John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
The following paper was written in December, 1990.
The challenge of pluralism is to think through our understanding of Christ so that we see Christ’s ultimate importance in ways that do not block our deepest appreciation of other traditions. We can do that as we understand that that appreciation is itself Christ’s work, and that Christ leads us beyond appreciation to learning and being transformed by what we learn.
II. CHRIST AND EXCLUSIVISM
The unifying theme of my lectures is that the failure of the church to think through the meaning of Christ for our time is the deepest cause of the lukewarmness in our oldline churches, which in turn is the deepest cause of our decline. Although I believe this is true on many fronts, the most direct and obvious one is with regard to the Christian stance toward other religious communities. Our fuller encounter with these communities in the twentieth century has caused us to back off from our earlier simple affirmations about Christ without replacing them with powerful new assertions. As a result, we have grown lukewarm about Christ.
If we seriously believed that all those who do not confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are necessarily destined to spend eternity in Hell, we would renew our zeal to reach them and convert them. It would be difficult to be lukewarm unless we were really indifferent to what happened to other people. Hence we know a set of Christological beliefs that overcome lukewarmness. And we know that some of our fellow Christians subscribe to those beliefs and are energized by them.
But it is obvious that we do not want to overcome lukewarmness with the destructive fanaticism that those beliefs engender today. And it is obvious also that few of us could believe these doctrines even if we tried. Now that we know something of these other religious communities and their quality of the lives they engender, we cannot suppose that a gracious God would punish their saints for failure to join the Christian church. Such a belief would distort the New Testament witness and our Christian heritage at least as seriously as the recognition that God has sheep in other folds.
We must give up that kind of Christian exclusivism, and it is my impression that most of us, practically if not always theoretically, have done so. The problem is that we do not have much clarity about where to go from there. If Jesus Christ is not the one Lord and Savior of all people, such that all who do not acknowledge him are damned, then who is he?
The easiest step to take has proven to be the idea that God has called people through different emissaries in different communities. Following any one of them has been salvific. Those of us who are Christians have found salvation through Jesus Christ. Hence he is our savior. The fact that others have found salvation through other figures does not reduce Jesus’ importance for us.
What is changed, then, is the urgency of sharing our knowledge of God through Jesus with others. Instead of evangelism directed to converting Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists to Christianity, we look at all these people as having their own access to salvation and having no need of ours. Once we have taken this step of positive appraisal of religious traditions other than our own, we are likely to take another. Perhaps salvation can be found also in ways that do not require close involvement in any of these traditions. Secular humanism may also be a legitimate path. All those who today pursue “spirituality” while eschewing “religion” may be finding their way as well. In short, we are likely to conclude that, however greatly we are ourselves in debt to Jesus Christ, it is best for us to leave others to their own devices in finding their paths through life. We welcome people to our churches, but we do not go out to seek “the lost.”
This process of reduction of our Christological claims is associated with a decline in the clarity of our understanding of salvation. The first step, acknowledging that there are multiple ways to salvation, could still be associated with a continuing belief in Heaven and Hell. If so, there could still be fervor about saving people from Hell. The fact that we suppose that Hindus and Buddhists can be saved from Hell in their way need not reduce our Christian concern for those in our own midst who follow none of the great Ways.
But belief in Hell as a place of divinely imposed torment was declining even before the decline of belief in Jesus as the exclusive way of salvation. The question then becomes, what is salvation? Is it identical with living a good life, or a satisfying one, or being psychologically healthy? If so, the close connection between salvation and the influence of Jesus is harder to establish even in the sphere of Christendom. Some of the best, happiest, and healthiest people do not acknowledge Jesus as the reason for their good fortune.
But if salvation is not a matter of Heaven vs. Hell, and if it is not virtue, happiness, or health, what is it? If we associate it with what the great religious traditions offer, then we need to study those traditions more closely. What is common to the ways they teach and the goals they set before us?
John Hick has done us the great service of formulating a persuasive hypothesis as to the answer. He sees in all of these traditions a movement from centeredness on the self to centeredness on that which is radically beyond the self. In the Jewish family of religions, this is understood as God. In traditions in which ultimate reality is understood impersonally, it is on the impersonal Ultimate. Hick chooses the term, “the Real,” as a more neutral name for that which replaces the self as center.
