A General Theology Of Religions 1 Pluralism

Pluralist theologies have been developed most forcefully in the modern period, although traces are present in earlier Christian history. There are important differences among pluralists. Some argue that all religions have a common core or essence that can be historically identified, often within the mystical traditions of the world religions (see for example Radhakrishnan 1927; Huxley 1945; James 1977). A variation on this argument is that a straightforward historical comparison of the religions will not show this common essence, but rather within the different traditions the 'esoteric' believers who have penetrated in depth their own tradition will discover the non-duality of God and the soul, a unity that transcends all formulations. 'Exoteric' believers, on the other hand, absolutize their symbols and creeds and fail to penetrate to the transcendent unity of religions. To exoteric believers Christ and/or the Church become the only way to salvation (Schuon 1975). Another form of pluralism begins from a consideration of historical relativity and it is argued that all traditions are relative and cannot claim superiority over other equally limited and relative ways to salvation (Toynbee 1957; Troeltsch 1972). A variation of this is the argument that while the histories of religions are diverse, the common element in all is 'faith' in the transcendent (Smith 1978). Yet again, others argue that all religions have important and substantial historical differences and the view of a common essence is in danger of compromising the integrity of each particular tradition by emphasizing only one aspect of that tradition. The real unity of religions is found not in doctrine or mystical experiences but in the common experience of salvation or liberation. Some (Knitter 1985, 1987a, 1987b; Pieris 1989) develop this insight in dialogue with liberation theology. Others, such as John Hick, have developed their position in dialogue with traditional Western philosophy. It will be instructive to look in detail at John Hick, who combines strengths of all the above approaches while trying to avoid their weaknesses.

Initially, Hick argued that the solus Christus assumption (that salvation is only through Christ) held by exclusivists is incompatible with the Christian teaching of a God who desires to save all people. There are many millions who have never heard of Christ through no fault of their own, before and after New Testament times—the invincibly ignorant. So it is therefore unChristian to think that God would have 'ordained that men must be saved in such a way that only a small minority can in fact receive this salvation' (Hick 1977:122). Hick therefore proposed a theocentric revolution away from a Christocentric or ecclesiocentric position that has dominated Christian history. Hence, it is God, and not Christianity or Christ, towards whom all religions move, and from whom they gain their salvific efficacy. He argued that the doctrine of the incarnation should be understood mythically—as an expression of devotion and commitment by Christians, not as an ontological claim that here and here alone God has been fully revealed (ibid.: 165-79). Hick stressed the doctrine of an all-loving God over that of the solus Christus principle.

An important recent development in Hick's position came in response to the criticism that his theological revolution was still theocentric and thereby excluded non-theistic religions. I have noted these developments within Hick's position as they indicate the kind of issues and problems encountered by a full-blown pluralism. Hick, in response to these criticisms, makes a Kantian-type distinction between a divine noumenal reality 'that exists independently and outside man's perception of it' which he calls the 'Eternal One', and the phenomenal world, 'which is that world as it appears to our human consciousness', in effect, the various human responses to the Eternal One (Hick 1988:233-52). These responses are then seen as both theistic and non-theistic (e.g. God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman). In this way Hick tries to overcome any underlying theistic essentialism.

The above arguments cumulatively suggest that Christians can fruitfully view the history of religions as a history of God's/the Eternal One's activity without making any special claims for Christianity. Christian attitudes to other religions need not be characterized by a desire to convert, or claims to superiority, but a will to learn and grow together towards the truth. Mission should be jointly carried out to the secular world by the religions, rather than towards each other. Hick suggests that exclusivism and inclusivism cannot provide such fruitful conditions for inter-religious dialogue.

