This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is Christianity Exclusive?
William O. Amy
Charles Speel's knowledge of the details and facts of church history ancient and contemporary is legendary among his students and colleagues at Monmouth College. On occasion, as a novice dean struggling to fathom a faculty's response to some new initiatives, I called upon his vast knowledge of Presbyterian colleges in general and Monmouth specifically. It enabled me to view the situation in a larger historical context that provided new insight and understanding. Charles' love for church history crossed paths with my own in the second century writings of St. Irenaeus. This patristic bishop of Lyons, peacemaker between the Eastern and Western Church, defended the rule of truth against the heresies he perceived in the teachings of the Gnostics. In response he proposed a unique Christology which viewed the work of Christ as a recapitulation of all of human experience which reunited humankind in the will of God. In the Paulinistic language of the New Testament book of Ephesians God had revealed his purpose "in Christ. . . to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (1:10). It is in the context of this universal note that I wish to raise the question of this essay, "Is Christianity Exclusive?"
During the more than thirty years of teaching undergraduate courses in religion no question has been asked of me by students more often and been more challenging than that of the relationship of Christianity to other world religions. Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1962:15) ranks this problem as "at least as important for mankind as that of nuclear physics; as intellectually challenging, as intricate, as exciting, as consequential." There are no simple or easy answers to the question. Facile responses usually betray an ignorance of what the various religions of the world really teach and easily brush aside what appear to be the conflicting truth claims of the varied faiths of humankind. Dogmatic responses simply close one's eyes to the truths of other religions with the pronouncement that one's own faith embraces the sole and total truth. Agnostic responses express an awareness of religious pluralism with a spirit of tolerant neutrality or turn from the question with a confident trust that only God knows the answer and we should leave the judgment to Him.
In this essay I wish to propose one person's response to this perennial question. The hypothesis expressed arises out of the reading of widely differing points of view which have become in some form a part of my own thinking. Wiser minds will need to determine if there is any validity to the approach I tentatively set forth. But if the result is a greater willingness for persons to dialogue with other world faiths the effort will be worthwhile.
Let me begin by recognizing the problem we have in defining the concept of "religion." In The Meaning and End of Religion (1962) W. C. Smith, perhaps more than anyone else, has made students of world religions aware of the impossibility of seeing the faiths of the world as systematic empirical entities whose adherents all agree. When someone says "Christianity believes" immediately the response is "Whose Christianity?" And the same problem faces all the great faiths of the world. Is the Hinduism about which we speak the Vedic, the Upanishadic or the Bhakti expression of this tradition? Is the Buddhism being proclaimed that of Theravada or Mahayana, Zen or Pure Land? More and more in my own contacts with persons of other faiths I have come to recognize their manifestation of an experience which we can agree is religious, an interior and highly personal intuitive experience seeking expression in the language and symbols of the culture in which one lives. In our western tradition we have emphasized the rational and intellectual statements which we refer to as creeds to express this inner faith. But it is well to remind ourselves that the original Christian creeds were referred to as symbolum or a symbol which should not be identified with the experience itself. As helpful as the creeds might be for understanding it, the inner faith experience was more than any outward statement or proposition on which persons must agree. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt.7:21). Even the metaphysical language of Greek philosophy could not exhaust the experience of knowing God.
Drawing a distinction between what he calls "personal faith" and "cumulative tradition," Smith notes that the primary concern of the person of religion is not the tradition to which the person belongs but the personal experience with the ultimate reality or God. While it is true that one's religious community preserves and passes on the religious tradition which can inspire and enlighten one's faith, it is more significant that the individual's religious experience or faith becomes the creative element that critiques and changes the cumulative tradition as the history of religions clearly shows. Smith believes that it is our western perspective that tends to make the cumulative traditions of religions into the "isms" by which we tend to speak of them. In this fashion we distort them by making them into rational systems, or institutions, failing to recognize the rich differences within the religions, and even making judgments about the validity of the individual religious experiences of the adherents. We see separate religions rather than the more important personal faith of the individual followers by which they are related to the "sacred" or the ultimate. Smith challenges the way in which the history of religions and comparative religions have developed and calls for dialogue which takes seriously the interior religious experience which he prefers to call "faith."