Hick thereby provides us with a genuinely religious understanding of salvation. Also, it is possible to interpret much of the teaching of many traditions in a way that fits. It becomes fully meaningful to Christians to see that Jesus is one who showed us a life centered on God and God’s purposes. Our worship and our teaching can certainly be understood as ways in which we are drawn beyond ourselves and our narrow self-interests. Similarly, Buddhists can understand the disciplines of meditation in which they engage as setting aside the private self in favor of a reality that is far more ultimate.
This genuinely religious understanding offered us by Hick enables us to restore genuine meaningfulness to our Christological affirmations. To affirm Jesus as our Lord and Savior, since in fact it is to him that we owe the impetus to this fundamental transformation of our life-orientation, is a truly strong confession. That some others have found a parallel impetus in other contexts does not detract from this. We are not left in a relativistic sea in which every way of life is equally valuable and equally to be accepted and affirmed. We have a real message to proclaim to others in the name of Jesus Christ.
Despite these important strengths of Hick’s position, I do not think it offers us a place to rest in our quest for an adequate Christology for our time. The problem for me is that it understates the differences among the great traditions of which he speaks. The limitation of his formulation differs in relation to different communities.
Although the move from self-centeredness to centeredness in the Real can be discerned in all the traditions, it is not central to all. For example, Judaism has its saints who certainly exemplify this transformation. But for many Jews salvation is more a matter of what happens to the people of Israel as a whole in concrete history than the spiritual attainments of individual Jews. This historical orienttion carries over into Jesus, whose central message was the coming of the basileia theou, the realm of God. Of course, seeking the coming of this realm involves transcending self-centeredness, and the realm itself will certainly by characterized by this transcending, but the focus is on what happens to the world as a whole more than on the individual.
If we turn to the religions of India, the individualism of Hick’s unifying vision and the centrality of personal change is not the problem. The problem there is the notion of centeredness. For example, the Buddhist realization of no-self is not well described as centeredness in the Real. It is better understood as the overcoming of all centeredness, the realization that there is nothing to be centered in or on.
If we allow each tradition to formulate its own goal in its own way, we end up with considerable diversity. Certainly, parallels can be drawn here and there, especially among the traditions that now dominate the planet. All of them were formed in what Karl Jaspers has termed the axial age, the middle of the first millenium before Jesus. All responded to an individualistic quest for salvation that was alien to primal religion. All tended to separate the human from the natural world and to focus on what is distinctively human. All affirmed a dimension of reality not apparent to sense experience. But beyond such generalizations, the differences should also be acknowledged and appreciated.
In this situation, it is not arrogant or “exclusivist” to describe the uniqueness of Christianity — or of any other tradition. Christianity differs from every other tradition in religiously important ways. Its understanding of salvation is not identical with that of other religious communities. What Jesus Christ means to us, what he has contributed to the world, is not the same as what Gautama Buddha has done for Buddhists or contributed to the world.
To affirm Christian uniqueness today, therefore, is not to belittle or denigrate other communities. That they are different leaves entirely open the question of the relative truth of our respective claims and the relative value of what we offer. It does recognize, however, that any such evaluations will prove more difficult than they would if, as Hick proposes, they can all be evaluated by their success in promoting the achievement of a common goal.
If each tradition is different, then the norms by which they value one another are also likely to be different. It should not surprise us that Buddhists, judging all traditions by their norms, find Buddhism best. Nor should it surprise us that, when Christians judge all traditions by Christian norms, we confirm ourselves in the view that Christianity is best.
The recognition of this circularity is an achievement of rather recent times. Some would view it as a part of postmodernism, and I have no objection to that. Unfortunately, from my point of view, many postmodernists draw, from this accurate judgment, the conclusion that each community is shut up in its own patterns and lacks the ability to communicate with those outside it.
This conclusion is often connected with the common postmodern view that language has no reference to a world external to it. Thus every element in a language has its meaning by its reference to other parts of the linguistic system. For example, the meaning of “God” for Christians is bound up with the meaning of “Jesus Christ,” of “Spirit,” of “worship,” of “obedience,” of “creation,” and so forth. All of these words, in turn, have their meaning only in relation to one another and to “God.” Hence there is no reference to a world outside the language to which words in other linguistic systems could also refer.
