Apolonio Latar, one of my “Neocaths”, in a commendable dialogical initiative, has published on his website a response to my article, “Dogma and Religious Pluralism” (Australian Ejournal of Theology). The points he raises are quite in line with the CDF Declaration, Dominus Iesus (DI), published in 2000. Apolonio is too young perhaps to remember the controversy surrounding this document, authored by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI.
1. Hermeneutics of Dogma
Much of Apolonio Latar’s essay is a resume of Christian faith, drawing principally on the Greek Fathers. My own effort is to recover the substance of the truth conveyed by the Greek Fathers, but in categories that make it accessible and challenging to contemporary culture. To do this one needs to see the Greek Fathers historically, building on the seminal insight of Harnack (though without the sceptical consequences he tended to draw): “Dogma is a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel”. This allows a dynamic reading of the Fathers, attentive to the tension between the biblical and the Greek philosophical elements in their thought.
Apolonio picks out a sentence from Origen that I also find very striking: “One must dare to say that the goodness of Christ appears greater, more divine, and truly in the image of the Father, when he humbled himself in obedience unto death – death of the Cross – than had he clung unto his equality with the Father as an inalienable gift, and had refused to become a slave for the world's salvation” (Origen, In Joannem I, 32). This is striking because Origen elsewhere has a Platonist reaction to the Incarnation as a concession to the lowly world of the flesh, one that is suited to the simple faithful but is surpassed by more spiritual Christians who can grasp the Logos in its naked essence without such carnal trappings. The sentence quoted marks an eruption of biblical insight within the text, a daring overcoming of the Platonist mind-set. Such tensions within patristic writing make it richly readable for the deconstructionist literary critic. The hermeneutical interplay between Scripture, the Greek patristic epoch, and modernity demands a polyphonic theology, which does not flatten out the differences between these horizons but allows their critical interaction to generate a constant flow of fresh insight into the nature of Christian truth and the dynamics of its transition.
Hans Urs von Balthasar and his followers are rather closed to the dynamic historical and critical vision of which Harnack is the chief teacher (though Ratzinger speaks of Harnack with respect). They seek instead to liven up the patristic material with flamboyant speculation about divine kenosis, speculation that has no real basis in Scripture or in the Fathers and that even threatens to become a tritheistic fantasy. Others, following Jean-Luc Marion, derive a static phenomenology of revelation from the Fathers, which is protected against exposure to the empirical historical realities of Scripture or to modern historical critical consciousness. The majority of patristic scholars fail to relate the Fathers to Scripture and modernity in a creative and convincing way. Instead they tout the merits of patristic exegesis and the fourfold system of spiritual interpretation of Scripture in a manner that does not escape from a lame restorationism. The Fathers await a genuine retrieval for today, one that will demand of their readers a flexible and capacious mastery of philosophical and literary-critical hermeneutics.
All of this applies as well to the contemporary reception of the dogmas of the Councils. The dogmas must be reconnected to their biblical sources, as the latter are currently understood, and the hermeneutic gulf between the classical thought-forms presiding over the construction of the dogmas and the very different thought-forms of today must be negotiated. Apolonio quotes me as follows: “If we differentiate between two levels of faith – the level of encounter and the level of dogma – we may choose to place the primary emphasis on the first level, especially in interreligious encounter, while keeping the second level in the background, and acknowledging that it has become to some degree obscure”. He agrees with this, except for the claim that the level of dogma must be put in the background, other than provisionally and temporarily. Certainly, to exclude dogma from interreligious dialogue would be artificial. But the discussion of dogma should occur at its proper place. Within Christian theology itself the historical and hermeneutical discussion on the status and function of dogma is far from having attained a satisfactory final clarity. Protestantism conceives of dogmas as confessions, bearing witness to the scriptural revelation. Catholicism tends to see dogmatic formulations as giving a total synthesis of scriptural truth and as sharing the authority and divine origin of Scripture; though since Vatican II Catholics, too, tend to see dogma as ancillary to Scripture, and as playing a secondary role in defending the integrity of revelation rather than lording over it. Premature appeal to dogmas in Christian-Buddhist dialogue would produce a short-circuit. But it would indeed by an error to use the experiential and critical awareness such dialogue engenders as a pretext to downgrade dogma. Rather what should be aimed at is to bring dogma into a new perspective.
