The Unicity and Universality of Jesus Christ

Bishop Walter Kasper

Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

October 17, 2000


1. The Complex Situation in a World that is Becoming One

The current situation of the world is distinguished by two opposing characteristics. On the one hand we have the phenomenon of globalization. The world has become like a "global village." It is not only financial information and resources that circle the globe electronically 1,000 times every single day, but through the modem mass media we can have access to information from all over the world. The modem means of transportation convey people and merchandise from one end of the planet to the other in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, this has not made the world any more peaceful. Globalization creates new dependencies and injustices and establishes new forms of domination for the strong and the powerful. Therefore there are countermovements to globalization. Whenever people of different cultures move closer together, anxiety and problems increase and produce hatred and violence; therefore the particular interests of the various groups increase along with a rise in ethnic and cultural conflicts. Many voices predict a "clash of civilizations'' (to use Huntington's expression), and in fact, in many places across the world today this is being expressed in bloodshed. We need only think of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and Kosovo.

In the so-called "developed" societies there is an increasing loss of common values and fundamental convictions. In our century in all areas of life and thought pluralism has undergone a downright astronomical increase. Ever greater differences between lifestyles and living conditions, between types of thought and systems of orientation, worldviews and economic systems can be seen. Development often goes so far that the recognition of the inalienable universal human rights of the peoples and cultures is called into question; and this can happen not only in authoritarian countries like China, but among Western thinkers too to some extent. They sometimes describe any appeals to universal human rights as neo-colonial, European-centered thinking.

This pluralism also has an effect on the personal identity of the individual. Most people live in several very different worlds. The world of family, job and leisure, the private and the public sector, the domestic economic, political and cultural sectors are often far removed from one another. Many a time it even results in a "patchwork identity" and a syncretism of elements of the most diverse religious and cultural traditions; no attempt is made at a cognitive clarification, with the result that there is much overlapping and in the life of a single person apples and oranges (the Nahte and Bruche) remain unprocessed next to one another.

The attempt to find in this diversity, which can hardly be ignored, a unifying bond holding everything together seems to be increasingly hopeless. Postmodern philosophy has drawn some consequences from it. It has consciously dismissed the postulate of unity which previously marked all of Western thought. This results not only in the acceptance and tolerance of diversity, but also a "fundamental option" for pluralism. Thus postmodern thought has arrived at a new qualitative pluralism, according to which universal and absolute values and norms simply do not exist. Reason itself has become plural. Truth, humanitarianism and justice now exist only in the plural. Therefore there is no longer a universal and definitively valid religion.

2. Religious Pluralism as Theological Challenge

Although the world was already pluralistic, today we are discovering this pluralism anew; today we are more aware of it than ever and cannot help but wonder how we should act in regard to it. This is a situation that calls into question the very basis of Christianity and in which the churches have a new challenge. In the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the Catholic Church defines herself precisely as a sign and instrument of unity and peace (Lumen Gentium, 1 et al). Therefore today's world represents an immense challenge for her.

From the very beginning the church has proclaimed a twofold message. She emphatically supported -- and continues to do so -- the idea that every person, regardless of the color of his skin and the ethnic or cultural group to which he or she belongs, is an image of God (Gn. 1:27) and that every individual possesses an absolute, even unique value. The basic human rights are therefore universal and apply to every single individual. Since the Second Vatican Council, and especially during the present pontificate, the Catholic Church has been more than ever working for the universal respect of human rights.

This universality applies first of all to the church's salvific mission. Jesus sent his apostles into the whole world, to all nations, to all human beings (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:27; Acts 1:8). The church's mission is therefore universal, and the church is by her very nature missionary (Ad Gentes, 2). She is not tied to a given nation, nor to a given culture or language or even to a given political or economic system. The church is, in a manner of speaking, the world's oldest "global player." In the Second Vatican Council she describes herself as the universal sacrament of salvation and as a sign and instrument of unity (Lumen Gentium, 1; 9; 48; Gaudium et Spes, 42; 45; Ad Gentes, 1; 5 et al). She transcends all ethnic, national and cultural differences and wants to unite all peoples, tongues and cultures in praise of the one God.

By saying that the one God is the Father of all people, a second element of the church's message is also raised. Alongside universality is the unity, indeed the unicity [Translator's note: The word unicity has been used to translate the German Einzigkeit rather than uniqueness to avoid any misunderstanding. Uniqueness has the connotation of having different characteristics than the others, while the church's teaching is that Jesus Christ is the "one and only" Messiah.] of the church's message. The church proclaims the one and only God (Dt. 6:4; Mk. 12:29), who is the Father of all people, the good and the evil alike (Mt. 5:45). She acknowledges her one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5). In no other name is there salvation (Acts 4:12). He is the sole mediator between God and man (1 Tm. 2:5). He is the one high priest who redeemed us once and for all (Heb. 7:27). This message has been given us once for all time (Jude 3).

