“To know one [religion] is to know none.” Max Muller

This lecture was first given at New Perspectives on Faith, Goshen, IN, March 2, 2008
It appears in my self-published book Multifaith Musing: Essays and Exchanges, 2010, 19-38.

Religious Exchange: Personal and Others’

A word about this essay’s title informs. (Friedrich) Max Mueller (1823-1900), the source of the quote, is called the founder of the study of comparative religion. A German, he edited the 50-volume Sacred Books of the East. He translated essential writings of seven non-Christian religions. No wonder he believed that “He who knows one, knows none.” But, for many Christians “To know one is to know all.”1 Traditions and attitudes do affect interreligious knowledge and respect.

Until my early twenties, I lived a protected life in rural Iowa. My parents instilled a respect for others. Secondary and college years enhanced faith, both in church school settings. That husband John and I taught at Woodstock School in India for three years shortly after marriage broadened our worldview. There, we worked with ecumenical, Christian colleagues; traveled third class trains; and learned to know Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Visits to their places of worship, conversations, and resources about religion energized me. Learning moved beyond intrigue, in part through seven shorter return assignments in India. The multi-faith, sacred spirit of India both beckons me and enriches how I practice Christian being. More than once, a friend has said: “You must have been a Hindu in a previous life.” Not believing in re-incarnation, I honor her thought that connects with her holy journey.

Living in Goshen, I know God better through many friendships with Asian college students and locals whose religious ties differ from mine. Students of diverse faiths helped me present a chapel focused on saints—of east and west. From the scent of candle and incense, I knew when a visitor from India performed puja before eating breakfast. I received a year’s grant to work with local ecumenical events and writing projects. When visiting the gurdwara in Mishawaka with Sikh friends, the spirit of awe for their holy text shapes my delving into scripture, my inner being. Ways to be religious together exist when not confined to One Way.

Feminist thought and academic work also shape my perspective. Feminist theology and biblical Wisdom engage my study as they counter patriarchal patterns. The study of scripture instills in me respect for what we fail to fully know. God’s Reign or order or Real-ness, while present, is not yet achieved. Jesus’ life best informs me about the Divine. Yet, Jesus is not ‘fullness’ or ‘final.’ Open to “more to come,” Mystery ever-engages. Feminism values such breadth; it respects women’s personal experience as well as difference. White feminists do not speak for all feminists, for distinct womanist (African American) or mujerista (Hispanic) views. With new vision and methods, we interpret history and observe location.

I enjoy study and research. My Doctor of Ministry degree2 focused on interreligious dialogue. Chris Kaiser advised my disciplined work. For the past fifteen plus years, I have learned the most about “being religious interreligiously”3 from Paul Knitter, who now held the Paul Tillich chair at Union Theological in New York before retiring. Inspired to credit multi-faiths further, I hope to yet explore the Power or Being that exudes diverse religions. Shekshakshen is what I call this Energy. With no monopoly on divine Spirit, though vital to Trinity, Christians often overlook the universal movement, sound, force or Wisdom that guides the cosmos and living faiths. Shekshakshen might help us to claim such breadth. Shek stems from Jewish Shekinah, shak from shakti in Hindu thought, and shen from Tao insight into Divine compassion or “being at rest.” For, “to know only one is to know none.”

Faith commitment combined with openness to ‘otherness’ enriches a person. But insider and outsider reality always exist. When not allowed inside the holiest sanctum of a Hindu temple, I knew that I was an ‘outsider.’ When a Malaysian shopkeeper refused to sell me a phrase from the Qur’an in calligraphy, she judged my ‘outsider’ status to preclude my power to duly honor what was most sacred for Muslims. Some churches refuse the Lord’s Supper elements to those not baptized. Yet, commitment and openness ever intersect.

