4: Beyond the Usual Options
In preceding chapters, I considered two of the three main ways in which our central question is usually answered—namely, exclusivism and pluralism. So far as exclusivism is concerned, the results of this consideration were strongly negative, since it proved to be not only incapable of validation as credible in terms of common human experience and reason, but also deeply inappropriate to Jesus Christ. In the case of pluralism, the results of my consideration were skeptical rather than negative. I argued that there are a number of difficulties with the case that pluralists make for it and that these difficulties are sufficiently serious to make one question its validity. Certainly unfounded, I held, is the claim that pluralism is the only consistent alternative to exclusivism. In point of fact, the position that there are many true religions is logically as extreme as the contrary position of exclusivism that there can be only one; and so invalidating exclusivism, and inclusivism as well, would in
no way validate pluralism, since both positions, being contraries, could very well be false, even though both could not be true. Still other difficulties pertaining to the evidence and argument that pluralists offer and, above all, to establishing more than merely formal similarities between different religions raise doubts whether they have yet succeeded in making their case.
Assuming now that these results are sound, we might be tempted to conclude, in the light of our analysis of the usual options, that it is to the third option of inclusivism that we should look for a valid answer to our question. After all, it is significantly different from both of the other positions; and considering what I have said about the common difficulty of logical contraries, we might expect it to provide something like a mean between the two extremes. We would be encouraged in this, naturally, by inclusivists, who tend to think of themselves as occupying just such a third, mediating position between the other more extreme positions. But there is a problem in agreeing with them about this, as should be clear from what has already been said— namely, that inclusivism in its way is also an extreme position. Significantly different as it is from exclusivism in asserting that a decision for Christ’s salvation is in some way a universal possibility for each and every human being, it is nonetheless essentially similar to exclusivism in its monistic insistence that Christianity alone is the formally true religion. Like exclusivists, inclusivists hold that the only religion that even can be true in this sense is
the religion established by God in the unique saving event of Jesus Christ. Therefore, even though they allow that non-Christians can be saved by Christ anonymously and unknowingly outside ofthe visible church and that any religion transformed by his salvation can itselfbe substantially true and a means of salvation, they still maintain that his is the only salvation and that it is mediated explicitly and knowingly as such solely by the Christian religion. To this extent, inclusivists are no less extreme than exclusivists or pluralists in their answer to our question.
Here, again, of course, I am speaking in terms of an ideal type oftheological position, not ofthe positions actually held by this or that theologian or group of theologians. What I mean by inclusivists are simply those who hold the theological position that I have just defined, however they may otherwise be identified or identify themselves. Essential to the inclusivistic position thus understood, however, is the same logically extreme claim essential to exclusivism, to the effect that there not only is but can be only one true religion, in the sense that Christianity alone can validly claim to be formally true. Recognizing this, we may well hesitate to conclude that inclusivism is the option we are seeking. And such hesitation will seem the more prudent if we reflect that in the case of many a disputed question the usual options for answering it are not the only answers that are logically possible. On the contrary, nothing is more common than disputes that stubbornly persist precisely because the disputants insist upon both themselves choosing and forcing others to choose between only some of the possible
options, any one of which is about as good or as bad as the others.
That something like this may be true of the question before us in these chapters appears to me extremely likely. The several parties to the current discussion more and more tend to assume that the only ways open for answering it are the usual options of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Even so, there is at least one other way of answering it that is a distinct alternative to all three of these usual ways, although it has not been clearly recognized, much less carefully considered, in the discus¬ sion up to now. It will be apparent, I am sure, that it is this fourth way that I judge to be the relatively more adequate option open to us. But whether or not I am right in this judgment, we can hardly expect to be clear about the issue raised for theology by the challenge of pluralism unless we at least take account of all ofthe main possibilities for answering our question. The purpose of what follows, then, even as of the preceding chapters, is not to settle this issue, by finally arguing for the answer to the question, but, rather, to clarify the issue itself, by at last attending to this neglected possibility for answering the question beyond the usual options.