Therefore there can be only the one true church, which is the una, sancta catholica et apostolica ecclesia, as we call it in the creed. In the Catholic self-understanding, she is united in the one common profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the celebration of the same sacraments, especially of the eucharist, the sacrament of unity, and in the one service of unity in the college of bishops with and under the successor of Peter (Lumen Gentium, 13).

In view of this strong emphasis on the unity and unicity of Jesus Christ and his church on the one hand and the pluralistic condition of the modern and postmodern world on the other hand, it is not surprising that a broad and bitter discussion on the very question of the unity and unicity of Jesus Christ would develop both inside the realm of theology and outside it. Not only has cultural pluralism increased, but we are also much more conscious of religious diversity than we were in the past.

Today more than in earlier times we know more about the many centuries and millennia before Jesus Christ came into the world, and we know how many millions of people -- even today, 2,000 years after the birth of Christ --still have not been grasped by the Christian message and live outside Christianity. Shall they all be lost forever? How is this compatible with the justice and mercy of God and God's desire that all people be saved?

Knowledge of the diversity of religions is understandably nothing new. What is new, however, is the way that -- because of globalization -- we are more conscious of this phenomenon, and it has a new urgency. Religions too have drawn nearer to one another in the "global village" of the world. They are no longer separated from one another by national borders nor do they live side by side in isolation. Many a time they live next to one another or mixed together in the same country. Almost all of us live side by side with followers of other religions, people whom we truly value as human beings.

In our global situation tolerance, mutual acceptance and peace between religions are an important prerequisite for peace in the world and an essential contribution to peace among nations and to peace within nations.

3. The Religious Pluralism Thesis

It is in this context that the newer religiously pluralistic ideas of theology must be understood. I would like merely to mention a few names: Raimundo Pannikar, John Hick, Paul F. Knitter.

The question as such is not new. We already find it during the period of the Enlightenment, a little in J.E. Lessing and we meet it again in the liberal theologies, most of all in the work of E. Troeltsch, who acknowledges the immense value of Christianity, but not its absolute value. Rejecting the relativization of the Enlightenment were first and foremost the representatives of German idealism, with Hegel in the lead. Since his day there has been and still is talk of Christianity's claim to absoluteness. But today idealistic thinking is often accused of being responsible for the totalitarian ideologies of our century. Since the collapse of the totalitarian ideologies, this thinking is often criticized as being "Eurocentric," "imperialistic" and "totalitarian"; it is accused of not giving due consideration to the essential diversity of reality and cultures.

Against this background the theory of religious plurality has developed, according to which there is not only a diversity of religions but also of revelations, which thus makes it possible to have a diversity of forms of salvific responses. As a consequence, this theory requires the recognition of more than one mediator of salvation. It becomes aggravated in the discussion of the unicity of Jesus Christ, more precisely, therefore, in the question of whether Jesus Christ is the one and only and at the same time the universal mediator of salvation for every person. It is obvious that this question touches upon a central and fundamental point of the Christian faith. With this question the identity of Christianity and of the church is at stake.

Various theologians have chosen a new epistemology as a philosophical basis for the pluralistic theories and have fallen back on Kant's theory of knowledge. According to Kant, only the phainomenon of a thing is knowable and not its nooumenon. This means that we recognize only what things are for us, and not what they are in truth and in themselves. Ultimately for postmodern philosophy, it is an aesthetical, not a philosophical, understanding of truth. Frequently one hears spoken of a "renewal of mythical thinking".

Thus we can only acknowledge what God means for us at a particular time. We cannot grasp the being of God per se. Therefore it is impossible to analyze the many diverse images of God for their objective truth. If there can be no absolute in history -- and if even more so there can be only ideas, concepts, images and ideals of the divine that can point us to the transcendent truth without this truth itself appearing-- then it is clear that Christianity can make no claims of absoluteness. Accordingly, Hick rejects the identification of God with a single historical figure, with Jesus of Nazareth, as a myth. Jesus Christ is relativized to a religious genius through whom people have become aware of their divine filiation.

If the theory of religious pluralism thus first derives from the basic equality of importance of the various religions, it however does not follow that for proponents of the theory all religions are actually of equal value and all differences among them are insignificant. They are quite far removed from such a superficial relativism. It is also obvious that religions not only contain great and deep insights, but also destructive elements such as superstition and inhumane practices.