The question of how one communicates this personal faith is the issue of religious symbol and myth which are central concerns in any cumulative tradition. Paul Tillich (1957a:41-54), as much as anyone in recent times, has drawn attention to this necessary way for religion to express itself. Symbols for Tillich arise out of the collective unconscious of people. They "participate" in the reality of that to which they point. But their critical character is their ability to express a self-denying quality that in essence says "not me but that to which I am pointing." They must never become absolutes themselves but pointers to the Absolute. Tillich (1957a:29) notes that "creedal expressions of the ultimate concern. . . are not ultimate" and "Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate" (Tillich 1957a:52). These symbols remain a part of the mundane element of the cumulative tradition of which Smith speaks and cannot be equated with the personal faith experience which transcends this religious dimension. But they are essential to communicating the faith experience to others. If all of these suggestions are correct, no one religion or cumulative tradition can be identified with the final truth though the person of faith in all of these traditions can claim to be in some humble fashion a participant in that Truth. For many of us who have shared with persons of other faiths, this experience rings true despite the many differences in our cultural expressions of that faith.
What then do we do with the dilemma John Hick (1990:109-119) likes to refer to as the "conflicting truth-claims" of the different cumulative traditions? In particular let me deal with this from the standpoint of the Christian tradition yet recognize that this seeming claim to exclusiveness in my own tradition can also be found in varying degrees of dogmatism in others as well. In Christian communities the New Testament is variously understood as the canon of truth, by some as the literal word of God and by others as a divine-human text through which God reveals himself. For some Christians quotations concerning Christ such as "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12) or "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6) clearly exclude all persons of other faiths from participation in salvation. These two biblical texts are the cardinal supports of the exclusivist position and seemingly set aside all the texts which clearly proclaim an inclusive emphasis in God's plan of salvation in both the Old and the New Testaments. It must be said in fairness that many in this camp have begun to recognize the implicit arrogance of such a stand. In his forward to John Sanders' No Other Name (1992:xiii), for example, Clark H. Pinnock writes "I am not the only evangelical who does not believe this makes good sense of God's gracious way with humanity and wants a better explanation." Pinnock and others realize that they open themselves to much criticism by insisting that millions in the world are condemned to eternal damnation by such an interpretation of the scriptures. The harshness of such a judgment does not fit well the view that God is love and the injustice of it brings God's righteousness into question. It is not enough to take a neutral position that this is for God to determine not humans. Writers like J. Sanders (1992) have begun to question such interpretations of the scriptures and tentatively offer evidence of a second chance for those who have not heard the gospel of God's forgiveness as found in Christian scripture.
The exclusiveness expressed in the literal interpretation of such biblical passages as the two noted above was representative of most of the modern missionary movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It motivated many courageous and loving Christians to seek to evangelize a world of paganism perceived to be dying in the darkness of sin and knowing nothing of God's forgiving love in Christ. Loving concern that these heathen should at least hear this good news so they could decide for themselves gave rise to missionary societies sending hundreds of men and women into parts of Africa and Asia to win the world to Christ. Many hundreds gave their lives for this endeavor. But it was also through many of these dedicated missionaries that the western world learned about the religions of these people for the first time. Missionaries began to see in the practices and scriptures of these peoples evidence of God's light. In sharing these insights with church leaders at home, the direction of mission took on a different character. While local churches still responded with strong financial support to stories of converts being made to Christianity, the leadership in missionary endeavor began to emphasize the social and physical needs of human beings over the pressures to proselytize. In the years following World War II the decolonialization of much of the third world, the rise of indigenous leadership in these churches, and the rise of nationalism with its ensuing new appreciation for ancient cultures and traditions led to a greater missionary emphasis on openness and dialogue between religions.
One of the great illustrations of this new mood was clearly expressed in the documents of the Vatican II Council. With the new definition of the church as the people of God everywhere and in all ages the Roman Catholic Church began to openly seek and encourage dialogue with other world religions as the World Council of Churches had been doing for Protestants.