2. Universality of the Logos, Particularity of Jesus Christ
Apolonio quotes Peter van Inwagen, “May it not be that Islam and Buddhism are not merely accidental instruments of salvation, as literally anything under the sun may be, but intended instruments, spiritual equals of the Catholic Church? I have no way to prove that this is false. If I had, I should be living not by faith but by sight. I can say only this: if that suggestion were true, then the Bible and the Creeds and all of Jewish and Christian history (as Jews and Christians tell the story) is an illusion”. This seems to me rather panicky. The specific role of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with proving that other religions are more or less spiritual. From the point of view of spirituality Buddhists and Hindus might well surpass Christians and have a higher spiritual culture. Christianity could only benefit from learning from this. This would only bring out all the more the special saving role of Jesus Christ, which centers not on spiritual cultivation but on the forgiveness of sins.
“Can we (re)interpret Christ in such a way that it makes us say that other religious people such as Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus encounter the same Christ as a Catholic would? In other words, when a Buddhist takes refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, is he encountering Christ?” My reply to this question would go something like this: The divine Word that enlightens all human beings is present in a special way in the religions that are the finest products of the millennia-long spiritual quest of people of good will. The Spirit that moves in all hearts inspires the vision and grants the mystical graces that these religions attest. This is basically the view of Vatican II. It is a Logos-inclusivism similar to that of the early Greek Fathers such as Justin and Clement of Alexandria, which has roots also in the New Testament (Romans 1, Acts 17, John 1).
Is this encounter with the divine Logos and the divine Spirit an encounter with Jesus Christ? Karl Rahner spoke of “anonymous Christians”, a phrase that without further parsing would seem to suggest that such is the case. Dominus Iesus strongly insists on the impossibility of separating the divine Word from the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ. Such a separation of the divine and human aspects of Christ would be Nestorianism. Apolonio himself writes: “To separate Christ from Jesus of Nazareth, as if a Buddhist can encounter Him by taking refuge in Buddha, who is not Jesus of Nazareth, is to divide the natures of Jesus which should be united”. The conundrums that emerge here are rather abstruse, and I think their thin, abstract quality reflects the fact that our interreligious thinking is still in its infancy, so that anything we say about the relationship among religions is bound to remain very sketchy and provisional. A Buddhist who opens himself to the teaching of the Buddha is indeed opening himself to the divine Word, which sheds a ray of its light on humanity through the Buddha’s teachings. Precisely because one cannot separate the Word from the Word Incarnate one may say that the Buddhist is also thereby opening himself or herself to Jesus Christ and becoming an anonymous Christian. Again, I note the unsatisfactory and aprioristic quality of these lines of reasoning.
Dominus Iesus thus claims that all revelation and salvation that people enjoy in other religions must be invisibly mediated by the incarnate Christ and by his Church. “The theory which would attribute, after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos as such in his divinity, exercised ‘in addition to’ or ‘beyond’ the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith” (DI, 10). Nor is there any “economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen” (DI, 12). The claim that all grace is mediated by the incarnate Christ and his Church could be interpreted more gently if one first stressed the universal constant presence of grace at the core of reality. Christ and the Church are definitive historical ciphers of this grace, its eschatological incarnation, but they make sense only against this broader background, to which all the religions, each in its way, bear witness.
Apolonio feels that I disconnect the Incarnation from sin, forgetting that the very motive for the Incarnation was to overcome the ravages of original sin, as Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas testify. However, there are other theologians who would say that even without sin the Incarnation would have happened as the divine consummation of human destiny. That is the perspective of Scotus, if I remember aright, taken up by Teilhard and Rahner. John 1.1-18 certainly sounds closer to the latter position.
