may not even want to play our Christian game—the game of salvation.
Second, from the theological-mystical point of view, not only is our knowledge of God limited and historically conditioned, but God is also the Ultimate Mystery. Moreover, the Ultimate Mystery is not only ineluctably ineffable; at the heart of the Ultimate Mystery is plurality. We can discern the Ultimate Mystery’s ontological plurality in the manifold particularities. To confine the Ultimate Mystery to one particular expression is to misunderstand what is at the heart of the Ultimate Mystery: the mystery of plurality — a plurality that at the same time does not deny the mystery of unity. (4) I have underscored ontological plurality as central to the Ultimate Mystery to counter embedded habits of thinking that reduce, swallow or melt the many into one. (5) In a society with a long history of devouring and melting the many into one, there is more reason to worry that the discourse on oneness with regard to the Ultimate Mystery maybe a religious projection of political hegemony. Instead of thinking in numbers and starting to count (In matters of Ultimate Mystery, he or she “who begins to count, begins to err,” says Augustine), we must see the other side of plurality not in terms of oneness (mono) but of the unity and the connection of the many. (6)
Third, from an ethical and practical point of view, liberal or progressive Christianity not only affirms that our knowledge is limited and that plurality is at the heart of the Ultimate Reality. It also affirms that the building of a just, humane, and sustainable world demands openness to the claims of other religious believers and to what their religious praxis can contribute into our common life, particularly to our shared well-being. Openness to the truth-claims of others and testing them in light of their contribution to greater well-being reminds me of Aristotle’s notion of phronesis (practical wisdom). Practical wisdom knows that something is “true” because of its “good” effects. If the “true” is the “good,” then the true is discernible in the “good” that a person does or what a “good person” does. (7) In short, a particular religious expression that claims monopoly of the absolute truth is, I believe, violating that truth-claim when it undermines mutual respect and when it harms the other. Monopolistic claims and imposition of truth claims are contrary to the nature of truth. Such actions devour people in the name of the sacred truth.
Where does this openness to the salvific claims of other religions lead to? Does it relativize or water down the Christian claim? How does it take account of the particular and decisive claim of the Christian faith? What is it going to say about the mandate to evangelize the whole world of the good news of Jesus Christ? Are liberal or progressive Christians destined to a wishy-washy or mushy kind of relativism and non-engaging niceness or tolerance, which fits very well into our individualistic-privatistic culture? My answer is a resounding No.
The best liberal or progressive Christian theological position overcomes religious schizophrenia and integrates the insights of scientific, historical, cultural, and literary studies as well as the nature and language of religious commitment. The liberal or progressive Christian does not crucify his or her intellect even as she or he continues to be a committed Christian. The de-absolutizing and relativizing perspective of historical studies and comparative religion is affirmed and valued by a liberal or progressive Christian. Relativity is the nature of all historical and religious institutions. One cannot escape from it. But an astute liberal or progressive Christian interpreter of religious traditions does not confuse or equate historical relativity with relativism. In fact, relativism is a contradiction to the spirit of the liberal tradition, because relativism is absolutism in disguise. In its subtle form, it is repressive tolerance.
What I affirm as a Christian who is an inheritor of the liberal or progressive tradition is not relativism but relationality. Relativity does not only mean being “limited” but also of being “potentially relatable” to other truth claims. (8) Relationality does not ask us to abdicate faith commitment through one religious medium, such as Christianity, but affirms it in the context of relationship with other claims. In fact, our day-to-day lives call us to make commitments in the context in which what we see is only through a mirror dimly—only through the relative and the particular and amidst competing claims. When the particular presents to us in the form of competing claims that demand our wholehearted commitment, we know that we are confronted to make a choice that is beyond the trivial, such as a choice between different kinds of doughnuts (old fashioned, honey glazed, cream and strawberry doughnuts, etc.), but a serious one. I cannot deny that there are other claims, but in committing myself to a particular claim it has made a claim on my life and it demands my total commitment. This is particularly true of the claim of Christ in Jesus.
As a Christian, the Christ who calls and demands my total commitment has become fully particular in Jesus. It is through this particularity that Christ’s saving work in Jesus has become a reality. If I may pair the word “only” with the word “salvation,” I say that it is “only” through the particular that we are “saved.” To use the syntax of the famous exclusivist dictum, “outside of the particular there is no salvation.” God loves particularities, lots of them. Yes, God saves through the particularity of Christ in Jesus, but God’s saving act in Christ is not limited to this particularity, and this particularity does not exhaust God’s saving acts through other particularities. This is at the core of what we call the incarnation. Incarnation means that the Divine has assumed the fullness of humanity, not that a particular humanity has taken on the totality of the Divine. (9) To make a particular assume the totality of the Divine is not an expression of Christian faithfulness but an act of betrayal. It is to fall into what the Christian tradition calls idolatry. Idolatry makes God a prisoner of a particular. To limit God’s saving act in Christ through Jesus is to imprison God, which is often done in the name of Christian faithfulness.
This may help us understand the creative tension between the particularity and decisiveness of the Christian claim in relation to Christian openness. I suggest that we see Christ in Jesus as a prototype (breakthrough figure) and not as an archetype figure. Unfortunately, the prevailing mindset of many well-intentioned Christians is that of Jesus as an archetype. If I may use a more mundane language, to construe Jesus as an archetype is to image Jesus like a cookie-cutter or a pasta-maker, which is to assume a cookie-cutter or pasta-maker mentality. In the pasta-maker mentality, the present as well as the future are strangulated and cut to fit the past. Similarly, threatened by the freedom of the Holy Spirit, the pasta-maker mindset abducts and imprisons the Spirit. The guardians of the pasta-maker mindset have the Spirit (Sophia) controlled and subordinated by the Son. The filioque controversy is an account of the history of the subordination of the Spirit. The subordination of the Spirit by the Son has been disastrous. The Son, through the Church, has imprisoned the Spirit and has limited its creative saving work by making the Christian container the only correct container of God’s grace.
