On Seeking and Finding in the World’s Religions

by Diana L. Eck

Diana L. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 2, 1990 pp. 454-456, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our recognition of the mystery of salvation in men and women of other religious traditions shapes the concrete attitudes with which we Christians must approach them in interreligious dialogue.

Is there any such thing as a religious faith which in quality or texture is definitely not Christian, but in the approach to which one ought to put the shoes off the feet, recognizing that one is on the holy ground of a two-sided commerce between God and man? In non-Christian faith may we meet with something that is not merely a seeking but in real measure a finding, and a finding by contact with which a Christian may be helped to make fresh discoveries in his own finding of God in Christ?"

A. G. Hogg, the principal of Madras Christian College, raised these questions over 50 years ago at the Tambaram World Mission Conference. At the most recent General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Vancouver in 1983, the theological significance of other religious traditions still remained a controversial issue. When a report recognizing the work of God in the lives of people of other faiths was presented on the Assembly floor, it was hotly contested. A dozen substitute formulations were offered. Far from the "holy ground" of seeking and finding that Hogg and his colleagues could affirm in the faith of others, the Assembly finally settled for a recognition of "God’s creative work in the seeking for religious truth among people of other faiths." In the confusion of plenary debate, delegates were finally unsure about the "finding."

"Theology of religions" is the generally accepted term for how we as Christians articulate our faith in the light of the religious plurality of the world. How do we think about this plurality? Is it an obstacle to be overcome or might it be considered within God’s providence? How do we understand the work of Christ or the Holy Spirit in relation to non-Christian traditions, which clearly have sustained the lives of countless millions and generated great civilizations? There has been a flood of writings in this field over the past ten years, proposing various theologies of religious pluralism and systematizing those that have been proposed. Alan Race, Paul Knitter, Gavin D’Costa and others have set out the various theological options. The "exclusivism" of Hendrik Kraemer, following Karl Barth, is contrasted with the "inclusivism" of Karl Rahner and the "pluralism" of John Hick. Alternatively, there have been "ecclesiocentric," "christocentric" and "theocentric" proposals. Theological systematization aside, this is clearly a question of deep concern to many Christians -- theologians, clergy and laypeople alike. In one way or another they ask: How can we think about the devout faith of our Muslim or Hindu neighbor?

Because much recent thinking on this matter has been generated by individual theologians, the World Council of Churches’ unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths called a consultation of 25 Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians in Baar, Switzerland, in January to ask if there is an emerging consensus among those who have been wrestling with these questions. Never before had there been a discussion on the theology of religions that involved such an equally weighted encounter of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers. Bringing as they did, quite different theological traditions and resources, were there some things they could affirm together?

The Orthodox participants brought. the reminder that Orthodox theology continually refreshes its thinking by reference to the early Church Fathers, who were much concerned with the question of God’s activity in the other sects and traditions and in the wisdom of humankind. Alexandru Stan of the Romanian Orthodox Church summarized some of the thinking of the Eastern Church, from the time of Justin Martyr, on the presence of God in all peoples, Christian and non-Christian alike; Metropolitan George Khodr of Beirut extended Orthodox thinking on the wide and restless work of the Holy Spirit; and Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos of the Greek Orthodox Church offered a perspective shaped by his work as moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.

The Roman Catholic theologians came with the substantial heritage of Vatican II on other world religions, as well as the challenge of post -- Vatican II theologies from the inculturated churches, especially in India. Bishop Pietro Rossano, for many years with the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians and now the rector of the Later-an University in Rome, outlined the range of positions on the plurality of religions, and Jacques Dupuis of the Gregorian University in Rome, with 36 years in India behind him, set forth a broadly inclusivist Christology, drawing on the key documents of Vatican II, including Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et spes and Lumen Gentium.

The Protestant theologians -- Asian, African, European and American -- came, in one way or another, carrying the heritage of the modern mission and ecumenical movements. Kenneth Cracknell of Wesley House, Cambridge University, put together a synoptic view of that long history, from the Edinburgh Conference on World Mission in 1910 to the San Antonio Conference on World Mission in 1989. Robert Neville, dean of the Boston University School of Theology, presented new perspectives on Christology, and Françoise Smyth-Florentin of the Reformed Church’s theological faculty in Paris took up the question of the work of the Spirit.

The questions addressed at Baar had been explicitly framed by a major ecumenical consultation in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1977, the same consultation that developed the WCC’s Guidelines on Dialogue (1979)

• "Are we to speak of God’s work in the lives of all men and women only in tentative terms of hope that they may experience something of him, or more positively in terms of God’s self-disclosure to people of living faiths?"

• "What is the relationship between God’s universal action in creation and his redemptive action in Jesus Christ?"

• "What is the biblical view and Christian experience of the operation of the Holy Spirit, and is it right and helpful to understand the work of God outside the Church in terms of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit?"