Apolonio says that I talk of “the universality of the Word, but never the particularity”. I suggest that passages such as the following are an attempt to speak of both:
For John, the meaning of Christ cannot be circumscribed by the categories of ordinary human understanding, or even by any of the titles previously conferred on Jesus and which are assigned their place in the Johannine spectrum. Only the notion of the divine Wisdom or Word, also received from a rich anterior tradition, is commensurate with the significance of Jesus' life. His presence was that of a living, penetrating word of judgement and grace, which came from God and imprinted itself in the hearts of its hearers with a pneumatic immediacy. The scope of this word is unlimitably universal, for it is spoken from the unmasterable divine dimension; it is an epiphany of the divine glory, particularly in the hour of the cross; its authority is not lessened by the limitations of its historical form, for these are overcome by the interpreting Spirit (Jn 14.26; 16.7-14). [Please note that I do not say the historical form is dissolved, but that its limitations are overcome, as Christ is revealed “in a thousand places” (G.M. Hopkins) thanks to the interpreting Spirit.]
In John's vision, the Word is at work in the world from the beginning. Its enfleshment in the life of Jesus is a novum that classical Christology has hastened to express in ontological terms; but these can be cashed phenomenologically as meaning an unprecedently concrete articulation of the divine Word. The truth of God and the truth of humanity are here brought into conjunction across the total reality of a spiritual event, a finite but open-ended and ongoing history, centred on the figure of Jesus. [Note that here I am re-rooting dogma in the unique historical and eschatological specificity of the Christ event.]
... We may think of the Incarnation as a dynamic interplay between two processes: on the one hand, a human history, beginning with Israel, opening up to a universal covenant with Jesus, and continuing in the ongoing pneumatic life of Jesus as it unfolds as the Gospel comes into dialogue with different cultures, religions and historical struggles; on the other hand the process of divine self-revelation and grace, a process which is sheerly universal, but which attains a particular concrete breakthrough in the history centered on Christ.
Dominus Iesus is full of warnings against theological errors that have arisen in the course of interreligious dialogue. But these warnings must be seen in the perspective of the wider positive developments in dialogue that have been afoot since Vatican II. Dominus Iesus is a footnote to these, not the Church’s primary utterance on interreligious dialogue. When it says that “the Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure”, and when it points to “the difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history; the metaphysical emptying or the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced to a mere appearing of God in history; the eclecticism of those who, in theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts, without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth; finally, the tendency to interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church” (DI,. 4), interreligious theologians like myself will certainly feel that we are being “got at”, but we will also recognize that the dangers signalled are quite real ones and that caution is in order.
A facile relativism is certainly rife both in popular culture and in the academy today, in revulsion against its polar opposite, fundamentalism. There is also a strong pressure on theologians to abandon the dogmatic heritage founded on the definitions of early Councils. But dangers are sometimes unavoidable, even salutary, and a theology that had no exposure to danger would be a cocoon, a refuge from the real questions posed by our contemporaries. The task of interreligious theology is “to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation” (DI, 14). But in such exploration we must be open to surprises of the Spirit, who may have assured to Islam or to Buddhism a powerful corrective role in regard to our ever incomplete understanding of Christ.