For the proponent of the theory of religious pluralism, the criterion for distinguishing and judging is not theoretical but ethical and practical. Authoritative for the "evaluation" of religions is their respective readiness to integrate people and the various areas of human life in a process that leads from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness. The advantage is held by that religion that corresponds more to human dignity and does more to promote that dignity.

The question is admittedly whether this ethical and practical, ultimately humanistic criterion is sufficient from the philosophical and theological point of view. It is quite obvious that with this criterion one can claim that one religion has priority or advantage over another but cannot claim, however, the uniqueness of a single one, or in concrete terms, of the Christian religion. According to these criteria, Christianity can be held to be of great value, but not exclusive validity. Therefore there is a basic pluralism and a competition among religions.

We can still more fundamentally argue and ask if there can be in general an ethical criterion that does not necessarily assume a theoretical criterion. Who can say what is truly human? In order to answer this question, every ethical and practical criterion assumes a theoretical judgment because the practical judgment will be different according to whichever concept of man it consciously or unconsciously assumes. Or, to express it in basic terms: The question about the objective truth of reality cannot be ignored.

If the question of truth is no longer asked, we arrive at a purely aesthetical understanding of the world in which one assesses things according to their subjective experiential meaning and by which a person eclectically decides in favor of what seems most likely to make him feel happy. Thus in the "market of possibilities" one can choose a la carte and simply allow the contradictions to stand. Thus belief in plurality and tolerance threatens to develop into indifference and lack of interest. Not without cause does postmodern thinking lead many of its advocates to nihilism. Friedrich Nietzsche proves to be their precursor and model.

4. The Teaching of the Second Vatican Council

We must now consider the unsolved premises, the consequences and, not least of all, the contradictions with the central and fundamental statements of sacred Scripture and tradition, concerning ourselves once again most of all with the theological tradition as it was formulated by the Second Vatican Council. Even before the newer theological concepts were developed, the Second Vatican Council addressed this problem on the basis of its own tradition. From that time onward a number of Catholic theologians have attempted to offer solutions.

In the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church rejected the position she frequently held in the past by which she judged non-Christian religions as heresy and superstition. In the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, the council clearly and plainly stated that the church "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (Nostra Aetate, 2). In the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes, the council picked up on the teaching of many of the fathers of the church and spoke about truth and grace (No. 9) and the "seeds of the Word" (No. 11) which can be found among the pagans through a kind of hidden presence of God.

The council confirmed the theological teaching that God, who is the salvation of all human beings (1 Tm. 2:4), shows the way to salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Jesus Christ but, moved by grace, try in their actions to do God's will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience (Lumen Gentium, 16: cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22).

However, in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, the council clearly and unambiguously taught that the "one true religion exists" in the Catholic, apostolic church, but she also teaches that every person is duty bound to follow the truth "according to his or her conscience"; because "truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth" (No. 1; cf. No. 3). Thus the council dismisses any recourse to the older tradition of much of the earlier missionary activity; it rejects all forms of force or pressure to join the Christian faith or any other religion. By its very nature, an act of faith is a free act (No. 10). With this declaration, the council recognized every person's right not only to adhere inwardly and privately to his or her religion but also to profess it publicly.

The council's starting point for this teaching is the New Testament, especially the reference from the Letter to the Colossians and the prologue of John's Gospel, whereby all things were created in, through and for Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15-16). Everything came to be through the Word that became man in Jesus Christ, who is life and the light that enlightens every person (Jn. 1:3-5, 9). This New Testament teaching was continued by the fathers of the church. They said that in all truth in the non-Christian religions too there are fragments of the truth (logoi spermatikoi), that appeared in all its fullness in Jesus Christ once and for all time.

The encyclical Redemptoris Missio, "on the permanent validity of the church's missionary mandate" (1990), develops the council's teaching and develops another further point of view. The encyclical gives not only a Christological argument, but also a pneumatological one. The Spirit of God is present and at work everywhere, limited by neither space nor time. He is active in the heart of every person who is ordered to what is true and good and who honestly seeks God. The Spirit gives light and strength to every person to respond to his or her highest calling and offers each person the possibility "of sharing in the paschal mystery in a manner known to God .... The Spirit therefore is at the very source of man's existential and religious questioning, a questioning which is occasioned not only by contingent situations but by the very structure of his being. The Spirit's presence and activity affect not only the individuals, but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions" (No. 28).

Whether or not it is possible in this context to speak of "anonymous Christians,'' as Karl Rahner did, is another question and one which I prefer not to get into here. In connection with our topic, it is much more important that the Spirit of God can be at work outside the visible church and that in diverse ways the Spirit does act in a hidden manner.

