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Commitment to One—Openness to Others: A Challenge for Christians

  • Paul F. Knitter (a1)


As we so often hear, Christians of every new generation, or in any new cultural context, have to answer for themselves the question Jesus posed for the first generation of disciples: “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:27) This is a question that can be answered only in the light of other questions—that is, the personal, social, political, scientific questions we find ourselves grappling with in our own age and experience. The meaning of Jesus “becomes flesh” again in the meaning and direction we struggle for in our own times.

Among the questions that most stir the minds and feelings of Christians today, perhaps one of the most rankling and challenging is that of other religions traditions and other religious believers—the issue of religious pluralism. To answer the question “Who do you say I am?”, we have to connect it to the question “Who do you say they are?” How do we understand Jesus—his person and his work—in view of so many other religious persons and their words and works of wisdom? As Roger Haight has perceptively pointed out, the reality of other religions is not a question we take up after we have worked out our Christology. It enters into, and directs and determines, how we do our Christology from the very start.

If I can try to formulate how “Who do you say I am?” translates into the context of religious pluralism, it might be something like: “How can I be truly committed to Christ and at the same time be truly open to other religions?” That, I think, captures the questions and the struggles many Christians are feeling as they try to understand themselves as Christians in a world of many religions.



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1 This essay is an abbreviated version of a more extensive paper delivered at a symposium on “Faith and the Religious Imagination” organized by Terrence Merrigan at the Department of Theology, Catholic University of Leuven, March 8–9, 2001. The papers of this conference will soon be published.

2 Haight, Roger, Jesus the Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 395–98.

3 Nostra Aetate, #2. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, #55. Dialogue and Proclamation (of the Vatican Commission on Interreligious Dialogue), #2, 6, 77.

4 For an excellent review and analysis of Newman's understanding of the role of the imagination in the genesis of faith, see Merrigan, Terrence, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts: The Religious and Theological Ideal of John Henry Newman (Louvain: Peeters Press/W.B.Eerdmans, 1991), esp. chapters 2 and 6.

5 I understand a religious myth to be a revelatory narrative that makes use of symbols—whether the narrative is historical or not, whether the symbols are taken literally or not.

6 Just how and why this subsequent mediation of the claim that Jesus is the ontologically sole source of salvation took place is a complex and ambiguous issue. I have offered some suggestions why the early communities of the New Testament made their “one and only” claims about Jesus in No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes toward the World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 182–86.

7 Where my analogy of marriage “limps” (“omnis analogia claudicat”—every analogy limps in some way) is on the issue of universality. While my relationship with Jesus is something that I feel is universally relevant and that I would want others to share in, the same is not true of my relationship with my wife. While the relationship between spouses has an intimacy that cannot be shared (expressed in part in their sexual relationship), the intimacy that I have with the Christ-living-in-me can be shared.

8 Another question might be posed to this marriage analogy: If Christians know that there might be “other saviors” besides Jesus, would this not jeopardize their commitment to him? Would they not be unsettled by the possibility that if they would ever meet such an other savior, they would have to change their commitment to Jesus? I think not. Again, the analogy with marriage helps: The depth and quality of my relationship with my wife—based on what I know to be true of her—is such that though there is the possibility of my meeting and marrying another woman, this possibility is, for my imagination, not real. I am happy and fulfilled—“saved”—in the relationship I have. Indeed, the depth and peace that I find in this relationship opens and frees me to meet other women, enjoy their friendship, learn from them-and so deepen my relationship with my wife. Analogously, the depth of my commitment to Jesus the Christ, frees me, even encourages, me to explore and learn from what God may have revealed in other religions and their saviors.

9 Perrin, Norman, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 158206; Borg, Marcus J., Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 4796; Fuellenbach, John, The Kingdom of God: The Message of Jesus Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 79100.

10 Schillebeeckx, Edward, Jesus the Sacrament of Encounter with God (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1963) and Haight, , Jesus the Symbol of God, chapter 15.

11 I refer here to the general consensus that Jesus did not proclaim himself as the Son of God or preach his own divinity.

12 As has been pointed out, even if we are working with a sacramental (or representative) Christology, it is still well possible that Jesus is held up as the normative revelation in a world of many revelations. That certainly is true. But it need not be true. And that spells the difference between what has been called a representative and a constitutive Christology: as a constitutive cause, Jesus must be singular and normative; as a representative or sacramental cause he can be one among others.

13 See Knitter, Paul, Jesus and the Other Names (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 8083, 98–101.

14 Jensen, David H., In the Company of Others: A Dialogical Christology (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001), xi–xv, passim.

15 Haight, , Jesus the Symbol of God, 407–08. In this context, Haight reminds us that in such openness to and dialogue with others, Jesus continues to be normative for Christians. But it is what he calls a negative, rather than a positive, normativity: what we encounter in other religious traditions can be something genuinely new and therefore add to what God is revealing to us; but it cannot really contradict what we have found to be true in Jesus (see Jesus the Symbol of God, 409–10).

16 Nostra Aetate, #2.

17 See the statement of the Vatican Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), nos. 4243.

18 See Schillebeeckx, Edward, The Church: The Human Story of God (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 166.

19 I have tried to describe and analyze this clash between the practice of dialogue and the theology of religions in “Catholics and Other Religions: Bridging the Gap between Dialogue and Theology,” Louvain Studies 24 (1999):319–54.

20 For references, see Knitter, , “Catholics and Other Religions,” 333–35. As Edmund Chia states in his paper to the Seventh Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops, January 3–12, 2000: “…. when the Curia bishops insist that the bishops of Asia address the issue of Jesus as the ‘one and only saviour,’ it is like a Vietnamese bishop insisting that the church in Italy address the issues of ancestor worship amongst Italian Catholics, or like an Indian bishop asking that the Italian bishops address the problem of the caste system or the dalit problem in their Italian parishes” (manuscript titled “Interreligious Dialogue in Pursuit of Fullness of Life in Asia”).

21 William Burrows indicates just how new these answers might be: “That contemporary interreligious interchange will do to the doctrine of soteriology what interchange with sciences such as paleontology and astrocosmology did to the doctrine of creation” (paper titled “A Catholic Perspective on What Evangelicals Have to Contribute to Interreligious Interchange,” American Academy of Religion annual meeting, November 1999).

22 The Second Formation Institute for Interreligious Affairs (FIRA II), July 8–13, 1999, Redemptoris Center, Pattaya, Thailand, organized by the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Office of Ecumenical and Religious Affairs. Report to be published in the book, For All the Peoples of Asia.

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