Apolonio quotes Rahner on Jesus Christ as God’s definitive Word to humankind, to which nothing more could be added, and finds this to be in contradiction with my view that pluralism is “intrinsic to the nature of the religions as open-ended, incomplete, and always culture-bound paths of thought and imagination”. But we must distinguish two levels here. On one hand, Jesus is the eschatological saviour, the definitive final path of salvation, leading history to its ultimate goal; in this happening of Christ as the Eschatological Event (Bultmann) the eternal divine Word is spoken into human history (according to John 1.14). On the other hand, the full realization of this in the subsequent course of history, according to the Johannine Jesus’s promise that the Spirit will lead the believers into the fulness of truth, is another matter. Christ is complete but our understanding of Christ is never complete. “To say that the Christian religion is incomplete is to reject Jesus as the absolute savior” (Apolonio) is too summary a judgment. While Christ is fully present in his Church and in the sacraments, nonetheless, the Christian religion as we understand and practice it at any given time is a partial realization of the fulness of the Christ Event. Our understanding is capable of revolutionary enrichment by the Spirit of Christ, and such enrichment may occur in particular along the paths of interreligious dialogue. The Logos in Christ goes to meet himself in the Logos that enlightens every human heart. The eschatological role of the risen Christ is realized in a new way as Christ is connected with the various peoples and cultures to whom he is announced. Each of these cultures brings out a new facet of Christ. Again, this is a sketchy heuristic vision, one close to that of Paul VI who saw the religions of the world converging on the crib (Christmas sermon, 1975). (I note that Jacques Dupuis quoted my remarks to this effect in his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, about which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a critical notification on the same day as Dominus Iesus.)
“The theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church’s faith. Such a position would claim to be based on the notion that the truth about God cannot be grasped and manifested in its globality and completenesss by any historical religion, neither by Christianity nor by Jesus Christ” (DI, 6). Here again the distinction between the completeness of Christ and the incompleteness of Christianity helps to avoid the error of relativism while remaining open to learning from the encounter with other traditions. The true religion is not Christianity in isolation but Christianity in dialogue, for it is on the way to an integral understanding of Christ when it embarks on dialogue with the other, whereas if it were to close off such dialogue it would also close out the Spirit that leads us into all truth, according to the promise of Christ.
“Theological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself” (DI, 7). “The sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain” (DI, 8). The eternal Word is indeed the source of all goodness and grace, and is most fully and definitively incarnate in the Christ-event and the Christ-process. But the reality of Christianity includes a reference to the other religions, for the Gospel goes forth to the world. Its globality and completeness are an open globality, in that Jesus preaches the inclusive Kingdom community. His church exists not for itself but for the world.
Apolonio asks: “Why is the relativization of the Christian faith necessary if the Christian faith possesses the final word of God?” But what is relative is not the faith that opens itself to the absoluteness of the divine in Jesus and that commits itself to the particularity of his eschatological role. What is relative is the human historical context and language in which that faith finds its ever-changing expression.
I do not say that “the dogmas are only good for us and not for everyone else” or that “dogmas are only true for me and not for you”. This is far indeed from my conception of truth, as explained in Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth.
Apolonio writes: “Sure, there can be developments of doctrine. But can we reinterpret the doctrines as if they can be interchangeable with the doctrines of other religions?” Of course we cannot, but we can find analogies in other religions that light up in a new way the significance of the Gospel.
“It seems to me that religious pluralism is not a form of toleration but a destruction of the meaning and value of the Christian faith, and therefore the reason for the Christian existence. Why should I, who have committed myself to the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, follow Him, even if the very sacrifice of my life requires it, if I can simply jump into another religion?” No doubt some versions of religious pluralism are exposed to these objections. But an interreligious dialogue that remains rooted in the truth of the Christian faith can find that faith deepened, clarified and brought into a newly persuasive perspective thanks to the give and take with insights from other traditions.
Apolonio quotes this statement from me: “In Buddhism, the experience of emptiness belongs to this level of lived encounter. It is an encounter with ultimate saving reality analogous to the Christian encounter with the risen Christ. The encounter between these encounters can happen at the level of contemplation, but it should also happen at the everyday level of faith, through a sharing of languages, which for the Christian means an attempt to speak of Christ in Buddhist terms. Of course there is no point in doing this unless the Christian accepts that the Buddhist experience is an encounter with the absolutely real, just as a Buddhist could not draw on Christian language unless he believed it to speak from the realm of ultimacy”. Apolonio “can agree that there may be some Buddhists who encounter Christ in some way through their ‘experience of emptiness’”. But this rather misses the point. I would not say that the Buddhist experience of emptiness is the same as or a replacement of the encounter with the risen Christ. What I am saying is that its analogies with the paschal experience help Christians understand the Resurrection more deeply. If Greek philosophy aided the Fathers in their effort to express the paschal mystery and if contemporary Western thought and literature has a similar role for modern theologians, what is more fitting than that the great religious traditions born in India, and known in the West for only two centuries, should serve as sources for a renewed understanding of the faith?