This is an extreme example of the relativism that pervades our culture. It authorizes Christians to make whatever statements they find appropriate about Jesus Christ. These statements may even sound exclusivist. If within this linguistic system Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and if, within this system, all who are not part of the community that uses this system are damned, then that is what is to be said and believed. But what we believe about others has nothing to do with the others, only with the language we use about them. They live in and through their quite different linguistic system.
This approach reduces any interest in revising the system. That interest arises when a system is judged inadequate in relation to the world it purports to describe. When it is supposed that there is no such world, then the system is ultimate and there is no higher norm in relation to which it is to be corrected.
This understanding can be used by outsiders as a way of removing the beliefs of religious communities from serious consideration as to their truth. It can be used by believers to justify their traditionalism. For those believers who understand this account of what they are doing, it leads to great tolerance of other groups doing their thing. For those believers who genuninely live within the linguistic system, it may overcome lukewarmness, but it renews the dangers of the earlier exclusivism.
I am not sure that anyone really believes all this. Certainly, I could not. Those who describe this view of religious communities seem to stand outside the communities and talk about them as if they existed objectively to their description — as if their description were an accurate account of what went on within them. Inplicitly, therefore, they assume that their language does have the reference beyond itself that they deny to the religious communiites. But the fomulation and defense of this position at least tells us something about the tendencies in contemporary scholarship of which we need to be aware.
I have been describing one response to the recognition of the distinctiveness of each tradition. I have made it clear that I do not favor it. I now turn to the response that I do favor.
Instead of supposing that the differences among us mean that there is no real world to which our language refers, I propose that we try the hypothesis that there is a very complex world to which we are all referring in most of our language, whether religious or not. Suppose that in fact there is a world of innumerable events related to one another in unimaginably multifarious ways. Suppose, then, that each culture, each linguistic system, ultimately each person in each moment, highlights some of these events and patterns and thus attains sufficient order to navigate the flux.
When Christians speak of God, of Christ, of Spirit, of worship, and of obedience, we are highlighting some features of the world in which we are immersed. When Buddhists speak of karma, of anatman, of dependent origination, of nonattachment, and of enlightement, they are highlighting other features. The fact that what we are highlighting is there to be highlighted does not preclude that what they are highlighting is there in the same way.
This points us, I am convinced, in the right direction. But it oversimplifies matters considerably. This is clearest with respect to worship, obedience, nonattachment, and enlightenment. These are not features of reality that exist fully formed without the participation of those who name them. Once we formulate the idea of nonattachment, for example, we may see that there are tendencies in that direction even prior to any naming. But it is unlikely that, where this tendency is not noticed, affirmed, and prized, it will be cultivated and fully achieved. Something like this can be asserted of many of the other features noted.
The question is whether this participation in constituting what is named is true of all these designations. This is partly a definitional matter. As Christians, we believe that God existed long before, and quite independently of, any human recognition. Our task is to conform what we think and say of God to this autnomous reality. We may define “God” in such a way that this is true, and in my judgment this provides, at a minimum, an important part of the meaning of “God.”
On the other hand, part of the normal meaning of “God” includes the status of being acknowledged as worthy of worship, devotion, and obedience. Luther, on occasion, defined “God” as that in which we place our trust. By this definition, God may exist, but what that means differs from person to person. But Luther certainly did not intend to leave us in pure relativism. For him it is a serious mistake to place our faith in something other than the one true God whom we know in and through Jesus Christ. That God has reality whether acknowledged or not.
In a world of vast complexity, the selections we make by naming affect our actions and our actions affect the selections. Our names rarely refer in unambiguous ways to some one feature of reality. And their vagueness and multivalence itself affects our behavior and the forms of communication with one another. Christianity does not consist of a single unambiguous set of terms — far from it. Neither does Buddhism. Nevertheless, it remains true that Buddhists in general perceive the world in ways that differ from typical Christian perceptions. These differences express themselves in differences of judgment with regard to what is important and how life is to be lived.
