“Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the one and only Savior for all peoples” - this phrase in the very first sentence of Chapter 2 of The Church in Asia on “Jesus the Savior: A Gift to Asia.” could be taken as a summary of the document’s image of Jesus. This is an affirmation of faith, which the Church has received as a gift from God, which it wishes to offer to Asia (EA 10). The whole of chapter 2 is a meditation on this affirmation of faith. Let me, first of all, briefly summarize this chapter.
In the very beginning the human life of Jesus is narrated. Jesus is “the God-Man in full possession of a human nature.” He lived like other human beings, though he called God Abba! He was close to the poor, the marginalized and the suffering people. “Divine compassion had never been so immediately accessible.” “A new family was being created under the Father’s all-embracing and surprising love.” Though he preached in a simple manner, “people recognized that he spoke with authority.” He was put to death based on false testimony, but he rose from the dead. “Jesus fulfilled the will of his Father to reconcile all humanity to himself, after original sin had created a rupture in the relationship between the Creator and his creation” (EA 11).
Jesus was able “to win salvation for all people” basically because of who he is,namely the second Person of the Trinity. “The saving action of Jesus has its origin in the communion of the Godhead.” “In Jesus Christ alone dwells the fullness of God in bodily form (cf. Col 2:9), establishing him as the unique and absolute saving Word of God (cf. Heb 1:1-4). As the Father’s definitive Word, Jesus makes God and his saving will known in the fullest way possible.” “The mission of the Savior reached its culmination in the Paschal Mystery... Jesus destroyed sin by the power of his love for his Father and for mankind. He took upon himself the wound inflicted on humanity by sin, and he offered release through conversion.” “Through Jesus’ Paschal Sacrifice the Father irrevocably offers reconciliation and fullness of life to the world” (EA 12).
Through Jesus, man can finally know the truth of himself. Jesus’ perfectly human life, devoted wholly to the love and service of the Father and of man, reveals that the vocation of every human being is to receive love and give love in return.” In his Paschal Mystery, “Jesus became once and for all both the revelation and the accomplishment of a humanity re-created and renewed according to the plan of God.” The ultimate source of hope and strength for the people of Asia in their struggles and uncertainties is the realization that “by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each individual.” “The mission of Jesus not only restored communion between God and humanity; it also established a new communion between human beings alienated from one another because of sin.” Together with the Church throughout the world, the Church in Asia proclaims the truth of faith: “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all” [1 Tim 2:5-6] (EA 13).
Through the Word, present to the cosmos even before the Incarnation, the world came to be (cf. John 1:1-4, 10; Col 1:15-20). But as the incarnate Word who lived, died and rose from the dead, Jesus Christ is now proclaimed as the fulfilment of all creation, of all history, and of all human yearning for fullness of life. Risen from the dead, Jesus Christ “is present to all and to the whole of creation in a new and mysterious way.” In him, “values of all religious and cultural traditions, such as mercy and submission to the will of God, compassion and rectitude, non-violence and righteousness, filial piety and harmony with creation find their fullness and realization.”2 “Even for those who do not explicitly profess faith in him as the Savior, salvation comes as a grace from Jesus Christ through the communication of the Holy Spirit.” “Jesus is indeed unique, and it is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance” (EA 14).
As we can see this is a very clear statement of the Vatican’s view on Jesus as the unique and therefore the universal mediator of salvation for all human beings. The document is sure that “contemplating Jesus in his human nature, the peoples of Asia find their deepest questions answered, their hopes fulfilled, their dignity uplifted and their despair conquered” (EA 14). If this is so, one wonders why there is no big rush among the Asian people to become disciples of Jesus and to join the Church. This should certainly make us reflect a little more on our claims. If John Paul II prays that in the 3rd millennium “a great harvest of faith will be reaped” in Asia (EA 1) one would like to know the ‘signs of the times’ on which such a prayer is based. Is the fact that Jesus was an Asian going to make any difference to his acceptance as the only Saviour by Asian peoples?