Christians are challenged: to be as loyal to God in Christ as we are open to faiths that claim the Divine in other worthy ways. To boast “My God is bigger than your God!” distorts God. Shifting from superior attitudes is crucial if we wish to be honest, live together, dialogue, or move toward peace, Paul Knitter says.4 To abandon claims of being superior need not diminish commitment. To avoid exclusive views need not mean less faith in Christ. To worship with Sikh friends in a gurdwara broadens my view of what is holy. Interreligious dialogue expands knowledge of a partner’s religion “from within.” Open to learn how Parsis or Hindus honor fire or light can enhance my perception of Jesus’ radiating beams of truth. If not open to the universal symbol of light through varied forms, does my vision grow dim?

Experience has limits. I cannot know whether Jesus is the only or ‘best’ or final savior, not having met all whom God might choose to so endow. But Jesus saves, empowers, or helps me to better know the Ultimate. With work enough following Jesus’ way of meeting human need, I have no desire to boast of Jesus as superior. I value John Cobb’s idea that being faithful to Christ prompts me to look for truth wherever it might be, then integrate it. Because Christ is center for Christians, no boundaries need exist.5 Expectant, we believe that others have truth that we need.

A few stories further introduce our theme. C. S. Song from Taiwan is noted for Story Theology.6 In “The Wild Goose Lake,” Sea Girl longs for water from the lake to be released to the canals of her drought-hit village. How will she get the golden key needed to open the stone gate? With the stone gate a metaphor for religious faith, the challenge becomes: How will hearts of adherents of diverse religions open up to the depth and riches of each other? Rather than hold God captive—through our presumed right teachings or worship—we need to discover God beyond our valued limits.

Noah’s story of the flood contains God’s covenant with all people and creation. Ten generations later God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah. Tension followed. Although caring for all nations, God chose Israel to help convey divine care. Election—not for privilege—did not displace other nations. Recall Abraham’s encounter from his tent at Mamre. Three strangers appeared on the horizon. Strangers could kill. But Abraham invited them to his tent, and Sarah prepared food for the unknown trio. The story explains that without fanfare, one of the three strangers proved to be Sarah and Abraham’s God. Truly, people of other religions can shock us into meeting God.

The call to learn from others does not say that all religions are true, nor that distinct conviction must converge into one religion. But valuing difference can move toward compassion. Rumi, the great Muslim Sufi, says that the Qur’an’s reason for God’s having created difference is “so that they can learn to know and compete with each other toward good works.” Rather than fear difference, we admit limits to our religion and expect wisdom from other groups to enrich ours.

Alex Kronemer offers another story. During the Middle Ages, a pope and rabbi agreed to have a silent debate about whether Jews needed to leave Rome. If the rabbi won, they could stay. The Pope acted first, raising three fingers; the rabbi raised one. The Pope then gestured over his head; in turn, the Rabbi pointed to the ground. After that pair of actions, the Pope brought wine and bread, so the Rabbi showed an apple. Each then explained their exchange.

After the Pope raised three fingers, referring to the Trinity, he presumed that the Rabbi’s one finger noted the one God that they share. After the Pope portrayed God’s sitting in majesty in heaven, he thought that the Rabbi’s pointing to the ground showed God on earth watching and judging. With the Pope’s use of wine and bread to signify Redemption, he understood the Rabbi’s apple to remind them both of human sin.

From the Rabbi’s perspective, the Pope must have raised three fingers to indicate that the Jews must leave in three days’ time, to which the Rabbi replied with one finger: not one Jew would leave. So angered, the Rabbi reported, the Pope swept his hand over his head declaring: Jews must go. Seeing that, the Rabbi pointed to the ground: the Jews would stay right there. When the Pope signaled his desire to have lunch—wine and bread—the Rabbi took out his apple.7 Their different meanings illustrate how people misjudge each other’s sacred symbols and concepts. When a Jewish rabbi, Buddhist nun, or Muslim imam address Christians, they reveal their integrity. They risk not being understood.