Much of this dialogue centered for Christians on the centrality and uniqueness of Christ to Christians. Was there a way to state this truth in such a fashion that devotees of other world faiths could also affirm this truth? Could Christians look upon these other faiths as expressions of a protoevangelium, a preparation for Christ that saw in Christianity the fulfillment of their own religious goals? Such efforts were seen as patronizing and extensions of the old imperialism of the western world by the adherents of other world faiths. What was necessary was true dialogue which openly acknowledged that the different religions expressed for their persons of faith the same genuine and authentic experience of the ultimate as did Christianity. Each must be open to the truth of such "personal experience" expressed as it was in the "cumulative tradition" of the other.
It is in the light of this new understanding of mission that I suggest the need for the Church to review the presumed exclusiveness which prevails in much of the reading and interpretation of the biblical tradition. Such exclusiveness overlooks so many of the biblical passages that clearly emphasize God's universal care and concern for humankind--"God so loved the world" (John 3:16), "I have other sheep, that are not of this fold" (John 10:16), "God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:34), "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor.5:19), "to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph.1:10). It also presupposes that the traditional exclusivist interpretation of other passages is the only such interpretation possible.
I would suggest that another interpretation is not only a possibility but perhaps more compatible with the expression of God's universal love and a fuller presentation of the Christian gospel of God's grace. I will take the two passages referred to above as the proof texts for a Christian exclusiveness to illustrate that such a presupposition is unnecessary and false. The theological context into which I would place this suggested exegesis of these passages is that religions have presented to humankind basically two ways of salvation; that which results from human efforts to make one acceptable to one's ultimate and that which results from the grace of the ultimate which we tend to speak of as forgiveness or total dependence or some such similar term. In reading the gospels of the New Testament one cannot help but be impressed by certain observations. First, Jesus did not come to tell his followers about a God other than that known by the faithful Jews of his day. Second, Jesus was most harsh on the Pharisees who had forgotten God's grace in giving his Law and substituted for it a salvation by works achieved through a perfection or righteousness that came through complete obedience to the Law, a self-salvation. Since such a complete obedience was impossible to humankind it could only result for the honest aspirant in a sense of guilt and condemnation. Third, the good news Jesus came to share about God was that He was a forgiving Father who graciously granted acceptance to those who would receive it and that in this reconciled relationship one experienced a righteousness (i.e. a right relationship) which exceeded that of the Pharisees. St. Paul was the apostle who most clearly proclaimed this good news which was revealed by and made possible through Jesus the Christ and his theology and Christology constantly reflects this understanding. It is most succinctly stated in the words of Ephesians 2:8-9. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God--not because of works, lest any man should boast." So Tillich (1957b:178) suggests that such absolute dependence on God and even faith are God's gifts: "Faith, justifying faith, is not a human act, although it happens in man; faith is the work of the divine Spirit, the power which creates the New Being, in the Christ, in individuals, in the Church."
With this understanding of Jesus' mission let us look at the text in John. When Jesus says "I am the way, and the truth and the life," I suggest that he refers to the way of grace which his life and death revealed and made possible. It is the way of salvation through God's forgiving love and our total dependence on that love. This is the truth Jesus made known by his life and his death on the cross, which, for Tillich (1957a:97-98), is an appropriate symbol of self-abnegation illustrating the impossibility of any symbol expressing the ultimacy of that to which it points. This is the life which one shares in Christ, a right relationship to God, a life of love, a power which makes us a new creation, a "born again" Christian, forgiven. The emphasis is on one's "personal experience" with God through Christ and not on agreement with all the expressions of the "cumulative tradition" which surround the person and work of Christ, the creeds and doctrines by which we speak of this experience. His way is the way of grace revealed in and through him. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, who shares this "personal faith," this absolute dependence on the grace of the ultimate, this life of love, comes to the Father by way of Christ.
Similarly an inclusive interpretation is possible, and, I propose, more in keeping with the good news of Christ for the passage from Peter's witness in Acts 4:12. The key to our exegesis lies in the term "name." Studies of this word in the culture of Paul's day make it clear that knowing a name is more than knowing a tag by which one identifies a person. Many know the label or tag "Jesus" who have no experience of salvation in him. To know his name is in some sense to participate in the reality of his very being, to share in that for which he stands or in other words to know the grace of God he came to reveal. This experience is not limited in the New Testament to those who were witnesses of Christ's historical existence but can be applied to those of faith, like Abraham, who never knew the historical Jesus.