Within both Christianity and Budhism it is important to formulate what is said about the world well. Both recognize the limitations of any formulation. Christians know that our language can never be adequate to the holy reality. Buddhists more radically critique all conceptuality as inherently distorting of what it attempts to grasp. Yet Christians and Buddhists both prize excellent formulations of their vision and argue among themselves at great length as to which is best.
Some of these arguments are no doubt instances in which two thinkers are seeking to describe one and the same feature of reality, and in which, if one is correct, the other must be wrong. There are such debates, and they are important. But there are other instances in which the opponents are accenting and highlighting slightly different features of reality with the same terms. What each says may be true of those features that are of special interest and importance to her or him. The problem is that the other side understands the words a little differently, so that what is said is unacceptable.
At the time of the Reformation there is not doubt that both Luther and his Roman Catholic opponents thought that his formulation of faith and works was in contradiction with theirs. Today Catholic and Lutheran theologians are returning to those debates and are close to agreement that there is no such direct contradiction. They may conclude that there were overstatements of important truths on both sides, so formulated as to seem to exclude the truth of what was central to the other. From studying such instances, a Christian of irenic temperament may conclude that believers are likely to be more correct in their central convictions than in their negations of others.
There are still other instances in which some participants in the discussion may be talking about features of reality of which other participants are simply unaware. Among Christians this may occur in discussion between mystics and those who have had no mystical experience. They may also occur between those who have experienced dramatic conversions and those who have grown up as Christians. In these instances there is usually a good deal of shared language that helps to establish communication. It, then, often proves possible for those who lack the distinctive firsthand experience nevertheless to notice elements in their experience, to which they have not previously attended, that allow them imaginatively to have some understanding of what they are being told by others.
This last instance should help to prepare us for conversations between persons who have been formed in quite different communities and linguistic systems. Here the overlap in experience that is characteristic of Christians may not be evident. The language as a whole is different, and although, through the distinct languages, it is sometimes possible to discern common elements of experience that are being named, this cannot be taken for granted. Obviously, in these respects, interfaith dialogue is more difficult than that among believers in one tradition.
Before discussing how, nevertheless, it does occur to the benefit of both parties, I want to note how, also, it is in fact easier. In my experience, Christians are far less threatened by hearing Buddhists talk about their very different experience and belief system than by hearing other Christians. The formulation of the other Christian challenges my formulation of Christian faith in a way that the Buddhist formulation does not. Similarly, I have observed far more intensity of feeling in debates among Buddhists than in their discussion with Christians. This emotional intensity of internecine quarrels often makes it hard to hear the different truth being stated there, whereas Buddhists and Christians in their dialogue with one another are often eager to be taught.
This compensating advantage makes Buddhist-Christian dialogue enjoyable and fruitful in practice. Christians recognize that they initially do not know what Buddhists mean by such terms as dependent origination. Further, when they first begin to grasp its meaning, they do not understand why it is religiously important. The assertion that everything that is is constituted by the coming together of other things seems an interesting hypothesis, but quite outside the sphere of religious meaning. Nevertheless, as Buddhists first call attention to this character of all events, including each moment of human experience, and then explain how a mediator is inwardly affected by the realization of this truth, Christians can listen and open themselves to dimensions important to them.
What is learned is so different from what Christians have been affirming that it does not seem to pose a challenge to Christian faith. Yet it cannot be simply added to unchanged Christian formulations. Many Christian formulations are couched in terms of a substantial self in encounter with a substantial God. What Buddhists have noticed about reality makes those formulations unsatisfactory.
From the beginning Buddhists concluded from their central insight that the usual Hindu formulations of Brahman were mistaken. They rejected Brahman. When they encountered the God of Christianity, they heard much that was incompatible with their insight, and most of them rejected God altogether. And it is true that many Greek metaphysical ideas involved in traditional Christian formulations of the doctrine of God are undercut by the Buddhist analysis. Hence, in fact, what Buddhists invite us to notice about reality leads to modes of thinking that are deeply challenging to Western theism.
The actual situation has been that by the time the encounter with Buddhism became important to Western thinkers in the nineteenth century, the traditional idea of God was already losing convincing power. The encounter has intensified its problems. There have been two major responses.
