Chapter: 5: Religion and Revelation

The Revelation of God in History
by John F. Haught

Chapter: 5: Religion and Revelation

It is in mystery that history, society and the cosmos are themselves enshrouded -- at least according to the broadly shared views of the world’s religious traditions.

In our own time, however, the term "mystery" has, like revelation, become problematic. For some the term mystery carries no religious meaning at all. There are differing views on the degree to which mystery is an explicit ingredient in the experience of people today. Some hold that we live in an age of the "eclipse of mystery." Others are convinced that for the most part people have at least some sense of a dimension of mystery and that therefore religion, understood broadly as a "sense of mystery," still lives on with almost the same degree of explicitness as it has in the past. And still others maintain that mystery has no reality at all, that "mystery" is a notion made up by those who are fleeing from the immediate givenness of the natural, secular or empirical world and that science will eventually eliminate mystery altogether. This third position would hold that there are only "problems," not mysteries, and that in principle all problems are capable of a purely human solution.

The "religious" sense that there is a dimension of incomprehensible and inexhaustible mystery beyond the immediately given world has been predominant throughout most of human history. And though it is being challenged by secularistic culture today, a case may be made that a sense of mystery still lives on in all of us at some level of awareness. This general intuition of mystery may be brought to explicitness if we look at certain kinds of questions that differ from the ordinary but which we are quite likely to ask only at the "limits" of our ordinary problem-solving. I am referring to what have sometimes been called "limit questions." (For the following discussion or limit questions I am indebted especially to David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order [New York: The Seabury Press, 1975], pp. 91-118.)

Limit questions arise at the "margins" of our pragmatic concerns and thus open us up to an "other than ordinary" dimension of reality. They are distinct from our usual questions because of their apparently unsolvable nature. For example, a scientist may be totally occupied in trying to solve a specific problem, perhaps spending years attempting to get to some answer. Suddenly this scientist finds himself or herself asking: "Why do I have this passion for the truth? Why should I do science at all?" These are limit questions, and obviously they cannot be solved by science itself. They are "off-limits" to scientific inquiry. In fact they are questions that will never admit of a secure and final solution. They are instead questions that continuously "threaten" ordinary consciousness. They open it up to the domain of what may be called mystery. This dimension of mystery hovers at the boundary of all of our everyday questioning, even though for the most part it remains unnoticed, in humble retreat from our grasping, problem-solving interrogations.

Mystery shows up at the limits of our ethical concerns as well. We may be bothered with the problem of whether this or that action is a violation of the sacredness of life; or we may be worried about whether a particular action is just or unjust; or whether a particular choice is the violation of a promise, etc. These are ethical problems, and we may spend considerable time and energy attempting to resolve them. But quietly, unobtrusively surrounding these ethical preoccupations is the dimension of mystery. We may become explicitly aware of this dimension when we notice ourselves asking these limit questions: "Why should we be so concerned about violating life at all?" "Why should we make justice the criterion of our actions?" "Why keep promises at all?" When we ask these questions we have passed beyond the boundary of ethics and have entered into a different arena. The name we may give to the mode of discourse that most appropriately addresses these limit questions is "religion." Religion gives people an "ultimate" answer to the questions why they should be ethical, love justice and remain faithful. It carries them into the realm of mystery toward which all of our limit questions seem to point.

In the area of politics, to give another example, our everyday preoccupations are concerned with whether this or that policy is best for our political life. And we may be almost completely consumed by particular political problems, spending most of our time looking for solutions to them. But it may happen occasionally, especially in times of frustration, that our attention is diverted to an encompassing and "unsolvable" set of questions: "Why should we be so concerned about politics at all? What good does political involvement do in the final analysis? Is there any meaning to political life?" Again, these are the limit questions that seem to seek out another dimension than that of our everyday concerns. They suggest that there is an unconquerable depth of mystery that lurks beneath the surface of all our ordinary engagements and that always seeks to break through more explicitly into our awareness.

In addition to the limit questions through which mystery becomes transparent to our minds there are also limit experiences (sometimes called marginal or boundary experiences) that propel us beyond the everyday in an even more impressive way. We come up sharply against the limits of our existence whenever we experience fate, death, guilt or the threat of meaninglessness. The experience of tragic circumstances, of pain and loneliness cannot help but turn our questioning from the trivial to the profound. "Why me?" "Why do I have to die, to suffer, to be lonely?" "Is there any final meaning to my life?" "Why am I here at all?" Such questions arise, however, not only in the face of negative experiences. They also come to the surface in times of great joy and fulfillment. In both tragedy and ecstasy, and often in the midst of very ordinary experiences, these ultimate questions emerge and allow us to come into more explicit contact with mystery. Even in a secularized epoch of history the dimension of mystery is not completely hidden.