I do not disagree that “the experience of the Buddhist is missing something which is essential to his nature as a religious person” insofar as it does not attain to “a communion with the life, death, and resurrection of the Person of Jesus Christ”. But as a Christian I would hope that “anonymously” the Buddhist is implicated in the paschal mystery; after all it is Christ who draws people into that mystery, and we should be at least as “generous” as the Church Fathers in seeing non-Christians as enjoying this “anonymous” communion.
We might also surmise that in the divine dispensation the Christian experience is also missing something that Buddhism can bring. Buddhism may be “gravely defective” as regards salvation, as DI teaches, but Christianity may be gravely defective in another sense – I mean as a historical formation, rather than as regards the ultimate reality and eschatological saving role of Christ. I am told that Paul Ricoeur, in dialogue with Hans Kung on ARTE television, claimed that the monotheistic religions needed to heal the violence at their foundations and that mystical wisdom was required for this; surely Buddhism can teach us here?
4. The Resurrection
The core of Apolonio’s unease with my essay concerns the Resurrection. “Can anything compare to the resurrection of Jesus? If so, then the whole Christian faith is destroyed. For anything to compare to the resurrection of Jesus is to say that there is another savior other than Jesus”. What Apolonio is objecting to here is the idea (inspired by John Keenan’s book The Gospel of Mark) that the Buddha’s enlightenment is a breakthrough to ultimacy that invites comparison with the Resurrection. The Resurrection is not an isolated event; it makes sense only as related to the rest of Scripture; hence the Emmaus story of the risen Christ showing his disciples how to read the Scriptures. The Greek Fathers related the Resurrection to Greek conceptions of immortality. Today we clarify the resurrection by relating it to Buddhist or Vedantic notions of the breakthrough to ultimacy. None of this reduces the uniqueness of the Resurrection as a specifically eschatological event, as the breakthrough to God’s Kingdom into history. But it helps nonetheless to clarify the pneumatic dimension to which all the resurrection narratives point.
Discussion of this theme ranges between “realistic” accounts that insist heavily on the alleged empirical signs of the miraculous event, such as the empty tomb and the appearances, and more “spiritualizing” accounts that tend to reduce the resurrection to a mere interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. Paul Tillich, in the third volume of his Systematic Theology, gives a convincing account of the Resurrection as a objectively real event, namely, the event of being grasped and overwhelmed by the manifestation of Christ as a life-giving Spirit. The lighting-up of the spiritual meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus is not merely a subjective act of interpretation but a joyful conversion initiated by the Spirit of Christ himself. Bishop N. T. Wright in his rather hectoring book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, admits the contradictions in the concluding chapters of the four gospels, and accepts that each evangelist took the liberty to rewrite an older tradition in the way best suited to his gospel. He claims that the convergence of all the reports on an identical phenomenology of the risen Christ’s presence among his disciples testifies to the basic historicity of the appearance stories. But for all his bustle and bluster, Bishop Wright leaves us in the end much as we were. For even if we accept that the presentation of Christ in Luke 24 and John 21 is much the same as in John 20 (which is very doubtful), what is presented is something so elusive and spiritual that it does not really add much to the sober list of Paul or the interpretation thereof by Tillich.