I begin with a summary characterization of the fourth option in relation to the other three. At one extreme, we have religious, or, more exactly, Christian, monism in its two forms of exclusivism and inclusivism respectively. Common to both monistic positions is the claim that there not only is but can be only one true religion because Christianity alone can validly claim to be formally true. At the other
extreme is religious, or Christian, pluralism, with its logically contrary position that there not only can be but are other religions whose claim to be formally true is as valid as Christianity’s. Now, as I showed in the last chapter, there is no need to assert Christian pluralism in order to make a complete break with Christian monism, whether exclusivistic or inclusivistic. What one needs to assert to counter monism is not that there actually are many true religions, but only that there can be, this being the logical contradictory of any position that there cannot be because Christianity alone can be true. But if this assertion is clearly as distinct from pluralism as it is contradictory of monism, it could also be true even if the assertion of pluralism were false or the case for it still had to be made. One could hold, in other words, that religions other than Christianity can also be formally true even if, in point of fact, none of them actually is true or has as yet been shown to be so in a reasoned way.
This is the position that I take to be the fourth option open to Christians and theologians for answering our central question. What I want to do in the remainder of the chapter is to explain what is and is not involved in holding it, at least in the form in which I should wish to do so. In doing this, I shall be further elaborating its differences from the other options, especially inclusivism, whose claims to validity remain to be considered. The essential difference between the two monistic options, on the one hand, and the fourth option, on the other, is that they deny what it affirms— namely, that religions other than Christianity can as
validly claim to be formally true as it can. If we ask now what underlies and explains this essential difference, the answer can only be a difference in christology. By this I mean that, while in each case there is a way of thinking and speaking about Jesus as of decisive significance for human existence, there is nonetheless a difference between these two ways amounting to a difference in christological type. One way of trying to formulate this difference is to distinguish between a “christocentric” and a "theocentric” type of christology. But an obvious objection to this formulation is that both types of christology are, in their ways, christocentric as well as theocentric. Both understand Christian faith to be nothing other or less than faith in the one true God in whom alone is salvation, even as they both affirm that the only true God is the God who has in fact acted to save explicitly and decisively through Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between their respective understandings ofthe unique saving event ofJesus Christ, which I prefer to formulate as follows: whereas for Christian monists, whether exclusivists or inclusivists, this event not only represents the possibility of salvation but also in some way constitutes it, for those holding the fourth position, this event in no way constitutes the possibility ofsalvation but only represents it.
I trust that the distinction I have employed here between a constitutive and a representative event is already familiar, in substance if not also under these particular labels. But if an ordinary example of it is needed, I know of none better than that provided by the old story about the conversation between the
three baseball umpires. The youngest and least experienced umpire allows, “I call 'em as I see ’em.” Whereupon the second umpire, being older and more sure of himself, claims, ‘T call 'em as they are." But to all this the oldest and shrewdest umpire responds with complete self-confidence, “They ain't nothin' till I call 'em!" By an event constitutive of the possibility of salvation I mean an event that is like the third umpire’s calls in that the possibility of salvation is nothing until the event occurs. On the contrary, what I mean by an event representative of the possibility of salvation is an event similar to the calls of the second umpire in that it serves to declare a possibility of salvation that already is as it is prior to the event's occurring to declare it.
