Jesus as model for inter-religious dialogue

Jesus of Nazareth remains the model and inspiration for true theological discourse. Despite his Jewish upbringing, he transcended the narrow boundaries of Judaism reaching out to others outside of his own culture.

By way of illustration, we cite Jesus’ prophetic stand and all-embracing mission: his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark and Matthew and the Samaritan woman in John. Both are nameless and “faceless” women, but critical and creative dialogue partners of Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke and the praise of the Roman officer’s faith in Matthew are other striking examples of Jesus’ openness to non-Jewish people. He proclaimed the good news of liberation/salvation to all irrespective of social and religious status. Poor and rich, women and men, sinners and saints, Jews and Gentiles – all felt at home with Jesus, the compassionate Guru.

But this inclusiveness has been slow to come even as we find our church in a 21st-century paradigm shift, moving from an almost exclusively top-down instruction model to a new model characterized by much more theological discourse among its own members. This new, rich dialogue must continue to move beyond our church into the area of inter-religious dialogue.

The idea of inter-religious dialogue is hardly new. It grew out of the Second Vatican Council. The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue (formally known as the Vatican Secretariat for non-Christians) was established by Pope Paul VI in 1964, marking an important turning point in the understanding of evangelization.

The Vatican II document on “Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions,” Nostra Aetate, clarifies the church’s position. It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing, which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon these ways of conduct and of life, these rules and teaching, which though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of the Truth, which enlightens all people.”

At the same time, while acknowledging the positive elements in other religions, Vatican II and subsequent official church documents have underscored the centrality of Jesus Christ as the constitutive mediator of salvation. The distinguishing feature between Christianity and other religions is the Christ-event. As Jesuit priest Jacques Dupuis observes, whatever theological interpretation we give to the Vatican Council and its context, it is difficult to say that, in practice, it goes beyond the fulfillment theory, although it may not be the fulfillment theory in its classical form. There is no point in over-optimistically reading into the mind of the council ones’ pious wishes. All the values found in other religions are in relation to the church, as if nothing authentic could be present in them except in relation to the Catholic church. There is no explicit acceptance of other religions as ways of salvation even necessarily in relation to the mystery of Christ.

Religious pluralism is a fact of history and should not be an obstacle to harmonious living and interfaith partnership. One can discover expressions of pluralism in Biblical texts. Describing religion as “a divine-human relationship,” Indian Jesuit priest and theologian Michael Amaladoss accentuates the need for learning from other religions, writing:  “ . . . what I am suggesting is that each religion, while believing in its specificity and uniqueness, can – and does – accept the legitimacy of other religions as facilitating divine-human encounter. Each religion will explain this in accordance with its own faith-vision.”

Critiquing the people who brand pluralistic approach as a “relativization strategy,” the Indian New Testament Scholar, Carmelite of Mary Immaculate priest Joseph Pathrapankal says, “It is to be forcefully maintained that when we speak of pluralistic approach, it is not a relativization of one’s own faith in Christ that is proposed, but rather an objective approach to the reality of religions in God’s plan of salvation.”

In the present socio-economic, religious-cultural and political context of India, Christians should be encouraged to work with all people of good will in furthering the Reign of God. In this matter theologians have a great responsibility to educate the laity about the teachings of Vatican II, which express openness to the riches of other religions and cultures and recognize in them the seeds of the Word.

Conflicts among religions in India and the violence sometimes associated with these conflicts should not be allowed to negate the positive role religions can play in building a better nation and a better world. Examples abound in this regard.

Personally, my experience of promoting unity in diversity and harmony among religious communities has deepened my conviction that followers of other religions should not be mere objects of theological discourse, but true partners in our common search for Truth.


A church in dialogue with followers of other religions is called to express its faith in and through local cultures. These can be liberating and empowering experiences. Although the Vatican II Council documents recognize the legitimacy of plurality of cultural expression in the church, the church leaders in India, including liturgy experts, by and large still cling to Western forms of Christianity as seen in the architecture of our churches, the atmosphere of worship, postures, gestures, signs, symbols, vestments of priests, music and prayer forms. Consequently a majority of the laity have followed imported spirituality, liturgy and style of mission that do not appeal or cater to the needs of the oppressed and exploited of the church. Many have uncritically accepted this Western form of Christianity as normative and universal.

Dialogue and enculturation must be integral aspects of mission in multi-religious and pluralistic societies such as those of India and of wider Asia. Enculturation is basically the continuation of the “God-with us” event, the Incarnation in history. This sense of enculturation may be described as the very process of Christian living. It is the transformation of the life of a Christian community from within.

It is time our church in general and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in particular should be reminded of Pope Francis’ profound thoughts on the “presentation of the truth of Christ” in the context of cultural diversity. Far from advocating a monoculture, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis emphatically states:

Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression . . . . We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history . . . . It is an indisputable fact that no single culture can exhaust the mystery of our redemption in Christ.         

The way forward

The church’s proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus should not be to the exclusion of other manifestations of the divine. On the contrary, it must challenge us to follow the path of Jesus, who acknowledged and appreciated the faith found in others. There are liberating streams, or prophetic voices, in every religion. There are ample opportunities for networking with all people of good will. What is important is the quality of our involvement and the humility to work with and not merely for people.

Church leadership, especially at the local level, needs to give priority to inter-religious endeavors, not merely at the theoretical level, but in concrete actions. Leaders must ensure that dialogue with believers of other religions is the dialogue of life in which people of all religions join together to promote unity, love, truth, justice and peace. For example, all religions should unite in the fight against poverty, illiteracy, child labor, harassment of women, terrorism, environmental destruction and the exploitation of the marginalized among us. In short, concern for the poor is the meeting point of religions, with compassion being the characteristic mark of a religious person.

Thus, rising above the narrow confines of religious structures, rituals and traditions into genuine dialogue and partnership will enable us to live as children of one God and as responsible citizens of our country. By imbibing the spirit of Jesus, the church can liberate itself from its ideological fetters. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we have to move toward the realization of a dialogue of life that fosters human dignity, equality, liberty, harmony, protection of mother Earth and integrity of creation, and peace with justice.

[Daughter of St. Paul Pauline Chakkalakal, who holds a Ph.D. in Biblical theology, is a member of various Indian and international biblical and theological associations.]