Jerry L. Walls
J. A. Di Noia began his article on Jesus and the World Religions (FT, June/July 1995) by describing his experience on a panel assigned to discuss the question of whether Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation. After noting that his fellow Catholic theologians were reluctant to affirm this claim, he observed that this was motivated by a desire to avoid giving offense to adherents of other religious traditions.
The remainder of his article is devoted to showing that true Christian universalism requires defending the unique role of Jesus in salvation, and that, properly understood, followers of other religions have no reason to take offense at this, since the Christian notion of salvation is fundamentally different from that of other religions. Salvation in Christianity aims at eternal communion with the Trinity, a communion in which our individual identity is maintained and fulfilled. This is markedly different from, say, the Buddhist goal of Nirvana, where individual identity is extinguished.
Recognizing this fact has important implications with respect to the claims believers make for their various traditions. As Di Noia notes, a Christian need not feel anxious if informed by his Buddhist friend that he cannot attain Nirvana except by following the Excellent Eightfold Path. If this is true, and if he does not pursue the Path, it follows he may never reach Nirvana. But, Di Noia continues, since I have as yet no desire to attain and enjoy Nirvana, I am not offended by this reasoning. I have not been persuaded that Nirvana is what I should be seeking. In the same vein, Di Noia quotes the revealing remark a rabbi once made to him: Jesus Christ is the answer to a question I have never asked.
The upshot of this is that Jesus can be recognized as the unique mediator of salvation as Christianity conceives it. However, not all persons apparently desire such salvation, so it is not offensive to insist that Jesus is the necessary means to it. This can be as readily granted as the fact that one must cross the ocean to get to Britain from the United States. This will not bother those whose aim is to go to Brazil or Chile.
Di Noia’s main argument is surely sound. Christianity offers a distinctive account of salvation, and not everyone who is religious shares the Christian hope of eternal communion with the Trinity. He is mistaken, however, to advance this point as a way for different religions to avoid giving offense by claims of uniqueness. The difficulty is suggested by his comment that I have not been persuaded that Nirvana is what I should be seeking. For the issue is precisely that from a Christian standpoint, there are some things that all persons should be seeking.
To bring this point into focus, let us reflect on the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to communion with the Trinity. Since Christians claim there is only one God and that God is the Trinity, it follows from Christian premises that those who do not want eternal communion with the Trinity do not want an eternal relationship with the only God there is. Now this has serious consequences when we also consider that such a relationship is, from the Christian standpoint, the highest good for which all persons were created, indeed the only good that can finally answer the human longing for happiness and satisfaction.
Consider the implications of this for the Buddhist who desires extinction or the rabbi who says Jesus is the answer to a question he has never asked. The Christian cannot avoid the conclusion that the Buddhist should desire eternal communion with God, and that the rabbi should be asking the questions for which Jesus is the answer. If they do not, then either they misunderstand Christianity or they do not will what God wills for them. And if the Christian declares that non-Christians do not will what God wills for them, he makes a judgment that must inevitably be offensive. In fact, any basic religious disagreement entails the judgment that at least one of the parties must be resisting the will of God in a way for which he is morally culpable.
The claim that at least one of the parties must be morally culpable is not intended as a simple empirical observation. That is, it does not imply overt immoral behavior on the part of either party. The claim is rather a statement about the logic of fundamental religious disagreement when at least one of the religions involved is exclusive in nature. It must apply to basic disputes between Jews, Christians, Muslims, or any other exclusive religion.
Let us define an exclusive religion as one that believes its claims are exclusively true at those points where they are incompatible with the claims of other religions. It does not follow from this, of course, that other religions are completely false or that all adherents of such religions are lost. A Christian exclusivist, for instance, might hold that such adherents could be saved were they willing to accept Christ when truly and fairly informed about him.
To illustrate the nature of a fundamental religious disagreement, let us consider such a point of dispute between the great theistic religions. An obvious candidate to bring the issue into clear focus is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the doctrine that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, and God’s ultimate revelation. Now presumably all parties involved agree that this claim is either true or false and that it cannot be both. Indeed, orthodox Christians insist that it is true, while adherents of the other theistic religions insist that it is not.
This dispute is significant only if at least one of the parties presses its claims as objective truth. If both sides claim their position is true only for their particular community, the dispute is dissolved. But most traditional theistic believers have recognized their traditions as making truth claims that exclude incompatible ones.
