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Book is a start toward rich dialogue on religions

by Jacques Dupuis, SJ Translation by Phillip Berryman
Orbis Books, 276 pages, $30

Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, professor emeritus at Gregorian University and today’s premier Catholic theologian of religions, is renowned also because the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith banned him from teaching for several years while it investigated his 1997 book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. The congregation ultimately uncovered no specific problems, and settled for a general warning against ambiguities possibly confusing to some readers.

The current book’s subtitle hints at a rapprochement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is even prefaced by a quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the congregation’s prefect, on today’s urgent need for people more passionate about the truth than the status quo. But Dupuis says that his desire to share his research more widely, not the congregation, inspired Christianity and the Religions. In any case, the book seems shadowed by the controversy, and Dupuis insists several times that he writes in submission to ecclesial authority.

At the book’s core is the question: How are Christians to think of and act toward people of other religions and their traditions in light of enduring Christian commitments? Acknowledging that interreligious dialogue is an intrinsic, distinctive feature of the Catholic attitude toward religions today, Dupuis argues for an inclusive pluralism founded in a Trinitarian understanding of Christ. Though entirely divine, Christ is not all of God. He is the Son, essentially related to a Father and a Spirit. This Trinitarian God is only one God, but works in distinctive ways, as Father (creator), Son (incarnate redeemer), and Spirit (inspirer enabling encounter with God and prayer).

The universal offer of salvation is never “outside” the Son, who in turn is inseparable from Jesus. As Dupuis finds his way between universalism and uniqueness, modern relativism and a traditional suspicion of religious competitors, he in fact elegantly refines an enduring Christian paradox: God works everywhere; the Spirit is universally transformative; yet all salvation is in and through Christ. Perhaps a good theology of religions can do little more than preserve this paradox.

Dupuis wishes to break new ground while showing it to be entirely consonant with tradition, and so he impressively documents his position in scripture, tradition and church doctrine. As a result, every bold claim is accompanied by a prudent reassertion of traditional doctrine.

One example must suffice: “While it is true that [Jesus] is constitutive of salvation for all, and indeed the cause of their salvation,” Dupuis writes, “he neither excludes nor includes other saving figures or traditions.” Indeed, their truths, though not unrelated to Christ, remain “additional and autonomous benefits.” But they also “find, and are destined to find in the Christ event their fullness of meaning,” yet “without being absorbed or dispossessed.”

In the end, “God’s self-manifestation and self-giving in Jesus Christ are not in need of a true completion by other traditions, even though they are interrelated with the other divine manifestations in the overall realm of God’s self-revelation to humankind.” But such insights, bold yet traditional, prompt further hard questions: What is a “divine manifestation” and a “saving figure”? Is Krishna a personal saving presence, or just a symbol of God? Is Amida Buddha a divine manifestation in whom one might actually take refuge? Are some pages of the Quran revelatory while others err?

Dupuis never answers such questions, and the book ends where a richer dialogical theology -- more concrete, enriched by dialogue -- will have to start. Luckily, the fruits of dialogue are increasingly evident even before the theologian of religions manages, after protracted deliberation, to confirm that such are possible.

Here, too, theology best follows experience, dialogue and scholarly insight. Dupuis’ rich Trinitarian framework must be tested in a world where everyone has neighbors in other religions and where, as Dupuis puts it, one even finds “hyphenated Christians,” Muslim-Christian or Buddhist-Christian, for instance, who integrate the insights and practices of other religions into Catholic living. Freshest, therefore, is his concluding reflection on interreligious prayer, inspired by the 1986 meeting of religious leaders convened by Pope John Paul II at Assisi. Officially it was a matter of coming together to pray, not praying together; but Dupuis wants us to go further, since almost every pairing of traditions indicates common ground in support of praying together.

Here, too, more can be said on how encounter, reflection and praying together transform our self-understanding as Christians and our writing as theologians. We search in vain for autobiographical testimony here. Although Dupuis lived in India for decades, he never speaks directly of his experience. It would be interesting to hear more of what he learned, how it affected his prayer, and how Christianity and the Religions could have been written had he never visited India.

Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney is professor of theology at Boston College and visiting academic director at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003