With these positions the council and the post-conciliar teaching laid the basis for dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions. It specifically established and affirmed this dialogue. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have accepted this invitation and since that time expressly fostered interreligious dialogue. Since the time of Paul VI's Curial reform, it has its own dicastery in the Roman Curia, a Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Through its statements the council rejected the old, exclusionary theory and practice, according to which, since Jesus Christ is the one and only mediator of salvation, outside of acknowledging him, i.e., "outside the church," there is no salvation: "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus," as Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) said in his famous axiom, although admittedly in the context of a dispute within the church; through Fulgentius of Ruspe, disciple of Augustine (d. 532), it later entered in a fundamental way into the church's theological tradition, especially in the Fourth Lateran Council (Denz. Schon. 802). This axiom is often interpreted to mean that all those who do not know and acknowledge the Christian faith are forever lost. Today this thinking is hardly anymore comprehensible to the majority of people; it seems impossible to reconcile it with the justice and mercy of God or with his desire for the salvation of all, and even with human solidarity.

Even before the council, this exclusionary theology was replaced by an inclusive theory, but even more so since the council within Catholic theology-although with some modification of details. It attempts to explain on the basis of the teaching of Scripture and the fathers of the church that in Jesus Christ salvation has come to all people in a universal way that includes everything that is true and good in the other religions. That means that salvation, which non-Christians can share in if they live according to their conscience, is not some other type of salvation outside of and without Jesus Christ, but more of a salvation in and through Jesus Christ. This view has in the meantime become more or less the opinio communis of Catholic theology.

5. Unity in Diversity --Christological and Trinitarian

The more recent theories, of course, ask if this inclusive approach goes far enough. Is it fair to the diversity of the other religions? Or does it not rather dominate the other religions? Does it not make them -- according to the church's own self-understanding-anonymous Christian religions? Does this approach also not represent a disguised imperialism?

In order to answer these questions, we must consider the question of the unity and unicity of Jesus Christ in the diversity of religions more closely from a Trinitarian and Christological confession. This will lead us to a kenotic analysis of the problem of unity and diversity.

Let us begin by giving an account of the meaning of acknowledging the unity and unicity of God. This faith unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and it distinguishes these three monotheistic religions from all other religions. In the Christian understanding it admittedly has a specific meaning.

In Christian understanding this confession of faith in the one and only God is not to be understood in a simple, quantitative sense; it means not only that there "is" only one God and not two or three of them. For the Bible, it is not such a quantitative expression but first and foremost a qualitative, existential statement. Belief in the one and only God is to be seen against the background of a demand for a radical and integrated decision to belong to God with all one's heart, soul and understanding (Mk. 12:30 and parallels). A person cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). God is such that he monopolizes us completely and with all the aspects of our being, and totally fulfills us.

Theological tradition picked up this thought and developed it speculatively. It has demonstrated that by his very nature God is a reality that embraces and surpasses everything. Therefore, in accordance with his nature, God can only be one. Whoever professes more than one God has not understood what the word God really says and means. The church historian Tertullian expressed this thought in the saying: "If God is not one, he does not exist."

Acknowledging the one God includes the belief that the one God is everything and the all-embracing God of all human beings. While polytheism holds the plurality of realities, peoples and cultures as an absolute, belief in the one God is the sharpest possible contradiction to the fragmentization of reality and the clearest possible affirmation of the unity of the world and of the human race. This belief in the one God says that all men and women are brothers and sisters because they belong to one family, headed by one Father in heaven. Thus the universal confession of the one God also affirms the irrevocable and inalienable value of the individual.

The most profound reason that profession of faith in the one God does not prescind from diversity but rather includes it to a certain extent lies in the Trinitarian confession of one God in three persons. It is the interpretation of the biblical expression "God is love" (1 Jn. 48:16). It means that the one and only God is not a solitary God, but from eternity is self-giving love in which the Father communicates with the Son and the Father, and the Son with the Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons is fully God, totally eternal, and each gives the others room in which they can communicate themselves and renounce themselves. In this kenotic way God is unity in diversity.

Since from all eternity God is the self-giving and self-actualizing love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he can totally communicate himself in Jesus Christ without diminishing or losing something of himself in the process. The divinity of Jesus Christ is seen in the fact that he renounces himself (Phil. 2:6). The omnipotence of love must not be asserted, but it can give of itself and give itself away, and it is precisely in this self-giving that it is itself. Such a renunciation is true and genuine only if the Godhead of the eternal Logos does not absorb his humanity but accepts it in its peculiarity and lets it be itself. Thus, according to the church's faith, in Jesus Christ divinity and humanity are distinct and undivided (Denz. Schon. 302). Jesus Christ is unity in diversity and diversity in unity.