The first response is to accent those traditions in the West that have moved in the Buddhist direction. These are the most mystical traditions, and specifically those forms of mysticism that identify what one finds in the depths of one’s being with the Godhead. When this is combined with the insistence that this is wholly ineffable, it becomes possible to think that those who have discovered God in this way are experiencing the same reality as that which Buddhists have identified. The more personalistic aspects of God are then treated as having inferior status in the real order of things and for religious experience as well.
The second response is to distinguish God from dependent orgination. God may instead be understood as an element in every instance of dependent origination. It may be argued that the Jewish family of religious traditions has highlighted personal freedom and moral responsibility and the sphere of history in ways that have been neglected by Buddhism generally. We can then highlight that element in every human instance of dependent origination that introduces freedom and moral responsibility and the temporal asymmetry so important to the historical consciousness. And we can name that “God.”
It is important to see that to identify God in this way is not simply to identify God as an aspect of human experience. In the Buddhist vision, what comes together in each event are entities that exist apart from that event and take part in constituting other events as well. If God takes part in constituting all events, God is of universal scope and in a crucial sense transcends all things as well as being immanent in all things. Apart from God nothing comes into existence. God is the source of life, of novelty, of freedom, of moral responsibility. Thus God is recognizably the God of the Bible.
There is, of course, much more to be said, but this is not the time or place to develop a full-fledged Biblical doctrine of God in the context of interfaith dialogue. I have pursued the matter as I have, however, to illustrate the consequences of thinking as I have proposed. If the totality of reality is far more complex than we have ever recognized, then it may be that profound human experience in different times and places has brought to light many of the important patterns that are to be found within it. It may be that when one develops a system of thought and life around some set of such patterns it turns out to be quite different from the system developed elsewhere around other patterns. But it may be that both sets of patterns are really there to be found.
If this is so, then interfaith dialogue is a way to learn more about the totality of things in which we are immersed. From each community we can discover what its distinctive experience has taught it. We cannot simply add these new insights to the old, but we do not need to reject the insights we have brought with us from our community in order to appropriate the new ones. The reformulation to which this dialogue can lead may be experienced more as a fulfilment of our tradition than as a rejection.
Where is Christ in all this? Too many will read this as a relativization of Christ, as supposing that while Jesus Christ is a source of certain true insights, others have introduced other insights. The goal would then seem to be to step outside of our Christian tradition into the shoes of the scholarly or philosophical observer, identify the elements of wisdom in each community, and weld them into a new whole. I will devote the remainder of this lecturer to explaining why this does not commend itself to me and why, instead, I pursue a Christocentric approach.
I have described what I have observed as the behavior of Christians in their encounter with Buddhists. They are eager to learn and to understand the deepest insgights of Buddhism. What does this mean about their relationship to Christ? Is it to be interpreted as implying that they are now turning away from Christ? Do they feel that they have learned what they can from Christ and now seek another teacher?
Although this is a possible interpretation, it does not fit my experience. To me it seems instead that it is precisely faith in Christ that leads to this openness to new wisdom. The New Testament does not pose itself as the container of all true knowledge. It points forward to what is yet to be learned. To have faith in Christ is not to cling to formulations about Christ developed in the past. It is to trust Christ’s calling in the present. Such calling expresses itself far more clearly in openness to learn new truth than in defensive reaction to new ideas.
Faith in Christ leads to love of the other, not fear. Love involves taking the other seriously. To take the other seriously is also to take the way the other understands reality seriously. Readiness to be changed in the encounter expresses faith.
So where do we find Christ in all this? Does “Christ” name only the past historical figure of Jesus or the past event in which he was central? That is, of course, one possible use of the term. But the church has associated Christ with the everliving God as well as with the historical figure. It was the intimate connection of God with the historical figure, what we call incarnation, that causes us to refer to Jesus as the Christ.
It is from that starting point that I have developed my particular Christological proposals. I should acknowledge that, although I am not making explicit reference to his thought, I have come to my formulations through the influence of Alfred North Whitehead. His influence is also present in what I have already said about the complexity of the world and the many patterns to be found in it. But I prefer that you evaluate what I have to say by its contribution to Christian reflection in the light of our religiously pluralistic world than by its sources.
