Mirceade Eliade, the anthropologist, once said: “No community should botch its deaths! Sadly, we often do and great men and women pass from our midst without us recognizing what they’ve done for us. The loss is ours.”

On December 28, 2004, Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit and a professor-emeritus at the Gregorian University in Rome, died at age 81. We shouldn’t botch that death, but recognize and honour the fact that we’ve lost a great man whose life and work has been a major gift to us.

Jacques Dupuis was not an ecclesial, household name, such as Barth, Rahner, or Tillich. That doesn’t diminish his importance. We live in a world wherein the question of inter-religious dialogue, the relationship of the major world religions to each other, is not just a question of religion but of survival and, among Christian theologians on this issue, perhaps none are more important, or more balanced, than Jacques Dupuis.

In his “The Word From Rome” (January 7, 2005) John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter does what Eliade suggests: he properly honours a death within the family. He gives us an insight into the theologian and the man that was Jacques Dupuis, detailing too, a little, both his struggles with the Vatican and the special gift that he was for the Christian community. I heartily recommend Allen’s piece.

The question that Dupuis tried to address and which became his life’s work is very critical today: How do the major religions of the world interrelate? More specifically for us as Christians, how do we bring together our belief that there is one God who has created all people equally, plays no favourites, and wills the salvation of everyone, and yet has somehow made Jesus Christ the saviour of all?

Dupuis’ greatness lay in his fidelity to both poles of this tension. He was always a traditional Christian who believed in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, even as he affirmed (in the face of much opposition) the non-negotiable fact that God loves everyone equally and that salvation is never a matter of privilege, chance, or of simply belonging to the right or wrong religious family.

His last book, Christianity and the Religions, From Confrontation to Dialogue, might well serve as the Christian compass in this area. He articulates both how far Christianity can go and how far it must go in understanding the relationship of Jesus Christ to other religions – and he ends up too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative of the liberals.

For him, there is salvation outside of historical Christianity and the great world religions are more than simple natural theologies. In ways that we don’t understand, they are also paths to salvation, instruments of divine revelation. Yet he is clear too that not all religions are equal and Christianity is not just another path, among others, to salvation. Jesus Christ is unique and somehow normative in his revelation of God.

Here’s a sample, a taste, of his own language: “He [Jesus] would not have liked his name invoked against founders and believers of other religious faiths. … [Jesus] recognized the positive value in God’s eyes of the religious experience of others and of the religious traditions in which they lived their faith in the God of the Reign and of life.”

Historical Christianity, he states, is not the Kingdom of God, but an instrument that serves the Kingdom: “As the ministry of Jesus demonstrated, the Reign of God goes beyond all human boundaries of any kind: ethnic, national, religious. … It has in fact been suggested that there is only one beatitude, namely, that of poverty, of simplicity of gaze, of openness to God’s will, of personal availability to the God of the Reign and to other human beings. This beatitude is attainable by all people of goodwill.”

Statements like this upset conservative critics, though liberal critics were likewise distressed by his stubborn refusal to back away from Christ’s claim that he, alone, is “the way, the truth, and the light.” He refused to reduce the tension inherent in respecting a great mystery.

That left him ecclesially lonely, a loneliness that, given his gentle nature, wore heavily on him.

I had the privilege of getting to know him somewhat during his last years. He was a friend and mentor that we, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, leaned on to help us sort through some of our own struggles in this area. He was always available, always gracious, and always radiated a big heart and a keen intellect.

A couple of years ago, he joined us in Thailand for a symposium on world religions. When the meeting ended, he left for the airport, by taxi, at 6:00 am, with a couple of my Oblate confreres. They rode along in silence, as befitted the early hour, until Dupuis, in the front seat, turned to my Oblate confreres in the back and asked: “Isn’t anyone going to talk?” That was also his plea concerning the fearful silence that has for so long surrounded the question of inter-religious dialogue.