JESUS CHRIST AND THE CHALLENGE TO CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
(This is a modified and expanded section of the last chapter in Christian Mission in Western Society, edited by Simon Barrow and Graeme Smith. The last three paragraphs are not in the book version. Relevant endnotes will be found in the book.)


Christians cannot escape Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful question, ‘Who really is Jesus Christ for us today?’ Christology hovers tantalisingly around and beneath the surface of many aspects of Christian identity. Yet, as is often the case in missionary theology, the shape of the Christ being encountered and announced is none too clear to the by-stander.

In recent years there have been numerous confrontations between theologians defending or defining a variant of what WCC Secretary Konrad Raiser and others have summarised as ecumenical ‘Christocentric universalism’ (which can take inclusive or exclusive forms) and the pluralist Christology of inter-religious exponents such as John Hick. In the latest skirmishes on this well-worn territory — again, intra-Christian terrain of little immediate interest to a wider Western audience — ‘the myth of pluralism’ (De Costa) has gone into battle against ‘the myth of Christian uniqueness’ (Hick et al) and ‘risking Christ for Christ’s sake’ (M. M. Thomas).   There have been important points scored on all sides, but little evidence that a ‘debate’ couched in these terms is of any practical use to Christian mission in any of its available guises. Nonetheless, the issues themselves cannot simply be sidelined. If the church is to persist in asserting the significance of Jesus Christ in a multi-religious world, it is bound to give an account of what it means by that.

For many years now the ‘exclusivist — inclusivist — pluralist’ paradigm (developed by Alan Race and others) has dominated practical Christology. The fact that, as can be seen in this book, most evocations of Christ in a missionary setting do not conform easily to these categorisations is but one sign that the terms of the debate now need to move on. I would draw attention to several contributions to the discussion beyond this volume that offer signs of new insight and possibility.

First, the Scottish systematic theologian Ruth Page has suggested a dramaturgical rendering of the encounter with God in Christ as ‘the incarnation of freedom and love’, which seeks to do justice both to the proper object of Christian devotion and to the needs of a plural, ambiguous world. It tries to look at how devotion to Christ and the attempt to follow him actually function on an incarnational understanding of God in relation to the world, rather than to proceed from metaphysical speculation to doctrinal assertion. It is, above all, a relational approach.

Second, Peter Selby (in the context of a discourse about  how the language of faith connects with our attempts to get to grips with world debt) has brought us back to the cutting edges of Bonhoeffer’s original question. This, he reminds us, embraces the issue of identity (‘who?’), the challenge of solidarity (‘us’) and the need for discernment (‘today’) and finds these questions mirrored back to us in the Christ whom we meet both in the call to radical discipleship and in the climate of contemporary questioning. Marcus Borg and his associates take up a similar challenge.

Third, Paul Knitter has moved the debate in which he has been a significant protagonist forward considerably in his advocacy of ‘a correlational, globally responsible theology of religions’ issuing in a more ‘Christic’ post-modern approach to religion in the new millennium than his previous straightforwardly pluralistic position allowed for. ‘The suffering other and the religious other belong together’, he has said. Against both traditional liberals and traditional conservatives, Knitter now argues that Christians can truly and faithfully bear witness to the universality, decisiveness and indispensability of Jesus in a fragmented world, but that this does not (on either biblical or other grounds) entail claiming him to be a sole, exclusive and totalising revelation of God.

As Richard Rohr has suggested in a more popular vein, ‘My exclusive commitment to God in Christ finally brought me to the realisation that the meaning of God in Christ is the end of all exclusivisms.’ The trailblazer in the Roman Catholic world in the area of Christology has been Jacques Dupuis, along with the Jesuit Michael Barnes, who has deployed a conversational model in place of the conventional, bounded-set ones. Perhaps this is why Dupuis has been in trouble with the Vatican of late!

In a recent book, ‘Interfaith Encounter’ (SCM 2001) Alan Race has politely hit back at those who, like me, wish to edge his exclusivism – inclusivism – pluralism typology to one side. The issue as to whether, for more than just the Christian, Christ defines and delimits the loving purposes of God will not go away, he says. In one sense he is right. People – or at least, some Christians – will continue to argue about such things. But for many more the either-or bounded set mentality, and the struggle for power it betokens, will seem less and less relevant to understanding the transformation wrought by a Lord whose function is precisely to undo all lordly title and claim, and whose authority derives from the triumph of life over death rather than attachment to contingent notions of rightness and wrongness.

As Roger Haight (‘Jesus: Symbol of God’, Orbis 1999) has said: the ‘core truths’ of other religions and life stances may differ from the Christian core truth, but not
all difference is contradiction. For the Christian Christ means, definitively, that “God is not diametrically other or different or less than the core truth existentially encountered in what is mediated by Jesus.”  But at the same time “Jesus reveals something that has been going on from the beginning, before and outside of Jesus’ own influence.” God’s universal grace disclosed in Jesus the Christ “opens the imagination to God’s presence to the world and guides Christian perception to recognise that what is revealed in him can be enriched by other religious truths.” (Haight, p409; Race, p.78). As Keith Ward says, what is disclosed proleptically in the person of Jesus and in the Christ-event is nothing less than “the image of the being of God as redemptive love and the purpose of God as participation in the Divine life.”

Meanwhile, what the world waits for is the sign of that life in the community that names itself after Christ, not the repetition of forensic affirmations that leave the Word bereft of flesh.

(c) Simon Barrow
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