For a project I’m working on, I’ve recently been re-reading the writings of Paul Knitter, a theologian known for his pluralist outlook. Knitter is skeptical of the notion that salvation can be found only through Christ. He observes that Christians frequently have some kind of encounter with Christ in which they experience his saving power, leading to a conviction that Christ is genuinely saving. However, he points out, the question of whether Christ truly has the power to save is a different question from whether he’s the only savior, and he thinks that too often the terms get conflated.
Knitter is not, it is worth pointing out, an advocate of privatizing religious truth (i.e., “you have your truth, and I have mine, and our personal truths don’t have any significance for each other.”) He maintains that Christ has universal significance, that Christianity has something valuable to offer all people. However, he also argues that there is no reason to think that Christianity is the only faith with a universally relevant message, and therefore wants to stay open to the possibility that there exist other religious figures and messages which also have significance for all people. Christians, he says, have an important message to share, but they also need to be able to listen to the important messages of others. He is particularly concerned about the possibility of dialogue; if you go into a conversation convinced that you already possess the definitive and ultimate truth, it is difficult if not impossible to genuinely listen to what the other person has to offer.
A common concern raised about this approach is that it undermines commitment. In other words, if you don’t believe that Christianity is the One True Faith, can you be committed to it in the same way? Again, Knitter argues that what is necessary for the commitment of discipleship is not a witness of the exclusivity of Christ, but of the reality of his power. He comments:
If asked to look into the inner workings and feelings of their faith-life, most people, I have discovered, have to admit that the reason they are committed to Jesus is not because he is the ‘one and only.’ If we take a pew count, or a religious education classroom count, I suspect we will find that the majority of Christians will admit that their ability to pray to or to worship Jesus, or to stand up for what he is all about, need not be jeopardized just because there may be others like him. They are committed because of what they have found in him, not because they are certain that they can find it only in him. (Jesus and the Other Names, 107)
I have to admit that I’m still on the fence when it comes to questions of pluralism; I haven’t quite sorted out what I think. But Knitter raises some provocative questions, and I’m particularly interested in this relationship between “true” and “only.” As Latter-day Saints, we often use the words together, as many members testify that we’re the “only true church.” But does a witness that one has genuinely found truth in the LDS church necessarily imply that that this is the one-and-only true church? Or alternatively, since many frame the church’s exclusivity claims in terms of authority, if God has in fact truly authorized the priesthood-bearers of the LDS faith to act in his name, does it follow that this is the only faith with divine endorsement? In other words, I’m trying to figure out to what extent LDS claims about truth and/or authority require some kind of exclusivity. And I’m curious about people’s experiences. Do you think the above quote would apply to the relationship of Mormons to the LDS church? How do you frame your belief in the church? And how does a belief that this (or is not) the only true church affect your commitment to it?
- 20 February 2008