John Keenan offers a startling correlation of the resurrection and Buddhist insight: For John Keenan: “The resurrection stands as the breakdown of all conventional linear events and the breakthrough to awareness of the complete otherness of ultimate meaning” (The Gospel of Mark, 366). Useless, then, to try to circumscribe this ultimate spiritual reality by insisting on empirical data or by giving a dogmatic definition of the resurrection-event. Resurrection means awakening to the ultimate reality signified conventionally by the entire ministry and passion of Jesus. The resurrection narratives, if taken literally, take us into an unreal world in which the laws of nature are broken at every moment. But if these miracles are taken as symbolic representations of the breakthrough of ultimate meaning everything falls back into place. In all probability the laws of nature are never suspended and apparent miracles are ultimately explicable in wider natural terms that take account of a creative spiritual dynamic in the universe. The resurrection could be taken as the ultimate miracle in this sense, that is, as a revelation of the ultimate triumph of life over death. As such it belongs not to a realm of magical interruptions of nature's course, but to the realm of ultimate meaning, or what Paul and John call “Spirit”. The most trustworthy witness to the Resurrection, namely, the list of appearances in I Cor. 15 and the general resurrection-awareness in which the New Testament bathes, does not refer to miraculous happenings at all.
Keenan is commenting on Mark 16.1-8, the rather stark ending of the original gospel. When Matthew rewrites this he has Jesus appear to the women, treating their reaction to the Marcan angel’s message as a case of misunderstanding which Jesus himself now corrects. Keenan writes: “Mark is not trying to demonstrate the truth of the resurrection within the context of imagined thinking, for no such demonstration is possible. Rather, the point is that Jesus is not there within conventional frames of reference, and thus not within the realm of words and judgments that might be called upon to demonstrate his renewed existence” (393). “There are no resurrection appearances because Jesus is beyond empirical validation. He will not ‘reappear’ even in Galilee. The resurrected Jesus can be seen only upon the awakening of conversion that he came to preach about, not in some supernaturally perceptible coming back to show his new glorified body” (394). “Through his life and death, Jesus has resurrected the ordinary dependently co-arisen course of life, infusing it with his presence” (395). “His resurrection is an awakening to the eschatological wisdom of God-awareness, empty of any identifying image or idea, and to the subsequently attained wisdom of reengaged world awareness, with all the images and ideas needed to live and witness to the gospel” (397). “There is no great day when the Lord comes in all his glory and gives Jesus' enemies what for. The eschaton comes in the everyday suffering and the everyday resurrection from that suffering” (358).
I am not entirely happy with Keenan’s tendency to reduce the eschatological to ultimacy. In the biblical presentation the eschatological event of the resurrection is more tightly connected with history and with the end of history, though we little understand what this means. The evolutionist perspective adopted by Rahner and Teilhard can perhaps give a sharper profile to this claim.
Of course all this may sound as if the resurrection-faith hangs on a very thin thread. Yet the thread is no thinner than that on which Buddhism hangs. It consists in contemplative insight, rather than empirical proofs. Matthew Arnold claimed that the facts on which Christian faith depended had failed it, leaving only the poetry. But for Keenan the true facts are of a spiritual order, the breakthrough of ultimate reality in the figure of Jesus, which like the Buddha's enlightenment is received not by blind faith but by growth in insight. As to the resurrection of the individual believer, this too becomes nebulous, about as intangible as Buddhist nirvana. The voice of the Johannine Christ, assuring us of the presence of eternal life, has the same calm authority as the voice of the Buddha proclaiming nirvana. But we can appropriate the message only by letting go of worldly or egotistic expectations.
Beyond that, there is the experience of being grasped by the risen Christ not merely as representing a universal realm of spiritual ultimacy but also as the Creator’s eschatological intervention in history to lead it to its goal. The proof that such an event has occurred cannot be found by quizzing the narratives of the empty tomb and the appearances, or by mulling over the mythological representations in which the eschatological message of Jesus and the early Church is clothed. The proof is rather inscribed in the total dynamic of the New Testament and the ongoing history to which it testifies. The resurrection is the ultimate horizon of Christianity, which can only be approached through opening one’s mind and heart wide to the full dimensions of the Christ-event. We must not seek the living among the dead, but espouse the living dynamic of tradition in order to be carried forward, in dialogue with all humanity, into the large and free world that Christ grants us.