Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Knitter on Jesus Being the Only Way

In my latest reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter IX, "How Is Jesus Unique? Toward a Theocentric Christology".

Knitter's overall view seems to be that God can be manifest in other religions, not just Christianity.  And he understands such doctrines as the incarnation and Jesus' resurrection in ways that downplay the uniqueness of Jesus.  For Knitter, maybe Jesus was not the only time that God became close to creation and thereby offered grace to people.  Perhaps the empty tomb stories express the early Christians' conviction that God had somehow touched them after the death of Jesus and that the cause of Jesus was going forward, and even non-Christian religions have felt this sort of divine grace after the death of their own leaders.  At the same time, Knitter does not go in the direction of claiming that all religions are saying the same thing, or that truth is relative, for he believes that Christianity makes truth-claims that can somehow edify people in non-Christian religions.  What he may mean by this is that Christians can testify to others about how God has interacted with them, even as others testify to Christians about their own interactions with the divine.

One point that Knitter makes is that Christology was in flux in the days of early Christianity, as Jesus evolved from being regarded as an eschatological prophet to being seen as pre-existent wisdom.  In the process, early Christians drew from their cultures, both Jewish and also Greco-Roman.  Knitter appears to believe that Christology today should likewise change in response to the existence of religious pluralism.

But what about those Bible passages about Jesus being the only way, or the only mediator between God and humanity, or the only name under heaven that is given among people by which we might be saved?  Knitter proposes different ways to understand this exclusivist language: to see it as characteristic of a classical or Jewish eschatological mindset that held that there was only one truth, or to regard it as a way for early Christianity----a small religion----to survive in the vast world of religions.  While this approach may presume that Christianity was exclusivist in its early days due to its historical context and should change with the times, Knitter at one point seems to argue that his conception of Jesus may actually be faithful to what the biblical text actually says.  Knitter contends that the exclusivist language in the New Testament is devotional (as when a husband tells his wife that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, even though he may realize that, literally-speaking, there are prettier women out there), that it presents Jesus as reliable rather than as the one and only path to God, that one can understand the text to say that Jesus is a (not the) son of God, and that "only-begotten" can mean firstborn, which means that Jesus----like Israel, which is called God's firstborn----is an important part of God's plan.

Do I buy into Knitter's arguments?  I can see his point that Christianity is in flux.  At the same time, to say that Christianity should change in response to religious pluralism makes me wonder if the truth can be so flexible, for is not truth absolute?  Regarding Knitter's views on exclusivist language in the New Testament, I'll admit that there could have been times in the ancient world when people used exclusivist language for devotional purposes, without necessarily thinking that their way was the only way (see here).  But exclusivism is such a salient feature of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament----exclusivism being the idea that the God of Israel is supreme whereas the other gods are inferior or non-existent----that I tend to take exclusivist language literally.  And, even if that language occurred in a devotional context, that doesn't preclude it from being literal.  I can say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world and truly believe that she is!  (Or I could if I had a wife!)  (UPDATE: On page 261, Knitter says that, even within a devotional context, early Christians could have taken Jesus' uniqueness in a metaphysical way, but he denies that "such metaphysical claims are...intrinsic to that language" and affirms that "Today, Christians can hear and use the same language with different metaphysical content.")

But I don't dismiss the possibility that God can be active in other religions.  Perhaps Christianity is wrong in its exclusivism, or Christians can accept ways to see God as active in other religions while still being faithful to Christianity: they can hold that God is using other religions to prepare people for Christianity (which they'd accept either now or in the eschaton), for example.  At the same time, I do appreciate diversity, which means that I don't want for everyone to be in the same mold but to be different and to learn from one another.

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