By RICHARD N. OSTLING
Associated Press Writer
The World Council of Churches recently was host to 130 representatives from 10 world faiths for major talks on interreligious relations. The WCC, which encompasses 340 mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, considers this a "core issue."
At the session, WCC chief executive Samuel Kobia, a Kenya Methodist, proposed new definitions for words including "conversion" and "missions."
"If there is anything that we need to convert, it is the mentality of people to become true human persons," Kobia said. "Our common missionary vocation is to transform the world to be truly human, to recover our common humanity."
More directly, Muslim political scientist Reba Raouf Ezzat from Egypt said religions must enter a "post-conversion" era, forsaking proselytism.
Yet Islam is so intent on absolute truth that it deems defections to other faiths intolerable. Some Muslim nations make conversion punishable by death, others treat it as a less severe crime, and private vigilantes sometimes punish converts.
Christianity's toughest issue, perhaps, is addressed in "Is Jesus the Only Savior?" (Eerdmans) by James R. Edwards. He answers with an emphatic yes.
Though a clergyman in a WCC member, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and theology chairman at Presbyterian Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., Edwards wasn't the sort invited to the conference. In his denomination, 1,300 congregations have joined a movement that insists "Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation."
This belief also is endorsed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- in "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions" (Ignatius). The pope asserts that Christianity "from its very origin and in its essential nature" has embraced Peter's biblical proclamation about Jesus:
"There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Edwards acknowledges the traditional teaching is unpopular and that many would "breathe more easily" if Jesus were simply "a savior" instead of "the savior of the world" and claiming uniqueness that "seems to many people, Christians or otherwise, foolish and perhaps even blasphemous." But he argues in detail that the New Testament requires one savior, then addresses questions this raises:
Isn't this belief outdated in today's complex "global village"?
Edwards says early Christianity faced a similarly complex "collage of mystery cults, personality cults, vestigial forms of classical Greek philosophy, polytheism, imperial cults and nascent forms of Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism."
Doesn't an exclusive savior threaten world peace?
He believes that, properly understood, the biblical teaching about the one God providing the only savior for everyone is a means of uniting humanity and bringing peace.
How should Christians view other religions?
Edwards contends that the sentimental idea that all religions are similar paths is simply wrong. The great religions agree on many moral duties, he says, but disagree about God, salvation, eternal life, the problems of existence and how to overcome them. "The statement that all religions are basically the same is usually heard from people who are not adherents of any religion."
What about Judaism?
Edwards rejects both the idea that Christianity has supplanted its sister faith and the concept, often heard at interfaith dialogues, that the two faiths are equal covenants of salvation. Instead, he believes that "Judaism continues to play a role in God's abiding urpose" but ultimately Jesus is the savior for Jews as well as Gentiles.
How can people believe in a savior from sin in a "postmodern" era when people no longer have a firm sense of truth, or right and wrong, or sin?
This is Edwards' chief worry. He insists on biblical grounds that all people are sinners guilty of real infractions against God, facing the peril of eternal separation from God, who is absolutely true and good, and thus in need of a savior. For that reason, he asserts that worldwide evangelism remains Christianity's unaltered task.
Edwards publicity: Is Jesus the Only Savior?
WCC interfaith meeting: www.oikoumene.org/interreligious.html