Interreligious Encounter and the Problem of Salvation

by John Moffitt

Mr. Moffitt, poetry editor of the Jesuit magazine America, was for many years a monastic member of Hinduism’s Rama-Krishna Order.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 17, 1976, pp. 1001-1007. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If Christians are to get to the heart of the problem of salvation for those who are not professing Christians, they will have to learn to think in terms of a truly universal Christ. This they can accomplish only if, first of all, they honestly open their minds to what other religions have said and are still saying on the great questions of life.

Two types of contemporary Christian lay-people and religious are, along with theologians, concerned with problems arising out of today’s encounter among religions. One type represents the average practicing Christian, largely uninformed about the content of the several world faiths; the other, a more inquiring Christian sincerely interested in seeing some sort of rapprochement among believers in God of all faiths. The problems that concern the two differ slightly, but of special relevance for both is the problem of salvation for those not of the Christian faith.

How Approach Non-Christians?

Sincere Christians who have never been taught to think in terms of finding positive truths in other religions may well feel confused at the mounting stress on the need for interreligious exchange. On what basis, they may ask, are Christians expected to approach the teachings of another religion and the persons who adhere to them? Are not such persons, however well meaning, simply misguided believers in a benighted faith? Can they find fulfillment in other than a wholehearted embracing of the Christian revelation?

It is all very well, such average Christians may add, for believers of all persuasions to deal with one another in sympathy and respect. But if Christianity represents, as it surely does, God’s whole plan of salvation for humankind, must not all persons sooner or later accept its authority? If that is so, why approach believers in non-Christian religions except to convert them?

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, would seem to have reassured these average Christians in a forthright manner:

Obviously we cannot share in these various Afro-Asiatic forms of religion nor can we remain indifferent to the fact that each of them, in its own way, should regard itself as being the equal of any other and should authorize its followers not to seek to discover whether God has revealed the perfect and definitive form, free from all error, in which he wishes to be known, loved, and served. Indeed, honesty compels us to declare openly our conviction that there is but one true religion, the religion of Christianity.

And here, though by "Christianity" he means something very definite (i.e., Roman Catholicism), his words taken at face value speak for the vast majority of believing Christians no matter what their denomination.

But now the more inquiring Christians, sincerely interested in interreligious exchange, may feel confused. Reading these words, they may be at a loss to know in what spirit to approach the dialogue with Hinduism or other non-Christian faiths. If the pope’s sentiments are to be interpreted literally, what are ecumenically minded Western Christians to think, not only about their relations with those professing religions differing from their own, but also about the ultimate worth of those religions? Are the reachings out for spiritual community with sincere believers of other faiths to be one-sided, in that the insights of Western Christianity alone are to be held true and sufficient, and the insights of Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam (and Judaism, for that matter) simply yearnings toward fulfillment in Christianity, as has been held for so many years?

Since Christianity is the "perfect and definitive" form of religion, "free from all error," it would appear that Christians have nothing to learn from outside their own fold. Or, at the most, perhaps the learning is only how to appreciate better the essence of their own tradition of faith. Taken literally, Paul VI’s words seem to rule out all possibility of finding any considerable body of truth outside the church and place in jeopardy the whole subject of the dialogue, seen as honest exchange. The inquiring Christian must ask whether he or she has somehow misjudged the purpose of the dialogue with other religions.

The confusion that a literal reading of Paul VI’s statement might cause is understandable. But since it was Paul himself who promulgated the various liberal constitutions and decrees of Vatican II, it is possible that there is more in his words than is immediately apparent. Perhaps they may be read on two levels. A consideration of what the council itself had to say on the matter of salvation for non-Christians may help here.

