A Christology of Religions
Gerald O’Collins, SJ
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2018.
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Reviewed by Leroy Seat
Australian Jesuit priest Gerald O’Collins was from 1973 to 2006 a professor of systematic theology and of what Roman Catholics call “fundamental theology” at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The author of many scholarly theology works, O’Collins (b. 1931) has now written another book, a slim volume that attests to his scholarship and to his stature as a theologian.
O’Collins begins his book by stating that the term “theology of religions” has been used at least since 1959, but no one has previously proposed a “Christology of religions.” This book is his attempt to sketch the contours of the latter term.
He acknowledges that he is a Catholic and in addition to frequent citations from Vatican II documents he often references ideas of Pope John Paul II and outstanding 20th century Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner and Jacques Dupris. But he also refers to the theological work of non-Catholics, such as Karl Barth (Swiss Reformed), Tom Torrance (Church of Scotland), John V. Taylor (Anglican), and Mark Heim (American Baptist). So he seeks to set forth a Christology “that is, or at least should be, shared by all Christians” (viii).
Several times in this new work, O’Collins refers to his 2008 book titled Salvation for All: God’s Other People. While he does not write explicitly about a Christology of religions there, the last five (of the sixteen) chapters are closely related in content to his 2018 book.
“Incarnation as Caring for ‘the Others’ and Sharing the Sufferings of All” is the title of the first chapter, so from the beginning he delves into the problem of the relationship of the Christian message to those who are outside of Christianity, that is, “the Others.” According to O’Collins, “The incarnation made possible the ministry of Jesus, which centered less on founding the church than on proclaiming the kingdom or saving rule of God already powerfully present among all people . . .” (2). This emphasis on “all people” is seen throughout the book, although gradually it seems to shift to all religious people instead of everyone, whether religious or not.
In this first chapter, the author emphasizes the cross, which he claims has been seriously neglected in most theologies of religions to this point. But on the cross, Christ relates to all who suffer, and in the first of several ubi . . . ibi statements, he declares, “Where there is suffering there is Christ (ubi dolor, ibi Christus)” (22).
Since O’Collins has concluded that “no one has set out to reflect on other faiths in the light of the priesthood of Jesus Christ” (28), that priesthood is the main theme of his second chapter and a matter mentioned throughout the book. The priestly activity of Christ, he believes, was “for the good of all human beings” (55).
Asserting that “a Christology of religions involves a pneumatology of religions,” the third chapter is “The Universal Presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit,” and this reviewer thought it was the best of the author’s seven chapters.
By contrast, the fourth chapter, mainly about the importance and efficacy of intercessory prayer, was perhaps the weakest one in the book.
In Chapter 5 the author examines the inclusivity found in the New Testament book of Hebrews. He considers the faith of those who follow religions other than Christianity and concludes, “A faith that ‘pleases God’ is open to those suffering human beings who have never explicitly heard of Christ and his message” (122).
Shifting more from considering all people to thinking only of religious people, at the beginning of the sixth chapter O’Collins avers, “The other religions, through their teachings and practice, often reflect something of the Light that is the divine Word” (123).
Chapter 7 is “Dialogue and Relations with Muslims and Jews,” which is a bit different from the main theme of the book.
In the one-page Epilogue, the author says that he has sought to “breathe new life into thinking about the religious ‘others’” (163). But, again, the question remains: what about the non-religious others as mentioned in the first chapter—and who now make up a sizeable percentage of the population of Western countries (including Australia, where 30% of the population in 2016 claimed to have no religion)?
While I was impressed with the scholarship of O’Collins and the thought-provoking content of his book, its title and his emphasis on the importance of a “Christology of religions” rather than a “theology of religions” is somewhat problematic. Christology is usually considered a subset of theology, and the book also deals explicitly with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, or pneumatology, another subset of theology. So perhaps there better title should have been used.
Nonetheless, this is a book well worth reading closely and reflecting on deeply.