There have been a number of objections to Hick's thesis, some of which indicate more general problems with pluralism. (For critical debate on Hick, see D'Costa 1986:22-51; 1987; Carruthers 1990; Loughlin 1990, 1991; and Hick responding to his critics in Hick 1990, 1991.) First, there are objections to the way in which the centrality of Christ within Christianity seems to be bypassed. It is argued that Hick's initial theocentric revolution is based on a shaky premise. He rejects the solus Christus for he thinks it leads to the a priori damnation of non-Christians. Theologically, this is not necessarily the case as we shall see in the outlines of exclusivism and inclusivism below. Furthermore, when Hick proposes a theocentric revolution away from Christocentricism he is in danger of severing christology from ontology and introducing a free-floating God divorced from any particular revelation. The theistic religions, including Christianity, centre on revelatory paradigms for their discourse and practice. Hick's theocentricism pays little attention to the importance of historical particularity. In fact, the theological basis of his proposal (that of an all-loving God) is undermined if Hick cannot give normative ontological status to the revelatory event upon which this axiom is grounded—originally for Hick, that of the revelation of God in Christ. Christology is important precisely because it is through Jesus that Christians claim that God has revealed himself in a unique (although not necessarily exclusive) manner. A theocentricism without a Christocentricism is in danger of leading towards a reductionist abstract common denominator God. Pluralist approaches are in danger of relativizing or denigrating particularity, so central to the historical religions. Hick's response to this type of criticism is to note that an all-loving God is to be found in many religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and is not solely based on Christian revelation. Furthermore, within Christianity (as with the others cited) there have been periods when 'God' was understood as a tyrant, a cruel and vengeful ruler, a favourer of only men, and so on. Hence, it cannot be claimed that the God of love stands commandingly and unclouded in these religions or in Christianity alone. Rather, the discerning pluralist must recognize and affirm what is best within each religion.

Another objection to pluralist theologies concerns the doctrine of God. In Hick's context, this relates to his attempt to overcome his initial theistic bias. If the meaning of 'God' lacked specificity in Hick's theocentricism, it seems further relativized in his more recent works for 'God' is seen as one aspect of the 'Eternal One' that apparently can also be characterized by opposite non-theistic predicates. As all such predicates are from the human side they are thereby not properly applicable to the Eternal One. Hence, 'God' cannot be said to be personal or loving in a proper ontological sense. The Kantian noumenon encountered a similar problem in not providing for a correspondence between phenomena and things-in-themselves. Hick seems to be close to a transcendental agnosticism (i.e. affirming a transcendence without any qualities). Despite his stress on soteriocentricism, the liberated life-style, can he properly address the question of the nature of God/the Eternal One who actually saves and liberates people, or is his doctrine of 'God' in danger of avoiding all particularities so as to accommodate every particularity? Again, Hick's response is along the lines of that we can never properly describe the Eternal One 'in himself, only in 'relation to us'. Clearly, the outcome of these debates remain unresolved, but such questions highlight the theological centrality of christology and the doctrine of God in the discussion about other faiths.

Hick's philosophical approach to religious pluralism could be contrasted with the very pragmatic approach taken by those deeply influenced by liberation theology, such as Paul Knitter. Knitter does not begin with any assumption of commonality, thereby overcoming the danger of essentialism and foundationalism. Rather, he argues that all religions are to be judged as to their truthfulness, their real responsiveness to God, in so much as they promote the 'kingdom'. The kingdom is a life-style characterized by justice, peace, and goodness in both personal relations and social and economic structures. Hence, when religions promote the oppression of women in whatever way, they are to be judged as being against the kingdom. When they tackle the marginalization and exploitation of the poor and weak they promote the kingdom and in this context can be seen to be responding to the one true God. Hence, no religion is better than another except by these criteria, and under these criteria they are all in need of reform and mutual help (Knitter 1987b).