In the course of human existence it has been the role of "religion" to provide the "answers" to our limit questions and to illuminate our boundary experiences by placing them in a larger than ordinary context. Religion does this especially by way of symbols and stories, as well as by ritualistic actions that give bodily and dramatic expression to the meanings inherent in symbols and stories. In the symbols, myths and rituals of religion people have been told why they are here, why there is pain and suffering, why life, justice and promise-keeping are valuable, what their destiny is, why truth is worth pursuing. But the religious "answers" have not come with the same degree of certitude and security that answers come to our everyday problems. As I have said, religion uses the language of symbol, and it is precisely in symbols that the dimension of mystery seems to dwell. It is especially through symbols that mystery "reveals" itself to us.

Broadly speaking, a symbol is anything through which we are given a glimpse of something else. By saying one thing directly a symbol or symbolic expression says something else indirectly. The indirect or symbolic meaning, however, is never quite clear. The symbol points us to the meaning, and the meaning needs the symbol in order to communicate itself to us, but it can never be fully translated into non-symbolic propositions. For example, a rock is, directly or literally speaking, a hard, durable and relatively immovable object. Now when I say "so and so is a rock" the term "rock" has taken on a symbolic (metaphorical) meaning. I could say "that person is someone you can rely on" or "she is solid," "he is durable," or "he is immovable." But when I attempt to translate "that person is a rock" into such non-symbolic statements something is lost. I am not saying nearly as much nor as forcefully by breaking the expression down into these literal fragments. There is a fullness of meaning in any original symbolic expression that can never be adequately translated into a series of direct propositions. There is indeed something mysteriously inexhaustible about symbols.

It is easy to see why religions employ symbols as their primary language. Mystery and symbols naturally go together. The horizon of mystery to which religious expression points discloses itself to the religious person or community by way of symbols (and their mythic and ritualistic embodiments). For this reason we can say that revelation universally has the character of symbolic communication.(See Avery Dulles Models of Revelation (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co.. 1983). pp. 131-54.) In its most general sense "revelation" means the breaking through of the dimension of mystery into our ordinary awareness. And it is especially through the intrinsically revelatory medium of symbols that this unconcealment of mystery occurs. In this sense revelation takes place in some manner in all religions.

The secularistic view of symbols, however, is usually one of skepticism about their revelatory status. Do symbols really reveal anything other than our own subjective or social longings or ideologies? Under the influence of scientism, the Enlightenment’s exaltation of reason, modern philosophy and the suspicions cast by social science many intelligent people today suspect that religious symbols are no more than psychic or social "projections." That is, symbols seem to be illusions invented by our childish desires for a comforting world, and they may have nothing to do with "reality." Developments in philosophy, psychology and other social sciences have conspired to make even the religious at times doubtful about the capacity of symbols to put them in touch with the mystery of ultimate reality. And some modern thinkers, following ideas of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, have taught that religious symbols in particular are deceptive expressions of underlying wishes, prejudices or weakness.

There is much of significance in this modern suspicion of symbolic expression. For we must admit that at times our symbols are overlaid with childish desires and self-serving ideology. Our symbolic language remains in perpetual need of critical examination. To the religious attitude, however, it is primarily through symbols (and their unfolding in myth and ritual) that the ultimate, transcendent mystery of the universe becomes transparent. Laden as these symbols inevitably are with ambiguity and suspect human wishing, the religious mind nevertheless believes them to be irreplaceable disclosures of the mystery of ultimate reality. In short, symbols are revelatory at the same time at which, when viewed purely psychologically, they appear to be no more than fantastic projections.

From within a purely empirical framework, which puts aside for the moment the believer’s faith in the veracity of revelation, symbols seem to be no more than constructs of the human imagination. Like the content of our dreams, the Hindu pictures of Krishna, the native American’s belief in Wakan Tanka, and the Christian’s image of the risen Lord can all be psychologically "explained" as arising out of wishful thinking. And suppose one goes beyond this psychological observation and maintains -- of course this too is a belief -- that the empirical-psychological point of view is the only valid one. In that case the symbols are not only explained, but their credibility is "explained away" as well. In other words there is nothing revelatory in these symbols. They are simply mirrors that reflect back to us our own desires.