This paper explores how people of faith receive and absorb diverse faiths while being committed to one. Difference can be so rich. At Hindu temples in India, I watched without trying to intrude. Rather than judge what I failed to understand, I pondered: Why did they tap a bell on arrival or ‘baptize’ an image with milk or honor holy men clad in ashes and a dhoti? I left my shoes at the entrance, moved my hand through a sacred flame of welcome, ate a portion of blessed prasad, and talked with the One who I call God or Mystery. How changed was my faith, on returning to Christian worship?

Not less loyal, I felt that my faith had grown. I wonder why we fear worship alongside a neighbor or stranger whose rituals differ. Do we aspire to limit God to hearing one faith, ours? My goal is not syncretism (compromise made by combining beliefs from two religions) or synthesis (parts combined to make a whole). Rather, this essay reflects symbiosis where people with two different views teach each other important features of their faith as they live or work together for mutual good.8 Conversion occurs in personal commitment, as a person changes because open to values in another.

Jeannine Hill Fletcher refers to the strength of hybrid religious identity. Hybrid ties connect sacred distinctions and actions. With the result that, “There is no ‘Christian identity,’ only ‘Christian identities.’”9 Sikhs who call the space sacred where their text lies open or Muslims known for discipline in reciting lengthy Qur’an segments might alert Christians to greater reverence for the First and Second Testaments. Hindus who find awe in Aum or Vac (spoken word) or Divine energy in sacred dance steps or a presiding power in the innermost heart of a temple can convey to Christians a deeper sense of the holy. As we value other religions, holding as sacred what marks each uniquely, we learn more of Divine Mystery.

In that, I move toward more wholeness (salvation). Hearing a Hindu friend express intent to pray for me or a given circumstance, I know that Durga may be solicited or Amma may hear the details. Power beyond the routine—Sophia/shakti—will engage time or place between us. My friend in turn may absorb a measure of trust in the Divine as I grace a group meal. Together, we honor the sacred in the other. She knows something of my conviction that Jesus’ life best informs me of the Real. And I trust her to learn truth from her sacred stories. We move toward unity because we each know enough about the other to trust the One, Ultimate God.

Christians and Buddhists might enrich each other too. A former may probe how attached to things she is and decide to change. She might examine the Fourfold Truths and ponder anew her neighbor’s suffering. A Buddhist might show devotion to Jesus in addition to Buddha, even though he engages more fully in Buddhist teaching and practice. Paul Knitter’s book titled Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian illustrates well how a person loyal to one religion “passes over” to another to learn how and why others practice or believe as they do and then “passes back” to integrate and make more effective personal understanding and Truth.

What is Religion?

As we highlight Max Mueller’s axiom: “To know one [religion] is to know none,” we might briefly ask What then is Religion? Just what is that which we might better not know in the singular? How does the idea that Christianity alone is less than adequate strike you? How crucial to wholeness in Jesus the Christ is insight from Muhammed or the Guru Granth Sahib or Hindu mystics? From experience, theologian K. P. Aleaz of Kolkata says that Christians need Hindus to help us understand Jesus. For example, Hindu views on renunciation may help explain Jesus’ call to give up the self.

What does religion mean? Claude Geffre suggests that each religious tradition mediates in unique ways the Absolute.10 Paul Tillich said that “Religion is the soul of culture.”11 While Karl Barth understood religion as human effort to attain salvation, John Cobb questions if there is such a thing as religion.12 Gordon Kaufman notes that, “Every religious tradition implicitly invokes a human or humane criterion to justify its existence and its claims.”13 All religions respond to suffering, though in different ways, Paul Knitter observes.14

Sri Lankan Aloysius Pieris notes three levels of religion: 1. its core experience such as the Jesus story or Buddha’s enlightenment, 2. collective memory, or the medium used like story, liturgy, or leadership, and 3. interpretation—how followers through time explain the core event. Although religions differ, that fact need not cause conflict. As Buddha awakened into enlightenment, Jesus showed love through the cross. Neither channel is superior; both lead to what Christians call salvation. Both enable the “Unspoken Speaker” or Spirit.15