Another example of a representative event drawn from the explicitly religious context is a minister’s solemnizing the marriage of a man and a woman. Since it is generally understood that a marriage is constituted as such by the man and woman themselves, each pledging troth to the other, the office of the minister is properly to represent or declare their union, in no way to constitute it. This is evident from the formula customarily used by the minister in performing the service: “Forasmuch as so and so have consented together in holy wedlock, ... I pronounce that they are husband and wife together.” To be sure, other acts performed by Christian ministers are commonly thought to have a constitutive, rather than a merely representative, significance even with respect to salvation. This is particularly true of preaching the word and administering
the sacraments, where they themselves are understood, as they typically are by exclusivists, to be constitutive of the possibility of salvation. Baptizing a person, for instance, may be viewed as itself effecting her or his transition from a state ofsin to a state of grace, so that she or he could be expected to affirm, in the words of a well-known catechism, that baptism was the event “wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” But even for Christian inclusivists, any such view of baptism, or of any other means of salvation, is mistaken. Even in their understanding, all acts of the church's ministry and, for that matter, even the church itself are representative of the possibility of salvation rather than constitutive of it—whence their rejection of the claim of exclusivists that there is no salvation outside of the church.
An alternative view of baptism that I have long found instructive was resourcefully defended already in the nineteenth century by the Anglican theologian, Frederick W. Robertson. Like others of his contemporaries, such as Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, Robertson particularly struggled to understand the language of the Anglican Catechism to which I just alluded and according to which one is “made” a child of God in baptism. Believing, as he put it, that “baptism could not make me a child of God unless I were one by reason of my Humanity already,” he sought to identify uses of the verb “to make” that were supportive of his belief. The results of his search are well represented by the teaching he prepared for his
candidates for confirmation, in the questions and answers on baptism:
Q. What is baptism?
A. The authoritative declaration of a fact.
Q. What fact? A.
That I am God’s child.
Q. Why then do you say that I am so made, in baptism?
A. Being made, I mean—declared to be.
Q. Explain what you mean.
A. As soon as a king dies, his successor is king. Coronation declares the fact but does not make him king. He was one before, but it corroborates, declares, affirms, seals the fact by a recognized form used for that purpose.
Elsewhere, Robertson uses the same illustration slightly differently, arguing that “a sovereign is made king by coronation, but only because he was de jure such before.” And he confirms a similar sense of “to make” by means of a further illustration: “At mid-day, at sea, after the observation of the sun's altitude has been taken, the following form takes place: The commander asks, what is the hour? The reply is, 12 o'clock. He then rejoins, make it so! No act of his can literally determine mid-day; that is one of the facts of the universe, but that authoritative declaration in a most important sense does make it 12 o'clock, it makes it 12 o'clock to them; it regulates their hours, their views, the arrangement of their daily life, their whole course. ... So does baptism—pronouncing the fact in God's name to exist, make that real on earth which, in itself real before, was unreal to those to
whom the ratification had not been shown" (Brooke, 269, 513, 336, 513f.).
The most striking thing about Robertson’s view is the analogy he clearly suggests between baptism thus understood and the Christ event itself. "The great fact for which the Redeemer died,” he says, is “that all mankind are, de jure, God’s sons, and that He bids them become such de facto. ’’ If this kind of statement is evidently consistent with the traditional doctrine of the death of Christ as the “meritorious cause” of our salvation, Robertson’s more characteristic way of making the same point is to say simply that the fact of our being God’s children, which belongs to all humanity, “was revealed by Christ.” “Christ revealed the fact that all men are God’s children,” and as the gospel which proclaims this is “the message to the world, ” so “baptism is that message to the individual.” “Baptism is the grand special revelation to an individual by name. A, B, or C, of the great truth Christ revealed for the race, that all, Greeks and barbarians, are the children of God. It is the fact which they are to believe, a fact before they believe it, else how could they be asked to believe it?” (337, 336, 268). Robertson does not also say, to be sure, that this fact was true before Christ’s revelation of it, and without his revelation. But this seems to be the clear implication of his analogy between baptism’s revelation of the fact to the individual person and Christ’s revelation of it to the world.
Of course, it is the whole point of analogy to allow for difference as well as similarity. And one might entirely agree with Robertson’s view of
baptism even while holding that the significance of the Christ event for salvation is different precisely in being somehow constitutive of its possibility rather than merely representative of it. This, in fact, is just the position typically taken by contemporary inclusivists, some of whom can be quite radical in their insistence on the strictly representative significance of all that is specifically Christian.
