Religious Pluralism and the Uniqueness of Jesus Christ

Rev. Emedi Mwenebenga, church

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Religious Pluralism and the Uniqueness of Jesus Christ
Rev. Emedi Mwenebenga, church planter in Zaire, says,

"We know how to reach people and help them be­

come new disciples; but how do we make them strong, thoroughly Christian disciples?"

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i ty, and supremely when the reality in question is God, is the work of people nurtured in a tradition of rational discourse. The fact that the Christian affirmation is made from one such socially embodied tradition in no way discredits its claim to speak truth. To pretend to possess the truth in its fullness is arrogance. The claim to have been given the decisive clue for the human search after truth is not arrogant; it is the exercise of our responsibility as part of the human family.

There is, of course, one final objection. It was classically expressed in the saying attributed to Rousseau: "If God wanted to say something to Jean Jacques Rousseau, why did He have to go round by Moses to say it?" Why Moses and not Soc­rates or Confucius or Gautama? Why one people and not another? Should not "the transcendent" be equally and simultaneously available to every human being? Very clearly there lies behind the complaint that very ancient belief to which I have referred: the belief that in the last analysis I am a solitary soul with my own relationship with the Transcendent—whatever he, she, or it may be. And that belief is false. It rests upon an atomistic spir­ituality that contradicts what is most fundamental in human na­ture, namely, that our life is only fully human as we are bound up with one another in mutual caring and responsibility. When Stanley Samartha, in the Tambaram discussion, attacks the tra­ditional work of missions because "conversion, instead of being a vertical movement towards God, a genuine renewal of life, has become a horizontal movement of groups of people from one community to another" (IRM, p. 321), he demonstrates his captivity to this illusion. We do not know God, in the sense of true personal knowledge, except as part of a community. The fact that the confession of Jesus as unique Lord and Savior is made by a particular human community among other communities pro­vides no ground for denying its claim to speak truth. God's action for the salvation of the whole human family cannot be a series of private transactions within a multitude of individual souls; it is something wrought out in public history, and history is always concrete and specific. It is possible, as it has always been possible, to deny the truth of the Christian claim, as these writers do. But it is not possible to claim that the denial rests upon a kind of rationality superior to that which is embodied in the Christian tradition.

I think it is fair to say that the writers whom I am criticizing are not wholly to blame for this individualist perspective. I think that the whole debate about the uniqueness of Christ has for many decades been skewed by the notion that the only question at stake is the question of the fate of the individual soul in the next world. It is assumed that those who speak of the uniqueness of Jesus are saying that only Christians will be saved in the next world—which of course opens the way to destructive debates about who is a real Christian. It is enough to say that this way of thinking has lost contact with the Bible. This individualism, with its center in the selfish concern of the individual about per­sonal salvation, is utterly remote from the biblical view, which has as its center God and divine rule. The central question is not "How shall I be saved?" but "How shall I glorify God by understanding, loving, and doing God's will—here and now in this earthly life?" To answer that question I must insistently ask: "How and where is God's purpose for the whole of creation and the human family made visible and credible?" That is the question about the truth—objective truth—which is true whether or not it coincides with my "values." And I know of no place in the public history of the world where the dark mystery of human life is illuminated, and the dark power of all that denies human well-being is met and measured and mastered, except in those events that have their focus in what happened "under Pontius Pilate."

There is indeed a powerful current in our time that would sweep away such a claim and insist that the story of those events is simply one among the vast variety of "religious experience" and that it can be safely incorporated into a syllabus for the com­parative study of religions. The current is strong because it is part of the drift of contemporary Western culture (of what in every part of the world is called "modernity") away from belief in the possibility of knowing truth and toward subjectivity. The World Council of Churches has been asked, at two general as­semblies, to accept statements that seemed to call in question the uniqueness, decisiveness, and centrality of Jesus Christ. It has resisted. If, in the pull of the strong current, it should agree to go with the present tide, it would become an irrelevance in the spiritual struggles that lie ahead of us. I pray and believe that it will not.

N otes

  1. S. Wesley Ariarajah, "Religious Plurality and Its Challenge to Chris­. tian Theology," World Faiths Insight (London), June 1988, pp. 2-3. Ariarajah is quoting from Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

  2. John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987).

  3. All quotations from the International Review of Mission (IRM) cited in the text of this article are from the July 1988 issue.

  4. N
    54 International Bulletin of Missionary Research
    otre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

  5. No Other Name? (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985), p. 6.

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