Christian Identity and Genuine Openness to the Religious Beliefs of Others

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Not the least important thing I have learned from my participation in the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter is that genuine interreligious dialogue is possible only under certain conditions. Specifically, I am now confirmed in the assumption I made in beginning my participation that one can enter into such dialogue only if one can somehow claim truth for one's own religious beliefs without thereby denying, explicitly or implicitly, that others' religious beliefs also may possibly be true. But how is it possible to claim that one's own beliefs as a Christian are true while allowing for at least the possible truth of others' beliefs as well?

This is how I, as a Christian, formulate the question--or, at any rate, one of the questions--that I took to be raised by the topic discussed at the most recent meeting of our group: "Religious Identity and Openness in a Pluralistic World." One implication of this formulation, obviously, is that, in my view, a necessary aspect of Christian identity, as of religious identity generally, is the confession, or profession, of certain religious beliefs, together with the claim that these beliefs are true. Moreover, by "true" in this context I understand not merely "substantially true," in the sense of agreeing in substance with any other true religious or existential beliefs, but also "formally true," in the sense of providing the norm with which any other religious or existential beliefs must agree in order to be true beliefs. With this understanding, then, the question I propose to pursue really asks, "How is it possible to be a Christian and to claim formal truth for one's own religious beliefs while allowing that others' beliefs also can be formally true?"

This explains, in turn, why the other operative term in the title of my paper is not simply "openness," but "genuine openness." One might possibly think--or be thought--to be open to the religious beliefs of others simply because one allowed that their beliefs could indeed be true provided only that they substantially agreed with Christian beliefs taken as the norm for judging their truth. But on my analysis of the claim that others themselves make for the truth of their beliefs, one would not be genuinely open to their beliefs at all. For their claim is that their beliefs are formally true and therefore themselves the norm with which all other religious or existential beliefs, including Christian beliefs, must agree if their own claim to be true is a valid claim. My test of "genuine openness," then, is openness to at least the possibility that the religious beliefs of others are formally true in the same sense in which I as a Christian claim my own religious beliefs to be so.

The other thing to note about my formulation of the question is what it does and does not ask. It does not ask whether it is possible to claim formal truth for my beliefs as a Christian while allowing that others' religious beliefs also can be formally true; rather, simply assuming that it is possible, somehow, to do this, it asks how it is possible. In other words, what are the necessary conditions of the possibility of claiming formal truth for one's own religious beliefs as a Christian while allowing that others' religious beliefs also can be formally true?

With this clarification of our question, I now want to indicate how I, as a Christian and a theologian, answer it. This I propose to do by briefly developing my answer against another that is currently being given to it by what appears to be a growing number of other Christians and theologians.

I refer to those who are commonly called--and call themselves--"religious (or Christian) pluralists," or simply "pluralists." According to these Christians and theologians, the monistic claim traditionally made for the truth of Christian beliefs, to the effect that they alone among religious or existential beliefs are formally true, can no longer be defended and should be given up. …