One of the things that most decisively defines modern consciousness is the presupposition of what is called the self-evident fact of “religious pluralism.” We take for granted, naturally and spontaneously, that there exists a potentially infinite multitude of “belief systems,” each of which makes a claim to truth and possesses a certain validity for those who accept the claim. Such an assumption can at least ostensibly coincide with the existence of a private faith, even a sincere and passionate one: I believe that my religion is “true for me” and may indeed regard that religion as the most important thing in my life. In a curious way, a private faith of this sort is not only able to coincide with the assumption of religious pluralism; it can even reinforce this assumption and find itself reinforced by it, precisely to the extent that this faith recognizes itself as a purely personal reality. Saying my religion is true for me is, from this perspective, not a concession, but just what makes it meaningful and elicits my enthusiasm. This quality leaves in place the possibility that other “belief systems” may be just as true for others.
We do not intend here to engage the thorny problem of religious pluralism in general, but instead to think through at least one dimension of what it means that the traditional Christian cannot accept this assumption. Catholic Christianity cannot understand itself to be one of the many “belief systems”; it is not “a religion,” if religion is taken as a generic category designating a set of ideas and practices by which man relates himself to God. But to say this immediately raises the question: What makes Christianity unique? What distinguishes Christianity from all other religions, to such an extent that we would be correct to describe it as sui generis in the strict sense? To be sure, the ultimate response to this question is a reference to the utter uniqueness of the Incarnation, the assumption of human nature, without separation or confusion, by God himself, and the other mysteries of the faith that are either revealed by or entailed in this decisive one—for example, the Trinity or the Theotokos—which constitute the content of the central Christian dogma. But to the extent that we affirm the uniqueness of the Incarnation only as a positive fact, we ironically risk falling back into the horizon of modern religious pluralism such as we just described it. It may be that the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ is what distinguishes Christianity from other religions—but of course we could just as well say the uniqueness of Muhammad distinguishes Islam in a similar way, or the uniqueness of Shiva distinguishes Hinduism. It is not enough to give a different answer to the question, what sets this particular religion apart from those? We need to affirm a different kind of answer, and indeed one that is so different it also transforms the nature of the very question.
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