Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism

 — Jan. 24, 199824 janv. 1998

Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.
Orbis Books, 1997. New ed. 2002. ISBN: 978-1570752643

More than 25 years ago in Northern India I first met Fr Dupuis. That meeting prefigured my contact with his remarkable book, and was also thoroughly physical. As he gunned his Yugoslavian motorcycle along narrow roads in the foothills of the Himalayas, I clung to him for dear life and prayed not to fall into the cavernous valleys that flanked our route to a high-altitude Buddhist monastery. After visiting the monks Dupuis roared off down another road to a self-help Tibetan refugee camp directed by the Dalai Lama’s sister-in-law and then to a mountaineering school run by the Sherpa Tensing who had conquered Mount Everest in 1953 with Sir Edmund Hillary. These visits shaped my first impressions of Jacques Dupuis as someone who wanted direct contact with other religious traditions and was certainly not content to learn about them simply by reading texts at his desk.

The more than 20 years he spent teaching in an international theological college near Darjeeling offered him a privileged setting for interreligious dialogue. The Nepalese, Indians, Bhutanese, Chinese and Europeans who live and work in that region make it a mini-league of nations, with representatives from many of the great religious traditions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism. The setting for thinking about God the Creator and the cosmic Christ is unique: across immense valleys, forests and tea plantations one contemplates the majesty of the Himalayas and their eternal snow.

Dupuis’ latest book has appeared simultaneously in English, French and Italian. Doubtless a Spanish translation will soon be on the scene. A genuinely magisterial work, it brings together a lifetime of study and experience to outline a profound theological shift in the Christian understanding of other religions. Instead of merely asking whether salvation can occur for members of these other traditions, Dupuis struggles with the question of how in God’s providence these traditions mediate salvation to their members. His book represents an attempt to expound in today’s context two key affirmations from the Book of Acts. On the one hand, Jesus is the unique and universal Saviour, “the only name by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). On the other hand, the divine self-witness is available to all people (Acts 4:17).

After examining the approaches that Christians have taken to other religions down the centuries, Dupuis looks in detail at the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on other faiths. He completes the first half of his book by presenting the postconciliar official teaching and recent theological debates about Jesus, Christianity and the other religions.

In part two he moves to a constructive synthesis under the title “One God – One Christ – Convergent Paths.” Here he aims to show how “a Trinitarian, Christological model is capable of holding in creative tension the depth of God’s commitment to humankind in Jesus and the authenticity of other paths in accord with divine providence.” As revealer and Redeemer, Jesus is one and universal, yet in practice the visible paths to salvation have remained many. Dupuis argues that in God’s providence religious pluralism exists not merely in fact but also in principle. His Christian faith underpins the hope that all the diverse religious paths will converge towards the final, universal reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Above all in the second part Dupuis appeals consistently to the active presence of the Word of God and of the Divine Spirit. Without challenging the validity of such appeals, I wonder whether the Wisdom of God might offer another helpful interpretative key. Every culture and every religion yields wisdom about such matters as prayer, family life and social behaviour. Christianity has inherited from Judaism the wisdom books of the Old Testament, which even before the coming of Jesus offered a kind of “ecumenical” bridge to the non-Jewish world. To be sure, as a personification of divine activity “Wisdom” normally functioned synonymously with “Word” and “Spirit.” Nevertheless, only Lady Wisdom gave her name to a whole series of inspired books. From the time of St Paul, Christians have identified Jesus as the holy Wisdom of God. The week of preparation for the feast of Christmas, which we have recently celebrated, is a week that begins with the “O Antiphon” that celebrates Christ as “the Wisdom who comes from the mouth of the most High God.” The manifest presence of that wisdom everywhere underpins a Christian conviction: “Where there is Wisdom there is Christ.” In short, it seems worth developing a Christian theology of world religions also in the key of the Wisdom of God.

Let me end by recognising this book as a superb contribution to interreligious dialogue and theology. The “toward” in its title reflects Dupuis’ modesty: he wishes to make some proposals for fruitful Christian lines of approach to other religions. Yet the book is also courageously adventurous and takes me back to the time when he raced me around the lower slopes of the Himalayas. One cannot hope to do much more than explore the foothills of God’s majestic providence for all human beings. But when sharing in that exploring I am very happy once again to hang on to Fr Dupuis.

NOTE: The publication of Fr. Dupuis’ book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism elicted some controversy, including an inquiry by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Tablet has published a number of further pieces on this controversy:

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