Thus Clodovis Boff, for instance, vigorously protests against the traditional identification of salvation, on the one hand, with revelation and faith, on the other. Just as in general there is "a distinction between the real and the known,” so one must clearly distinguish between "salvation” and "consciousness or awareness of salvation (revelation, faith, church, sacraments, theology, and so on).” “Salvation touches every person, whereas revelation is specific to those alone to whom it has been given to become aware of this same salvation—to Christians.” Accordingly, Boff proposes “a recasting of ‘salvation history’ as revelation history—as the history of the revelation of salvation. . . . ‘Salvation history' would then be the history of salvation manifested, acknowledged, proclaimed—not the history of salvation as such.” At the same time, revelation would be conceived as "a derived moment in the global history of humankind—a second moment, a moment ‘with a lag.’” Far from reaching human beings universally, “it would perhaps pertain to its essence to be, and necessarily, a sectorial phenomenon only—charged, however, with a metonymic (pars pro toto), symbolic (sacramentum salutis) value” (Boff, 97, 99).
Boff realizes, naturally, that any such recasting raises “the towering question” of “the function of the economy of salvation.” But this question can be answered, he believes, if, although only if, “it is possible to demonstrate that scripture, and the events reported there, as well as the whole salvific order of the church, are, where salvation is concerned, not of the order of its constitution, but of the order of its manifestation. ” In that event, “we would be dealing with a hermeneutic of salvation, not a history of salvation. Christianity would then be the interpretation of the salvation of the world, and not the salvation of the world itself, or even the exclusive instrument of this salvation” (97f.).
Having said this, however, Boff immediately blocks any inference that his is a representative type of christology. “More delicate,” he says, “is the particular, and central, case ofJesus Christ, whom faith confesses as savior, and not merely as prophet, sage, or saint.” True, “we must recognize that the church began very early to theologize the salvation brought by Jesus in less than totally intimate linkage to its proclamation (revelation) and explicit acceptance (faith).” Even in the New Testament there are “universalizing interpretations” that divorce salvation from revelation, and this position has remained “a constant in the history ofChristian thought” from the church fathers right up to our own time. Recognizing this, “we are . . . led to admit of a salvation antecedent and exterior to revelation —antecedent to and outside the historical Jesus—not, however, independent of the Kyrios of glory” (98). But if all this seems ratherto support a representative christology
than to tell against it, there are clear indications elsewhere that this can hardly be Boff's intention. On the contrary, he speaks of “a constitutive reference of the human being to the person of Jesus Christ,” and asserts that "the single real order of salvation” is “the christic order,” which is "an ontic dimension, established in and for human beings, on the plane of their divine calling, and independent of their awareness.” Thus "the Christian is precisely that human being in whom this constitutive reference emerges on the plane of consciousness. In the Christian, the ontic dimension is rendered onto-logical: the implicit reference becomes explicit, the latent reality becomes patent. . . . Thus the Christian is the person who knows. Christians know their reference to Jesus Christ, and know that all human beings have this same reference” (122).
For Boff, then, the event of Jesus Christ clearly is a special case, as compared with Christians and Christianity and all that is specifically Christian, whether faith and revelation or church and sacraments. Unlike the history of the church and all the rest of “salvation history,” this event, at least, really is history of salvation, as distinct from its "revelation,” its "hermeneutic,” or its "interpretation.” In the terms of Boff's own distinction, Jesus Christ is of the order of the constitution of salvation, not merely of the order of its manifestation.
This same position, as I have said, is typically taken by other Christian inclusivists, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic. Recognizing with Boffthat Christian faith confesses Jesus Christ "as savior, and not merely as prophet, sage, or saint,” they uphold a
constitutive, rather than a representative, type of christology. They hold that the event ofJesus Christ somehow constitutes the possibility of salvation, which is nothing until this event occurs. But this contention that the Christ event is, in some way, the cause ofsalvation is open to a decisive objection.