Now perhaps we are in a position to understand more fully why moral offense is inevitable in fundamental religious disputes. Our example focuses on whether the Incarnation is true or false. But there is more involved. And it has to do with the further point that a negative implication follows for Christians if the doctrine of the Incarnation is not true, whereas a negative implication follows for properly informed adherents of other religions if it is true. And since the doctrine of Incarnation is either true or false, one of these negative implications is true.
Before spelling this out, let us make the more general point that if something is true and has been shown to be so in a sufficiently clear way, that accounts for why those who believe it do so. In such a case, one does not question those who believe it or in any way doubt their motives for so doing.
Matters are altogether different, however, when we are dealing with false beliefs. It is only natural to wonder why such beliefs are held. This is especially so if the belief in question is evidently false or if something of considerable significance rides on it. If the people who hold this false belief insist that it is very important, it becomes urgent for us to explain why they are so grossly mistaken.
Now this is just the sort of case we have if the doctrine of the Incarnation is not true. For Christians have traditionally made very strong claims about the importance of believing in the Incarnation. But let us suppose now that it is not true that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. The question we must ask is, what could explain or motivate such a profoundly mistaken claim?
One possible answer would be injudicious zeal and enthusiasm. In this case, the persons who made these claims would be sincere, but badly mistaken in their judgments. Perhaps they have had their beliefs instilled in them since they were very young, and given their narrow background, they could hardly be expected to believe otherwise. Their claims could then be patronizingly dismissed as the product of ignorance or naivete.
But suppose that many of the people advancing the claims cannot plausibly be written off as ignorant or naive. Here, one may resort to critical judgments of another sort. One might, for instance, propose that the proponents of the claims are mentally or psychologically imbalanced. But while this explanation may apply to some, it is unlikely it will plausibly account for all the persons who make the controverted claims.
In this case, an even more severe judgment is available, namely, a moral one. That is, one might conclude that the persons who make these claims are motivated by resentment, anger, envy, or arrogance. So the Christians who hold that all those who ultimately and decisively reject Jesus as the Son of God are damned would do so as a way of lashing out against those who reject their religion. It is a way of getting even, or of trying to control those who disagree with them. If Jesus is not the Son of God incarnate, how else can we account for the passion with which Christians have insisted that he is and have preached terrible fates for those who do not likewise believe? This is a claim of such monumental significance that some reasonable account must be given for why it is so seriously believed and preached.
Suppose, on the other hand, that the doctrine of the Incarnation is true as Christians claim it is. If so, then it is known through revelation. More specifically, it was revealed through a series of remarkable events that early Christians saw as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Indeed, the Incarnation has been recognized by Christian theologians as God’s ultimate word to us, the climax of revelation. This word is the key to understanding all previous revelation. In one of his epigrams Pascal remarked: The prophecies were ambiguous; they are so no longer.
This is not to say that it was altogether obvious that the life of Jesus fulfilled prophecy. Rather, the Gospels make it clear that the disciples did not recognize the fulfillment of prophecy until after the resurrection. For instance, the Gospel of John reports that the disciples did not recognize the triumphal entry as such until after the resurrection. It was in retrospect that they realized that the prophecy of Zechariah applied to that event. And in the Gospel of Luke, the disciples need a Bible study from the risen Jesus to understand the events of Holy Week as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Pascal elaborated more generally that The prophecies, even the miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a kind that they can be said to be absolutely convincing . . . . But the evidence is such as to exceed, or at least equal, the evidence to the contrary, so that it cannot be reason that decides us against following it, and can therefore only be concupiscence and wickedness of heart.
Notice that Pascal is somewhat ambiguous about the power of the evidence for Christianity. He is certain, however, that it is sufficiently clear to support belief for anyone whose heart is rightly disposed. God surely would not reveal a truth of the magnitude of the Incarnation without doing so in an optimal manner. It may not be revealed in the manner we would judge most appropriate or with the degree of clarity we would desire. But a loving and wise God would surely reveal it in the way best suited to elicit the sort of response He desires from persons who are morally free as well as rational. Given a revelation that is sufficiently clear in this sense, I think an analysis similar to the one above follows. Those who do not believe are either ignorant, naive, psychologically impaired in some fashion, or dubiously motivated.
