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TCU Magazine "Capturing Budapest"

Questioning faith

By Kenneth Cracknell

Last year, I found myself being asked by a Dallas Morning News journalist about what I taught at TCU. "Oh," I said cheerfully, "the Christian theology of religions."

There was a pause at the other end of the telephone line.

"What's that?" she asked.

I heard myself saying that I try to answer questions like "Does God hear only the prayers of Christians?" "Is Jesus Christ the only way?" and "Are there other means by which people may be saved?"

Now, I am challenged once again to give some answers to these questions and other related to them.

First, though, let's take a moment to think why they are so important. -- Because the world has grown strangely small, people of religions wonderfully different from our own are now close neighbors. Often this is literally so, if we live in Austin or Houston, Dallas or Fort Worth.

Just in the area surrounding TCU we have not only synagogues and mosques but also Sikh and Buddhist temples. Our great university has students from all over the world -- Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucianists and Buddhists. And they are most often honorable people, good, wise and faithful, not in the least like superstitious heathens that were supposed to worship sticks and stones.

Moreover, we are often challenged by the way our new neighbors live their lives. Sometimes they seem to be closer to God than we do ourselves. Can it be really true that they must go to hell because they do not believe in Jesus Christ?

-- In our very small world, we have come to realize that Christians are a minority among all the religious believers.

In fact, we are just 30 percent of the world's population, and we are declining proportionally; more Hindus, more Buddhists, more Muslims are born each year than Christians. This is a great puzzle for those of us who grew up with the slogan "the evangelization of the world in this generation."

Hymns and liturgies in our church all imply that the church will grow larger and larger until "every knee shall bow" and "every tongue confess" that Jesus is Lord. What can God be up to, allowing so many other religious traditions to flourish?

-- We also see that old religious traditions are alive and well, and making converts from Westerners. The fastest growing religious community in the USA is Islam, and Buddhist and Hindus are gaining many western converts. (Question: Where is the finest vegetarian restaurant in North Texas? Kalichandra's in Dallas.

Anyone visiting it will find a thriving neighborhood made up of western Hindus devoted to Krishna and serving the people around them.) Clearly, missionary work and loving service is not the prerogative of the Christian Church alone. Exactly how unique is the message of Jesus Christ in a world where there are other visions of religious truth?

My academic specialty," the Christian Theology of Religions," attempts to tackle these and many other facts about our modern religious situation. But in the first place, it is absolutely concerned to be loyal to Christ, and hence to remain "Christian theology."

We are not doing "comparative religion," which sometimes ends up in our being only "comparatively religious." Neither are we trying to make all religions equivalent to one another, nor are we trying to water down all religions to some vague lowest common factor.

But we do want to know if we have really understood the Biblical viewpoint about other religions. We want to see whether it is really "Christian" to have a theology that condemns the great majority of humankind to hell. We want as Christians to find room for the idea that God may have different ways of reaching out to human beings and of "saving them."

Let's begin with the Bible, for the excellent reason that most of my readers will regard what it says to be the very highest authority. Its central teaching is about God's covenant, or testament. Covenants are made with humankind at God's instigation, never on the part of human beings. Perhaps the greatest of these is the Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:9: . . . with you, it says, and with your seed after you. That is, with all human beings for perpetual generations (v. 9).

There is absolutely no human being that is outside this covenant, or whom God will ever seek to destroy (v. 10) (Hosea 11:1-9) (Is. 54:7-9). That is why the New Testament contains the unambiguous declaration that God our Savior wants all human beings to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).So the Biblical record is of other subsequent covenants intended to be universal in scope.

For example, the covenant with Abraham was not intended just for Israelites, but that the families of earth nations should bless themselves in them (Genesis 12:3). Even more important, the covenant made by Jesus is one that breaks down every single barrier, between Jew and Samaritan (John 4: 1-24), Jew and Syro-Phoenician (Matthew 15:21-77), between Jew and Roman (Matthew 8:5-11). We see Jesus destroying the middle wall of partition separating Jew and Gentile (Eph. 3).

How strange it is that Christians throughout their history have spent so much time rebuilding middle walls of partition: with Jews, of course, and with Muslims, but also with each other. So here is the first great key to understanding the Bible: God is concerned about everybody, and no one nation or group is special to God (no, not the Jews, and especially not the Christian church).

