Meeting them at the well or, how shall a Christian deal with people of other faiths?

Meeting them at the well  or, how shall a Christian deal with people of other faiths?

Once in an island

I was once invited by small Christian communities in the southernmost islands of the Philippines (Jolo and Sulu) to give them talks on community organizing. There was one island on stilts with around fifty to sixty families. Half of them are Muslims and half are Christians. The Christians have a small chapel, and the Muslims have a small mosque. They are all good neighbors. Their husbands—Muslims and Christians—share the sea for livelihood. Their wives share in the same stories, jokes and gossips. Their children are friends and playmates.

The Muslims have their local imam who faithfully leads their daily prayers. The Christians have their lay ministers who also take care of their spiritual activities. During the Catholic feasts, like Christmas, they all bring their share of food and present their numbers in the common program. On Muslim feasts, like Ramadan, the Christians also make efforts not to eat their food in public to sympathize with their Muslim friends.

Despite the differences of their religions, they live quite normal, happy and harmonious lives among themselves. Until the day when a famous “mubaligh” came!

As you know, “mubalighs” are some sort of Muslim missionaries trained somewhere else and who comes to a local community to bring the message of revival, renewal and fidelity to their faith. This mubaligh began preaching on the themes of religious differences, superiority, distinctiveness and uniqueness. He began to stir up suspicions and resurrected old biases.
“You know what happened to him, Father?” the Christians who told the story asked. “What?” I was curious. “The local imam and the Muslims themselves drove him out of the island.”

I was wondering why they told me the story the day when I first arrived. It was their way of saying, “if you do the same, we can drive you out as well.” I was looking at the next island. The nearest one is Borneo.
I remember this story because this month, we celebrate with our Muslim brothers and sisters their greatest feast. Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

It might help to ask: “How shall Christians deal with people from other faiths? How shall we be true to our faith and still be respectful to people who do not share the same faith with us?”

There are three classical ways to think of these questions: exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism.


The first and most conservative position is exclusivism. In this paradigm, both Jesus Christ and the Church are the constitutive, the “exclusive” way to salvation. To be “constitutive” and “exclusive” means to be indispensable.

It means that God’s saving grace only comes to us through Christ and him alone. Without the historical incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, no one human being will be saved. Not only that “Jesus saves”, as famous saying tells us, but “only Jesus saves” and no one else. The bible is thus read from the perspective of this paradigm and one can also find proofs for it. “There is no other name in the whole world given to man by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The foremost corollary in ecclesiology is the now famous Catholic dictum: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“outside the Church, there is no salvation”). Explicit belonging to the Church also becomes the only way to be saved. Other consequences follow as can be found in medieval theological treatises on the necessity of infant baptism, the talk about limbo, or the aggressive approach to missions, etc.

There are narratives of a missionary in the Philippines who went around the fields on his horse. When he meets someone along the way, he asks if they have been baptized. If not, he makes them kneel down and he begins to pour water on them while pronouncing the baptismal formula. His motives are great: he does not want them to go to hell!

This is not a dead paradigm. I also have in mind the thousands and thousands of priests, missionaries, religious and lay people whose faith life and pastoral options are derived from such a theology.

This view is still very much alive as it fuels present-day fundamentalist efforts both in Protestant, Catholic and evangelical circles (not to mention the other faiths). It is like saying: in a world where people are educated in the Copernican worldview, there are still people who believe and act as if the sun revolves around the earth.


When the paradigm shifts from exclusivism to inclusivism, the role of Christ in salvation is still affirmed but the role of the Church fades in the background. Jesus remains constitutive or normative but not the Church. There are different shades of this paradigm. One position states that Christ is the “constitutive” way to one’s salvation but not exclusive. We can only be saved by the grace of Christ, but this grace is available even to those outside the Church through Christ.