After the Vancouver General Assembly in 1983, the dialogue program of the WCC, led by the Sri Lankan Methodist theologian S. Wesley Ariarajah, began to address head-on some of these difficult questions. The confusion on the Assembly floor in Vancouver reflected the fact that Christians have not been enabled to think theologically about the religious faith of their neighbors, as believing and praying (or meditating) people with a spiritual history and tradition of their own. The inability of many Christians to think coherently about whether the Hindu or Buddhist is merely "seeking" or also "finding" seemed to necessitate a new round of theological thinking.

The controversies at Baar were not, however, over the issue of "seeking" and "finding." There was profound agreement that God has found people, and people have found God, throughout human history and in the contexts of many religions and cultures. To dispute this would run directly counter to the biblical understanding of God as creator, present and active everywhere, the God of all people. But is God’s activity and even God’s saving presence to be understood in relation to individual people only or also in relation to the religious traditions that form the context for their faith? In other words, do people manage to find God in spite of their religions or because of them? There were some who insisted that "religions," even our own, are not God’s business. They are our human responses to God’s presence and activity. Others could easily affirm God as active in the lives of persons. but not in the structures, teachings and Scriptures of other religious traditions. The Roman Catholic participants were clearest on this issue. As Jacques Dupuis put it, Vatican II affirmed positive elements not only in the personal lives of people of other faiths but in the religious traditions to which they belong. It is in the sincere practice of their own faith that people come into relationship with God, not in spite of it. Here the consultation concurred. The final document insists that all religious traditions are ambiguous, in that religion has functioned to support "wickedness and folly" as well as its higher aims. The document also insists, however, "that God has been present in their seeking and finding, that where there is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, this, like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, understanding, love and holiness that is found among us, is the gift of the Holy Spirit."

On Christology all agreed that we "need to move beyond a theology which confines salvation to the explicit personal commitment to Jesus Christ." But how do we understand the saving presence of Jesus Christ in relation to people of other faiths? Should we say, as some inclusivists do, that it is because of Christ’s saving mystery, offered to all, that salvation is available to the Hindu, for example, in the sincere practice of his or her faith -- that in Christ salvation is mediated to Christians through the church and to non-Christians through other traditions of faith? Many, especially the Roman Catholics, were comfortable with this approach. Others were uncomfortable with the idea that we can understand the Hindu’s affirmation of the saving reality of God’s presence only if we see it as accomplished in Christ, even though the Hindu would not wish to understand it that way. What role does our neighbor’s self-understanding have in our theological formulations? The awareness of the particularity, indeed the precious particularity, of our language, ‘even the language of "God" and "salvation," made some unwilling to use’ it to blanket the religious lives and experiences of people of other faiths.

The document contains a somewhat modified inclusivist view, aware that when we speak of Christ we are speaking not from on high but out of the context of our faith. The Orthodox continually reminded us of the "eschatological element" that should make us pause before the mystery of God’s unfolding activity. The document reads: "The saving mystery is mediated and expressed in many ways as God’s plan unfolds toward its fulfillment. It may be available to those outside the fold of Christ (John 10:6) in ways we cannot understand, as they live faithful and truthful lives . . . in the framework of the religious traditions which guide and inspire them. The Christ event is for us the clearest expression of the salvific will of God in all human history (I Tim. 2:4)"

On the third question posed by the Chiang Mai meeting, regarding the Holy Spirit and religious plurality, the statement declares: "We have learned again to see the activity of the Spirit as beyond our definitions, descriptions, and limitations, as ‘the wind blows where it wills’ (John 3:8) We have marveled at the ‘economy’ of the Spirit in all the world, and are full of hope and expectancy. We see the freedom of the Spirit moving in ways we cannot predict, we see the nurturing power of the Spirit bringing order out of chaos and renewing the face of the earth, and the ‘energies’ of the Spirit working within and inspiring human beings in their universal longing for and seeking after truth, peace and justice. Everything which belongs to ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ is properly to be recognized and acknowledged as the fruit of the activity of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:27, cf. Rom. 14:17)"

"We are clear, therefore," the statement goes on to say, "that a positive answer must be given to the question raised in the Guidelines on Dialogue, ‘Is it right and helpful to understand the work of God outside the Church in terms of the Holy Spirit?’ We affirm unequivocally that God the Holy Spirit has been at work in the life and traditions of peoples of living faiths."

The final brief section of the document, "Interreligious Dialogue: A Theological Perspective," suggests that "our recognition of the mystery of salvation in men and women of other religious traditions shapes the concrete attitudes with which we Christians must approach them in interreligious dialogue." It insists, as well, that interreligious dialogue must "transform the way in which we do theology." "We need to move toward a dialogical theology in which the praxis of dialogue together with that of human liberation will constitute a true locus theologicus, i.e., both a source and basis for theological work."

Such theological thinking will be grounded firmly in a Christian context and in the language of commitment particular to the Christian tradition, interpreting the dimensions of our faith for the Christian community. Yet such theological thinking must be undertaken in full awareness that theologians and thinkers of other traditions not only "listen in" on our conversations, but also are engaged in interpreting religious plurality in the context of their own traditions of faith. A new era of theological thinking has surely begun.