The Divine: Mystery/Ultimate/Allah/Jesus—A Glimpse

On first thinking about including a section on Divinity in this essay, I knew the problem of selection. Book titles reveal contrasts: A History of God next to God at 2000 or She Who Changes alongside No god but God. British writer Karen Armstrong finds agreement about the Ultimate among the great religions. While many people call what transcends us God, others use names like Nirvana, Brahman, or Allah, the Arabic word for God. Buddhists yearn for profound emptiness—not being attached to anything—to give life meaning and avoid suffering. For Armstrong, the study of God is something like writing poetry. It attempts to express what cannot fully be expressed. Doing theology, we search into our inner being; we struggle (a basic meaning of jihad) to find more depth.

Situations might limit engagement. To say that religions are the same loses part of “God’s overabundant, incomprehensible mystery,” Hill Fletcher suggests.16 Perceiving religions as too diverse to intersect overlooks their common ground. Muslims staunchly defend God’s Oneness and as firmly resist any portrayal of that One. Multiple forms filled space in a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. They likely told stories, yet adherents probe Emptiness. I saw the tree in Bodh Gaya (India) under which the Buddha received enlightenment. It sheltered holy ground. Caves at Ajunta contain centuries of Buddhist history. Buddhist worship places in the States add more visuals.

The lens or imagination through which people meet the Divine varies. Christians evoke God’s mystery through Trinity, far from simple. Calling the Hebrew name Yahweh (“I AM”) too sacred to utter, Jews use an alternate Greek term—Adonai—when reading texts where it appears. While Muslims do not image God in any form, Hindus speak of many gods but mean the same Ultimate One. And Buddhists speak of a “far shore—a reality that we cannot grasp but may awaken to.”

Harvard Professor Diana Eck sees objects, names, and images as the lens for meeting the Ultimate.17 For seven years, she studied religions in India. Both mono and poly-theistic strands appear in ancient Hindu tradition; oneness and manyness are not true opposites. Whereas some westerners get ‘lost’ seeing the array of god and goddess forms, Eck perceives the wisdom inherent. “If something is important, it is important enough to be repeated, duplicated, and seen from many angles.”18 The composite of gods and their descents (avatars), multiple paths of salvation (margas), systems of thought, scriptures and lore galore—called Hinduism—is rich. In India, life is plural: “diversity unites, rather than divides.” The unity of India, a complex whole upon which oneness is based, “is not unity or sameness, but interrelatedness and diversity,” Eck says.19

Consciousness for the Hindu reveals a person’s ability to hold two viewpoints at once. Seeing many god forms, there is One. A well-known quote from the Rig Veda states “Truth is One; the wise call it by many names.” God’s manyness refers to the language used to speak of the Divine. Adherents construct God-language but never exhaust or grasp the Divine.20 Religious traditions deal with Word (Vac) and deity in diverse ways.

Mystery remains central to thought about deity. Buddhists use an analogy—“a finger pointing to the moon, never the moon itself”—to compare religious knowing. Hindus state “neti, neti”—not this, not that—to suggest that there is always more to thought or speech about the Ultimate. Those who talk of Tao fail to know of what they speak: “A way that can be walked is not The Way; a name that can be named is not The Name.”21 Christians who value Holy Mystery do not claim their revelation as final or full. They glean more of Mystery through dialogue with the words, symbols, and rituals of people loyal to other religions.

Jesus, who chose human limits, has for some followers become more central than his message. Yes, Jesus is the one whom Christians confess, through whom they best know God’s truth. But Christians who join people of other living faiths to address and remove human or earth suffering look anew at Jesus. Attending to what he preached—living his example of meeting human/kin-dom needs—they know his wish to be One with many people rather than King over them. Not intent to form a church or be revered, Jesus called people to practice Yahweh’s challenge: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”22 Not confined to building or dogma, Jesus promoted God’s new Order of Peace. Jesus the Jewish Prophet proclaimed God’s universal love, making starkly clear a preference for those who suffer most.23

Second Testament scriptures show Jesus’ learning from or complementing those who choose not to follow the Way.