This is the view of scientism. However, it is possible in principle that the psychological interpretation of religious images and symbols as originating in human desiring in no way rules out some correspondence of the symbols with a "mysterious" and ultimate dimension of reality. Symbols can be realistic, that is, revelatory of the mysterious dimension of reality, even while they are, psychologically speaking, partially rooted in our desires. It is not at all impossible that what looks like pure projection from the point of view of psychology may in some way be revelatory of "being" when looked at theologically. Logically speaking the psychological interpretation of symbols says nothing about their revelatory status.

But what is it that religious symbols reveal or allow to appear? The theological response is that the symbols open up to us the mystery of reality. But can we form any clear idea of the mystery that they reveal? By definition we cannot. For symbols by their very nature hide from us the very reality that simultaneously comes to expression in them. They remain essentially ambiguous. They conceal what they reveal. They do not allow what is symbolized to be completely transparent to us. They do not permit us to objectify or master that to which they refer. Instead they pull us into the realm of the mystery they represent, but in doing so they still leave us in the darkness of unclarity. It is impossible to comprehend fully a symbol without destroying it. If we are to understand it at all we must allow ourselves to be mastered by the symbol. In surrendering to it we shall find that it remains an endless source of meaning for us as long as we do not break it down analytically into the trivial fragments of objectifying thought. Our thinking must return again and again to the realm of the symbolic in order to receive nourishment, indeed to find anything of importance to think about at all. An appreciation of the "symbolic life" is a necessary condition for the reception of revelation.(See Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. by E. Buchanan [Boston: Beacon Press, 1967]).

Within the broad domain of symbolic consciousness there have been countless representations of the ultimate mystery in which history, society and the cosmos are seemingly embedded. According to Paul Tillich, a simple key to the plurality and diversity of religions and ideologies throughout human history is the fact that almost any thing, event, person or social group can function as a symbol (and therefore revelation) of the ultimate. Since (as the term "phenomenon" suggests) all phenomena are appearances that become manifest out of an encompassing horizon of incomprehensible being, there is something revelatory about everything whatsoever. Everything both reveals and conceals the all-embracing mystery of being. And everything has the potential for disclosing this horizon in an exceptionally revelatory way for a particular group or person at any particular time. Thus we can understand the tendency in religions to adorn animals, rocks, rivers, sacred persons, and special events with privileged symbolic status. All of these can be revelatory of mystery, even though psychology, operating from within a scientific framework, may totally overlook this aspect of symbols.(See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 118-25).

It is possible to discover, beneath the inevitable layers of childish wishing and escapism that may at times form the upper crust of symbolic consciousness, a long and continuous straining after mystery on the part of the human race. The religious quest has for generations without end sought to bring the horizon of mystery into view. The thirst for mystery has been unquenchable, and it has perennially spurred the adventurous search by mystics, seers and ordinary people for the realm of the inexhaustible within which alone they would find the objective of their search. But the mystery has continually eluded the symbolic quest even while it manifests itself fleetingly to the seekers. It is almost as though the mystery were saying to us: "I cannot be grasped fully by your symbols. Your representations of me are too narrow. Seek wider and more transparent symbols". But our quest usually ends far short of this breadth and transparency. We often take our present symbolizations as though they were final and adequate. In biblical religion such a reduction is called idolatry.

Mystery and Special Revelation

In terms of the long human search for adequate representations of the universally intuited dimension of mystery we may now gain more understanding of what Christian theology means by a "special" historical revelation. For Christians too are part of this long human search for mystery. They believe, however, that the ultimate mystery that underlies and transcends the world is made decisively manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ. To Christian faith Jesus is the decisive symbolic revelation of the ultimate mystery of the universe and history. This special symbolic representation of mystery is, of course, part of a larger set of biblical narratives telling in many ways about the presence of God and the divine promise in history. But in Jesus Christian faith perceives what has been called a decisive, final and universal revelation of the mystery of the universe.

In the history of Israel, as we saw earlier, the ultimate mystery of the universe is grasped primarily by way of the narration of historical events that promise future fulfillment. Especially in the story of the momentous event of liberation called the Exodus the Hebrew people felt the revelation of the mystery of God. So central was this event, since it made the difference between extinction and survival for them, that their idea of ultimate mystery could never again be divorced from the experience and the story of being set free. The idea of God in biblical religion is essentially that of one who promises and bestows freedom. It is this liberating mystery that shines through, in different ways at different times depending on historical circumstances, in all of the biblical stories of God. Do we still experience the ultimate mystery of our lives fundamentally as liberation?