This is the objection that, for any appropriate understanding of the Christ event, it is so far from being the cause of salvation as to be its consequence. The only cause of salvation, the argument goes, is the primordial and everlasting love of God, which is the sole primal source and the sole final end of anything that is so much as possible. Because of this love, which is nothing merely accidental in God but God’s very essence, the same God who is the Creator and Consummator of all things is also the Savior of all men and women, as well as, presumably, of any other beings who, having misused their freedom, would likewise stand in need of salvation. But, then, no event in time and history, including the event ofJesus Christ, can be the cause of salvation in the sense of the necessary condition of its possibility. On the contrary, any event, including the Christ event, can be at most a consequence ofthe salvation, the sole necessary condition of the possibility of which is God's own essential being as all- embracing love. Theologians who develop this argument commonly formulate it over against the so-called satisfaction theory ofthe atonement, according to which salvation becomes possible only because of the obedience of Jesus Christ, especially the passive obedi¬ ence of his death on the cross. Thus Paul Tillich, for
instance, rejects the claim that "in the Cross” salvation “becomes possible” on the ground that it necessarily implies that God “is the one who must be reconciled.” Since the message ofChristianity, on the contrary, is that “God, who is eternally reconciled, wants us to be reconciled to him,” the only appropriate thing to say is that "through the Cross” salvation “becomes manifest” (Tillich 1957, 169f., 175f.). But, however the argument is developed, the objection to inclusivism is the same, and it clearly seems decisive. The Christ event cannot be the cause of salvation because its only cause, and the cause of this event itself, is the boundless love of God of which this event is the decisive re-presentation.
Not the least reason for being confident about this is that certain inclusivists themselves concede the decisiveness of the objection and go to great lengths to try to show why the constitutive christology they uphold is not vulnerable to it. This is particularly striking in the work of Karl Rahner, who entirely agrees that the saving event ofJesus Christ must be understood rather as the consequence than as the cause of God's universal will to save, at least if “cause” is understood in the usual sense of bringing about a physical or a moral change. Like the other theologians already mentioned, Rahner is especially critical in this connection of the satisfaction theory of the atonement on the ground that it “all but inevitably insinuates the idea of a fundamental change of mind in God, which is metaphysi¬ cally impossible, and obscures the origin of the cross as a consequence of God's forgiving love” (Rahner, 262).
At the same time, Rahner accepts the traditional teaching according to which salvation is granted to men and women intuitu meritorum Christi—“in view of the merits of Christ” (263f.). Consequently, he is constrained to argue for a constitutive type of christology, which can understand the cross and the Christ event as a whole as being at least in some sense a cause with respect to salvation. The conceptuality he employs to do this involves, on the one hand, distinguishing between “efficient” and “final” causality and, on the other hand, elaborating an analogy between the kind offinal causality proper to sacraments in general and the unique causality of the “primal sacrament” Jesus Christ. His thesis, then, is that, while the Christ event neither is nor can be the efficient cause of God’s universal will to save, it is nonetheless the final cause of God’s will, in that it is its definitive and irreversible sign and as such “the universal primal sacrament of the salvation of the whole world” (271).
Without claiming to offer an adequate criticism of Rahner’s characteristically subtle and nuanced argument for this thesis, I can say that I find it by far the most ingenious defense of the constitutive type of christology underlying inclusivism of which I have any knowledge. If I were to be an inclusivist, it would be because his reasons for being one seemed to me to be good and sufficient reasons. But, as it is, I do not find his argument convincing. Despite his efforts, in effect, to avoid the choice between a constitutive and a representative type of christology, I do not see that he ever demonstrates a
real, as distinct from a merely verbal, alternative. If there is a real and not merely a verbal difference in the Christ event's not being the efficient cause of God's saving will, but being its final cause instead, then, so far as I can see, the Christ event is not really constitutive of salvation after all, but only representative of it, similarly to the way in which sacraments in general are thus representative. If, on the contrary, the Christ event is different enough from sacraments generally not only to represent God's saving will but also to really constitute it, then, in my view, there is not a real, but only a verbal, difference in its being called the final cause of God's will to save instead of its efficient cause.