Anonymous Grace

In "Vatican II and ‘Outside the Church No Salvation,’ " an article published in the American Benedictine Review for September 1972, Jerome Kodell, O.S.B., provides an exposition that should satisfy the questionings of the ecumenically disposed Christian while correcting some of the prejudices of the more uninformed Christian. As he points out, the old doctrine of "Outside the Church there is no salvation" was in Vatican II completed by the correlative idea, "Wherever there is salvation, there is the Church." In a word, all redemption, wherever and whenever it occurs, is through Christ. The question of salvation and church membership, he adds, came into most of the council’s key discussions: those on the nature of the church, its role in the modern world, ecumenism, missionary activity, religious freedom.

In Lumen Gentium the council fathers stated: "Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience." That statement is in conformity with the thinking of St. Augustine, St. Justin Martyr and St. Thomas Aquinas, all of whom grappled with the problem. Even in the present century the council fathers’ words have been anticipated in surprisingly forceful form. As cited by Martin Lings in his A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 1973), Pius XI declared, in instructing his newly appointed apostolic delegate to Libya: "Do you think that you are going among infidels. Muslims attain to salvation. The ways of Providence are infinite."

The council fathers further said, in Gaudium et Spes: "Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery." Those who, without knowing Christ by name, are living the life of grace -- and thus, as some would say, are "on their way" to salvation -- have been termed by some theologians "anonymous Christians." Such persons are being saved by the same power that is at work among members of the visible church. But, as Father Kodell declares in his article, the church "is raised up among the nations to identify this saving power as the power of Christ." Through its missionary work it "helps the present anonymous grace to develop into living and visible faith."

What membership in the church truly signifies and how Christians are to assess the operations of grace outside its visible boundaries, Father Kodell says, are questions to be discussed in the study of the meaning and role of the church.

Toward a More Universal Vision

Questions like these raised by constitutions and decrees of Vatican II are of particular interest to me; I was for 25 years a member of a Hindu monastic order before returning to Christianity and thus feel a deep concern for interreligious encounter. Further, and quite as important, I myself am no theologian and so can easily appreciate the dilemma of the average Christian as well as that of the ecumenically minded Christian. On the other side of the dialogue, my long association with, and belief in, Hinduism enables me, I feel, to put myself in the place of many non-Christians confronted with the church’s approach to interreligious relations. From my own peculiar point of vantage I sense that many Christians may be missing something -- a message hidden in Scripture, in the words of the church fathers, and in the deliberations at Vatican II -- without which our attempts at interfaith dialogue will be of little or no avail.

I have been confirmed in this belief by a discussion I had not long ago with a man who has pondered long and deeply on interreligious relations and the problem of salvation for non-Christians. He is Cipriano Vagaggini, O.S.B., a theologian formerly associated with the Facoltà Teologica Interregionale in Milan and now rector of the Pontificio Ateneo Sant’ Anselmo in Rome. His remarks about the beliefs proper to Christians regarding their own faith, the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, and particularly the efficacy of other faiths for salvation, provided a push forward for my own speculations. He would be the first to agree that his views do not add anything revolutionary to what may already be found in theological manuals. But his summation provides me -- and, I think, those who, like me, are not trained in systematic theology -- with a basis for achieving a more catholic vision. He has given me permission to publish the substance of his remarks.

There are, Father Vagaggini pointed out, four matters of faith that a Christian accepts with certainty. First, God wills the salvation of everyone and does not positively condemn anyone unless he or she is guilty of an unrepented grave personal sin. Second, Christ is the supreme Savior and sole mediator of salvation: after Adam committed sin, no one has been able and no one will be able to obtain salvation except through dedication to Christ’s person. Third, one cannot pass by means of Christ to salvation except in uniting oneself -- at least in an invisible manner -- to the church, which is at the same time visible and invisible, and in having a real, positive relation to baptism (and also, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, to the Eucharist). Fourth, the duty of the church is to preach to the world the whole plan of salvation ordained by God and by Christ. These four truths avoid the errors of syncretism and indifferentism.

