Is Jesus Christ the unique mediator of salvation? I was one of five panelists assigned to address this question at a recent meeting of Catholic theologians. I was the first to speak and, as it turned out, the only panelist prepared to advance an unqualified affirmative response to the question. Why is this? Why would a group of Catholic theologians decline to affirm what, until recently, would have been considered an unquestionable tenet of ecumenical Christian faith?
As the session unfolded, it became clear that their reluctance to do so was motivated at least in part by a desire to avoid giving offense to religious people of other traditions. The underlying premise of their remarks and of the ensuing discussion seemed to be this: To ascribe a uniquely salvific role to Jesus Christ would constitute a denial of the salvific role of other religious founders (like the Buddha and Muhammad) and thus would be an affront to their communities.
The way that many theologians think about this issue has been influenced by the pluralist theology of religions popularized by John Hick, Paul Knitter, and others. Indeed, Paul Knitter was one of the panelists at the session mentioned above. In a nutshell, pluralists claim that in one way or another all religions aim at salvation. In John Hick’s influential definition, salvation is the movement from self-centeredness to “Reality-centeredness.” Since, according to pluralists, ultimate Reality is incomprehensible and ineffable, no one religious description can claim primacy over rival descriptions, and no tradition can claim exclusive rights to the means of salvation.
In the pluralist perspective, therefore, each religious founder must be regarded as in some sense a savior. Exclusive or unique status with respect to the knowledge of, provision for, or access to, salvation can no more be claimed for Jesus of Nazareth than it can be claimed for Gautama the Buddha or for Muhammad. Naturally, pluralists do not deny that these founders were unique historical personalities. What they deny is that any one of them could provide a uniquely privileged or exclusive access to salvation.
It follows for pluralists that Christian theologians cannot give a simple affirmative answer to the question, Is Jesus Christ the unique mediator of salvation? On the basis of their study of religious traditions, pluralist philosophers and theologians contend that salvation, though diversely mediated, is nonetheless universally accessible. It is not just in order to avoid giving offense to other religious people that pluralists have championed this view. Pluralists argue on empirical and philosophical grounds that a soteriological structure underlies all religious traditions and thus variously orients their adherents to “Reality” as it is diversely figured in these traditions. Only in this way can Christian theologians affirm the universality of salvation and of religious truth, at least as possibilities, without giving offense to other religious people.
To be sure, pluralists are not the only theologians who have been concerned with the salvation of persons who are not Christians. According to the typology prevailing in current theology of religions, the chief alternative positions on this issue are represented by exclusivism and inclusivism. In contrast to pluralists, both exclusivists and inclusivists would have no difficulty in giving an affirmative answer to the question, Is Jesus Christ the unique mediator of salvation? For all their sharp differences, exclusivists and inclusivists concur in their avowal of the uniquely salvific role of Christ. But exclusivists deny the possibility of salvation for non-Christians who do not before death explicitly profess faith in Christ. Inclusivists, on the other hand, allow for the possibility of salvation chiefly on the grounds of some form of implicit faith in Christ, combined with a morally upright life, on the part of non-Christians.
The Christian concern not to give offense to other religious people is a praiseworthy one, while the concern to allow for the possibility of their salvation is a doctrinally crucial one. But suppose that, far from being an affront to other religious traditions, a strong Christian affirmation of the uniqueness of Christ’s salvific role were fundamental to traditional Christian universalism. Suppose, in other words, that the particularity of salvation in Christ were nonexclusive. Suppose, further, that an affirmation of this nonexclusive particularity of salvation in Christ were not an obstacle to but a condition for genuine respect for other religious people.
This position, which I have long argued for, rests not only on central Christian doctrines but also on the suggestion that “salvation” is not a term that encompasses what all religions seek, but is a properly Christian designation for that which should be sought above all else in life. Salvation has a distinctively Christian content: transformation in Christ with a view to ultimate communion with the triune God. Even where other religious communities employ the term “salvation,” their conceptions of the aim of life differ from one another and from that espoused by Christian communities. By framing the agenda of theology of religions primarily in terms of the possibility of extra-Christian salvation, pluralists and inclusivists often fail to give enough weight to the specificity and distinctiveness of religious aims. Inclusivists fail to notice their distinctiveness because they tend to reinterpret non-Christian patterns and aims in Christian terms. More at the center of attention here, however, are pluralists who make salvation an all-encompassing designation for the variety of aims that religious traditions espouse and commend.
If the issues at stake were framed differently, it might turn out that to affirm Christ’s unique role in salvation is not to exclude persons who are not Christians but to embrace them. In other words, it might turn out that we could give a strong affirmative answer to the question, Is Jesus Christ the unique mediator of salvation? and still both show respect for other religious people and include them in the final consummation of all things for which we have reason, only in Christ, to hope.