Pascal altogether ignores factors such as ignorance and concludes that unbelief must be accounted for in terms of wickedness of heart. Presumably he would be willing to grant that some unbelief could be explained as due to faulty information, inaccurate perceptions of what Christianity teaches, and the like. Ultimately, however, not all unbelief can be explained in this way. And unless all unbelievers are misinformed, psychologically impaired, or naive-a suggestion probably offensive in itself-then at least some forms of unbelief, deliberately taken, must be due to wickedness of heart. Again, the wickedness involved is not necessarily a matter of overt behavior, but of resisting the will of God.
It is the magnitude of the claims involved that require this conclusion. Certainly not every religious or theological dispute implies such a radical parting of the ways. Consider, for example, some of the relatively arcane debates that have raged about the proper way to construe the divine attributes. The debate about God’s relation to time is a case in point. Now either God is altogether outside of time, as many traditional theologians held, or He is not. Moreover, a lot may ride on this issue. Does this dispute also imply that at least one of the contending parties must be unwilling to accept the truth, and is therefore morally culpable?
I do not think so. In the first place, there are a range of positions on this question compatible with the central commitments of orthodoxy. But the most important point here is that the issues involved in this sort of debate are notoriously difficult even to grasp, let alone to resolve. Consequently, it would be highly implausible to claim that the truth on this matter is so clear that all persons of good will should agree on it.
But disagreement over a doctrine like the Incarnation is an altogether different sort of clash. Here we are dealing with the essence of Christianity. The disputed question in this case involves what is purported to be God’s central act of salvation for the entire human race, to Christians a matter of such fundamental and eternal significance that strong moral implications are unavoidable. A truth of this sort would surely, as Pascal argued, have been revealed in such a way that any properly informed person of good will would see it to be true. In short, then, we either have to account for why Christians make the mistake of such monumental proportions in concluding Jesus was the very son of God incarnate and the necessary means to our salvation, or explain why others who have deliberately rejected this claim have missed a truth of such importance. In other words, the logic of fundamental religious disagreement inevitably involves mutually negative moral evaluation.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that such judgments of moral culpability apply not only to infidels but apostates, that is, not only to adherents of other religions, but also to those raised in a given tradition who have rejected it. Indeed, it would be eminently plausible to think that the apostate would be even more culpable than typical infidels. Suppose again that Christianity is true and that one has been faithfully and lovingly nurtured in that faith. To reject the truth despite such benefits would surely be blameworthy.
Let us return now to interreligious disputes. It is obvious that a religion which claims to be the only path to human fulfillment makes negative judgments about those who reject that claim. What I have been trying to show is that the negative judgments cut both ways: adherents of other religions as well as unbelievers inevitably make negative judgments about adherents of exclusive religions. This point first became clear to me during a dinner conversation in which I was defending the claim that Christianity is objectively true. I was asked what I meant by that claim. I said something to the effect that if a religious seeker of good will was properly informed of the teachings of Christianity, of the evidences for it, and likewise with respect to other religions, and was not influenced by cultural biases (assuming for the sake of argument this could be the case), then that seeker would believe Christianity. If he would not, he would not truly be a person of good will. At this point, one of my listeners replied that that was one of the most arrogant things he had ever heard. It struck me that he did not intend that as a compliment.
Consider now a more publicized incident that makes the same point. A while back the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution in support of Jewish evangelism, and their Home Mission Board appointed a missionary to American Jews. Jewish leaders were quick to condemn the resolution. Phil Baum, head of the American Jewish Congress, stated that the Baptists were misguided and that the resolution reflected offensive doctrinal arrogance. Again, it is evident Mr. Baum did not intend his remarks to be a commendation of the moral sensibilities of Southern Baptists.
One more example. Harold Netland notes that Arnold Toynbee, a vigorous critic of exclusivism, asserted that the only way to purge Christianity of the sinful state of mind’ of exclusive-mindedness and its accompanying spirit of intolerance is to shed the traditional belief that Christianity is unique. Again, note that Toynbee turns the tables by accusing the Christian exclusivist of having a sinful state of mind.
Now these examples show that negative moral judgments in fact go both directions, but the question still remains of whether this must be the case. Can’t we avoid such judgments? I do not think so.
Consider again the whole enterprise of missions and evangelism. Let us grant that evangelists and missionaries have sometimes behaved in an offensive and arrogant manner toward the persons they were trying to win to their faith. The fact remains that offensiveness is inherent in the very nature of missionary activity, in the very matter of believing that a religion is objectively and exclusively true. The practice of missions and evangelism is simply a straightforward practical implication of that belief.