It is, however, a different matter when we think of Jesus as a prototype. While archetype thinking equates Christ’s particularity in Jesus with exclusivity (a way of thinking among fundamentalist Christians), prototype thinking sees Christ’s particularity in Jesus as openness to other particularities. While archetype thinking confuses Christian faithfulness with exclusivity, prototype thinking holds in creative balance faithfulness and openness. Jesus the prototype allows freedom of movement of the Spirit, and it does not call Christians to live in the past; rather, it calls Christians to live creatively in the present. Jesus the prototype--God’s breakthrough figure--is not threatened by the freedom of the Spirit, but celebrates the novel and creative work of the Spirit to bring about salvation both within the confines of Christianity as well as beyond its walls and even beyond the work of Christ in Jesus. This does not mean that the Spirit contradicts the work of Christ in Jesus, but this does not confine the Spirit either. The Spirit’s freedom is in line with the work of Christ in Jesus. Put differently, we are open to others and to the work of the Spirit in others because we are faithful to the work of Christ in Jesus. John Cobb, Jr. puts it this way: “We must show that we are open to the other because we are truly faithful to our heritage.” (10)
Christian faithfulness is not a contradiction to Christian openness. Jesus construed as a prototype – God’s breakthrough figure – offers that possibility for liberal Christians. Liberal Christians can and must affirm that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), but in affirming this they affirm the way who is open to other ways. Put differently, to affirm that Jesus is the way is to be led to the way that is open to other ways and other paths. The way of Jesus is the way that is open to the presence of the Spirit who is doing its creative and saving work even beyond the historical deeds of Jesus. The way of the open Jesus is the way of the one who is truly but not the only nor the totality of the incarnation of the Divine.
Liberal or progressive Christian faithfulness walks in light of this understanding. Wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus does not require that he be the only and the totality but that he be truly and fully an embodiment of God’s saving work. Truly is indispensable or essential to experiencing the saving work of Christ in Jesus and to faithful discipleship, but this is not the case with solely or only. Throughout the ages, faithful Christians have committed themselves to Jesus not because of their belief that he is the only or the exclusive manifestation of God’s saving grace, but because they have experienced him as the true, indispensable, universal and decisive manifestation of the Divine. (11) Yes, true religious experience—an experience that strikes at the core of one’s being—cannot be true only for me; it has to be true for others as well. (12) But the truth and universality of the Christian truth-claim does not demand the elimination of other truth-claims; neither does the recognition of other truth-claims require that one must water down the universal validity of the Christian truth-claim.
Wholehearted commitment may express in words that demand absolute devotion, but it should not be confused with arrogant exclusivism. The absolute language that comes from an experience of God’s saving power and which calls us to witness is not the language of comparison, but the language of commitment and devotion. Words and phrases such as “one and only” and “no other name” belong to the language of devotion (love language) and what scholars call performative or call to action language. (13) In the transformation of a common language to a language of devotion a slippage from a to the happens or that a has become the. (14) When something at stake is of ultimate significance, there is no other language short of the absolute language of commitment. No other language can make people leave what they have and make great sacrifices short of the absolute language of commitment. The absolute language of commitment and devotion is not, however, synonymous with exclusivism, which fundamentalist Christians confuse. Rather, it is a language of commitment in the face of other claims, and it is a language that finds a creative balance between faithfulness and openness.
Indeed, one can be both faithful and open to the claims of others and to the saving work of God in other religious faiths. Rather than be sad, we should be feasting and dancing that God is at work not only in us and through us but also beyond us Christians. The central point of the Christian Story is not God’s exclusivity but God’s radical love and hospitality. Liberal or progressive Christians must proclaim God’s radical saving hospitality whenever and wherever Christian exclusivism is present; liberal Christians must witness to God’s radical comma where exclusivism has put a period. Moreover, liberal or progressive Christians must proclaim God’s radical openness with the passion and excitement of an exclamation point! Thanks to God’s liberality, we have a God in Christ who saves through the many particularities!
1. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989).
2. See Kwok Pui-Lan, Post-Colonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 186-208.
3. Neils Bohr, cited in Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998), 62.
4. Raimundo Panikkar, “The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges: Three Kairological Moments of Christic Self-Consciousness,” in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. John Hick and Paul Knitter (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 1987), 109.
5. Cf. S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995); also see, Paul Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 192-202.
6. Panikkar, “The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges: Three Kairological Moments of Christic Self-Consciousness, in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, 111.
7. Paul Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), 82.
8. John B. Cobb, Jr., Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way Beyond Absolutism and Relativism, edited and introduced by Paul Knitter (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999), 6.
9. See Paul Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 1996), 73; also Edward Schillebeckx, The Church: The Human Story of God (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 164-168.
10. Cobb, Jr., Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and Relativism, 60.
11. Marcus Borg, “Jesus and Buddhism: A Christian View,” in Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk About Buddha, ed. Rita Gross and Terry Muck (New York and London: Continuum, 2000), 80. Also, Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility, 72.
12. Michael Polanyi cited in Daniel Maguire, The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1993), 63.
13. Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility, 70.
14. John Dominic Crossan, “Exclusivity and Particularity,” in Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha, 86.