Salvific Elements in Non-Christian Religions

Two overriding problems remain, Father Vagaggini stated: first, the salvation of non-Christian persons, especially those born after the time of Jesus Christ; and second, the validity for salvation of the non-Christian religions, as institutions, after the time of Jesus Christ. These problems are met by means of two theological hypotheses:

1. Those not belonging to the Christian fold who receive the grace of God and are saved obtain their salvation through an implicit faith in, love of and desire for Christ, his church and the sacraments -- at least baptism (and the Eucharist). "Implicit faith" and "implicit desire" indicate a general interior state by which one gives oneself truly -- and so it includes love -- to God and his will, and one is ready to carry out his will as soon as one recognizes it. Those non-Christians who enjoy this interior state become dedicated to Christ and his church in an invisible spiritual manner by this faith-and-love condition and by God’s grace. Even though they do not receive the sacramental rites, God gives them the grace of the sacraments because of their inner spiritual state.

This explanatory hypothesis of "implicit faith" and "implicit desire" is in large part traditional and seems to preserve all the basic requirements. Among others, it preserves the church’s missionary obligation, not only as regards Jesus’ commandment, but also concerning the right of those who are not Christians to know the whole plan of salvation ordained by God. Implicit faith and implicit desire tend in themselves to become explicit, and must become so as soon as circumstances permit. We must not, however, forget the general principle which demands, as a matter of pastoral prudence; that in certain cases people should be left to their own sincere faith in order to avoid the risk, if one troubles them in that faith, of making the situation worse than it was before.

2. The hypothesis for the second problem starts with one basic idea that is certain: God can approve neither of evil things (i.e., things against his will) nor of false teachings. But in a religious situation that includes matters both good and evil, teachings both true and false, he may indeed use things and teachings that are good or of indifferent value as instruments of salvation.

Two other basic ideas are commonly accepted, as for example by St. Thomas: (a) before the Mosaic law, people obtained salvation by professed faith in rites (such as sacrifice) of a sacramental type; and (b) among the Jews there were also rites of a sacramental type (such as circumcision and the immolation and partaking of the paschal lamb). It should be noted further that although the Jews -- and especially in the pre-Mosaic religion -- accepted doctrines that were incomplete or even mistaken and rites more or less imperfect, this fact did not deny to the Jewish religion itself, through other of its elements, the positive validity of assuring salvation.

All this being granted, Father Vagaggini said, it would appear that one can accept a further hypothesis: There is nothing to deny the fact that in the non-Christian religions even after Jesus Christ there have been elements, in greater or lesser number -- whether of a ritualistic, institutional or doctrinal nature -- with a positive value for salvation, in the sense that God makes use of them to effect the salvation of those persons of sincere faith who belong to these religions.

One cannot find any convincing proofs that, for such persons, the positive value of their religion in assuring their salvation was done away with after Jesus Christ. Indeed, since, as we have stipulated, their faith is sincere, it is not their fault that they are unaware of or do not accept the true religion that Jesus Christ has ordained. One cannot see why, from that time on, God should have made their situation more difficult by the coming of the saving Christ.

According to Father Vagaggini, there are numerous basic ideas in the statements of Vatican II that point in this direction, but they have not been made sufficiently explicit.

From the Christian point of view, the foregoing remarks amount to a very generous statement of sympathy for other faiths. The Christian interest in a rapprochement among believers of all faiths should welcome the assurance that there are indeed elements in the non-Christian religions with a positive value for salvation, which God makes use of. It should also be taken as a sign of hope that in certain special situations such individuals should be left to their own beliefs. Perhaps these remarks provide a hint as to how we may learn to read Paul VI’s statement in Ecclesiam Suam on another, less literal, level.

Two Types of Hinduism

The approach of Vatican II to the question of salvation for non-Christians, as clarified and amplified by Father Vagaggini, represents one side of the dialogue. For the other side, we may well ask what might be the response of a believing Hindu, for example, to the claims of Christianity. Believing Hindus today may be roughly divided into two general groups: those who accept the philosophy of nondualism (or neo-Vedanta, as it is sometimes called), and a far larger group of a devotional nature, who are often of a more orthodox type. Though there is a certain amount of overlapping, the two approaches will here be treated as separate.