Central to Divine order is love for the neighbor. “To love God is to do justice,” Jeremiah prophesied. (22:16) Muhammed expressed much the same for love of Allah. And Buddha warned that those who fail to produce compassion (karuna), lack wisdom (prajna). Through parables, loving deeds, and deep devotion to God’s Reign, Jesus prompts faith. But to insist that his way “is the best” can keep us from “doing our best,” in “the hard work of loving our neighbor and reshaping our world,” Knitter cautions.25 The faithful believer is open to another’s story, another’s possible ‘Savior’ figure. Yet, to credit other saviors in no way doubts that Jesus is truly Savior.

The Spirit enables people through universal messages, including words made sacred through Buddha, Muhammad, or the Upanishads. Because Jesus truly reveals God does not prove that he alone reveals God. We pursue insight from religions—as Max Mueller nudged. Christians walk Jesus’ Way alongside travelers who follow other Ways. We “celebrate the power of the Christ-event, not denigrate other events.”26

Religious Plurality

Religious pluralism suggests liberty, the value of dissent, and positive relationships among faith groups. Early Muslims thought that prior religions had been distorted. For them, Islam became “the full revelation and therefore the norm of all religion.”27 A mission agency took an orientation group of new appointees to a mosque. In the process, the imam and devoted speakers were most adamant that only Islam could be called a true faith, that Allah, the One, alone is to be worshipped. The appointees gained a perspective about ‘only language’ that shaped their future encounters. Paul Knitter challenges traditional believers to continue to proclaim what they know to be true and good but without saying that it is the only or last or full word about truth and goodness.28

Buddhist-Christian exchange between Rita Gross and Rosemary Radford Ruether appears in Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet.29 After each tells her life story, each discusses what is most troubling and most liberating about her tradition. The other responds to each section. Then they discuss what inspires them most from the other’s tradition. Their exchange led Rosemary to greater balance between activist engagement and inner renewal and Rita to increased attention to human need along with her disciplined breathing or Buddhist mindfulness.

Robert Wuthnow30 calls being mindful toward what is diverse “reflective pluralism.” Knowing oneself is key, alongside attention to others. I ‘hear’ Raimondo Panikkar’s reminder: “To answer the question ‘Who am I?’ I must ask the question ‘Who are you?”31 Wuthnow names distinct traits of people who practice reflective pluralism.

Pluralists affirm that each religion contains distinct Wisdom. Rita Gross asks how best to live with difference. She asks how people treat each other. Does religion prompt less aggression and more empathy or justice? She sees how exclusive truth-claims can counter compassion.

Rather than debate about one savior or a final revelation or correct ways to ponder emptiness, why not focus on what prompts effective living together among religions? People who differ need not converge in thought or practice, but move from ignorance to wisdom. Buddhist insight into how being attached causes suffering applies to viewpoint or doctrine, not only objects, she believes.33

Victoria Lee Erickson relates a story from a village in a beautiful mountain area of South Asia.34 Two days early, arriving at night during a rain storm, and hungry, her group caught a Christian village off-guard. They had no cooked food. After the host prayed, they too prayed, sang, and shared stories in the hut—forgetting somewhat their stomachs. Hearing noise, the host opened the door a crack. A horse appeared; the rider handed the host a bucket and left. Large, blue-shelled crabs dispelled hunger. A near-by village leader, on seeing the visitors and knowing that the Christians were without food, had gone fishing with his Muslim neighbors on behalf of the Christians. Villagers of these two religions read their holy books together, share wells and a school, and protect each other. Also, they pray together respecting their diverse voices.

One clear aspect of religious pluralism is scripture. A few details reflect flavor.

