As interfaith dialogue grows, what's the case for an open Christology?

Distinctive affirmations of Christ become real challenges in conversations among faith communities.

By Colin Harris

Increased participation in interfaith dialogue in recent years has brought new levels of friendship and understanding across lines often marked by fear and hostility.

Fellowship leads to friendship, hostility gives way to hospitality, respect replaces suspicion and the light of understanding begins to cause the darkness of ignorance to lose its influence. It is not unusual to hear a participant in the dialogue reflecting, “Why, I have more in common with _____ than I do with some people of my own tradition.”

When the experience moves beyond the pleasant levels of fellowship and conversation, there are theological questions that arise and prompt serious thinking, especially for Christian participants. The question that seems especially critical is the Christological one: Who is Jesus Christ and what is his role in the faith relationship?

It is relatively easy to discuss across tradition lines concepts of God, understandings of the human condition, the nature of worship, ethics, the faith community and the focus of ministry. But the distinctive affirmations about Christ — Paul’s “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19); “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14); and Jesus’ own words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) — present a special challenge.

The ease with which these affirmations lead to an exclusive perspective — that one’s own way is the only way — can be an agenda changer in an interfaith experience. How can a pilgrimage be a genuinely mutual and respectful one when one perspective is decided ahead of time to be the only “true” one?

It may be helpful to reflect on the development of the Christian community’s understanding of who Christ was and is.

“Who was that masked man?”

Not unlike the legendary question at the end of every episode of early TV’s “Lone Ranger,” life had been changed by this very present yet mysterious character, and the question came, “Who was that, really?”

How to answer this question has been the church’s Christological challenge. Biblical answers included atoning sacrifice (Paul), Messiah (Matthew) and incarnation of the Logos (John).

Subsequent generations struggled with the humanity/deity question, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. settled (?) on a balance between a high (divine) and a low (human) Christology that serves as the orthodox understanding.

The high/low Christological question before Chalcedon was an effort to interpret Christ’s essential being in terms of prevailing categories of Greek thought. The framework of essence and existence was how reality was understood, and it was natural to seek to understand and explain who Jesus was in terms of that.

Many generations of tradition have established a comfortable doctrinal balance and acceptance of divine/human Christology. Recurrent leanings toward high or low Christology are usually tempered with reminders of the balance.

With the question of a high or low Christology somewhat settled, I wonder if a theological challenge for our time in a global religious neighborhood is that of a closed or open Christology.

With notable exceptions, the Christology that has prevailed in relation to other faiths has been a closed (excusive) rather than an open one — one way, and only one way, to receive salvation, to be “right with God,” to have an authentic (true) faith.

Is there a way to think of who Christ is which views him as a disclosure of God who reflects a life of openness to living into that mystery with a love of God and neighbor which is not at the same time bound by doctrinal constraints or any other of the boundaries that alienate the human family from each other?

Rather than a closed avenue of access to God, an open Christology would become a lens through which to see the mystery of God at work in ways previously unrecognized among “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16). The “way” of Jesus might be more of a “how it’s done” than a carefully defined path of controlled access.

It seems to be a conversation worth having. I wonder what you think?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.