The first impression that an Asian has in reading these statements is their a priori nature. It is not that one disagrees with what they want to say. But after having said: “The Synod Fathers noted that proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior can present particular difficulties in their cultures, given that many Asian religions teach divine self-manifestation as mediating salvation” (EA 10),3 one would expect that the document would take into account this reality and would reflect on its own faith affirmation in this new context. On the contrary, what we have is an affirmation of faith that could have been made anywhere in the world at any time, not only in what it says positively about Jesus and his significance, but also in what it says about other religions. Cardinal Julius Darmaatmadja, responding to the presentation of the document by John Paul II in Delhi, said: “Yes, it is true that there is no authentic evangelization without announcing Jesus Christ, Savior of the whole human race. But for Asia, there will be no complete evangelization unless there is dialogue with other religions and cultures” [CCBI News 10 (1999) 92]. Should not such dialogue with other religions help us to interpret our faith tradition and to revise our formulations? Asian (Indian) theologians have attempted such reformulations. The Indian Theological Association in a Statement (April 1998) on “The Significance of Jesus Christ in the Context of Religious Pluralism in India” had this to say:
In the context of our positive experience of other believers in their search for and realization of wholeness and freedom, we acknowledge the gracious and loving act of God who has reached out to them in various ways... Celebrating this gracious and living mystery of God, we are not only aware of the Spirit of God “who blows where She wills,” but also of the Word of God who speaks to peoples through various manifestations in different ways (Heb 1:1), and whom we profess as the one who became incarnate in Jesus. We gratefully acknowledge that it is our experience of the incarnate Jesus that leads us to the discovery of the cosmic dimensions of the presence and action of the Word... For the Christian believer, Jesus Christ is the perfect symbol of God who brings fulfilment to all persons in their world through his words and works, signs and wonders. He is unique to the Christian in that he is the definitive, though non-exhaustive symbol of God-experience in the world. But Jesus’ uniqueness does not necessarily displace symbols in other religions... The vision of all the saving movements in the world as manifestations of the one divine mystery, of the one Word and the one Spirit of God, urges us to be open to the religious experience of others and to dialogue with them... We hear the call of Jesus to contribute through the process of dialogue and convergence to a growing reconciliation and peace with justice...4
We can immediately see the difference in tone and perspective. I do not intend to contest what the document Church in Asia is saying. Our reflection takes place through images and paradigms that are based on our experience. The way that the document understands its faith affirmation and explains it may have a certain validity from the point of view that it has adopted. But Asians from their multi-religious context understand and explain their faith in a different way. Let me try to point out some of the differences.
The document operates with a linear view of the history of salvation. Jesus and Christianity are seen as the fulfilment of the other religions. In the Bible we have the paradigm that relates Israel to Jesus (and the Church) as preparation to fulfilment. Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. The document projects this paradigm on all the world’s religions. In this view the non-Judaic religions are actually pre-Judaic in significance. They have some natural revelation, at the most some seeds of the Word. They might even be considered as illegitimate now that we have the definite and full revelation in Jesus, who has said the last word. I think that this extrapolation of a Jewish-Christian paradigm to the other religions is improper. If it is true that “the Church’s approach to other religions is one of genuine respect” and that “this respect is twofold: respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man” (EA 20),”5 then what right does any one have to prejudice the extent and meaning of the activity of the Spirit in other religions? The New Testament tries to show how Jesus fulfils the expectations of Israel. Who can credibly show that Jesus (or the Church) actually fulfils the ‘authentic values’ of Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism? (Cf. EA 14). This is a totally a priori vision of history. Some missionaries in India have tried to show that Christianity is the fulfilment of Hinduism (cf. Farquhar 1913, cf. Johanns 1944). But people like Abishiktananda who have actually tried to experience Hinduism gave up such an approach (cf. Henri 1998). In any case, one does not see any Hindus or Buddhists waiting to be fulfilled by Christianity. As a matter of fact every religion sees itself as a fulfilment of the others. Buddhism will consider all religions as irrelevant. Hinduism will see advaita as the final stage in spiritual realization. I think that these kind of ‘comparative’ approaches must be avoided, especially when we see that the majority of the humans are finding meaning and fulfilment in their lives in and through their own religions.