“Salvation, which was always possible for all mankind, becomes decisively and normatively manifest in Jesus. God is love and this love has been operative always and everywhere; this love is revealed more clearly in the person and work of Christ, but it is not mediated only through Christ.” (Schieneller 1976, 557). This paradigm is best expressed by John Paul II when he said: “Christ is thus the fulfillment of the yearning of all the world’s religions and, as such, he is their sole and definitive completion.”

Scripture texts can be summoned to support this paradigm. For instance, Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus is a challenge to consider the Christian God as the name of the “unknown God” whom the Greeks worship. Or, in another part, Paul exclaims: “God our savior desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth; for there is one God and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:4−6).

Examples of this position can be seen in the “logos Christology” of the early Fathers Justin and Irenaeus, in the “preparatio evangelica” discourse of Clement of Alexandria, in the fulfillment theories of Danielou and De Lubac, or in Rahner’s “supernatural existential” and “anonymous Christianity”, if you are familiar with these theological jargons. Whatever the shades of this position in Christology, it is the role of the Church that is decentered; it now becomes the sign—a privileged sign, if you want— but just a sign of God’s saving love to the world.


The move from inclusivism to pluralism touches on the constitutive role of Jesus in the order of salvation. Here, Jesus is considered as just one mediator among many others; Christianity as one way among the many ways to God. This position seems to be the farthest from Catholic and Christian tradition. But its strength is its emphasis on the incomprehensibility of God, that we cannot truly fathom the mystery of God.

One remembers Thomas Aquinas who, after having written the Summa, proclaimed that all he did was “straw”. All human ways to God are attempts to fathom the deepest mystery called God. We are here at the borders of apophatic theology and silence is the only respectable stance in front of God’s greatness. All others—summas, creeds, morals, religions—fade into their own relative space in front of the “incomprehensible God” (Rahner 1978).

There is a big gap between the inclusivist paradigm and the pluralist paradigm. From acknowledging Christ as the focal point of all religions in inclusivism, God now takes the center stage in pluralism. John Hick, a Protestant theologian and one representative of this position, calls this a Copernican turn in theology. Just as there was a paradigm shift from Ptolemy to Copernicus, there is also a paradigm shift from thinking that all religious traditions revolve around Christianity.

There is the need to decenter it and place God back to the vital axis around which all religions—and Christianity is just one among them—revolve. If we are to be true to the project of dialogue with other religions, Hick thinks that Christianity has to let go of its central position in the inclusive paradigm.

Of course, not everyone agrees with him, including the Vatican. But the value of his position (and those of others like him) is also his emphasis on “kingdom-centeredness”. What is most important is the Kingdom of God and its values of liberation and justice, as Jesus preached it. Since all religions carry with them aspirations for liberation, what proves central therefore is the salvation we all aspire for, not our denominational or religious affiliations.

In Christian language, all religions are relative attempts to establish God’s Kingdom of justice and equality in our midst. Interreligious dialogue thus becomes an ongoing conversation towards God’s liberation.

In search of a metaphor: paths or wells?

To give one image to what I have been talking about, let me compare two dominant metaphors for interreligious dialogue. The most common metaphor is that of a “path”. Many paths, one end! Many religions, one God! Even as the image of path is liberating, it still betrays the individualistic approach to the Divine. After all, paths, roads and highways, even as they intersect and meet somewhere, remain solitary spaces of one’s journey reminiscent of “incommensurable language games”, to borrow a phrase of Wittgenstein.

Let me suggest another metaphor—that of the “village well”. In most of our poor rural villages, people do not have individual wells. There is just one single well for the whole community. It is here that all people meet to fetch water. From their different family concerns, different religious longings, different occupations, it is here that their lives interact each day. This well is the common source of their existence. It is here that they share stories, solve problems, talk about their lives. It is here that solidarity becomes alive.

And if they share deep enough, beyond their distance and differences, they will find the wellspring of life. Jesus and the Samaritan woman knew this too well!

To our Muslim friends, Eid Mubarak! See you at the well.

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