“To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If [Allah] had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but [Allah’s] plan is to test you in what He hath given you; so, strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to [Allah].”36

As stated, I value worship in the gurdwara, with Sikh friends. Adherents bow before their scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, which presides over worship. God revealed the Word enshrined in the Holy Book through a Guru. Giving honor and dignity to the open text, a man, woman, or youth near-constantly waves a fan (chauri) over it. The kathakar recites and interprets verses of a text opened at random, thought to be the Guru’s vak (Word) for that occasion. Sikhs believe that their scripture embodies the eternal Guru. An open attitude allows them to understand other traditions, to differ on some beliefs.38

Judaism and Christianity

We turn now to one religion, the Christian ‘first cousin,’ and begin with a couple questions: How might Christians address the falsehood that Christianity supersedes Judaism? And, how does concern for Judaism as a historic religion frame Christian views of Israel as a nation today? In this essay, reference to Judaism and Israel reflect their history, not present actions.

Christianity depends on Judaism—Jesus was Jewish. His foremost purpose—to reform Jewish life—far outweighed any intent to start an alternate religion. Like major and minor Jewish prophets before him, he wished the people to renew their bond with Yahweh—being faithful to the covenants.

Professor at Union Seminary in New York Mary Boys states, “Nothing in Jesus’ teaching compelled a break with Judaism.” Despite the ferment he caused, his Renewal Movement, his teaching and life, could have been absorbed within Judaism.39 Theologian John Howard Yoder agreed: “the schism did not have to be.” Neither religion withdrew from or was ejected by the other; the circles of church and Jewry overlapped. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was not other than Jewish.40

Into the second century and beyond, most of Jesus’ followers were Jews. Many continued to attend synagogues. John Cobb suggests that Jews and Renewal Movement folk looked at each other as heretics. Each faulted the other for misreading their common scriptures.41 Those later called Christian came to negate Judaism. Because Jews rejected Jesus, those who followed him came to usurp Israel’s gift of “saving covenant with God.” In that, Christians lost the basic idea that Divine covenants are eternal. The Christian claim to supersede Judaism led to a false salvation history. It led to freedom to hate Jews.

But Judaism remains chosen to tell others about God’s inclusive Reign. “Judaism continues to function as a way of salvation, at least for Jews,” Peter Phan notes.42 Jews long for a coming Messiah and Christians look toward a Second Coming. I wonder if we might partner together in looking, if they approve. We first need to repent of past deeds—racist anti-Semitism, repeated pogroms, and the Shoah (whirlwind/Holocaust). And, non-Jews might expect to denounce current harm that Jews inflict.

Even works of art convey perceptions. An allegory of sculptures titled “Ecclesia” and “Synagoga” (church and synagogue) appear at the Strasbourg Cathedral in France. A “triumphant Ecclesia stands erect next to a bowed, blindfolded figure of the defeated yet dignified Synagoga.” Proud church gazes over the other, the woman “conquered, with her crown fallen, staff broken, and Torah dropping to the ground.”43 Here is supersession set in stone. For Mary Boys’ book Has God Only One Blessing? she had an artist create a new “posture” for the two. She believes that the relation between the two will be righted when the church repents of its distortions of Judaism, when Ecclesia sees Synagoga as her “partner in waiting for the full redemption of the world,” Boys concludes.44

How certain Second Testament texts reflect on Jews also matters. Mary Boys discusses content from Matthew 23 and John 9 (1-41). The former denounces Pharisees and the latter asks the question about a man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” Perhaps if we were to read these in the presence of Jewish people, we might ‘see’ how texts scorn others. A text prompts Christians to fault Jews for missing God’s revelation, while they ignore their pious hypocrisy. Rabbi Hillel summed up Jewish teaching while standing on one leg: “Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Many Christians have relied on another text from John—14:6. It says that Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life. The second phrase literally judges that no one has access to God except through Jesus.