If one believes Jesus is the Son of God incarnate, and that the Christian account of God is the true account of the only God who exists, then (as already noted) it follows that those who reject Jesus are rejecting the only God there is. And if salvation requires a right relationship with God, then one cannot enjoy salvation without acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God. Anyone who believes the foregoing, and, moreover, accepts the Christian mandate of love, must consequently desire all people to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. So the commitment to evangelism follows directly from belief in the Incarnation of Jesus and universal love. How can such evangelism be intrinsically arrogant or offensive?
Whatever offense there is must stem from the very belief that it is objectively true that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. That is, it must be thought arrogant to believe that doctrine in the first place. Once we grant that belief in the doctrine is justified, it is hard to see how the practical implication could be thought arrogant. Indeed, we should think the person quite arrogant who believed something like the Incarnation but did not think he should make it known to other persons. In that case, the person would believe he had access to the most important truth one can imagine, yet did not think it incumbent upon him to spread the good news. At the very least, such behavior should be seen as selfish and contemptuous toward others, since it would reflect a lack of universal love.
It is not the evangelism that gives offense; one could hardly expect otherwise from a believer. The real source of the offense is the very belief that the Incarnation is objectively true.
Now this is an uncomfortable conclusion. Does it follow from this that adherents of different religions must hate each other or be intolerant of each other? Does it follow that they cannot work together for common moral and social goals? Certainly not. Indeed, as suggested above, it is precisely mutual love for each other that should impel each to evangelize the other and engage in mutual apologetics. And where love abounds, so should tolerance.
Of course, a person filled with love and respect for adherents of other religions should hope that their religious differences result from cultural or emotional blinders to understanding. The danger here is not only that he might, in ascribing unbelief to ignorance or blindness, become condescending or patronizing, but also that he might ignore the possibility that the nonbeliever has rejected his religion in a fully deliberate, and therefore culpable, way.
Interreligious dialogue can be fully honest only if we face up to our implicit judgments of culpability. Only then do we take fully seriously our dialogue partner. Only then do we give a sincere hearing to his deepest convictions. If we skirt or suppress these obvious implications, we have not given the genuine respect of open communication.
The only alternative to facing up to this is either to give up the claim that one’s religion is objectively true and sufficiently warranted that it should be believed by all people, or to deny that unbelief is a serious matter. It is hard to see how either of these could be acceptable. Consider the following Pascalian couplet: Men owe it to God to accept the religion he sends them. God owes it to men not to lead them into error. Unless we think God has not done his obligation with respect to us, then some persons are not doing their obligation with respect to God. It is this that constitutes what Pascal termed wickedness of heart. And if one thinks my so arguing is itself an instance of stupidity or arrogance or perversity, that is, of course, only to be expected, given the logic of the matter.
Jerry L. Walls is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
J. A. Di Noia
In his comment on my article Jesus and the World Religions, Professor Jerry L. Walls asks, what must Christians conclude about people who refuse to accept Christianity’s universal religious claim? Christianity affirms that communion with the triune God is the divinely willed aim of human life, and that all human persons should desire to enjoy this communion. Professor Walls argues that it would be unworthy of God to reveal a truth of such magnitude without doing so in such a way that any properly informed person of good will would see it to be true. It follows that anyone who refuses to desire communion with the triune God is either not properly informed or, as Professor Walls suggests, not of good will.
If I have understood his argument correctly, Professor Walls is chiefly concerned with how to assess the offense-or, more precisely, the moral culpability-of persons who reject the truth about the Incarnation. One way of approaching the issues Professor Walls raises is to observe that, in the Catholic perspective, it is possible to distinguish three levels in our knowledge of the truth about God and, correspondingly, three different levels of moral culpability associated with the deliberate rejection of that truth.
The first level is commonly called natural knowledge of God. The First Vatican Council taught definitively that the existence of God as principle and end of all things can be known by the light of natural human reason alone; furthermore, in teaching about the natural law the Church clearly indicates that some significant knowledge of good and evil is natural to human beings. Created in the image of God, every human person possesses capacities to know and to love. Since Christianity does not teach the suppression of these natural capacities but their perfection in grace, it is a matter of concern to every person that these capacities be acknowledged for their potential to direct the person to the ultimately true and good.