Modern nondualist Hindus believe that in essence a person’s soul is nondifferent from the essential reality of the suprapersonal Godhead, and that all the great religions, whether they recognize the fact or not, are paths toward communion with one and the same truth or God. Hence they would probably be puzzled by Pope Paul VI’s declaration in Ecclesiam Suam that there is only one "true religion." Also, since modern Hindu belief (unless in one of its orthodox "dualistic" forms it claims a unique rightness) asserts that God’s mystery is unfathomable, there can be no one "perfect and definitive form" in which he may be "known, loved, and served."

The Christians’ claim, the nondualist would say, is unrealistic; for scriptures, though inspired by God, are transmitted through the minds of fallible humans. To assume that Christian authors of the New Testament in the first century could have known what God had said elsewhere, and that Christian thinkers of the 20th century, on the basis of that Scripture, could pass judgment on any non-Christian revelation without thoroughly objective and unbiased study would be, at the very least, parochial.

Since there are many ways, in the view of non-dualist Hindus, to know God and to love and serve him, their tendency would be to hold that the Christian revelation, though binding on Christians, was not necessarily binding in every detail on non-Christians. They would never demand that any member of another faith -- as the statement of Pope Paul VI seems to imply -- should "share in" their form of religion. And they would not be forbidden by their faith to seek to discover whether God has revealed an error-free form in which people can know, love and serve him. All nondualist Hindus have always been free to inquire anywhere they liked, for though they may not feel impelled to abandon their own religion and adopt another, they would expect to derive only benefit from sharing the insights of other people of God.

In contrast, orthodox devotional Hindus would, like Paul VI on behalf of Christians, hold that it was to themselves and the members of their sect that God had long since revealed the "perfect and definitive form, free from all error." They might, though, feel that Jesus Christ was an avatara or "descent" of Vishnu, all-pervading Sustainer of the universe, rather than the only begotten Son of the Father. If they had only the forthright statement of Paul VI -- as understood literally -- as a guide to an exchange of ideas with Christians, both types of Hindu would find little reason to join enthusiastically in the dialogue.

Christ’s Power Outside the Visible Church

Let us next try to picture the reaction to the Vatican II affirmations on the part of Hindus for whom the Lord Krishna is Redeemer. The Christian belief that Jesus Christ is God’s unique self-revelation to humankind runs counter to the assurance in their scripture the Bhagavad Gita that whenever there is a decline in righteousness, for the salvation of humanity the Lord embodies himself as man. Further, these Hindus look at the depiction of Christ as "the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world . . . yet the world knew him not" (John 1:9-10), and at their scripture which tells them that the Lord Krishna is the light that guides every soul. If they are to accept the Christian view, they will have to acknowledge that Christ is with every person whether he or she knows it or not. The question then becomes: Who exactly is this Christ?

Is it Jesus of Nazareth who "enlightens," or Christ the Word who was from the beginning? On learning that, although Jesus Christ is the Word who was from the beginning, the power of Christ that was working for salvation before the time of Jesus, in virtue of his coming, is still working in people of sincere faith, devotional Hindus will want to know why they must abandon their own sacraments. Is there no meaning in all the revelations of their faith except as a foretaste of the full truth revealed only in Christ? If they are assured of salvation through an invisible church, why must they accept the statement that the function of the church is to "identify" the power that saves them as the power of Christ? They will not want to be told that it is not the "fault" of people like themselves that they are either "unaware of or do not accept" the true religion ordained by Jesus Christ.

In the end, if I do not misjudge, these devotional Hindus will prefer their own Redeemer’s words in the Gita: "Even those devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods, worship me alone." Perhaps they will never feel inclined to participate in the dialogue unless introduced to a less literal understanding of who their Lord Krishna is.