In order to reframe these issues, and at the same time to identify what seems to be the weakness especially of typical pluralist approaches to them, let us engage in an experiment. Let us compare the question, Is Jesus Christ the unique mediator of salvation? with the question, Is the Buddha the unique revealer of the Dharma?
Suppose that I pose this second question to a Buddhist friend. Along with most other Buddhists, she will answer it affirmatively. The Dharma comprises all that concerns Nirvana and its attainment. Even though Buddhists commonly insist that knowledge of the Dharma is in principle accessible to anyone, still they regard Gautama’s discovery and teaching of the Dharma as unique in this era.
Consider how the conversation might proceed at this point. If my Buddhist friend should caution me that I will never attain Nirvana by following the course of life laid out for me by the Christian community, I do not feel anxious about this. I have not been persuaded that seeking Nirvana is what I should be doing. If I did begin to be persuaded of this, then I should undertake to discover the path and try to make my way along it. I would, in other words, have begun to be a follower of the Buddha. I might even then join a Buddhist community, or at least become an inquirer. Some Catholics I know have done this very thing. But if I continue to be convinced that it is salvation that I should be seeking and that Christ is the unique mediator of this salvation, then I would continue on the Christian path.
One thing to notice about this hypothetical encounter between me and my Buddhist friend is that I have not felt affronted by her warning that I shall not attain Nirvana unless I follow the Excellent Eightfold Path taught uniquely by the Buddha. On the contrary, my initial reaction is that what she has said to me makes perfect sense. If the Excellent Eightfold Path is the way to Nirvana, and if I do not choose to pursue this path, then it follows that I may not reach Nirvana. But, 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.
Without trying to field a “definition” of religion-something that has proven notoriously difficult to do-we could say that the Christian community and the Buddhist community (with their various subcommunities) each seems to have some conception of an ultimate aim of life and has developed a pattern of life geared toward attaining it. Other major religious communities share this tendency as well. What is ultimate, whether it be a transcendent agent or an as yet unrealized state of being, invades life at every moment, and summons the community’s members to order and shape their lives in view of this aim. The world’s religious communities differ in their descriptions of the aims that are ultimate in this sense (e.g., the extinction of the self or communion with the triune God) as well as in their provision for the cultivation of patterns of life ordered to the attainment and enjoyment of such aims (e.g., the Dharma or the gospel). But they seem to agree in espousing and commending comprehensive aims of life, and in striving to shape the lives of their members with a view to those aims.
We can now formulate a preliminary result of the consideration of the hypothetical conversation between me and my Buddhist friend. If the assertion “The Buddha is the unique revealer of the Dharma” is not offensive to me, then why should the assertion “Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation” be offensive to Buddhists, or, for that matter, to Muslims, Vedantists, or Jews? A rabbi once said to me, revealingly: “Jesus Christ is the answer to a question I have never asked.” This remark suggests that we might be on the right track in our reflections. Salvation in the Christian sense, it implies, is not what the rabbi is seeking. Asking the question to which Jesus Christ is the answer commits oneself to an inquiry (logically speaking) that may lead to the adoption of a Christian way of life. At least in part, this will mean that what Christians aim for, as expressed by the umbrella term “salvation,” has begun to look appealing or even ultimately important. One might conclude: This is what I should be aiming for in my life. But what would this be?
When Christians try to answer this question, we find ourselves becoming quite specific. When we try to say what comprises salvation, we find ourselves talking about the triune God; the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; grace, sin, and justification; transfiguration and divinization; faith, hope, and charity; the commandments and the moral virtues; and many other characteristically Christian things as well. We should not be surprised if, in trying to answer a cognate question, a member of another religious community, say a Buddhist, should also become very specific about Nirvana and all that bears on its attainment. We should not be surprised, furthermore, if the descriptions of salvation and Nirvana do not coincide. But, for the moment, let us continue the experiment by sketching some of the things that a Christian description of salvation might have to include.
Allowing for variations across its various subcommunities, we can understand the ecumenical Christian community to teach that the ultimate aim of life is a communion of life-a communion of life with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. According to ecumenical Christian faith, this is a truth proclaimed by Christ and a destiny made possible for us by his passion, death, and resurrection. This is what Christians mean by salvation: the term embraces both the goal of ultimate communion and the empowerment to attain and enjoy it.