If these two brief summaries of an exegesis of these passages are accurate, it is a simple step to say next that anyone anywhere at any time who knows God's grace through a personal faith experience of total dependence on Him shares the same salvation which the New Testament sets forth. Rather than being expressions of Christian exclusiveness these passages become proclamations of God's universal and inclusive love for the whole world of humankind in all ages and in all places.
Obviously there are many other biblical passages which have been traditionally interpreted in an exclusive manner though none are appealed to quite so often as these two. I can only suggest that, if they are understood in the prevailing spirit of the inclusiveness of God's love found so evident in the rest of the Biblical material, there is none that requires such a restrictive interpretation. In fact, they are all open to interpretations which are compatible with God's universal love and grace.
Tillich has defined faith as the state of being grasped by the ultimate concern. Such a view of faith takes clearly into account the concept of St. Paul that such faith is the gift of God's grace. Faith is not an achievement of a person's intellect, though a cognitive element is essential to it. Nor is it the consequence of human moral living though again it must have an element of the activity of love in it. Nor is it to be defined in terms of personal feelings that can be created through an act of the will, though it clearly includes emotions that are inherent in the risk that is an element in any personal commitment to an ultimate that can never be absolutely contained or known. Faith is a gift of God by which humans are grasped. It is existentially known, says Tillich, in the universal anxieties that characterize all human beings. These he describes as the concerns of meaninglessness, guilt and death. They are the experiences of all human beings which manifest the fact that we have been grasped by the ultimate concern and this is an act of God's grace, his reaching out to us all before we respond in any way. If faith were our human response, it would also be a human act, a human achievement, and hence salvation would be by works. The search for meaning, the repentance for wrongdoing, and the fear of death are evidences of this grace by which we have been grasped and are essential elements of the human experience of faith. It is our response to this grace which creates creeds and theologies, rituals and practices, symbols and myths which make up the expressions of our personal religious experience in terms of the cumulative cultural traditions of the age and place in which we dwell in history. But our salvation is not the result of these expressions or our devotion to them. Salvation is the gift of God's grace.
Such a view of faith opens the door for dialogue between Christianity and the other expressions of faith which we tend to refer to as the world religions. It dramatically supports the Christian view that salvation is by the grace of God and not of works which permit persons to arrogantly proclaim they and they alone have the truth of God contained in their religion. If Christianity is to be the outgrowth of Christ's teachings of humble dependence on God's gracious forgiveness, there is no place for such arrogance based on some concept of self-salvation through deeds or dogmas. Christians must work from the principle of God's universal love and not the concept of exclusive election. Does this mean all religions are equal in their symbolic expressions of this faith? Not necessarily, for in true dialogue religions are open to new insights and to judgments and some symbols or creeds may be viewed as more adequate expressions of God's grace than others. This has been the history of the individual religions themselves which have seen in their traditions certain symbols, beliefs and practices pass out of use and others replace them. But none can be proclaimed the final or absolute truth of God, for all revelations are culturally and historically conditioned by human experience and no finite human expression can ever be equated with God himself. For such is the sin of idolatry that so often accompanies exclusiveness.
To conclude as we have does not in any way solve all the questions of Christian
missiology. It perhaps raises more questions. What do we mean when we say Christ is the
final and complete revelation of God? Why was the death of Christ a necessity for the
salvation of all persons? How has God made himself known in the other religions of the
world? What then is the Christian mission in the world? These are but a few of the
questions that one might raise and while tentative answers are possible this brief essay
must leave them for another time or for others to expound. Suffice it for this article
humbly to advocate that the traditional exclusiveness of Christianity is both unnecessary
and unacceptable in the religious pluralism of our time and honest dialogue is an attitude
by which Christians can better glorify the Father who is in heaven.
Hick, John. 1990. Philosophy of Religion. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs:
Sanders, John. 1992. No Other Name. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, 1962. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Macmillan.
Tillich, Paul. 1957a. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper and Row.
__________. 1957b. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. Chicago, University of Chicago.
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