I propose that we identify “Christ” as God’s presence, or incarnation, in the world. In our reflection on this matter, let us be guided by what is said of the Word in the first verses of John’s gospel. According to John the Word participates in the coming into being of all things. It is particularly present as the life of living things and as the intelligence of human beings. And it is embodied in Jesus, so that we can know its true character through him.
We can then ask what is the characteristic of life and the light that enlightens everyone and then of Jesus that expresses the heightened presence and influence of the Word. I suggest that it is, at least in part, newness. The living is distinguished from the inanimate by its transcending of the causal nexus of the past. A living thing has a principle of self-motion that involves some element of self-determination. This is not possible unless something is present in it that is not derived simply from its past. It is the presence of the Word that provides this.
When we turn to the light that enlightens everyone, we find that this creative novelty is greatly increased. Of course, people remain creatures of habit, largely shaped by their environment. But we are not simply that. We also act spontaneously and influence our environment. To the extent that we are open to God moment by moment, responsive to the call of God’s word, our transcendence of the world increases and the Word is more determinative of what we become.
In Jesus we see this carried to a certain fullness. Of course, Jesus remained a Jew shaped by the culture of his day. The Word does not call us into a supernatural condition. But the Word so dwelt in Jesus that he saw his world with a freedom and freshness that remain for us also ever astonishing. Most of us wear glasses fashioned in large part by our self-centeredness and self-defensiveness. Jesus simply saw things as they were and acted on what he saw without regard to the consequences to himself. His teaching remains a call and a challenge to all who encounter it.
Now let us look more closely at what the presence of the Word within us effects. I have connected it with novelty apart from which there is no freedom and no moral responsibility. But the novelty that works in us must always be a relevant novelty. That is why Jesus remained a first century Jew, however deeply he was informed by the working of the Word within him. Still he changed the meaning of what it was to be a first century Jew. The word working within him transformed the world that also entered into him creatively. The way he was a first-century Jew was new.
What the Word did in Jesus it does in some measure in all who are open and responsive to it. We do not detect its working where we have endless repetition of patterns, the continued control of habits, mere cultural conformity. We detect its working where individuals in faith respond to the call of the Word to take some fresh action or to dare to think in new ways.
In the great majority of cases these faithful responses to the Word have their effects chiefly in the intimate sphere of interpersonal relations and personal growth. They are an important part of all Christian maturation. But some of these responses have world-historical importance as well. They involve many individuals responding in mutually supportive ways to the call of the Word in kairotic contexts.
In my reading we can see the presence of God, and therefore Christ, in the transformation of Christianity in its assimilation of Greek wisdom. If Christian thinkers had not done this, there would still have been acculturation of Christianity, but it would have been far more the assimilation of Christianity as one more Hellenistic cult. It is doubtful that such a Christianity would have survived the Roman Empire.
It is important not to suppose that a necessary and desirable creative transformation of this sort was unproblematic. In an ideal transformation, nothing of value is lost. All that is true and valuable finds its place in a larger whole that incorporates other truth and value as well. History is not the locus of such perfection. In the process of the successful transformation of Christianity, elements of value were lost. Some, but by no means all, of these were recovered in the Reformation. Also, Christians became committed to Greek scientific ideas that, a thousand years later, made the acceptance of modern science more difficult. Today, I have already noted, it is chiefly Hellenistic elements in our theology that make the appropriation of Buddhist insights difficult. Clearly the results of creative transformation need, in their turn, to be creatively transformed. But this does not mean that we should fail to discern Christ in the process.
In my reading, the rise of the natural sciences constituted a somewhat analogous challenge. I do not think Christian thinkers responded quite as successfully to this challenge as they had to that of Greek philosophy. There were too many elements of defensiveness. There was too much effort to protect a special sphere in which Christians could maintain their faith while surrendering the dominant domains of thought to science. Nevertheless, there were many creative responses, and Christianity was transformed in necessary ways.
I am hopeful that now, in our encounter with other great religious traditions, we will respond creatively and transform ourselves again through the encounter. I earlier explained in a general way why openness to the other is faithful to Christ. I now want to deepen that with the claim that openness to the other is the working of Christ within us. Christ, as the presence of the Word within us, opens us to the other by offering us ways of integrating what we learn from the other with the wisdom we have received from our own past.
