A Christology of Religions (Gerald O'Collins, SJ) -- A Review

A CHRISTOLOGY OF RELIGIONS. By Gerald O’Collins, SJ. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. Xi + 178 pages.

Where does Jesus fit in interreligious/multi-faith conversations? The traditional claim that Jesus is the definitive revelation/incarnation of God can lead to awkward interreligious conversations. It’s not that other faith traditions don’t have their own sense of finality, but as the largest faith tradition in the world, an exclusivist posture is off-putting, which leads some to go to the other extreme and simply put Jesus off the table in search of commonalities. It is one thing to affirm Jesus as a prophet of God and another to claim for him the status as Son of God and second person of the Trinity. When Christians enter interreligious conversations, they face the fact that Jews consider him at most to be a prophet, but history has made even that conversation difficult. Islam hails Jesus as a noted prophet and messiah, just not the Son of God. For Buddhism and Hinduism, Jesus can be included among the revelations of God, but no finality is claimed for him. As Christians engage in these very necessary conversations is their room for a Christology of religions? That is the question asked by Gerald O’Collins, a Jesuit theologian who has written widely on Christology.

O'Collins is an Australian Jesuit who serves as a research fellow at the University of Divinity, Melbourne. The premise of this book is that Christology has been largely marginalized in interreligious conversations, but that for true conversations to take place on the part of Christians Christology needs to be brought into the conversation. In arguing for a Christology of Religions, he distinguishes what he is arguing for from a Christocentric theology of religions, which looks at other religions through a Christocentric lens, but in his view largely ignores such themes as “the theology of the cross; the universal impact of Christ’s high-priestly ministry; the efficacy of his loving prayer for the ‘others’; and the corresponding faith accessible to the ‘others’” (pp. vii-viii). These are the themes, O’Collins believes have been ignored, and which he takes up in this book.

While O'Collins seeks to write this Christology of Religions from a broadly Christian, and not just Roman Catholic, perspective, most of his Christian conversation partners are in fact Roman Catholic, from Karl Rahner to Pope John Paul II. This focus is especially present in his discussion of Christ's priestly role, which informs his view of the church’s vision of priestly ministry. Nonetheless, what is present here is for the most part transferable across traditions.

The book begins with a chapter on "incarnation as caring for 'the Others' and Sharing the Sufferings of All." This is an appropriate starting point—the premise that Jesus is the incarnate Word, who cares/loves others and shares our sufferings. He seeks to make clear that the message of Jesus was for the Jews but not only Jews. The message may have been delivered to Jews, but it was destined to be applicable to everyone, Jew and non-Jew. Central to this message is the cross.

From the incarnation, we move to the post-Easter role of Jesus as high priest, who makes intercession for us. If we are to speak of Christ's priestly role, then we must attend to the Book of Hebrews, which is the only New Testament book to fully develop a theology of Jesus as priest. Central to this conversation is Jesus’ role as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (this is important for the author of Hebrews who recognizes that Jesus doesn’t descend from the priestly tribe, and thus if a priest it must derive from some other source). O’Collins does recognize that Paul and John speak of Jesus interceding for others, but Hebrews has a special appeal. I found chapter 3 more appealing as it is here that he speaks of the Holy Spirit as the sign of Christ's universal presence. The point he seeks to make is that a Christology of Religions must be trinitarian, for "the mission of the Son and the mission of the Spirit merge in leading all people home to God the Father" (p. 75). This leads us in chapter 4 to ecclesiology, with the focus being on the church's responsibility to make intercession for all. O'Collins writes that the role of prayer is rarely raised in theologies of religion. Regarding intercessory prayer, O'Collins suggests that it is an act of loving others, for it shows concern about others salvation. It is priestly ministry. It also changes those who pray for others. It is inspired by love, connecting the one who prays with the other in relationship. He speaks in chapter five about the faith of the suffering others, noting God's concern for those who suffer, even those who are not Christian. Ultimately God is with those who suffer. 

A key question in a Christology of religion concerns discerning Christ's presence in the world, including among those who do not explicitly profess faith in Christ. He speaks of four criteria, including profundity of faith, of appropriate behavior, Christological and pneumatological orientation, and trinitarian shape. Using these criteria, he invites us to consider how Christ is present among those professing other faiths. This involves looking not at the teachings of other faiths, but the experience and actions. Do they exhibit "sees of the Word." Are there sufficient expressions of divine revelation there that can lead to dialogue and cooperation? He believes so, but these important criteria must be kept in mind. It also suggests that while God can and does reveal God’s self through other traditions, there is finality in the Christian faith. This can make for difficult interfaith conversations, but likely needs to be kept in mind lest Christians come across as duplicitous.

These chapters lead us to a place of significant discussion, and that is with the two other Abrahamic religions. Chapter seven draws upon Vatican II and its decrees regarding Islam and Judaism. He notes that Nostra Aetete addresses Islam, emphasizing that it includes Jesus in its tradition, and honors Mary as virgin. Thus, there is some Christological common ground present in Islam, even if not full agreement. In Lumen Gentium the Council dealt more specifically with the church's relationship with the Jews, acknowledging the harm done in the past, the anti-antisemitism present in the teachings of the church. With the two documents from Vatican II as background, by 2015 the church could issue a document recognizing that the gifts and calling of the Jews are irrevocable, and thus there is no need to seek the conversion of Jews. In other words, they need not affirm Jesus as Messiah to be included in God’s covenant promises.

There is a lot to consider here. From my reading of the book, O'Collins seems to fit into the inclusivist camp that expands upon Karl Rahner's views. He seeks to be inclusive of other religious traditions, recognizing God's presence among people following other faiths, but is not willing to let go of Christ’s ultimate role in the process of reconciliation. The assumption here is that it is through the ministry of Jesus and the Spirit that humanity is drawn to the Father. With that in mind, he seems to believe that Christians cannot truly engage others in interfaith dialogue if they don’t keep the person of Jesus, including his priestly and revelatory role in the forefront of our minds. What he suggests is not easy to attain. It is attractive to me, but I more is needed to fully flesh out this vision. As a Protestant, I will need to look at resources from this part of the tradition to see what it suggests regarding a Christology of Religions. Nonetheless, this is an important contribution to this effort at envisioning a Christian theology of religions.


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