The Challenge of Other Faiths


One principal challenge of other faiths to Christianity is how Christianity should regard them. Are they means to salvation? Are they positive blockages to salvation? Are all faiths equal? Are their adherents saved through them, despite them or apart from them? At last year’s Conference I gave a paper entitled ‘The Church of the Future’.In the second part of that paper I raised the question whether Christianity is an expression of a basic world-view which can be, and is, expressed in other great religions equally well, or perhaps imperfectly but proximately. I venture to repeat myself:


Keith Ward concludes his review of ‘convergent spirituality’ by asserting, ‘The many religions of the world are metaphorical or symbolic systems encoding paradigmatic forms of spiritual experience, experience leading to liberation (‘Convergent Spirituality’ in Christianity in the 21st Century, ed. Deborah A. Brown, Crossroads, New York, 2000, p. 69), that the goal of each is ‘liberation from greed, hatred and ignorance to a reality of supreme wisdom and compassion’ (p. 70). If this is the case, is it a mere accident that I am born into a Christian rather than a Buddhist culture and so follow the Christian rather than the Buddhist way? Can Buddhism contribute anything to Christianity? Can the Christian learn from Buddhism? Can Christianity bring the truths of Buddhism to perfection? The same set of questions must be asked with relation to Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and other religious systems.


In this paper I propose to continue the discussion by focussing on three aspects. First, as a biblicist, I wish to consider the biblical teaching about the unique way of salvation. Secondly, as a Roman Catholic, I will consider some recent pronouncements of the Church on the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Thirdly, I will try to carry these further by some reflections.


1. Biblical

In the Old Testament a development of thought in three phases is visible.

  1. First, the God of Abraham, whose sacred name is revealed to Moses, is seen as the personal God and protector of the patriarchs and their clan. This is the stage of religion which Albrecht Alt famously outlined as Der Gott der Väter. In the experience on Sinai this God is seen to be God not just of Abraham but  of the whole people he has chosen. In the great assembly at Shechem the whole people commits itself to God in the Promised Land (Jos 24). At this stage, known as henotheism, the Lord is seen as God of his people and of his land in a way which does not exclude other gods for other peoples. The Lord can be worshipped only on the soil of Israel. So when David as an outlaw, plotting against Saul, secedes to the Philistines, he cannot pray to the Lord in Philistine territory. Similarly, when Naaman the Syrian, having been cured by Elisha, wants to worship the Lord back home, he feels he must take two donkey-loads of soil of Israel with him, so that he may stand on them for his prayer (2 Kings 5.17). The exiles in Babylon cannot sing a song of the Lord on alien soil, which only increases the bitterness of their weeping (Psalm 137.4).
  2. The experience of Babylon introduced the second phase of development, when reflection on the gods and cosmogony of Babylon led the exiles on from henotheism to monotheism as we know it in Christianity, the realisation that the Lord – rather than Marduk – is God of the whole universe, not just the territory of Israel. The fact of exile does not mean necessarily that God has finally deserted his people or that he is now unavailable to them, for the Lord is God of the whole earth (Psalm 98.3, etc). 
  3. The third phase, universalism, reaches full strength with the return from exile, the protestation that all the nations will draw salvation from Jerusalem: ‘The mountain of the Lord’s house will rise higher than the mountains, and all nations will stream to it’ (Is 2.2); ‘the nations will then see your saving justice and all kings your glory’ (Is 62.2). Perhaps most strongly of all this is stated in the great eschatological drama of Zechariah 14, ‘Should one of the races of the world fail to come up to Jerusalem to worship the King, there will be no rain for that nations’ (Zc 14.17).


In the New Testament the optic is slightly different. Jesus’ own mission was exclusively to his own people. In the gospel of Mark the only exception – and it is stressed that it is exceptional – is the Syro-Phoenician mother, who by her cheeky bargaining wins a cure for her daughter. (In Matthew’s account it is more explicitly her faith, Matt 15.28). In the gospel of John, in a somewhat similar scene, the same cheek wins the Samaritan woman acceptance by Jesus. Mark indicates that it is only after Jesus’ death that the pagan centurion’s acclaim heralds the opening of salvation to the gentiles. Soon, however, the boot is on the other foot. Paul re-defines the people of God. He insists that the children of Abraham and the heirs to God’s promises to Abraham are those who have faith, who put their trust in the God of Abraham. Physical descent from Abraham becomes irrelevant. Indeed, the burning question which agonises Paul is how ‘the brothers who are my own flesh and blood’ (Rom 9.3) may be saved.