The context: Judaism and Christianity were deeply at odds. Here appears offence par excellence. The setting: Discourse following the Last Supper. Jesus promises to leave, not taking the Twelve with him. Thomas admits that he does not know the way that Jesus will go, to reach God.

The resolution: Not boasting, Jesus says to follow the way that he’s been showing—suffering love. Recall God’s pattern of including others when thinking of a Way, or the Truth and Life of it. The ongoing problem: If this text indeed reflects a later alteration, never spoken by Jesus and counter to the core welcome of biblical theology, how will literal readers alter ingrained actions and attitudes? Why have Christians been so bent to use John 14:6 to exclude others from salvation? What would differ in our relating with other faiths if we claimed this text as confession of faith during hard times, not exclusion by narrow judgment?45

Theology(ies) of Religion(s)

Professor Veli-Matti Karkkainen of Fuller Seminary explains theology of religion.46 Like Systematic, Liberation, or Feminist Theology, Theology of Religions is a separate field of study. It looks at value and meaning within religions. It explores how Christianity relates to other religions and what transpires when diverse religions live close together. Theology of religion (or the plural of both nouns) studies relationships: around themes like revelation, faith, or salvation. It explores meaning for personal, sacred experience through shared rituals, scriptures, history or convictions. It is known by a typology, to note shortly.

Third century, Bishop Cyprian’s axiom—“outside the church, no salvation”—had major influence. For more than twelve centuries after Constantine, Christians believed in only one true religion—its own—and only one savior—Jesus. That classical position exclusivism, formulated during the 15th century (Council of Florence), states: “No one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life.”47 Arrogant and likely based on limited exposure to others, that view has shaped Christian thought and action ever since. Triumphal boasts, like “God does not speak outside of Jesus,”48 express sin and defensiveness, not faith, John Cobb says.49 Dialogue has no chance with such dogma; only one [side] speaks; others must listen. That is monologue.

For Wesley Ariarajah, exclusion with its claim of being superior stems from a context of power. Such power reflects the fourth century legacy; Constantine could not cope with division, with many. Such power also prompted colonialists to insist that God relates in only one way. Such power promotes arrogance—“we are right and everyone else must be wrong.” Ariarajah observes50 that the church has yet to credit Jesus’ gift of salvation without denying that “God may have many ways to bring people to their intended destiny.” God may not wish for people of one religion to transfer to another, Ariarajah hints in Heim’s book.

An alternative to this exclusivist stance, the idea of inclusivism emerged from the 16th century (Council of Trent). It credits non-Christians with moral actions and belief. More open toward people who do not claim Jesus as Savior, inclusivists still require others to convert to faith in him before death. Christians have tended to shape salvation history around Christ alone.51 The other is deficient except where it complies with Christianity.52 After Vatican II, 1962-65, the Roman Church called this model its ‘official’ one.53

Asian theologians see such a typology as western; they try to teach their counterparts. Shaped by daily encounters with other living faiths, Catholic leaders there explain that “unique alone” or “better than” language counters empathy toward their cultures. Since talk about “Jesus as the one and only Savior” creates hostility, many Asians prefer to speak about Jesus as the “Teacher of Wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, or Compassionate Friend of the Poor.” Such titles commend qualities of Jesus’ without denying that other religious figures are also special. Convinced that God truly calls us in Christ, Christians need not presume that our call is the only one that God offers to all people.54 Recall our title: “To know one [religion] is to know none.”