I hope now that you will understand why I do not like the image of standing outside all the traditions, selecting what we appreciate from each, and creating a new synthetic belief system. In some who think of themselves in this way I detect the work of Christ. But if it is Christ who is at work, it is better to recognize and acknowledge this and to claim what one is doing as the transformation of Christianity.
Are there other impulses than Christ that operate in other communities in a similar way. Do Buddhists seek to transform Buddhism so as to appropriate the wisdom of Christianity? The answer is yes and no. Some Buddhists do appreciate some features of Christianity. Some have even copied particular Christian patterns. Some recognize that Buddhism, at least in the form in which it has operated in China, Korea, and Japan, has failed to develop the kind of social ethic needed in the modern world. They propose to learn how this is done from Christianity. Furthermore, many North Americans who have converted to Buddhism have brought into it impulses to social concern that are quite impressive in their expressions.
Hence, it is clear that Christianity is by no means the only tradition that can learn and grow in relation to others. But it would be a mistake to think that what enables others to appropriate from us and from one another is the same as what enables us to appropriate from them. For us it is an openness to the future, with the belief that only then will the truth be fully known. This is combined with the belief that the one through whom we come to learn more is the Spirit of Truth who continues the work of Jesus and is, indeed, none other than the living Christ. Thus the process of being transformed is itself the work of Christ.
For Buddhists the deepest truth has long been known and is realized again and again through meditation. This is the Buddha nature. There is no change at that level. But because this truth is beyond or beneath the level at which science and morality operate, and because in its nature it liberates from bondage to any particular formulations, we are quite free to be open to what others have to teach us at these secondary levels. Whereas in traditional societies this openness often amounted to somewhat uncritical acceptance of the dominant cultural patterns, today it can also mean incorporation of ranges of concern and action from the prophetic traditions of Israel.
Thus Christ opens Christians to the encounter with others, and Buddha opens Buddhists. Again, it is important to see that the fact that they both function in this way does not mean they are simply different names for the same reality. Nor does it mean that the nature and results of this openness are the same in the two instances.
It is my judgment, as a Christian, that Christian openness is, in principle, fuller, that Christianity can assimilate Buddhism more radically than Buddhism can assimilate Christianity. This is because Christ can lead us to recognize the Buddha nature and to call Christians to realize their Buddha nature, whereas I do not think that the realization of the Buddha nature leads to faith in Christ without itself being changed in ways that Buddhism resists. To put this in less directly theological terms, the historical consciousness can include the ontological consciousness in a way that the ontological consciousness cannot include the historical consciousness.
This is not the time or place to unpack those claims. I make them here to indicate the complex interaction between pluralism and the Christian claim of the all-sufficiency of Christ. I am claiming (as a Christian, of course) that Christ is all-sufficient because Christ leads us into being transformed through interaction with wisdom in all its forms. I am even claiming that Christ is, in this respect, unique. Thus the ultimate goad of Christian faith is not to maintain one symbol system alongside others, or one pattern of beliefs and actions alongside others, as pluralists seems to say. Christ as thus understood is far from all-sufficient. The ultimate expression of faith in the true Christ is to be ready to give up every formulation derived from the past so as to be transformed by the opportunities of the present and future and move toward the fullness of Truth.
I hope you will see that if we think of Christ in this way, there is no reason for lukewarmness. Lukewarmness arises when we recognize that there is a tension between our very relative beliefs about Christ derived from the past and the ultimate centrality that we have accorded Christ in our faith. It arises when we suppose that recognizing the religious achievements of other traditions works against our claims for Christ’s uniqueness and finality. It arises whenever we find ourselves becoming defensive about the truth and value of Christian teaching. This lukewarmness is healthy.
But it is not healthy to stay with it. The challenge of pluralism is to think through our understanding of Christ so that we see Christ’s ultimate importance in ways that do not block our deepest appreciation of other traditions. We can do that as we understand that that appreciation is itself Christ’s work, and that Christ leads us beyond appreciation to learning and being transformed by what we learn. A church that sees in this pluralistic age a wonderful opportunity to advance in its grasp of truth and wisdom can recover its conviction and commitment and move forward with excitement and confidence.