Human beings are called to nothing less than communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with each other in them. Indeed, Christianity affirms that the triune God could not bring about a more intimate union with created persons than that which has already been initiated in baptism and will be fulfilled for us in Christ. Ultimate communion involves nothing less than becoming part of the trinitarian family. The principle and agent of this communion for us is Christ. Just as Christ is Son by nature-a member of the divine family of the Trinity in virtue of his being the Son of the Father-so human persons are to be sons and daughters by adoption. Our fellowship with Christ and with each other in him brings us into the divine trinitarian family.
But if we are destined to enjoy this ultimate communion, then we must change. We must become fit for it. Interpersonal communion with God is only “natural” to uncreated persons; for created persons, who are also sinners, such communion is possible only through justification and grace. Through the redeeming grace of Christ and, specifically, through the transformation that this grace makes possible, we are rendered “fit” participants in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our transformation will be a conformation: the more we become like Christ, the more surely do we discover our true selves, the unique persons created by the triune God to share in the divine life and to enjoy the personal life of the Trinity. As Catholics pray in one of the Sunday prefaces, “Father . . . You sent him as one like ourselves, though free from sin, that you might see and love in us what you see and love in him.”
However, this conformation does not amount to a mere conformity. The conformation to Christ that is the principle of our transformation is not a mere cloning but the realization of our distinctive and unique personal identities. This must be so, for otherwise the communion to which this transformation is directed could not be consummated. The image of God in us consists precisely in the spiritual capacities for knowing and loving that make interpersonal communion possible. But authentic interpersonal communion presupposes the full realization of the individual persons who enter into it. Thus, if Christ is to be the principle and pattern of our transformation, in being conformed to him we must each discover and realize our own unique identities as persons, and be healed of the sinful dispositions that obstruct the flourishing of our true selves.
This is the force of the astonishing saying of Christ:
If a man wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his life? Or what will he give in return for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26)
None of us, whether as teachers, parents, or pastors-no matter how inflated our conceptions of ourselves or how confident our sense of our abilities-would ever dare to say to anybody in our charge that they will find their true selves by imitating us. In effect, Christ asserts that an indefinite number of human persons will find their distinctive identities by being conformed to Christ. A moment’s reflection shows us that only the Son of God could make such an assertion. No mere human could do so. Only the inexhaustibly rich perfect Image of God who is the Person of the Son in a human nature could constitute the principle and pattern for the transformation and fulfillment of every human person who has ever lived.
When Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation, something like the above can stand as a summary of what they mean. Leave aside for a moment the question whether such a description includes or excludes persons who are not Christians. What we need to consider first, as we continue to reflect on my hypothetical conversation with a Buddhist friend, is whether such a description of what Christians mean by salvation is offensive to persons who are not Christians-Buddhists, for example. Informed of what a Christian means by salvation, would there be reason for a Buddhist to feel excluded by the assertion that Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation?
We have seen that salvation has a specific content for Christians: It entails an interpersonal communion, made possible by Christ, between human persons and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At least at first sight, this seems to be something very different from what Buddhists can be supposed to be seeking when they follow the Excellent Eightfold Path that leads them on the way to realizing enlightenment and the extinction of self in Nirvana. At least on the face of things, what Buddhists mean by “Nirvana” and what Christians mean by “salvation” do not seem to coincide. This does not mean that they are opposed; it remains to be seen whether seeking salvation and seeking Nirvana are complementary to each other or related in some as yet unspecified manner. However, it seems clear that interpersonal communion is a very different thing from the extinction of the self entailed in Nirvana. Many forms of Buddhism are concerned to cultivate dispositions that increasingly unmask the illusoriness of personal identity. As noted above, however, Christians understand personal identity to be of permanent, indeed eternal, significance because eternity centrally involves interpersonal communion.
Let us return to my hypothetical conversation with a Buddhist friend. We left the conversation at the point when she cautioned me that I would not reach Nirvana unless I followed the Excellent Eightfold Path. But this warning was not disturbing to me, for I do not want to attain Nirvana. Suppose that when the conversation resumes I offer a description of what Christians mean by salvation, a description not unlike the one presented above. Would we be surprised to find that my Buddhist friend wants no part of this? It is difficult for us to understand and accept that what we regard as most important-more so than anything else, absolutely speaking-other religious people challenge or repudiate. Buddhist communities in all their variety possess highly ramified teachings about the true aim of life and about the means to attain it. These teachings do not, at least on the surface, coincide with what Christians teach about these matters. Buddhists do not want ultimate communion; they do not seek it, and, insofar as they think about it, they may regard us as misguided for wanting and seeking it. For, by wanting and seeking ultimate communion, we remain, from a Buddhist point of view, incorrigibly attached to the very conceptions of personal identity that constitute the chief obstacle on the way to Nirvana.