Thus it is part of the basic understanding of the fathers of the church, which found expression in the ancient tradition of the church, that in Jesus Christ the one and only God communicated himself historically once, but completely, conclusively and unreservedly. In him dwells the fullness of divinity (Col. 1:19; 2:9). Thus in the coming of Jesus Christ in history the fullness of time has arrived (Mk. 1:15; Gal. 4:4). This historical coming of the fullness of time is the fulfillment of the eternal mystery of God (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 1:9; Col. 1:26).

The conclusion can only be that if God communicated himself in the concrete person and history of Jesus Christ completely, conclusively and unreservedly, then Jesus Christ is the "id quo malus cogitari nequit," and nothing greater can be thought of (Anselm of Canterbury); then he is also the "id quo Deus malus operari nequit," and God can do nothing greater than him. Thus because of the very nature of the Christ event, there can be no other religion or culture that surpasses or adds to the order of salvation in Christ. Everything in the other religions that involves what is true and good participates in what has appeared in its fullness in Jesus Christ.

Therefore no person, and no dogma of the church, can exhaust this mystery completely. According to the New Testament, the Spirit of God has been promised us in order to lead us ever anew and ever more deeply into this mystery (Jn. 16:13). The encounter with other religions can be a way to open up to us more deeply a given aspect of the one mystery of Christ. Therefore, for us, interreligious dialogue is not a one-way street; it is a true encounter that can be an enrichment for us Christians. In it we are not only the givers, but also the learners and the receivers because through it we are allowed to grasp the entire fullness of the mystery that has been given us in Jesus Christ in its length and breadth, height and depth (cf. Eph. 3:18).

Thus from both the Trinitarian and Christological perspectives we are given an understanding of unity and unicity, an understanding that is not totalitarian; on the contrary, it gives the other room and sets free. It indeed belongs to the essence of true love, which unites at the deepest level but does not cause the other to lose his own identity but leads him or her to his own fulfillment.

These speculative considerations immediately become concrete and practical when we look at the life of Jesus. He is, as the Gospels show us, the man for others; he, the Lord, came not to lord it over others, but to serve and to offer his own life "for the many" (Mk. 10:45 par). He, the one who renounces himself even to death, is exalted and made Lord of the Universe (Phil. 2:6-11). Thus through Jesus Christ, self-consuming in self-giving service becomes a new universal imperative.

Understood in this way, the claim of the unity and unicity of the Christian order of salvation is no imperialistic thesis that dominates or oppresses other religions. Even less so is it the basis of nor does it foster an imperialistic understanding and an imperialistic practice of mission. It has nothing to do with a world order, although throughout history it has often been misunderstood and misused.

If the thesis of the unity and unicity of the Christian order of salvation in its universal scope is understood in this way, then it asserts and defends with its universal and global claim the inalienable right of each and every freedom. It is precisely its concrete decisiveness (to use the expression of H. Schlier) that is in opposition to every form of syncretism and relativism, that is the foundation of its relations with other religions, relations that are not only tolerant and respectful but also dialogical and diaconial, far removed from every narrow-minded form of fundamentalism.

This dialogical and diaconal relationship has three aspects: Christianity affirms, respects and defends everything in the other religions that is true, good, noble and holy (cf. Phil. 4:8) (via positiva seu affirmativa); it prophetically criticizes whatever they contain that is detrimental to the honor of God and human dignity, when the divine and human are so mixed together that neither God nor the human person is respected in their full dignity (via negativa seu critica et prophetica); finally, it wants to invite the other religions, in faith in Jesus Christ and through participation in his fullness, to reach their own fullness and completion (via eminentiae). The missionary decree of the Second Vatican Council puts all three together when it says that everything that is good and true in the religions of mankind finds its measure in Jesus Christ and must be measured critically against him, purified by him and brought to fulfillment (Ad Gentes, 9).

Everything has been created according to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cot. 8:6), and everything shall be brought together in him (Eph. 1:10). This "everything" reaches far beyond the area of religion; it touches upon all of reality and places everything under the one measure, Jesus Christ, and his self-renouncing service "for the many." Understood in this way, the Christian faith, precisely in its claim of universality that so many people find objectionable, is an appeal for and the basis of mutual tolerance and respect, of sharing and communication, of exchange and interchange, of understanding, reconciliation and peace. It points the way to him who is "the focal point of all the desires of history and civilization, the center of mankind, the joy of all hearts and the fulfillment of all aspirations" (Gaudium et Spes, 45) and who is "our peace" (Eph. 2:14). Mission is at the service of this peace -- peace with God and peace among nations.