At this natural level, one can speak of a moral imperative for every human person to respond to the natural desires to know God, and to love God and neighbor. Without divine grace, however, these natural desires to attain knowledge and love of God are impotent. If our natural capacities are to lead to a truly saving knowledge and love of God, the limitations and sinful state of all human beings must be overcome by grace-won for all human beings, including those who do not acknowledge this, by the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. But creatureliness and original sin do affect the degree of moral culpability incurred by someone who has not heard the Gospel preached, or is not certain about God’s existence, or is ignorant of some specifics of natural law. According to Catholic teaching, moral guilt or offense would be incurred only if the natural desire for God were deliberately diverted to unworthy objects or the prompting of divine grace were actually refused.
A second level of human knowledge of God is that which the Church, since Justin Martyr in the second century, has called the semina Verbi , seeds of the Word. These belong, strictly speaking, not to the natural order but to the supernatural. What is involved here is not simply the natural desire for God but a real, though partial, revelation of God in non-Christian religions and philosophies. Pope John Paul II has been emphatic in reaffirming the traditional Christian conviction that the Holy Spirit is active outside the visible Church:
It is the Spirit who sows the seeds of the Word present in various customs and cultures, preparing them for full maturity in Christ. Thus the Spirit . . . leads us to broaden our vision in order to ponder his activity in every time and place. I have repeatedly called this fact to mind, and it has guided me in my meetings with a wide variety of peoples. The Church’s approach to other religions is dictated by a twofold respect: 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. ( Redemptoris Missio , 28-29)
Other religions can contain not only valuable expressions of the human desire for God, but also signs of the work of the Spirit. The fullness of revelation is transmitted to the human race through Christ. Through him alone do we learn about the triune God, and about His desire to bring human persons into the blessed communion of trinitarian life. Still, we ought not suppose that no truth is to be found in religious traditions outside the Christian ambit. Whatever truth there is must be the work of the Holy Spirit; the Church recommends that we try to identify such truth in the teachings of other religions by means of study and dialogue.
But, to turn to the issues that concern us here, what can we say about persons who refuse to accept the semina Verbi present to them in their religion or philosophy? Anyone who has recognized the elements of truth in his religious tradition is morally obliged to adhere to them. Anyone who has the impulse to pray is morally obliged to pray. Anyone who commits himself to a legitimate form of life that is driven by the desire for the ultimately True and Good is morally obliged to be faithful to that pursuit. There is also a moral obligation not to confer absolute value on pursuits that are by nature transient and limited.
On this level, the Christian would never recommend to anyone that he become, or remain, a Buddhist or Muslim-for that would be to recommend the seeds of the Word over against the Word himself. But the Christian does not have to deny the truth or the good that has already been or could be gained by adhering to another religion, and he certainly does not have to hold that the pursuit of the truth or the good in another religion is a morally culpable rejection of the ultimate truth and goodness of communion with the triune God that is revealed by Christ and proclaimed by the Church.
The third level of our knowledge of God is the knowledge of the whole revelation, received in the fullness of faith. This is the distinctive possession of Christianity, yet whether recognized or not it is the ultimate aim of every human being. The paradigm for the human possession of this knowledge is the experience of the blessed. In the pilgrim state of the Church on earth, there is the living faith of the company of believers who embrace not only the truth of the particular facts of revelation (e.g., the Incarnation, the sacraments, the Trinity) but who possess the fullness of the truth of God. At this level we cannot be content to talk about particular Christian claims, but must recognize their place in the whole of revelation. The writings of the saints bear striking testimony to the ability of the Christian, imbued with the living knowledge and love of God, not only to know the truths of the faith but to be at home in them, to see the connections between Trinity and Eucharist, Incarnation and judgment, Church and virtue, and so on. Such testimony is a foretaste of the complete knowledge possessed by the blessed.
What must we say of the person who refuses to accept the fullness of revelation? What else but that he is refusing the ultimate aim of life, and, in doing so deliberately, is morally culpable? The knowledge of this revelation is, properly speaking, eschatological. If by the fullness of revelation we mean the knowledge of God possessed by the saints in heaven, many who call themselves Christians would lack the fullness of Christianity. Christianity demands more than simply knowledge and assent-as the medieval theologians were fond of observing, the demons know perfectly well that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Professor Walls neglects this point by focusing chiefly on the person who refuses to assent to the doctrine of the Incarnation. Measured against the saints in heaven, the person who rejects the truth of the Incarnation might not be any more morally culpable or guilty of lack of faith than the person who acknowledges it. Furthermore, since the fullness of revelation is, to say the least, somewhat hidden, it may not be possible in a given case to delineate how much of a non-Christian’s refusal to believe in Christ is a deliberate rejection of the fullness of revelation, and how much is simply non-culpable ignorance of it.
