Saving faith

At one point in this long and gripping study, Jacques Dupuis remarks ‘Today the debate on the theology of religious pluralism has pride of place on the theological agenda.’ His work is a searching and wide-ranging treatment of the subject which is likely to serve as a point of reference for years to come. His own works listed in the bibliography show the reader the theological path he has followed.

The issue with which he deals could be simply stated as follows. The discovery of the new world following 1492 brought to Christians a long delayed realisation that there had existed from distant times great populations that had had no opportunity to know the name of Christ. Was it the case that their ancestors had been irremediably condemned to hell? And what did that say about God? From the Council of Trent onwards theology began making adjustments, finding Christian substitutes, as Dupuis puts it, for explicit faith and actual baptism.

In the century just passed Christians have for the first time made lasting theological contacts with the great religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam. Latterly they have come to recognise the Jewish people as their own flesh and blood. The question has inevitably arisen, Are the adherents of these faiths touched by God’s saving grace? And, do their institutions, and their scriptures, have some place in God’s saving plan?

If these questions are answered positively, questions of another sort arise: What about the necessity of the incarnation and of the cross for human salvation? Can we still say that ‘there is no other name in which men and women can be saved’ (Acts 4.12).

For nearly 40 years Jacques Dupuis (a Belgian by birth) taught theology in India, then took up a chair at the Gregorian in Rome. Obviously he comes to these questions from a real experience of non-Christian religions.

There are two parts to this book, one historical or ‘positive’, the other synthetic. In the first part, he explains how the religions of the nations have been seen from within the Christian tradition, beginning with the Hebrew scriptures and concluding with the debate following the Second Vatican Council.

For all their condemnations of the idolatrous nations, the Hebrew scriptures acknowledged pre-Mosaic covenants, and could extol a non-Israelite saint like Job. Dupuis also cites John’s Gospel: ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’(Jn 1.9) The early Fathers, from Justin to Clement of Alexandria, recognised the seed of the word sown by God outside of the Jewish and Christian worlds. But subsequently a rigid interpretation of the axiom, ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’, made it difficult for theologians to think positively about non-Christian religions. Dupuis traces the history of this axiom in church teaching, showing how its rigid interpretation was eventually condemned.

Dupuis leaps centuries to the Second Vatican Council and subsequent church teaching.  He pays particular attention to the Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio (1990). ‘It may be said that the singular contribution of Pope John Paul II to a “theology of religions” consists in the emphasis with which he affirms the operative presence of the Spirit of God in the religious life of non-Christians and the religious traditions to which they belong.’

Part two is entitled: One God–One Christ–Convergent Paths. He argues that God and Christ belong inseparably together. The one God has become known through Jesus Christ, the human face of God. He makes effective use of the Gospel of John in demonstrating this. For example, he says, Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14.6), but never the goal or the end. The goal is the unfathomable mystery of God, who has been made known to us by Christ. 

This alone could lead to an exclusive theology of religions. It is balanced by a second relationship, between Christ and the Spirit.

A theology of religious pluralism elaborated on the foundation of the Trinitarian economy will have to combine and hold in constructive tension the central character of the punctual historical event of Jesus Christ and the universal action and dynamic influence of the Spirit of God.

This is the program carried through in the second part, in which it becomes evident that Dupuis’ favourite modern theologian is Karl Rahner.  He reserves his most radical criticisms for the theology of John Hick. His reflections conclude with chapters on the church and the place of interreligious dialogue.
In asking, What about the church?, Dupuis begins by considering the universality of the Reign of God: ‘All religious traditions contribute, in a mysterious way, to the building up of the Reign of God among their followers and in the world.’  According to Dupuis, the church is the necessary sacrament of the Kingdom as intended by God. Those who are saved have an orientation to the church. Dupuis explores how this ‘orientation’ has been understood in recent theology.

Following recent church teaching, Dupuis argues forcefully that interfaith dialogue is integral to the mission of the church. It is distinct from the proclamation of the gospel, and any attempt to make it part of proclamation should be resisted. In dialogue, ‘The Spirit is at work on both sides, the Christian and the other; thus the dialogue cannot be a monologue. The Christian partners not only will give, but will receive as well.’

In this book, the occasional repetition is compensated by its encyclopaedic quality. All the theologians who have contributed to this subject over the past 40 years are summarised in some detail and often in their own words. Dupuis is concerned to name directions and to open up new areas for further exploration.

Dupuis has written a work of Christian theology not a study of comparative religion. He explains how a Christian thinker may make sense of religious pluralism. Although it may seem as unflattering to non-Christian faiths to describe them as oriented to the Christian Church as was Rahner’s description of them as ‘anonymous Christians’, we must also presume that non-Christians, beginning from their standpoint of faith, will work out for themselves a theology of religions, including the Christian religion.

The work of Dupuis and his colleagues is hugely important. At the beginning of the 21st century, a key question for the future well being of humans, and perhaps for their survival, is a plan for human harmony: a vision of unity. We are offered political visions (universal democracy) and economic visions (globalisation). Is there any vision of faith for unity? This is not about unanimity but about being united in peaceful co-existence.  Dupuis’ work reaches out, positively and hopefully, courageously but carefully, from a clear Catholic tradition.

For this reason it seems to me unfortunate that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found it necessary to issue a Notification, which is included in this work. The issues raised are those Jacques Dupuis has been dealing with over the preceding 400 pages. All the references of the Notification are to documents of church teaching, to most of which the author himself has referred.  In subsequent statements, also included, the Jesuit General noted  the seriousness of the author’s research in a fundamental area for the future of interreligious dialogue and his readiness to work within the parameters outlined in the Notification. Archbishop Henry D’Souza of Calcutta has the last word.  He gladly welcomes the Indian edition of the book, noting that ‘for us in India and in Asia the living religions are a reality which we have to address in our daily task of evangelisation’.

Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism
Jacques Dupuis sj. Orbis, 2002. isbn 1 5707 5264 8, rrp $30

Bede Heather is a former Catholic bishop of Parramatta.



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