Epiphany and Theology of Religions

Christian feast of Epiphany, traditionally celebrated in the Western churches on January 6th commemorates the visit of the Magi to Christ Child. They symbolize the recognition of Jesus’ mission by those who did not know God of Israel, yet by seeking wisdom they arrived at knowing His salvation (without changing their religion). Therefore, it seems to be an appropriate season to reflect on Christian theology of religions. In my opinion it focuses on three main questions, listed below starting from an encounter with the religiously other and proceeding towards reflection on theology of religions:

  • How should we (Christians) relate to those of other faiths: should we just accept them as they are or try to convert them?
  • What is the decisive factor in our salvation – membership in the Church, personal relation to Jesus or life according high moral standards?
  • Is Jesus Christ a sine qua non for salvation? If so, why and how? Is it a matter of knowing and accepting Him or rather that the merits of His paschal mystery save people regardless of their religious affiliation?

Various Christian theologians offer diverse answers to these questions, trying to introduce models incorporating both the sense of universal redemptive mission of Christ and the value of religious pluralism. Below, I will briefly present two best-known sets of such models to conclude with my own reflections oriented towards a fair and voluminous theology of religions. My views reflect to some extent post-conciliar developments in the Catholic theology of religions. Moreover, my perspective in this text is informed by personal experience of living among Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem, participation in Jewish-Catholic dialogue as well as the Catholic formation based on Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum.

The basic three-point model

In the early 1980s Alan Race first articulated the threefold classification of Christian ways of relating to other religions: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Exclusivism denotes an assumption that outside of the Church there is no salvation. Inclusivism presumes that God is present in other religions (see e.g. Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”) but still salvation happens only through Christ. Pluralism accepts all (or at least the major) religions as legitimate, possibly true and valid paths leading to God and salvation.

The four-point model

Another model, developed by Paul Knitter in the early 2000s, proposed an alternative classification: replacement, fulfillment, mutuality and acceptance. The replacement model can be linked to the above exclusivist position. The fulfillment model could be seen as parallel to the inclusivist view. Finally, pluralism is divided by Knitter into two separate approaches – that of mutuality and acceptance. The mutuality model attributes to every religion a mixture of truth, error and some aspects of revelation – not necessarily with the same proportion of elements in every religion – but accentuates the value of dialogue and diversity. The acceptance model, on the other hand, presumes certain relativism – all religions possibly lead to God (and maybe even offer multiplicity of possible salvations) and ascertaining which one is true depends on a particular person.

Critique in the light of relational theology

All of the above attitudes struggle to find balance between the conviction of God’s universal love (implying the will to save all) and faith in the particular significance of Jesus Christ’s paschal mystery for the salvation of humankind. How do we find an option that “saves” Jesus the savior while retaining respect for those who have not accepted the gospel?

The main problem with these approaches in my opinion is that they put emphasis on the criterion of truth. Such an epistemologically bound approach necessarily bestows value on religions based on the judgement of their “truthfulness” (who is right about God?) that is how faithful they are in reflecting the divine reality. The main problem here is that not being divine; we have no tools to assess that. This does not mean that there is no value in comparative theology and interreligious theological debates. However, on existential level the question of who is right is rarely a good starter for a healthy relationship.

What then?

From a pragmatic point of view, it seems more useful to assume a stance emphasizing communal aspect of salvation (people of God). Firstly, one should notice that in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament salvation is seen as a communal experience. As Pope Francis states in Evangelii gaudium nobody can be saved alone. God speaks to specific chosen individuals (not to everyone) in order to save the entire community. Similarly, the election of His people (first Israel and then the Church) has a purpose of saving the entire world through 1) the giving of the Law (Wisdom 18:4) and 2) Christ’s paschal mystery. By no means has this implied that God operates and reveals Himself only within the people of God. Moreover, it does not imply that salvation is meant only for the people of God. Rather, all humanity is a community and the people of God is just a vehicle of bringing salvation to the world.

Secondly, I see the mechanism of salvation as that of radiation, reflected in evangelical parables of salt, light (Lumen gentium) and leaven. It suffices that some individuals experience living God to illuminate all humanity. In this sense, the Church (the light of the world) is missionary – it radiates the unconditional love of God, which brings us back to the imagery of Epiphany: the star and Christ Child’s revelation to the gentiles. Salvation for the Magi happened in the encounter with this love, not in becoming adherents of any religion. The universality of the gospel stems from offering solution to a universal existential problem – inability to accept otherness, transcend ourselves and love the other unconditionally in their otherness. This universal dimension justifies announcing it to “all creation” (cf. Col 1:23) in order to serve the others, no matter of what religious adherence, by radiating God’s love that meets every person in their particular context without demanding anything. I think we could call it a service model.

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