Therefore, my conclusion from Rahner's argu¬ ment is that one can meet the decisive objection to the constitutive type of christology underlying inclusivism only by opting for a representative type of christology. But does this mean, then, that one can consistently think and speak of Jesus, not as savior, but merely as prophet, sage, or saint? I do not believe so, despite the widespread assumption to the contrary on all sides of the usual discussion. Of course, if all that could be properly meant by Jesus' being savior is that he not only represents the possibility ofsalvation, but is also somehow constitutive of it, then one could not consistently think and speak of him as savior if one opted for a representative type of christology. But that one's only option, then, would be to think and speak of him merely as one more human being who bore witness to salvation or actualized it in his own life is
not so self-evidently true that one can simply assume it. On the contrary, there are good reasons for rejecting it as false.
This should be clear enough from the analogy already before us between the sacraments or means ofsalvation and the event ofJesus Christ. This analogy is clearly suggested, it will be recalled, by Robertson’s statement that baptism is the revelation to an individual person of the same truth that Christ revealed to the race—namely, that all, without exception, are already children of God de jure by reason of their humanity. On the face of it, the similarity that this analogy asserts is that the Christ event, like baptism, is not constitutive of the possibility ofsalvation, but representative of it, while the only difference it asserts is that baptism represents this possibility particularly to the individual, whereas Christ represents it universally to the world. But this difference evidently implies the further one, that baptism depends upon the Christ event in a way in which the Christ event does not depend upon baptism. In fact, we may say that the Christ event is constitutive of baptism, whereas baptism is only representative of the Christ event. Thus, notwithstanding that baptism and the Christ event are similar in that both represent the possibility ofsalvation but do not constitute it, they are also significantly different in the ways in which they represent this possibility. Recognizing this, one can well appropriate the conceptuality of Rahner and other inclusivists and think and speak of the Christ event as the primal Christian sacrament. In doing so, naturally, one
must deny any inclusivistic implication that this primal sacrament is somehow constitutive of the possibility of salvation itself. But there is no need to deny, and every reason to affirm, that the event of Jesus Christ is constitutive of the specifically Christian understanding of this possibility, and thus of all Christian sacraments and means of salvation as well as of the visible church and everything specifically Christian. For this reason, the Christ event cannot be thought and spoken of as a Christian sacrament, but only as the Christian sacrament, the one representation of the possibility of salvation upon which all other Christian representations of it, and Christian faith itself, are by their very nature dependent.
This means, however, that one not only cannot, but also need not, think and speak of Jesus merely as prophet, sage, or saint. One can not so think and speak of him because prophets, sages, and saints can never be constitutive of a faith or religion, in the way in which Jesus is constitutive of Christianity. In the nature of the case, they are always only one among others, dependent for their authority upon the explicit understanding of existence that alone is thus constitutive of the faith they represent. In the specific case of Christianity, however, this explicit understanding is not, in the first instance, some law or teaching or word of wisdom, but Jesus himself, through whom the meaning of ultimate reality for us is decisively re-presented. Consequently, the only way in which Jesus can be thought and spoken of consistently with his constitutive significance for the Christian religion is not as one more authority among others, even the first and foremost thereof.
but as the primal authorizing source by which all Christian authorities, be they prophets, sages, or saints, are explicitly authorized as such.