Gautama the Buddha is the authority on these matters. He discovered and taught the Dharma, and through it attained enlightenment. His role in revealing the Dharma to others is regarded by most of his followers as something original, at least in the pres-ent epoch. Hence, while it makes good sense for Buddhists to affirm that the Buddha is the unique revealer of the Dharma, it makes little sense for them to be offended when Christians describe Jesus Christ as the unique mediator of salvation. Buddhists regard Christian beliefs about this as misguided and perhaps only partially true, but they will not be anxious or offended by such a Christian affirmation. They are not interested in seeking and attaining salvation as Christians understand it.
To be sure, some people-pluralists in particular-want to define “salvation” so broadly that it includes both what Christians mean by it and what Buddhists mean by Nirvana. On this account of things, my hypothetical encounter with a Buddhist friend would not present either of us with a choice between seeking Nirvana and seeking salvation. Some would say that to think that there is a serious choice here is, religiously speaking, overly literalistic and even simpleminded. Indeed, pluralists contend, precisely at this juncture the superiority of pluralist theology of religions is displayed. Pluralists argue that all religious communities advance their members toward specific aims-communion or enlightenment, as the case may be-that are surpassed or transcended by a more ultimate, but indescribable, aim. All religious communities seek this yet more ultimate aim with varying degrees of clarity and success. Not only is this conception closer to the truth of the matter, it also provides the basis for the sympathetic understanding, fruitful dialogue, and mutual respect that are desperately needed today.
In fact, however, this basic premise of pluralist theology of religions will not stand up under close scrutiny. Even if religious communities were prepared to accept some such description of what they are about it still remains true that they espouse and commend specific aims that differ from one another. Furthermore, these specific aims call forth distinctive patterns of life in each of the major religious traditions and in local traditions as well. Certain kinds of life are understood to foster the enjoyment of certain kinds of ends of life, and others to obstruct this enjoyment. This seems to be an ineradicable feature of the characteristic discourse and ethos of most religious communities. Individual lives come to be shaped by the ultimate aims that are sought. So even if the true aim of life were one that transcended the particular aims of all religious traditions, no one could seek it. No one could undertake to order life in such a way as to attain and enjoy an ultimate aim of life of which no description could be given.
But this goes directly against the grain of characteristic religious affirmation and conviction. Religious people, by and large, believe themselves to be in possession of understandings, incomplete though they may be, of what is ultimately important in life and how to orient life in its direction. Significant disagreements obtain among the major and local religious traditions about these matters. Pluralist theology of religions does not so much explain these disagreements as explain them away. In this way, pluralism seems to offer a massive redescription, rather than an interpretation, of religious beliefs and practices, and of the arresting differences among them.
Thus the following statements are not problematic in the way that many people, like those I joined on the theological panel, seem to think. “Jesus Christ is the unique mediator of salvation” and “The Buddha is the unique revealer of the Dharma.” Were representatives of Christian or Buddhist communities to retreat from advancing such claims, it is not clear what they would have to offer to the world. There would be no compelling, or even interesting, reasons to persevere in membership in these communities, or indeed to seek it.
The great challenge facing present-day Christian theology of religions and interreligious conversation is to avoid minimizing the distinctive features of the major religious traditions through a well-intentioned universalism. Christian confidence in the universal scope of salvation rests on convictions about the historical career and perduring agency of Jesus Christ. Only if his identity is affirmed in its fullness-in accord with the holy Scripture, the great councils, and the Church’s liturgy-as the Son of God who became man and died for us can the hope of Christians for themselves and for others be sustained. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).
If the salvation that the triune God wills for the entire human race entails ultimate communion with the three persons, then the creaturely and sinful obstacles to this communion must be overcome. It has never been claimed that anyone but Jesus Christ could overcome these obstacles. Through him we are both healed and raised to an adoptive participation in the life of the Trinity. The obstacles to this participation are either overcome or not. If they are not overcome, then Christians have nothing for which to hope, for themselves or for others. In that case, they will hawk an empty universalism on the highways of the world. When Christians abandon the proclamation of Christ’s unique mediatorship, they have no other mediatorship with which to replace it.
How persons who are not now explicit believers in Christ are to share in the salvation he alone makes possible is a large topic that I have not addressed here. But if Christians no longer confess Christ’s unique mediatorship in making ultimate communion a real possibility for created persons, then the problem of how non-Christians can share in it is not resolved: it simply evaporates. True Christian universalism depends on the affirmation of the nonexclusive particularity of salvation in Jesus Christ.
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 . A slightly different version of this essay appears in Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism , Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., just published by Eerdmans.