Someone may argue that this last point obscures the discussion of the implications of religious claims. What good to the world is the Christian claim to the fullness of revelation if Christians are judged unfit to make the claim because of the imperfection of their faith? Is evangelization to be carried out only by saints? Yes; this is precisely the point that the Pope has made in his call for a new evangelization:
Just as it does in proclaiming the truths of the faith, and even more so in presenting the foundations and content of Christian morality, the new evangelization will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but also of the word lived. In particular, the life of holiness which is resplendent in so many members of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God’s love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord’s law, even in the most difficult situations. ( Veritatis Splendor , 107)
The conclusion is not that no one who is not perfect can evangelize, any more than we would insist that no one can receive a sacrament who is not perfectly disposed to it; God will work wonders with the barest dross we give him. The point is rather that when we talk about the logical implications of proclaiming the distinctively Christian message, we must use as a norm the proclamation of the full message.
Another way to get at the same point is to consider the doctrine of the hierarchy of truths, as reaffirmed explicitly by the Second Vatican Council. When we say that the Church’s dogmas are arranged in a hierarchy, we do not mean that some are essential and others are peripheral, as if one need only assent to the former and not the latter. All these truths require the same degree of acceptance of faith. However, we do not assent to a body of disconnected doctrines. Because they reflect the truth of God Himself, the truths of the faith are related to each other in various ways, and many of them, though essential, are derivative of others (e.g., the doctrines about the Church derive from those about Christ). Professor Walls distinguishes between claims that touch the essence of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation) and claims that are not essential. But the dogmatic claims of Christianity are not divided in this way. If we do not see the necessity of a subordinate dogma (e.g., the role of the Church), it is because we do not understand it as part of a hierarchy, as connected to a primary dogma (e.g., the economy of salvation).
These considerations lead us to three conclusions: (1) Concerning those things that are known by nature, ignorance of them can be the effect of creatureliness and sin; moral culpability lies in refusing to be led out of that ignorance. (2) Concerning the semina Verbi , some are known to every genuine religious believer; moral culpability lies in refusing to embrace and adhere to those truths, or in knowingly clinging to them in preference to a higher truth and a greater good to which they point. On both of these levels, the duty of the person is to respond to what has been made known to him according to the capacities cited above-a natural faculty in man to know the existence of God and the natural law, and a supernatural capacity, infused by the Holy Spirit, to recognize a certain good in the form of life presented by a non-Christian religion. (3) Concerning the fullness of revelation, it is possessed most perfectly by the blessed, but has been offered to all of those who put their trust in Christ; the moral culpability of the nonbeliever is difficult to assess, because so often what is presented to him is only a part of this whole revelation.
The moral question becomes an eschatological one: will a nonbeliever who has pursued to the end the good he has professed, and therefore has disposed himself to the reception of an even greater good, refuse to accept that greater good when it is presented to him in full clarity? And, like any eschatological reality, we have foretastes of it now: will a non-Christian who has become painfully aware of the sin in his life refuse to consider the possibility of redemption from that sin in Christ, a possibility exhibited obscurely but nonetheless really in the person of a living saint? The Christian judgment may be summed up in this way: eschatologically, Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation, and all people must come to accept that fact; here and now, if any person suspects that Jesus Christ is the way to the ultimate aim of life, he bears the moral obligation to follow Christ and find out whether his suspicion is right.
Finally, this approach resolves the question of the offense involved in the Christian’s judgment on the non-Christian. No non-Christian would take offense at the idea that he is morally obliged to exercise to the utmost his natural capacity to know and love to the uttermost, to respond faithfully to the good he has seen and committed himself to in another religion, and not to close himself to the possibility of recognizing a further good. If one argues that the offense lies in the Christian’s claim that Christianity possesses that further good, I respond, as I did in my earlier essay, that if Christians were to retreat from advancing the claim that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation, it is not clear what they would have to offer to the world. I would now add a further claim: if Christians neglect to consider the fullness of revelation as the inner logic of their lives of faith-their theology, their communal life, their moral life, their prayer-it is not clear how they can respond to Christ’s call to make disciples of every nation.
J. A. Di Noia, O.P., teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and is author of The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (1992).