I think that the reason for such a priori affirmations is a certain divinization of the humanity of Jesus. Encountering Jesus one experiences God active in him. Jesus is recognized as divine because only God can save. As a matter of fact the document itself offers a clear example of this when it asserts that Jesus Christ saves because of who he is, namely the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Salvation is a Trinitarian action in which the Father, the Son and the Spirit have their role (EA 12). But as soon as Jesus is identified with the Son, the humanity of Jesus and its limitations, freely chosen by God who ‘emptied himself’ (Phil 2:7), is forgotten. As the Word or Son he can only be the fullness of revelation and salvation. One can say that attributes like uniqueness and universality are given to Jesus precisely in so far as he is divine. Though it is affirmed that Jesus is human like us in all things except sin, he is freed from human, cultural and historical conditionings. He promised to send the Spirit who will lead the disciples into all truth (Jn 16:13). He inaugurates a Kingdom whose fulfilment is in the future, when he will come again (Mt 25:31). His work of salvation takes place in history, historically. Paul speaks of a process of reconciliation or unification that is still going on (1 Cor 15; Eph 1:10; Rom 8). This whole historical-eschatological dimension is lost when the mystery of salvation is reduced to the Paschal Mystery. This historical dimension and the limitations of the humanity of Jesus are also lost when Jesus is seen as uniting himself to every human being in some mysterious way through his incarnation or when the risen Jesus is said to be present to all in a new and mysterious way (EA 13, 14). These affirmations are based on platonic anthropology and the term ‘mystery’ is used to hide the fact that we do not know what it is or how it happens.
Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. But the presence and action of the Word, as that of the Father and of the Spirit, encompass the whole of history. The fact that the Word became incarnate in Jesus gives a special status to Jesus in the history of salvation. But it does not reduce the activity of the Word to the activity of Jesus before, during and after the life of Jesus on this earth. The Word is also active in other religions, as the Indian theologians point out. The action of the incarnate Word in Jesus has to be set in the context of the action of the Word in the whole world. The latter can neither be reduced to the former nor seen either as a preparation for it or a working out of it. The Council of Chalcedon said that the two natures in Jesus must “neither be separated nor be confused.” But the tendency in the Western Church has been towards a Christology of pre-existence in which the divine person of the Son takes on a human nature. But all the actions are of the divine person and the human nature does not really seem to have an identity of its own, except to mediate the divine action. In the name of the unity of the person the human nature loses its distinct identity. The document says as much. “Jesus is our Savior in the fullest sense of the word because his words and works, especially his resurrection from the dead, have revealed him to be the Son of God, the pre-existent Word, who reigns for ever as Lord and Messiah” (EA 11). Jesus gets eternalized: “From the first moment of time to its end, Jesus is the one universal Mediator.” The name ‘Jesus’ here refers not to the human Jesus, born two thousand years ago, but to the divine person. The document goes on to say: “We believe that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the one Savior because he alone - the Son - accomplished the Father’s universal plan of salvation. As the definitive manifestation of the mystery of the Father’s love for all, Jesus is indeed unique” EA (14). The uniqueness of Jesus as Savior depends on the fact that he is God. It is equivalent to saying that God is the unique Savior, because the Father and the Spirit too are involved in the act of salvation.
The action of a divine person, even mediated by a human nature, transcends space and time. So Jesus’ saving action seems to have a transcendental character. As I have already pointed out, according to the document, both by his incarnation and by his resurrection Jesus is linked to every human being in some mysterious manner. Jesus Christ’s unique and universal salvific action is also explained in another way. Jesus takes “upon himself the sins of the world - past, present and future” (EA 11) and “on the Cross... breaks the power of the self-destructive resistance to love which sin inflicts upon us” (EA 13). “In this way, salvation was sealed once and for all” (11). The merits of Jesus’ saving action are distributed to every one, whether s/he lived before or after Jesus. This view has often led to an individualist approach to salvation. Loving and doing justice in the world are then seen as the consequence of being saved.