The underlying assumption in all this is that there is a special and unique relationship between God, the origin and conserver of the universe, and a single people or culture, that this people enjoys privileged access to God and a special revelation of God’s ways, is the object of special divine care and will be kept safe by God from disaster. There was no consideration of the vast mass of humankind who, through no fault of their own, had no access to this revelation. In medieval times the possibility of a puer in silvis, a sort of Mowgli-boy in the jungle, who had never had access to Christian teaching, was considered so remote that it was held that God would send an angel to instruct the unfortunate savage in the Christian faith. With the awareness in recent centuries that the vast majority of human beings have had and still have no valid access to the Christian revelation, a solution other than such extreme emergency measures must be found.


2. Roman Catholic official teaching

Note: I am well aware that the Roman Catholic official teaching is not considered necessarily normative by all those present. Nevertheless, in a contentious and difficult matter it is at least a useful starting-point to consider the views of authoritative teachers who have carefully considered the matter. These are not the views of maverick individuals anxious to make a new point or grind a personal axe, but rather teachings, backed by a number of wise and thoughtful theologians,  which are given in the knowledge that they will be considered by many believers to be in some sense normative. There is also an important distinction in weight between papal and conciliar teaching and the teaching issued by other Church bodies.


The official attitude of the Church from the fifth to the fifteenth century was ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’. This was shaken in 1492 by the discovery of the American continent. How is it that God our Saviour ‘wants everyone to be saved and to reach full knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tm 2.4) and yet leaves so many beyond the reach of the gospel? One result was an almost frantic missionary movement to save the benighted pagans from damnation, led by the great missionary zeal of the early Jesuits such as Francis Xavier in the East, and resulting in South America in the Jesuit ‘Reductions’ of Paraguay.


As in so many spheres of church life and theology, a new spirit came about at Vatican II. It had been prepared by the theological reflection of such great figures as Daniélou, de Lubac and Rahner, but it was sparked by the presence at the Council for the first time of large numbers of bishops from nonEuropean, nonWestern countries, whose cultures were permeated by great religions other than Christianity, and where the majority of religious people were adherents of those faiths. It seemed impossible any more simply to dismiss them. The statements of Vatican II itself were tentative and even patronising, stressing always the imperfection and dependence of any good which these faiths could do, suggesting an air of surprise that there should be any good outside the Church. Thus


Gaudium et Spes 22: ‘The Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being associated, in a way known to God, with the paschal mystery.’

Lumen Gentium 17: The Church brings to perfection ‘whatever good is found in the rites and customs proper to various peoples’.

Nostra Aetate 1: ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is good and holy in these religions… which reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all.’


However, later statements, particularly of John Paul II, have shed this patronising overtone. So Redemptor Hominis 6 (1979) speaks of ‘an effect of the Spirit of Truth operating outside the visible confines of the mystical body’, and in his Address to the Curia after the World Day of Prayer at Assisi in 1986 Pope John Paul said, ‘Every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person’. These statements concern only individuals, and could seem to assert the presence of good in individuals despite, rather than because of, their religious adherence. More recently, however, the Pope has advanced to predicating some saving value to the religions and their institutions themselves.


Redemptoris Missio 9 (1990): ‘Whatever good is found to be sown in human hearts and minds, or in the rites and cultures peculiar to various peoples, not only is not lost, but is healed, uplifted, and perfected for the glory of God and human blessedness.’ And 28: ‘The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples and religions’.

Tertio Millenio Adveniente 6 (1994) ‘The Incarnate Word is the fulfilment of the yearning present in all the religions of humankind.’


Less positive is, however, it must be admitted, Dominus Jesus (2000), which represents rather a cautious withdrawal in its tone, concerned to point out the limits rather than the advances of these religions: ‘Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God, and which are part of what the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions. Indeed some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel. One cannot attribute to these, however a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments’.