But Jesus also need not be understood otherwise, since there is the obvious alternative of thinking and speaking of him with Rahner and others as the primal Christian sacrament. By "sacrament” here, of course, I mean what is better referred to more generally as “means of salvation.” In my view, at any rate, sacraments in the ordinary sense are rightly thought of together with word as equivalent means of salvation in that they are equally valid ways of representing Jesus Christ as the explicit gift and demand of God’s love. Thus it would be equally appropriate to develop an analogy between the word of preaching and Jesus and to think and speak of him, accordingly, as the primal Christian word, rather than as the primal Christian sacrament. In either case, the point of the analogy would be to assert both the similarity and the difference between ordinary means of salvation and Jesus Christ. Like both word and sacraments, he does not constitute God’s love, but represents it. But whereas they represent God’s love by also representing him, he represents God’s love by also constituting them. Because this analogy is undoubtedly available, however, there is no need to think and speak of Jesus merely as prophet, sage, or saint. On the contrary, one can very well think and speak of him as savior, in the precise sense that, being the primal Christian word and sacrament, he has a significance for the specifically Christian religion and economy ofsalvation that is not merely representative but constitutive.
Even so, it is of the essence of the fourth option to insist that the possibility ofsalvation itself, as distinct from the specifically Christian representation of it, is constituted solely and sufficiently by God's primordial and everlasting love. This means, as I understand it, that, just as it is of the essence of God's love to create creatures and to consummate them by accepting them into God's own all-embracing life, so it is also essential to God's love to save sinners by being the necessary condition of the possibility of their salvation. I do not mean by this, naturally, that God could not exist as God without the existence of sinners needing salvation from the guilt and the power of sin. Even if it is necessary to God's existence ever to create and to consummate some creatures, no particular creature could be thus necessary to God and still be a creature in more than name only. Therefore, that sinners do in fact happen to exist is nothing necessary to God, but is as utterly contingent as is the fact that there happen to be beings for whom existence in the self-misunderstanding of sin is always a possibility. But once given God's creation ofsuch beings and their misuse oftheirfreedom to actualize this possibility, God must be their Savior as surely as God is their Creator and Consummator; for God is love, and there is no way for God to love sinners except to do all that could conceivably be done to save them from theirsin. In this sense, the possibility ofsalvation that is decisively re-presented through Jesus Christ is always already constituted for each and every sinner by God's very being as love.
But if the Christian witness is true that it is just this love of God that is the strictly ultimate reality
with which every human being has to do as soon and as long as she or he exists humanly at all, then not only Christianity but other religions as well can validly claim to be formally true. They can do so because all that is constitutive of the possibility of salvation and, therefore, also of any true religion is the boundless love of God that is and must be presented at least implicitly in every human existence. Provided, then, that a religious praxis is so transformed by God's love as to represent the possibility that it constitutes as our authentic self-understanding, it is, from a Christian standpoint, substantially true, and its claim to be formally true can be a valid claim, even if it is not the claim that Christians as such would have any reason to make.
Of course, to say that religions can validly claim to be formally true insofar as they explicitly represent God's love is a specifically Christian way of explaining this possibility. But to be a Christian and to take Christianity to be the formally true religion are one and the same thing. Every religion claims implicitly or explicitly to be formally true, and the adherents of any religion are bound to employ what it, in turn, specifies as formally normative as exactly that in judging all claims to religious truth. This need not mean, to be sure, that Christians today have to do this in the same dogmatic, uncritical way in which most religious believers have undoubtedly done it throughout the history of religion. There is the distinct alternative of recognizing the truth claim of the Christian religion to be exactly that—a claim—and of being willing to critically validate it through unrestricted dialogue and common
inquiry, whenever it is rendered problematic by counterclaims to religious or existential truth. In fact, Christians today can frankly acknowledge that the only way in which they can continue to be Christians is to accept the possibility and the risk of ceasing to be such in face of experiences and reasons that on the whole invalidate their claim instead of validating it. Even so, they cannot really be Christians at all, as long as they are such, without thinkng and speaking of themselves and others and of reality generally in specifically Christian concepts and symbols.