Today we tend to have a more historical-eschatological view of salvation. History is a process of struggle between God and Mammon. All peoples and all religions are engaged in this in their own way. God too is actively involved in this struggle through the Word and the Spirit. Through this struggle God is leading all things to a unity when God will triumph and will be all in all. In Jesus God is committing Godself to the battle in a human, historical way. Jesus, in his life, work and death shows a particular way of carrying on this struggle by opting for the poor and the oppressed. The disciples of Jesus continue his mission of prophecy and servanthood by helping build human communities of freedom and fellowship, justice and peace. In this task they find in the members of other religions allies and not enemies. They too have a positive role in the history of salvation. The real enemies are Satan and Mammon. The Kingdom is God’s gift, but is also our task. Victory in the struggle, fullness of salvation, the establishing of the Kingdom - all these are in the future, at the end of history. They remain the horizon within which we keep on struggling. The fullness of revelation and salvation are not in the past, but in the future. Other religions, too, in which the Spirit of God is present and active, contribute to the consummation. Jesus neither replaces them nor excludes them.
The document keeps on insisting: “There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord... The Church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’ s command, in the knowledge that every person has the right to hear the Good News of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ” (EA 19, 20). Christians in Asia, without denying that God reveals and gives himself in Christ, have reason to believe, because of their experience of people of other religions and the fruits of the Spirit manifest in their lives, that God has also revealed and given Godself to other peoples through other mediations in other religions. People indeed have a ‘right’ to hear the Good News. But for over two thousand years people in Asia, especially those belonging to the ‘great’ religions of Asia, have also affirmed their ‘right’ to follow their religions, even when exposed to Christianity. They have not experienced Christianity as a ‘fulfilment.’ I would think that this experience should lead us to reflect on what really is the plan God for the world and what is the role of other religions in it and what is the place of Jesus in the midst of the religions.
We Christians have every right to proclaim and share our experience of God in Jesus. We tell people who Jesus was, how he lived, healed and reconciled people, empowered the poor, made people experience a God who was not a judge, but Abba, a loving Father, washed the feet of his disciples and loved people even unto death. We proclaim the story of a person. We do not proclaim a dogmatic conclusion: “Jesus is the unique Saviour!” Even the document acknowledges that “the proclamation of Jesus Christ can most effectively be made by narrating his story, as the Gospels do” (EA 20). But unfortunately, for the document, it is only a pedagogy. It seems more interested in the “ontological notions involved.” Perhaps it is here that Asian Christians must challenge the document. The “ontological notions” are the conclusions of a particular community that lived at a particular time in a particular culture using a particular metaphysical system. Why should they be identified with the Good News? It is time that Asian Christians explored the meaning of Jesus Christ in the context of the Asian experience of a pluralism of religions rather than simply extrapolate conclusions arrived at in a different context.
One of the problems in talking about the ‘uniqueness of Christ’ is that it seems to lead imperceptibly to talk about the ‘uniqueness’ of the Church. It is no surprise that the document speaks about “the universal saving significance of the mystery of Jesus and his Church” (EA 20).
We are called to proclaim and witness to Jesus Christ, not to a Christology. We are expected to share an experience, not to repeat a creed. We are invited to recognize, respect and accept the rich experience of God that the others have in their religions before talking to them about our own experience of God in Jesus Christ. Globalization that does not respect local identities and differences is bad not merely in economics and politics, but also in religion.
1. The numbers within brackets, here and later in the article, refer to the numbers of the Document The Church in Asia which will hereafter be refered to as EA.
2. One can note in this list values picked up from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
3. See also No. 20.
4. Nos. 5.14 - 5.20, passim. See Word and Worship 31 (1998) 352-353.
5. The reference is to a speech that John Paul II made to the leaders of other religions in India in 1986.
1913 The Crown of Hinduism (Oxford).
1944 To Christ through the Vedanta (Ranchi).
John Paul II
1999 The Church in Asia (EA).
Le Saux, Henri (Swami Abhishiktananda)
1998 Ascent to the Depth of the heart: The Spiritual Diary of Swami Abishiktananda (Delhi: ISPCK).