A Christology of Religions

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Gerald O'Collins, SJ
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , June
     2018.
     192 pages.
     $36.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982819.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is a persistent temptation to engage questions in the Christian theology of religions by beginning with areas around the edges of Christianity where there might be the least disagreement with those of other religions: philosophy of religion, natural law, shared ethical concerns, and so on. Gerald O’Collins begins and remains with the center, Christology, in the conviction that an in-depth exploration of Christianity’s core doctrine is the place to engage fundamental questions in the theology of religions. The intensity of O’Collins’s focus on Christology nevertheless yields an expansive vision of Christ’s presence, mission, and saving power among all peoples of the world.

O’Collins writes as a Roman Catholic theologian, and his important interlocutors are almost all Catholic theologians or official Catholic documents that address issues of other religions. Still, he aims to advance a “Christology of religions that is Christian rather than specifically Catholic” (viii). Given his attention to central aspects of Christology that would be shared across Christian traditions, and his careful reading of many biblical texts, I think he mostly succeeds in this aim. As a Protestant reader, I found insight and illumination on every theme he addresses.

The book opens with a survey of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s interactions with non-Jewish “outsiders” during his earthly mission. As the incarnate Son of God in Jewish person, Jesus gave of himself and his saving power in these encounters without reserve, unconstrained by the traditional boundaries of Jewishness. Likewise, his ministry within Israel was characterized by solidarity with all who suffer hunger, disease, poverty, and homelessness. That solidarity with all human beings culminated on the cross; thus, O’Collins declares, “outside the cross no Christology of religions” (17).

But Christ’s solidarity with others does not end on the cross. Chapter 2 explores biblical texts, especially from the Letter to the Hebrews, but also from Paul and John, to develop the theme of Christ’s “high-priestly intercession” for all human beings, a theme which has been almost completely ignored in the theology of religions. O’Collins discerns in Hebrews 11:6 an “‘open’ account of faith” (40), where the “faith” of others, while not directed explicitly toward Christ, is nevertheless completed in Christ’s high-priestly sacrifice and intercession on behalf of all. Through the Eucharist and the Church’s prayers Christians participate in Christ’s priestly intercessory work on behalf of all humankind (chap 4). 

The Christ who suffered and died in solidarity with all, for all, is also raised from the dead and present with all human beings in all times and places, with the Holy Spirit “who enacts and accompanies the presence of the risen Christ” (68). Chapter 3 presents a wide-ranging discussion of the universal transforming presence and activity of Christ and the Spirit: “a Christology of religions entails a trinitarian perspective” (75).

In a further study of Hebrews (especially 11:1-12:2), O’Collins in chapter 5 moves beyond the question of the salvation of those outside of Christianity to examine the meaning of their “faith.” Of course, none of the “heroes of faith” mentioned in Hebrews 11 had faith “in Christ.” In fact, faith in Hebrews is primarily theologically rather than christologically oriented. It is characterized by “a fides qua, or commitment of hopeful obedience, and a fides quae, or content that accepts God as the origin and goal of human living” (122). According to Hebrews 11:6 this is the faith that “pleases God”; it is shared by many around the world who do not know Christ, yet persevere hopefully through suffering.

How might “authentic faith” be discerned among those beyond the bounds of Christianity? In chapter 6 O’Collins develops four criteria of discernment. Genuine faith will 1) display profundity of life rather than superficiality; 2) result in modified behavior; that 3) has a christological shape which includes Christ-like love for others and solidarity with those who suffer (especially those who are tortured and murdered); and 4) a trinitarian face, that is, bearing signs of the vestigia Trinitatis in concrete experience and life.

In the final chapter O’Collins focusses on how the Catholic Church has related particularly to Muslims and Jews throughout the centuries, paying special attention to documents and declarations since Vatican II. These documents and papal “words and deeds” have shown increasing signs of recognizing the validity of Muslim and Jewish beliefs and practices. Above all, reconciliation with Jews after the Holocaust has become a priority for Catholic life.

In all, O’Collins has made a unique and important contribution to the Christian theology of religions. His explicit attention to various dimensions of Christology and to the text of Hebrews are what set this volume apart. As to be expected from O’Collins, his work is presented in lucid and accessible prose. This book is ideal for introducing undergraduate students to questions in the theology of religions, yet is chock full of substantial theological proposals and arguments that will challenge not only students, but also those experienced in the discourse of this area of theology. I plan to make good use of it.

That said, there are some limitations. While O’Collins intends to write a “Christian” rather than narrowly Catholic treatment of the issues, other Christian perspectives hardly make an appearance. Most notably absent is any treatment of Karl Barth, whose work immediately comes to mind if we are talking about a “Christology of religions.” Barth’s entire approach to religions, from the Römerbrief to the late Church Dogmatics, was thoroughly christologically determined and universal in scope, yet very different from O’Collins’s approach. On the one hand, one will find in Barth a far more critical understanding of “religion” (including Christian religion), with its capacity not only to enrich, but also to oppress and disorder human life and worship in contradiction of the reality of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, via the doctrines of election (never mentioned by O’Collins) and Israel, culminating in Christology, Barth discerned that God’s saving act in Christ incorporates all of humanity into itself. The good news is not an “offer” of salvation (a genuinely Catholic notion, often repeated by O’Collins), but is the divinely effective reality of salvation for all. The gospel is the call to live in this reality (2 Cor 5:14). 

O’Collins gives us an engaging, important, and accessible contribution to the theology of religions. Supplemented by some strategic readings from a figure like Barth, it would make an excellent textbook for any university or seminary course in which Christology fundamentally shapes the discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Douglas Harink is Professor of Theology at The King's University, Edmonton, Alberta.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald O’Collins, SJ, an Australian Jesuit, is currently a research fellow of the University of Divinity (Melbourne) and adjunct professor of the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne).  His recent books include The Second Vatican Council: Message and Meaning, Revelation: Toward a Christian Interpretation of God’s Self-Revelation in Jesus Christ, and The Second Vatican Council on Other Religions, all Oxford University Press.

Keywords: 

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