In the Christian context the central symbol through which the divine liberating mystery is revealed to the faithful is the man Jesus who is called the Christ. To understand what God is essentially like, believers are invited to look at this man and his liberating works as they are represented in the Gospel narratives and the other Christian writings and traditions. In John’s Gospel Philip asks Jesus to show the disciples the mysterious "Father" who has been announced by Jesus. The fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as responding to this request by pointing to himself: "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father." (in 14:9) To see Jesus, and to participate in the Jesus story, is to experience the mystery that he calls "Father." Religiously speaking Jesus is the symbolic manifestation of the mystery that surrounds us. His life, words, deeds, death and the impressions on his followers of his living anew after his death all constitute more than just historical data. The total Christ-event is symbolically revelatory of the ultimately mysterious horizon of our existence.

In the story of Christ the cloud of mystery intimated in our boundary experiences and limit questions is given a personal face that summons us to a distinctive type of response that can be called the Christian life. Followers of Christ have experienced in their relation to him an unsurpassable encounter with mystery. They are thus given the possibility of naming and relating intimately and personally in a new way to the dimension of mystery that underlies all of human experience. They are given a "way" by which to respond to the limit questions and experiences that often leave us utterly perplexed. They have found nothing in their experience that better translates for them their native sense of life’s mysteriousness into a form that dispels the darkness and resolves the ambiguity that always lurks beneath the surface of life.

This does not mean, however, that they are permitted to isolate themselves from the ongoing human quest for mystery or from the many and various symbolic traditions that speak of mystery in other ways. Christian theology today is becoming more and more comfortable with the view that the symbols of all the religions are in some sense revelatory of the same God that biblical religion discloses in its own manner. The fundamental "mystery of the universe" is free to reveal itself in any number of ways, and no tradition can claim an exhaustive unfolding of this mystery whose very essence is understood in biblical tradition as freedom. Even in those cases where the idea of God is absent (as in Theravada Buddhism) each religious expression has the potential for disclosing in a unique and unrepeatable way an aspect of the universal mystery. There is no basis in Christian teaching for a narrow-minded sectarianism which holds that there is only one access to the mystery out of which the world exists. There is no reason why the Christian cannot learn much about God by "passing over" into other traditions and trying to see the world as others see it.(See John Dunne, The Way of All the Earth (New York: The Macmillan Company. 1972). Indeed the injunction of neighborly love would seem to demand such empathy. By losing themselves in others’ perspectives Christians may find themselves and God anew. Fidelity to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings is realized not in possessive clinging to one’s own tradition but in placing it in dialogue with others. The age of religious narrowness is over at least in principle. Christians can say this even though it is obvious that the forces of fundamentalism are growing stronger today, often hand in hand with fierce nationalistic revivalism. In our present historical situation it is most urgent for the sake of preventing the shrivelling of the emerging pluralistic sense of the mystery of reality that religions resist the temptation to such retrenchment. If mystery is to take hold of human consciousness today we must be open to the many ways in which it is symbolized.

This means that Christians are not obliged to hold that the mystery of their lives is in every detail disclosed by way of the experience of Israel and the person or teaching of Jesus, or in the Scriptures, or in tradition. A close reading of these sources of the Christian idea of God will itself show that none of them has imposed such a restriction on Christian faith. Instead the classic sources of theology have always maintained that the inexhaustible mystery of God remains hidden even while it is being revealed. If this is the case, if God is truly a hidden God, then there is no reason why aspects of God that remain hidden from us in our experience of specifically Christian history and symbolism cannot become genuinely transparent to us in our association with other religions and traditions.

It is no secret that in the past such a "tolerant" perspective on revelation seemed hardly permissible to Christians. But just as new understandings of cosmos, history and society have compelled us to revise our views of revelation, so also our new understanding of the world’s pluralistic religious situation demands a similar rethinking. We have barely begun this enterprise in Christian theology, though it is one of the most urgent theological exigencies of our time. We may therefore be forgiven if our first efforts are somewhat awkward.

