Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. Please engage in the dialogue by posting comments below.
The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.
J. Jayakiran Sebastian: For me, the answer to this question is simple and straightforward — “For us as Christians, Jesus Christ is the only savior.” Having grown up in India within the Church of South India, having been exposed to a variety and range of Christian traditions and denominations from a very early age, and having encountered the world of religions on a daily basis, the work and words of the Indian theologian Stanley J. Samartha, who served as the first director of the Program for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies of the World Council of Churches, have been instructive.
Wrestling courageously and boldly with the issue of the lordship of Jesus Christ in a world of religious plurality, Samartha in his trailblazing books One Christ — Many Religions: Toward a Revised Christology (Orbis, 1991) and Between Two Cultures: Ecumenical Ministry in a Pluralistic World (WCC Publications, 1996), clearly and unambiguously reminded us that “for us as Christians the meaning of this Mystery is revealed through Jesus Christ and the Spirit. For us as Christians, Jesus Christ and no other is the norm.”
Mark N. Swanson: Amen. These issues do require bold and courageous wrestling. We Christians confess that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). At the same time we are determined to respect our neighbors of other faiths who know Jesus in different ways (as prophet and apostle, for example, but not Son of God) or not at all.
Especially during the years that my wife and I lived in Egypt, we again and again were impressed by the ways that the faith of Muslim neighbors gave them guidance and courage for this life, and hope and patience in the face of suffering and death. We were often inspired by this faith. We were challenged by it — to let our Christian witness be ever more one of lives lived, not just of words said.
And sometimes we’d wonder just what God was up to in this religiously plural world. Perhaps — here’s a specifically Christian way of putting it — our learning from our neighbors of other faiths might just be giving us glimpses into dimensions of Christ’s lordship, and the saving activity of God the Trinity, that we hadn’t been expecting.
Sebastian: Questions we wonder about include the reality of our understanding of God’s salvific love for all humankind in juxtaposition with the particularity of the Christ-event and the teachings of Jesus contained in the Bible. Can we give a clear-cut answer regarding “the way, the truth and the life” that leaves open the question of particular understandings of God as “father” within our faith tradition? Or does this rule out our sisters and brothers belonging to other living faiths from the possibility of experiencing the love of God in and through Jesus?
How can congregations and individuals engage with writings of theologians like S. Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and People of Other Faiths (WCC, 1985) and his new bookYour God, My God, Our God (WCC, 2012), which do not shy away from the questions of truth claims within our religious traditions and faith in the midst of faiths?
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