LONDON – The Archbishop of Canterbury has urged Christians to approach interfaith dialogue with confidence in their own beliefs about the uniqueness of Christ while 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."
Williams admitted that accepting the uniqueness of Christ was "problematic" for many people and that Christians faced the challenge of communicating what they believe.
He added, however, that giving up on the uniqueness of Christ was not "sensible."
"Christians have claimed and will still claim that when you realize 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."
Williams, who serves as the spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion, 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.
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, gives Christians a "generous desire to share" and a "humble desire to learn."
"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.
"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," he added. "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."
In an evening event with broadcaster and Surrey University professor Jim Al-Khalili, Williams also urged people not to be overwhelmed by the scale of challenges like poverty and climate change, but instead realize the impact of individual decisions and actions.
His comments come as the 77 million-member Anglican Communion experiences rifts over scriptural authority. Last year, a group of orthodox Anglicans within the Church of England launched the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in opposition to liberal shifts relating to authority of Scripture and the uniqueness of Christ. The fellowship was formed with the intent of preventing a split in the Church of England as conservative Anglicans try to preserve orthodox, biblical Anglicanism from within.