Pluralism, a third, more recent part of the standard typology sanctions multiple ways to know salvation. Early proponents were John Hick and Paul Knitter. Not all religions express the same thing. As Jesus’ message of salvation reveals a “universal, active presence of God,”55 so Buddhist’ effort rids the self of desire—to attain nirvana, its holy goal. Adherents of any religion reflect Divine will as they love the neighbor, work for justice, or bring meaning to life in unique ways.56 K. P. Aleaz, Kolkata, urges Christians to enrich their views of Jesus through insight from Muhammed or Krishna; all three reveal the Real. Mutual exchange enriches each. He calls for Pluralistic Inclusivism. He urges affirming faith experience in another while being humble, rather than boastful, of one’s own conviction. Openness to relate transforms each one’s move toward fuller truth and leads toward converging Wisdom, while holding to the distinct.57

Pluralism does not endorse relativism—that all religions are equally true. Pluralism credits religions which value Mystery, provide meaning, uphold solid ethics, and liberate diverse people. Jesus is the way, truth, and life for Christians; other names save or other truth from God may enhance other traditions.58 Whereas evangelical Karkainen distorts pluralism, saying that it promises that “all will be saved,” John Hick explains pluralism as “more than one way to be saved.” John Cobb simply declares about pluralism: “all religions have validity.”

Paul Knitter published Introducing Theologies of Religions in 2002. Intent to enhance study across cultures and religions, he offered alternative terms for the standard categories. He identifies models through the thought of key spokesmen, models that he re-names: Replacement/ “Only one true religion,” Fulfillment / “The One Fulfills the Many,” and Mutuality / “Many True Religions Called to Dialogue.” To these he adds a fourth titled Acceptance / “Many True Religions: So Be It.”

Before 1960 when most Christians presumed that God did not engage other religions, Roman Catholics questioned Protestant and Orthodox truth—were their members sure of salvation? Many Evangelicals now resist the interreligious dialogue and openness endorsed by Vatican II. Rita Gross wonders why people cannot just receive and enhance religious diversity. Why not live together in peace rather than require the same teachings or debate which is more relevant? “Why worry about whether or not [others] believe in Jesus Christ as the only savior, regard the Qur’an as the deity’s final revelation to humanity, or meditate correctly on emptiness?”59

Paul Knitter’s Mutuality model stresses God’s universal love and presence in religions. It affirms difference and seeks common threads within faiths. It avoids absolute or final claims as well as relativism. (“That many religions are true does not mean that all are true.”) Uniqueness is affirmed: “the unique truth of each religion is really and universally true, but not solely and definitively true.”60 Each tradition deserves honor.

For Shirley Guthrie, Christians with a pluralist view believe that Jesus is “the way, truth, and life” for them. With multiple paths to God, Jesus is one way, not the only way for people to know God. Knitter values John Cobb’s dictum: “Christ is the Way that is open to other Ways. To follow Jesus is to be radically open to others.”61 Christians are saved through Jesus’ name; other people of faith know other saving ‘names,’ other ways that give life meaning. Faith exists in God; believers credit God “at work saving in all” faithful groups.62 The pluralist model expands ideas about God’s Reign and terms like truly. With Knitter, I proclaim Jesus as a universal savior, not the world’s only savior. While Christians confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” they avoid saying that he does so solely or fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God. Other religious figures may also be wholly God.63

Wesley Ariarajah, a Sri Lankan who taught at Drew Seminary before retirement, calls for a new review of theology of religions. Building on Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s insight, Christians will see the limits of doctrines, creeds and theologies, all of which are ‘human constructs.’ Plurality of religions will be essential along with mutual respect for all religions. Further, religious language will be valued for what it is—confessional thought—rather than claiming literal interpretations of select texts as ‘official.’64

Professor Krister Stendahl notes Harold Coward’s insight: the Christian tendency toward exclusiveness is rooted in the fact that although Jesus preached [God’s] kingdom, the church preached Jesus.65 What results from those two messages is quite different, I believe. People of living faiths feel included in God’s universal kingdom. To emphasize the messenger Jesus alone—unique as his role is in God’s redemptive work for Christians—can fail to faithfully to convey Jesus’ central message of God’s Reign.66


This essay concludes with a few reminders of the how of proceeding to know more than one religion. Peter Phan, Paul Knitter and others revise Max Mueller’s insight with: “One must be religious interreligiously.” Guidelines to ponder:

With hope for knowing more than one religion, trust others’ Truth and re-commit your loyalty.