This means that they cannot think and speak of the strictly ultimate reality that alone constitutes the possibility of salvation as anything other than the love of God decisively re-presented through Jesus Christ. It also means that they cannot think and speak ofsalvation, wherever it may occur, except as the radical transformation in self-understanding that is effected by God's love as and when it is accepted through faith. If persons are saved, it can only be because or insofar as they so entrust themselves to God’s love as thereby to be freed to live in loyalty to it, in returning love for God and for all whom God loves. But, then, there are excellent theological reasons why Christians should think and speak of any such persons, however they may explicitly understand themselves, as fellow Christians—if not explicit Christians like themselves, then what Rahner and others have called “anonymous Christians.” Just as Christians can consistently think and speak of nothing whatever except as a creature of God destined to be consummated by God's love, and
of no human person except as created in God's image and thereby given and called to exist as God's child, so they can consistently think and speak of no one who actualizes an authentic self-understanding except as either implicitly or explicitly a Christian.
And yet if the fourth option is valid, there is always the real possibility that adherents of another specific religion could just as validly explain why religions can be formally true by taking theirs to be the formally true religion. I do not mean by this simply that adherents of any religion have the right as well as the responsibility to think and to speak of religion and religions as well as of everything else in the concepts and symbols that their specific tradition provides. I can only suppose that Buddhists, for example, both may and must think and speak of anyone who actualizes an authentic self-understanding as a fellow Buddhist, even if only an implicit or anonymous one. Therefore, when one of my Buddhist dialogue partners inquires whether I may not be an "anonymous Buddhist" or, at least, someone whose “Buddha nature” implicitly gives and calls him to be such, I can only applaud my partner's clearheadedness and forthrightness about her or his religious faith. My point, however, is that the truth of my Christian explanation of why religions can validly claim to be formally true need not preclude the truth of the very different explanation of the same possibility that would be offered by my Buddhist partner. On the contrary, provided the self-understandings made explicit in the two explanations are substantially the same, both explanations can be true even though only Christians have
reason to offer the one and only Buddhists have reason to offer the other.
But if in allowing for this possibility the fourth option is essentially different from inclusivism, it is no less essentially different from pluralism in not claiming that there in fact are many true religions or ways of salvation. Just as asserting the universal possibility of salvation does not require one to assert that salvation itself is universal, so one can claim with the fourth option that there can be many true religions without having to claim that there actually are such. All that the fourth option claims a priori, in advance of actually encountering specific religions and validating their claims to truth, is that, if the Christian religion itself is true, then any and all other religions can also be true in the very same sense, because or insofar as they give expression to substantially the same religious truth. This fully allows for holding, as Christians certainly have good reason to hold, that there is not a little falsehood and distortion in all religious praxis, including that of persons who think and speak of themselves as Christians. At the same time, it warrants a certain optimism about all of the specific religions, even as about human existence and praxis otherwise. Indeed, it gives one every reason to look for signs of the actuality of the pluralism whose possibility is securely grounded in the completely universal reality of God's love, which is savingly present throughout all human existence and, therefore, is also at work in all religions. Such, then, is the other, hitherto largely neglected, option for answering the question of this
book. My judgment, as I have said, is that it is, of all the options, the least problematic and, therefore, the most likely to offer a valid answer. But whether I am right in thisjudgment or not, I trust that I have at least shown that there are, in fact, four possible ways of answering the question, instead of only the three that alone are usually considered. And the importance of this seems clear. If the fourth option is indeed valid, one can not be either an exclusivist or an inclusivist and one need not be a pluralist—even if one would always have the possibility of becoming such, provided that the case for pluralism were actually to be made. On the other hand, one can affirm instead that, because of the utterly universal and allembracing love of God decisively represented through Jesus Christ, there is a universal possibility of salvation for each and every human being and that, for the same reason, there is a corresponding possibility of as many true religions as there are religions so transformed by God's love as to be constituted by it and representative of it.
Whether or to what extent any religion is true, even Christianity, is, in my view, always a theological question. But if the Christian claim to truth is valid, and if the same can be said for the fourth option, there is at least one true religion, and, because it is true, there can be many.