It begins with unexpected promise:
The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged Christians to approach inter-faith dialogue with confidence in their own beliefs about the uniqueness of Christ whilst retaining a desire to learn from others.
In an address exploring the finality of Christ in a pluralist world on Tuesday, Dr Rowan Williams said people who believed in absolute truth were liable to be branded bigots or intolerant by those who felt that what was right for some was not necessarily right for others.
“Belief in the uniqueness or finality of Christ is something that sits very badly indeed, not just with a plural society but with a society that regards itself as liberal or democratic,” he said.
“This is a world where the ideal is simply to be presented with the choice that makes you comfortable and the question of truth or finality isn’t really allowed to arise.”
The Archbishop admitted that accepting the uniqueness of Christ was “problematic” for many people and that Christians faced the challenge of communicating what they believe.
He doesn’t go quite as far as saying that for a Christian to deny the uniqueness of Christ is illogical, but “not sensible” is better than nothing:
He added, however, that giving up on the uniqueness of Christ was not “sensible”.
To prevent anyone falling into the trap of thinking that Rowan is being uncharacteristically straightforward, he muddles things with:
“Christians have claimed and will still claim that when you realise God calls you simply as a human being into that relationship of intimacy with Jesus, then you understand something about God which cannot be replaced or supplemented,” he said.
“The finality lies in the recognition that now there is something you cannot forget about God and humanity and which you cannot correct as if it were simply an interesting theory about God and humanity.”
Rowan seems to think that Christ’s uniqueness lies in his unforgettability, rather than his unique offer of salvation through atonement – to admit the latter would have been too embarrassingly fundamentalist, perhaps.
The Archbishop said that affirming the uniqueness and finality of Christ, rather than being unfair to those who had not heard of Him, made possible the universal reconcilability and fellowship of human beings.
Is the “universal reconcilability and fellowship of human beings” the purpose of Christ’s atoning sacrifice? What about being reconciled to God (or is that what he is alluding to – who knows)? Either way, Rowan gives the impression that he is a Universalist.
He warned that there was a danger of “treating others as if they know nothing, and we have nothing to learn” if Christians simply believed there was no hope for people outside of the Christian faith.
A belief in the uniqueness and finality of Christ, he said, gave Christians a “generous desire to share” and a “humble desire to learn”.
But not, it would appear, a desire to evangelise by speaking of the salvation that only Jesus offers.
“In dialogue between people of different faith we expect to learn something, we expect to be different as a result of the encounter. We don’t as a rule expect to change our minds,” he said.
A Rowanite Christian is one who, when encountering other faiths is content to have held on to his own beliefs.
“We come with conviction, with gratitude and with confidence, but it is the confidence which I believe allows us to embark on these encounters, hoping that we may learn – not change our conviction – but learn.
“When we sit alongside the Jew, the Buddhist, the Muslim, the Hindu, we expect to see in their humanity something that challenges and enlarges ours. We expect to receive something in their humanity as a gift to ours.”
All this leaves me wondering whether Rowan is actually a Christian at all, in any coherent sense of the word.