So the prophet Malachi, rebuking his community for offering maimed sacrifices declared (in a verse which speaks directly to the theology of religions): From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering, for my name is great among the nations (Mal. 1:11).

These words answer our first question: God hears the prayers of all people everywhere, from the east to the west. This is the reason why we have a whole lot of Biblical evidence of wise and good people who live outside the covenant with Israel.

For example, I love the figure of Melchizadek in Genesis 14, who comes to bless Abraham in the name of El-Elyon, a non-Israelite God Most High. Equally significant is the figure of Job, not an Israelite but an Edomite sheikh (Job 1:1). These and many others are in the great company of those Cornelius people in every nation who fear God and do what is right and who are consequently acceptable to God (Acts 10:35).

To be sure, this is not the same thing as Christians being saved by Jesus Christ, as Cornelius discovers in the story that follows, but it is a million miles away from having non-Christians condemned to the everlasting fires of hell.

There is a profound theological reason for the goodness and the grace shown in the lives of such as Job and Cornelius. This lies in the Church's unswerving commitment to its Trinitarian understanding of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and its high Christology. We affirm that the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.

We do this because this is the great teaching of the first verse of St. John's Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word (the Greek word is logos) had a part in the creation of all human beings, and his life was, and is, the light of every man or woman, boy or girl born in this world (John 1:2, 7).

Despite all our wickedness and all our stupidity, that light has never been put out; it shines even through the deepest darkness of human sin and depravity. So we can speak with assurance of the light that shines among Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Zoroastrians. No one anywhere is bereft of the light of the Logos.

There will be wisdom and insight in other traditions of faith. But there is much more to be said about the Word, who took human form in Jesus of Nazareth. This Word was at work in the history of the Israelites, as St. Paul taught. The supernatural Rock that followed them in the wilderness, he says, was Christ (1 Cor. 10:3). St. John teaches that the vision that Isaiah saw in the Temple was the glory of Christ (John 37-41).

This is why St. John portrays Jesus as older than Abraham: Before Abraham was, I am (John 8:58). John is trying to show Jesus as the incarnation in time of the Word of God born before all time. And it is only this supernatural and pre-existent Christ who can say I am the living bread which came down from heaven (John 6:50) and I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25).

So it is important to recognize who is speaking in the two great sayings in St. John's Gospel that seem to deal directly with the salvation of other men and women. The first of these sounds rather positive. Jesus as the great shepherd says I have other sheep that are not of this fold (John 10:16).

As the eternal Logos, he says I am the door for these sheep. The second saying has appeared to be very negative to many Christians. Indeed, if I had a dollar for every time I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6) has been quoted to say that non-Christians cannot be saved, I could endow something important for TCU.

But this text cannot be ripped from its context. It is not intended to answer a question about the salvation of other people. Far from it! It is an answer to the questing, probing mind of Thomas -- Lord, we do not know where you are going? How can we know the way? -- and concerns seeing into the mystery of suffering, and is about "seeing the Father."

But there is something helpful to the theology of religion in John 14:6. Jesus as the Word declares himself the way, the truth and the life of the whole world. As the risen and ascended Christ, he fills the universe (Eph. 4:10).

There is no place, no sphere where Christ is not present. This doctrine led very early on to people like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria suggesting that the Greek philosophers were inspired by Christ. Today, it leads contemporary thinkers to talk about, for example, "the unknown Christ" of Hinduism, or the "latent Christ" of the world religions.

The Christian theology of religion affirms with assurance that God hears everyone's prayers. It surmises that God will find many non-Christians "acceptable." It believes that Christ is at work in other religious traditions.

There is still much work to be done, but some of the foundation is firmly laid.

Kenneth Cracknell is a distinguished professor-in-residence at Brite Divinity School and president emeritus of the Cambridge Theological Federation in England. He went as a Methodist missionary to Nigeria in 1962. He also has served as a university pastor and teacher, director of interfaith relations for the British Council of Churches and as a consultant for the World Council of Churches. His most significant book is Justice, Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions 1846-1914(1995).