I should perhaps add that the position taken by Vatican II was a good deal more open than some other church statements. The Frankfurt Declaration of 1970 ended, ‘We therefore challenge all non-Christians to believe in Jesus Christ and to be baptized in his name, for in him alone is eternal savlation promised to them’. The Wheaton Declaration, made at the Congress on World Mission in Chicago (1966), is staggeringly blinkered and condemnatory: ‘In the years since the war more than one billion souls have passed into eternity, and more than half of these went to the torment of hell fire without even hearing of Jesus Christ’.


3. Reflections

Against the background of the biblical evidence and of the Church guidance in understanding it, we must try to make sense of the situation. Is it possible to maintain both the uniqueness of Christianity, the contention that salvation depends on the acknowledgement of God as our Creator and of Christ as the Word made flesh and our Redeemer, and at the same time give due respect to other religions?


Keith Ward concludes his review of ‘convergent spirituality’ by asserting, ‘The many religions of the world are metaphorical or symbolic systems encoding paradigmatic forms of spiritual experience, experience leading to liberation (‘Convergent Spirituality’ in Christianity in the 21st Century, ed. Deborah A. Brown, Crossroads, New York, 2000, p. 69). He maintains that the goal of each is ‘liberation from greed, hatred and ignorance to a reality of supreme wisdom and compassion’ (p. 70). This seems to place all the religious systems on the same level, doubtfully leaving room for any uniqueness in Christianity.  John Hick famously, e.g. God and the Universe of Faith (London 1973, p. 108-119), robustly denies any uniqueness to Christianity. He regards the particular way in which religious values are expressed by each person as ‘a kind of spiritual horoscope read off from the time and place of our birth’ (p. 132). ‘The idea that Jesus proclaimed himself as God incarnate, and as the sole point of saving contact between God and man, is without adequate historical foundation and represents a doctrinal development by the church (p. 145 – with the implication that a doctrinal development by the church has little value). He attributes any claim to uniqueness to the apocalyptic Jewish mentality of the time, a culturally limited colouring of the message of Christ. ‘If Jesus had been encountered in some other cultural context, involving some other philosophy of history, he would have been considered neither final nor unique’ (summarized by J. Dupuis, Christianity and Other Religions, p. 170).


Jacques Dupuis attempts to hold a more balanced position. Dupuis taught for many years in India and has tussled at length with the problem of the saving value of the classic Indian religions. His principal thesis is that the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, is active before and beyond the human incarnation of the Divine Word in Jesus Christ. He relies heavily on the rich passages of the biblical Wisdom Literature which show the Wisdom of God active in creation, before and apart from the Incarnation. Dupuis quotes the wonderful poem of Job 28 about Wisdom in creation, with its refrain, ‘Where does Wisdom come from? Where is Intelligence to be found?’ Furthermore the poem in praise of Wisdom in Ben Sira 24 indicates Wisdom already active in creation and in the Law:


The Creator of all things fixed a place for my tent. He said, ‘Pitch your tent in Jacob, make Israel your inheritance. From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall remain (24.8-9).


Most important of all is the passage on Wisdom in creation from Proverbs 8.22-9.1:


The Lord created me, first-fruits of his fashioning, before the oldest of his works. From everlasting I was firmly set, from the beginning, before the earth came into being. …When he traced the foundations of the earth I was beside him, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, delighting to be with the children of men.


On the Word itself the crucial passage is the Prologue of St John: ‘In the beginning was the Word… that gives light to everyone.’ Interpreters are divided on the application of the next phrase: ‘He was in the world that had come into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. He came to his own and his own people did not accept him.’ Does this refer to the Word Incarnate or to the Word as such, apart from the incarnate manifestation of the Word? Can such a distinction be made? If so, does the first phrase (‘He was in the world’) refer to the Word apart from the Incarnation, and the second (‘He came to his own’) introduce the new phase of the Incarnation?


Caution is necessary here. The Word of God is active in creation and is in the world. But at the same time it is necessary to hold that the Word became wholly incarnate in Jesus Christ. It is not as though there is some part or some activity of the Word over and above what became incarnate in Christ. The Roman Congregation for the Defence of the Faith warns that misunderstanding is both possible and dangerous here:


Il est donc contraire à la foi catholique non seulement d’affirmer une séparation entre le Verbe et Jésus ou une séparation entre l’action salvifique du Verbe et celle de Jésus, mais aussi de soutenir la thèse d’une action salvifique du Verbe comme tel, dans sa divinité, indépendamment de l’humanité du Verbe incarné                                          (CDF, signed by Ratzinger and Bertone, but approved by the Pope, 19th January, 2001).