What can the Christian belief in "special revelation" possibly mean when it is articulated in terms of the penumbra of mystery that constitutes the widest context of our existence and which is testified to universally in human religious experience and symbolism? "Special revelation" means first of all and most obviously the specific "face" this mystery takes to the community of those who adhere to specifically Christian faith. We have said that wherever mystery becomes manifest there is revelation. This is what is meant by the theological notion of "general revelation." As Paul Tillich has put it, revelation is the "manifestation of the mystery of Being." And all religion is revelatory in this sense. But to the Christian there is a "special," "decisive," or "final" character to the revelation of God in Jesus who is called the Christ. How can we reconcile this emphasis on the definitiveness of Christ with our acknowledgement of and continual openness to the general revelation of mystery given to our universe, to human existence and especially to religious experience?

In the writings of the New Testament and in Christian tradition we are told, often in so many words, that the fullness of revelation occurs in Jesus the Christ. Can a Christian honestly engage other religions while clinging to this particularity of belief? Avery Dulles quite correctly says: "Without repudiating its own foundations Christianity cannot deny the permanent and universal significance of Jesus Christ as the preeminent ‘real symbol’ of God’s turning to the world in merciful love."(Dulles, p, 275) But, as Dulles and other theologians also insist, such a confessional statement does not preclude the possibility of open dialogue and genuine willingness to learn new things about mystery from other positions.

Can we openly and honestly encounter the mystery of the universe in other traditions without being willing to surrender the claim of the universal significance of Christ? One way of responding to this contemporary theological quandary is to think out more fully the implications of a belief in "the universal significance of Christ." This expression entails, among other things, that we need never fear being open to the truth, no matter how foreign it appears in terms of our present understanding. In Chapter 7 I shall discuss in another context the relation between our desire for truth and the quest for revelation. But in the present chapter it is important also to say a few words about this relationship in connection with the problem of how to unite faith in the universal significance of Christ with an openness to non-Christian religious traditions.

If Christ is universal in his presence and significance, the Christian fortified with this belief can venture forth into the realm of the foreign and unknown without fear of opening himself or herself to the truth, no matter what this truth may be. Instead of being an obstacle to be overcome, belief in the universal significance of Christ can actually open up areas that would otherwise be overlooked. For if the name "Christ" stands for anything, it means openness, compassion, understanding, acceptance, tolerance, justice and freedom. Abiding in this name allows no construal of revelation as a restrictive body of truths that prohibits us in any way from exploring the vast universe of nature, culture and religion. Revelation is not meant to draw an impenetrable circle of safety around our minds and lives. And the experience of a "special revelation" in terms of the figure of "Christ" may provide the liberating images in which our consciousness dwells so that it may break out into an exploration of the inexhaustible mystery that manifests itself everywhere and especially in the world’s religious traditions.(The notion of indwelling in order to "break out" into wider fields of exploration has been developed in the works of Michael Polanyi. For the following see especially The Tacit Dimension [New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967], pp. 55-92.) To understand this point a brief summary of Michael Polanyi’s theory of human knowing might be helpful.

There are two kinds of knowing, explicit or focal knowing on the one hand, and tacit or subsidiary knowing on the other.(Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension. I would prefer to use the term "understanding" instead of "knowing" in many cases where Polanyi uses the latter term. But for the sake of this brief discussion, I shall abide by Polanyi’s usage.) Whenever we become explicitly or focally aware of something, for example another person’s face, it is because our awareness is tacitly "indwelling" the particular "subsidiary’" features of that face. Our tacit (or non-explicit) knowledge indwells the countless individual features of the other person’s visage, such as the nose, eyes, eyebrows, mouth, texture of skin, and all the subtle attitudes assumed by the face depending on the person’s mood at any particular time. Our tacit knowledge quietly indwells these facial subsidiaries and, using them as clues, integrates them into a focal impression that allows us to read the whole face as smiling, angry, indifferent, etc. It is only because of the incredibly integrative power of our tacit, indwelling, and subsidiary understanding that we are able to focus explicitly on the face as a whole unit with a specific overall meaning.