A more positive approach will perhaps come from nondualist Hindus (or other non-Christians of similar outlook). As I see it, they would be able to interpret the idea "wherever there is salvation, there is the church" to their own satisfaction. In response to Father Vagaggini’s statements on the "four matters of faith" that every Christian "accepts with certainty," Hindus who combine the philosophy of nondualism with faith in a personal God would certainly agree that God wills the salvation of everybody and that drastic punishment for grave sin comes only if it is unrepented. They would, however, question the finality implied in the word condemn, believing that sin is a form of ignorance and that, being limited in nature, it cannot produce an unlimited effect such as eternal banishment to hell.

As for the second statement, if there is indeed a Christ who belongs as much to non-Christians as to Christians, there would be no difficulty with the assertion that only through Christ can salvation come. The third, that on uniting with Christ’s church in an "invisible" manner, might bring some hesitation. Christians’ insistence that a valid non-Christian church capable of being used by God to effect salvation must be part of the "invisible" church of Jesus Christ might seem to non-Christians to demand of them a great deal of forbearance. It also might seem to them to betray a certain insecurity on the Christians’ part -- unless it was agreed that by the invisible church was meant (at least potentially) the whole of humanity.

About the duty of the Christian church to preach the plan ordained by God and by Jesus Christ, there should be no difficulty at all. In the light of what Father Vagaggini said toward the end of his statement, it would be clear to the non-Christian that those preordained to become professing Christians ought to be given access to the true teaching for Christians. This can be accomplished only if all non-Christians are given an opportunity to hear the gospel.

But there is another angle to this last matter, the Hindu would insist. Since there is salvation outside the visible church -- since, that is to say, Christ is somehow working outside organized Christianity -- and if non-Christians have a right to know God’s "whole plan of salvation" for Christians, then it follows that Christians have an obligation to know God’s plan of salvation for those outside the visible church, for those who are not preordained to become professing Christians.

The Beloved as Redeemer

One who is not a Christian (especially the modern nondualist Hindu and perhaps a Mahayana Buddhist) might ultimately agree to go along with the idea, from the Christian point of view, of an invisible" church of a Christ not tied to any one religious or cultural tradition. In return, it would hardly be asking too much, this non-Christian would very likely feel, to expect Christians -- in a new twist of the Golden Rule -- to allow others to ask of them the same thing that the Christians are asking. That is, non-Christians are being asked to believe that wherever any spiritual ideal is exalted as the Beloved -- under whatever name: Amida Buddha, Durga, Krishna, Shiva, Allah -- he whom Christians name and know as Christ is exalted. That being so, Christian brothers and sisters should be willing to allow Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims to affirm that wherever Christ is exalted by Christians as the Beloved, what is universal in their own saviors is exalted. They should be willing to grant that their Christian faith-and-love manifests a corresponding "implicit faith" and "implicit desire" for the Beloved upon whom the non-Christians look as Redeemer.

Here might be a non-Christian’s test of responsible Christians’ sincerity in the dialogue. Honest dialogue need not, as some Christians seem to feel, imply merely a forthright statement that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and humankind, and that the God of Israel is the only true God. For if God is indeed acting, in whatever degree, through the rituals and institutions and doctrines of non-Christian faiths, surely the difference between "these" Gods and "their" God must seem suspiciously slight. Shortcomings in interpretation of revelations on both sides may account for whatever differences in rituals and doctrines cannot be reconciled. But where the interpretations produce similar fruits, surely they have been instituted by the same Power. It is not one God who "makes use of" the provisions of another God!

And if there is an invisible church, then the question might be raised: Is there not an invisible Christ at work in all the great religions? It is this One Christ, it might seem to those of other faiths, who is the only begotten Son and the sole mediator between the One God and humanity. It is he who is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). If that is so, what does it matter how he is named? No name fully expresses the "name which is above every name" (Phil. 2:9). But persons holding this view would not seek to equate one religion with another any more than they would hold that their faith was the only faith, and that others’ were only "religions." The term "anonymous Christian" is in questionable enough taste without one’s trying to propose an "anonymous Christianity" or "anonymous Hinduism" or any other anonymous "ism." But who could deny that Christ the Word, whose grace brought salvation to people before the time of Jesus, is still bringing salvation to people who are not Christians?