Similarly with the Spirit of Christ, it is essential to hold onto both statements: ‘The Holy Spirit was at work in the world before Christ was glorified’ (Ad Gentes 4) and ‘The Spirit had not yet been given’ before Christ had been glorified (Jn 7.39). This Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and so dependent on the incarnation. It is, however, striking that the CDF acknowledges that this Spirit is at work also in non-Christians:


La foi de l’Eglise enseigne que l’Esprit Saint, à l’oeuvre après la résurrection de Jésus-Christ, est encore l’Esprit du Christ envoyé par le Père qui opère de manière salvifique aussi bien dans les chrétiens que dans les non-chrétiens.


Two important points should, however, be noted in this carefully-phrased statement. Firstly, to avoid difficulties about time and eternity it speaks not of before and after but of action which is independent of the work of the incarnate Christ. Secondly, it speaks carefully not of the work of creation, conservation, guidance, but specifically of the work of salvation. How can we explain that the Buddhist, the Brahmin and the Muslim who know nothing of Christ are nevertheless saved by Christ, are ‘associated’, as Gaudium et Spes puts it, ‘with the paschal mystery’?


It seems to me that the fundamental principle of soteriology is that of the Second Adam. Paul explains in Rm 5.12-21 that as Adam is the archetype of sinful humanity, Christ, the Second Adam, is the archetype of renewed humanity, submissive to and united to the Father. ‘Just as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience are many to be made upright’ (Rm 5.19). This act of obedience is the expression on the Cross of the perfect, loving union between Christ and his Father, expressed in Luke by, ‘Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’, in Mark and Matthew through the quotation of Psalm 22 (the clue to the whole thrust of the Passion) and in John by the high priestly prayer of Jn 17. There is no question, as in some medieval theologies, of a moment of separation, as though Jesus was condemned by God, suffered the pains of the damned, the Father exacting from his Son the penalty due to us all, ‘turning the knife in the heart of his Son’. It must be the supreme moment of union, the supreme revelation of love. Human disobedience, expressed in the myth of Adam, needed to be overcome by an act of obedience, an act of obedience carried out by a man who transcended the limitations of every individual human being. As such, it was accepted by the Father and declared accepted by the Resurrection, in which the eschaton breaks into human history, in which the Risen Christ is exalted ‘to the right hand of the Father’, in which Christ is able to sum up all things in Christ (Eph 1.10).


The question of course remains how this affects individuals, and here again the two Adams must be brought into parallel. The story of Adam and Eve is an analysis not of what took place aeons ago at the dawn of time, but of what takes place again and again in every human sin and failure: the acceptance of high ideals (forbidden fruit), the process of self-blinding (the serpent’s allurements), the act of betrayal (eating the fruit), the shame of failure (awareness of defenceless nakedness), hope of renewal (God’s continued affection). Paul teaches that the effects of sin ‘spread to the whole human race in so far as everyone has sinned’ (Rm 5.12). It is only by failure and sin that we unite ourselves to Adam and Adam’s fate. So far, so good, but what of union to Christ, of union to an unknown Christ? I would suggest that by their obedience to ‘a transcendant higher power’, expressed in the means and practices of other religions, the Buddhist, the Brahmin and the Muslim unite themselves – imperfectly – to the obedience of Christ to his Father. It is in this way that they are enabled to be associated with and saved by the paschal mystery.


The Theological Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences stated in 1987:


Its experience of the other religions has led the Church in Asia to positive appreciation of their role in the divine economy of salvation. This appreciation is based on the fruits of the Spirit perceived in the lives of the other religions’ believers: a sense of the sacred, a commitment to the pursuit of fullness, a thirst for self-realization, a taste for prayer and commitment, a desire for renunciation, a struggle for justice, an urge to basic human goodness, an involvement in service, a total surrender of the self to God, and an attachment to the transcendent in their symbols, rituals and life itself’ (FABC, Hong Kong, 1987)


Dupuis speaks of ‘participated mediation’. I would suggest that in this sense the values of Asian religions appreciated by the FABC may be seen as participations in the mediation of Christ, as imperfect  and tentative, but nevertheless effective, expressions of the values perfectly expressed by the total human obedience of Christ – and more than human nature on its own could achieve - in the paschal mystery.