A tacit knowledge of particulars underlies all our explicit awareness, of anything whatsoever, including religion. The focal meaning that you find on this printed page, for example, is possible only because your tacit knowing is dwelling in the particular letters and words I am using; and your subsidiary knowing of the sounds of individual letters and the meanings of individual words is now (without your focusing on it) integrating the particulars into the explicit meaning you find in my sentences and paragraphs. Now if you turn your focal attention to one or more of the particular letters or words on this page you will notice something quite remarkable. While you are focally attending to one of the letters or words you will thereby have lost touch (for the moment at least) with what the letters mean in a particular sentence or paragraph. You will have become temporarily "alienated" from the overall organic meaning to which the letters and words are jointly pointing. To grasp their meaning you must look from the letters and words rather than at them. This is because meaning can be found not in the particulars but only in your integrating them into a specific patterning. And whenever we turn our focal awareness away from the whole pattern and toward the particulars we lose the overall meaning, at least momentarily. As Polanyi says, we have to attend from the particulars to the joint or focal meaning. If we attend to the particulars we lose the general meaning.

All of our knowledge has this from-to structure. That is, we attend from the particulars to their joint meaning. And we cannot ignore this fact when we are speaking of revelatory knowledge. We would encounter any revelatory meaning only by first dwelling in and relying upon many particular linguistic and symbolic particulars. This point is particularly important when we are placing our own religion’s sense of life’s meaning, allegedly given to us by a special historical revelation, into an encounter with other traditions’ sense of life’s meaning, given to them by their own symbolic traditions. What makes it possible for revelation to have meaning for us is that our awareness first of all quietly indwells the particular or subsidiary words, symbols, stories, habits etc. of our biblically based culture. And in faith our awareness integrates these clues into a joint meaning that we may call revelatory. What is revelatory is not the particular clues themselves, for many of them (such as the lexicon of terms used) are shared by others in our culture who are not of our faith. Rather the revelatory aspect resides in the specific focal meaning that issues from a special tacit integration of these clues into a specific pattern with a definite meaning.

A truly revelatory symbolism is revelatory precisely because of its capacity for integrating a multiplicity of clues into new and life-giving patterns. If our image of Christ functions protectively to inhibit such integration of novelty, then it is no longer functioning in a revelatory manner. Rather it would be operating in a very non-revelatory way. We can test the revelatory resourcefulness of the symbolism in which our consciousness dwells by asking whether it opens us up to the otherness of foreign ideas and traditions, and thus leads toward deeper and wider integrations of meaning, or instead keeps us locked in the narrow fortress of obsession with our own dogmatic certitudes. The power of a tradition to influence the lives of people depends in part upon its capacity to help them assimilate new experiences. The Jesus story, then, would be revelatory for us only to the extent that it is capable of providing the basis for such integration of novelty. And if we look too obsessive at this story rather than with it and from it we shall run the risk of losing its real meaning. Revelation is not a set of propositions to look at, but a body of symbols in which we are invited to dwell so that we might look out from them at the rest of the world in a more comprehending and open-minded way.

We cannot expect others to grasp the revelatory nature of our "special" faith-integrations if they do not first of all "indwell" the cultural and linguistic elements that are patterned into our own revelatory integrations. And it is highly unlikely that such integrations can occur without some measure of acculturation. Think for example of how difficult it is for most of us Westerners to be moved deeply by images of the Buddha, unless we have been educated to the point of spontaneously indwelling the particular historical, psychological, social and other particulars that are subsidiaries of Buddhist piety. Such images can hardly be revelatory to us until we have learned tacitly to indwell many of the cultural particulars that the Buddhist abides in spontaneously.

We cannot automatically expect others to "see" what we Christians have focally seen in our primary symbol, Jesus the Qirist, unless they first share with us a sufficiently common set of subsidiary cultural and linguistic ingredients. And such sharing is often very difficult, not just between East and West, but also between secular and religious, Protestant and Catholic, Mediterranean Catholic and Irish Catholic, etc. Of course there are fortunately many transcultural clues to meaning (such as smiling, laughing, crying, asserting, demanding, questioning, etc.) that point universally to common meanings. But there are countless other culturally specific experiences that are not easily transferable from one context to another. Such facts must be taken into account in all inter-religious dialogue.

For the most part, however, the world’s religious traditions still remain considerably out of touch with each other. This mutual isolation may have been a necessity for a period of time sufficient for them to acquire a certain autonomous identity without which an enriching relationship among them would never eventually become possible. But the time for deeper interrelationship appears now to be upon us. What the outcome of a committed encounter with world religions will be it is impossible to tell at this stage. How the Christian belief in the universal significance of Christ will be understood in the future we simply do not know. What we can assume, however, is that our indwelling of the clues that comprise our revelatory tradition can lead us to break out into a much more adventurous encounter with other traditions than we have allowed in the past.