The Christ Beyond Christianity

If persons of goodwill on both sides of the dialogue could agree to work in terms of the two concessions I have mentioned, honest comparing of notes might in the future help to eliminate what the dialogue participants prayerfully agreed were mutual insufficiencies in interpretation of revelation. Christians might then confidently seek enrichment from others’ insights without fear of "indifferentism." Non-Christians might find perfect justice in Paul VI’s forthright statement that there is "only one true religion" -- were the final phrase altered to read, instead of "the religion of Christianity," simply "the religion of Christ." Not that they would in any sense wish to belittle Christianity; they would merely be emphasizing the fact that though God’s revelation may be for all, the cultural garb in which it is dressed need not apply to all. And by Christ they would be indicating a timeless, illimitable, universal Christ -- the "true light that enlightens every man," the reality who is the fulfillment of all faiths just because he is beyond (though not outside) all specific faiths, but who for Christians is also one with Jesus of Nazareth.

I am presenting, of course, only surmises. It is unlikely that either Christians or Hindus (or any other non-Christians) would find the will to undertake any such exchange in large enough numbers to guarantee its bearing immediate fruit. But there could be a start. And only some such openness of Christians to other religions will give any fruitful meaning to the present earnest attempts at encounter.

Jesus said to the puzzled Pharisees, "And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold" (John 10:16). Modern devotional Hindus, believing that Jesus is a "descent" of the all-pervading Sustainer Vishnu, could easily see themselves among these "other sheep." Jesus is here speaking, nondualists might say, from the point of view of the universal Christ, and the phrase "not of this fold" need not apply merely to Greeks and Romans or signify "not yet of this fold."

Again, Jesus said to his disciples, "In my father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:2). Surely these "many rooms, any Hindu might say, were for sincere non-Christians as well as for faithful followers of Jesus. In identifying the "I" in that sentence exclusively with God as revealed in Jesus Christ, a Hindu might continue, would one not limit him in a way inconsistent with the Christ who could say, almost immediately, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life"?

To a nondualist Hindu we are dealing here not with a historical Jesus only, but with a timeless Christ who in some inexplicable way is known to the Hindu through his own revelation. It is in St. Paul that the universal significance of the historical Jesus is most consistently stressed. Is the recognition of that universal significance, and of the universal significance of the Christian creation story and eschatology, demanded of people in the East, the Hindu may well ask, or may there be sympathy and respect and adoration, without unqualified acceptance of any article of faith but Christ?

Confronted with the problems involved in the question of salvation for non-Christians, one is driven to ask whether Christians have yet grasped the total Christ. The Gospels and Epistles are full of guideposts in a strange tongue that seem to direct us to a realization of a Christ who could include the Christ beyond Christianity and so the sincere believer in God outside the visible church. Perhaps the universality of Christ is to be understood in a sense we have yet to penetrate. Can it be, we Christians may well ask ourselves, that, unlike the "men from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) on the day of Pentecost, we have failed to master that hidden tongue, which allows every sincere believer to say with David, "Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence" (Ps. 15:11).

If Christians are to get to the heart of the problem of salvation for those who are not professing Christians, they will, I submit, have to learn to think in terms of a truly universal Christ. This they can accomplish only if, first of all, they honestly open their minds to what other religions "on all the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26) have said and are still saying on the great questions of life. Once they have understood such insights -- and on those religions’ terms -- they may well discover not only that Christ has been revealing himself in non-Christian faiths throughout history, but also that to those non-Christians temperamentally unfitted to become professing Christians he has been revealing himself in ways fully sufficient to their deepest needs.