From his training and sensibilities as a biblical scholar and missiologist, Chris Wright is finely equipped to offer us guidance in thinking about how witness and dialogue are related in interfaith encounters. In his hands, the joyous affirmation of the great and diverse multitude standing before God’s throne in Revelation 7:10 becomes a powerful vehicle for expositing what we as Christians must confess about our salvation. It would be very difficult to give a more felicitous summary of our hope in God through Christ. There is nothing here that I would not fully affirm and wish for every Christian to affirm; as we think of our conversations with other faiths, surely we want to bring all of this joyous confession with us as the “convicted” part of our posture of “convicted civility.”1 If we are fortunate, indeed, our honest and full-voiced testimony will evoke an appreciative, equally honest response, and our conversations will move past “politeness at the peripheries” to deeply respectful engagement. Superficial agreement should not be the goal of interfaith work: “salvation is not what lies at the summit of a mountain, which all religions laboriously climb from their different starting points,” and starting from such an assumption is reductive and offensive to all involved.
Consequently Wright is concerned not only to map out the full range of Christian confession—he also wants to put out border markers, red flags that warn us against losing our way in enthusiasm for shared paths or in temptation to shallow accommodation in the public square. Here we turn from summaries of what our contributions to dialogue should be to warnings about where we should not venture. The idol parodies of the Old Testament warn us of the futility of considering the merits of other gods: “False gods never fail to fail.” Only the biblical God takes salvation to the root problem of sin, while “other claimed salvations of other posturing gods are tinkering cosmetics.” The story of Israel and the church is unique, and “other religions and ideologies do not save because they do not tell this story.” Do such caveats suggest that interfaith encounters are best limited to clarifying the participants’ claims, so that we can agree about what we disagree about? Or might we find room for more positive outcomes, for surprises of discovery that deepen and enrich and expand our own convictions while helping us to respect the integrity of the claims of other religious traditions?
One problem in speaking comprehensively of salvation is to find an adequate way of expressing what Wright calls its “holistic” character. He rightly recognizes the “temptation” in popular usage to “discount” those experiences of “‘ordinary’ or ‘material’ or even trivial” aspects of what the Bible calls salvation in favor of those we think of as “‘theological’ or ‘transcendent’ or ‘eternal’”: we should keep in mind that the biblical testimony is that “God saves people in a wide variety of physical, material and temporal ways from all kinds of need, danger and threat.” Still, underlying all of our needs is the fundamental reality of our alienation from God, our sin, and therefore “the biblical God who saves is the God who deals with sin.”
But for all of Wright’s caveats, the tight focus of his language may help to perpetuate the traditional blinders in our thinking about God’s benefits, keeping us from recognizing them in “every level of our humanity and createdness.” By isolating the Hebrew and Greek terms commonly translated into English as “save” and privileging sacrificial imagery, his exposition neglects the richness of biblical vocabulary and imagery that he acknowledges it should include. Christians commonly associate “salvation” with blood that covers sin, but less commonly imagine foes defeated; again, they think of their “redemption” as being accomplished on the cross, but do not imagine diseases healed, debts cancelled, family property restored, slavery ended. Consider, for instance, if we chose to complement Wright’s selection of Revelation 7:10 with Jesus’s inaugural reading of Isaiah 61:1-2, in which the work of the Christ, the anointed one, is “to bring good news to the poor, …to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV). Were such deeds of Jesus’s ministry only a “credentialing” for his work on the cross, or did they proclaim and inaugurate the beginning of the reign of God?
But more problematic, perhaps, is our tendency to limit God’s benefits to salvation from our afflictions and our failings. We have no way in such a framework to cultivate or even to acknowledge our God-given resources, strengths, or achievements. Years ago, reassessing a biblical theology movement that had celebrated the “God who acts,” Claus Westermann suggested the need for recognizing not only the “saving God of history,” but also the “blessing God of creation.” Blessing is not related to critical events so much as to durative processes, to the “quiet, continuous, flowing, and unnoticed working of God” in the intervals of our lives in which God “gives growth and prosperity…, in which he lets children be born and grow up, in which he gives success in work.”2 Beyond the life of individuals, societies are also blessed with the natural gifts of fertility and productivity, of the formation of institutions and culture and corporate values, of security and peace. Israel made use of implements and architecture, of laws and wisdom, of cultic practices and government offices that were a part of the general cultural inheritance of the ancient Near East in which she lived. God provided revelatory instruments for refining his purposes with these borrowed elements, so that agricultural festivals were reinterpreted in connection with historical events and royal institutions were brought under covenantal discipline. But God was not absent from the long processes that created this cultural heritage, or from the plenitude of peoples and societies that brought them into being.
What implications might we draw from this wider purview of God’s work in the world? I can only offer a few reflections based upon my experiences of interfaith collaboration and study with Jewish colleagues and friends.
First, I have been impressed with how inseparable justification and sanctification are in thinking about salvation. Simply put, my experiences of Jewish life and worship have helped me to articulate my deep need to not just “get right with God” but also to grow more like the God whom I profess to love. Paul’s crisis on the Damascus road still finds a vivid counterpart in my memory, but now I also think about how Paul valued his own deep formation in the “law and prophets,” and how he instructed the churches to build disciplines for the work of the Spirit. I still feel the weight of the Gospels’ climactic closures around cross and empty tomb, but I am intrigued to ask about the importance of Jesus’s own formation (Luke 2:41-52) and of his instruction of his disciples toward spiritual maturity. Both the kerygma and the didache, the preaching and the teaching of the church, become vital to my salvation.
Second, I have become more interested in how we may think of God’s work in the world outside of the boundaries of the church. How may Christians be involved in the “public square,” both in contributing to public institutions and in serving societal needs? In particular, can we join with people of other religious convictions in mutual encouragement and support in such work, in a way that witnesses to secular society? And how does such engagement form part of God’s salvific work?
Finally, I have come to expect surprises. I have been awakened to texts. I have found new disciplines. I have discovered common problems. I have been humbled to find greater response to God in a non-Christian friend, only to remember Jesus’s words about where faith may be found. I have prayed with people who cannot use the name of Jesus, uncertain of my theological grounds but convicted that we are not addressing different gods. I have found new joy in making witness of my own faith, not as obligation but as sharing something supremely good with friends who trust that I care about them.
1Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Rev. ed.; Downers Grove:InterVarsity, 2010).
2Claus Westermann, Elements of Old Testament Theology, trans. D. W. Stott (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 103; cf. pp. 35-117 more generally.