Knitter's attempt to bypass problems of Christocentricism, theocentricism and ecclesiocentricism are admirably motivated by a desire for justice and righteousness. However, critics have argued that Knitter cannot really address the question of liberation without the categories of Christ, God and the Church (Kung 1986:123; D'Costa 1990b; Milbank 1990). It is precisely in Christ and the trinitarian revelation therein, that the decisive meaning of liberation is to be found. The further Knitter tries to get away from such specification the closer he gets to another but unstated set of assumptions. From where does he derive the meaning of 'kingdom'? Why should such a meaning be privileged and exalted above all religions and used as a judge of them? Is this not a form of liberal imperialism? ('kingdom' is a favourite category in liberal Christian thought.) And is Knitter not in danger of simply promoting a vague meaning of liberation which has no real cutting edge as it is not grounded in the praxis of any real community, but in a reified ideal type? From a more Protestant angle, Knitter's vision has been criticized as a betrayal of the sola fide principle and an implicit adoption of salvation by works, for he assumes that works and human action are determinative for salvation. Knitter responds that his is an 'imperialism' with the poor and disempowered on its side and he is emphatic that within all religions there are resources that support such a vision. (See also Kung and Moltmann 1986; Pieris 1989; Braybrooke 1992; Cohn-Sherbok 1992 for further exploration of this type of approach.) Clearly, within this political perspective, one can see a role for a type of feminist theology of religions which focuses specifically on the question of the liberation of women within the world religions—and such an approach is open to the same kinds of question as those posed to Knitter (see Sharma 1987; O'Neill 1990).

What is clear is that the debate is far from resolved, but what is also clear is that at the heart of the debate lie questions regarding the nature of the Church, Christ, God and humankind. All these factors are construed quite differently in exclusivism.

2 Exclusivism

The rape of cultures and civilizations has often been justified in the name of Christianity armed with an exclusivist missionary theology (Morris 1973). Furthermore, racism and colonial imperialism are often closely identified with Christian mission. While this aspect cannot be ignored, it also needs to be said that some scholars have argued that much missionary work was not pursued in tandem with empire building, but actually resisted it (Stanley 1990), and others have defended the rich cultural contributions made by missionaries and criticized the 'Western guilt complex' in relation to mission work (Sanneh 1987).

I have highlighted these issues to show the ways in which theological attitudes have often been translated into practice. Nevertheless, there are serious theological issues underlying exclusivism. The exclusivist position (most often found in Lutheran and Calvinist circles) is fundamentally concerned to affirm two central insights. The first is that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring salvation into the world and that this salvation is both judgement and mercy to all human beings who are deeply estranged from God. Second, this salvation won by Christ is only available through explicit faith in Christ which comes from hearing the Gospel preached (fides ex auditu) and requires repentance, baptism and the embracing of a new life in Christ. Concerning the first principle, most exclusivists regard human nature as fallen and sinful. Hence, men and women are only capable of idolatry, for all their attempts to reach God are precisely that: human attempts at capturing the living God (Earth 1970: s.17). Herein lies the judgement of God upon all acts of idolatry for all human actions ultimately, subtly and not so subtly, usurp God's power in disclosing to themselves gods of their own making. Human beings in their best moments are capable of great wonder, art, discipline, and even intellectual speculation about the divine. However, all these are the products of fallen persons, who in their very attempt to reach out and upwards, compound their own situation for they blind themselves to the way in which God has reached down and inward to humanity in the person of Christ in a totally gratuitous act. In fact, the extent of sinfulness is such that human beings are incapable of truly recognizing their own situation of radical fallenness and it is only in the light of Christ that sin is seen most clearly and fully for what it really is (Earth 1956: s.60).

Given the predicament of humankind, the logic of this theology requires that salvation is a freely received gift which is offered to men and women through no merit of their own. Humans certainly do not deserve salvation, but God in his infinite mercy comes to fallen and sinful men and women. Rather than be indignant at God's particularity, as is the pluralist, the exclusivist theologian is instead awed and grateful at God's graciousness. His mercy and redemption are not something merited and they are also universal in import, so that the exclusivist can only humbly proclaim this truth rather than question it. The sola fide principle is paramount, for anything less compromises the incarnation and atonement and God's salvific action towards his creatures (Lindsell 1949; Fernando 1987). The sensitive exclusivist does not wish that all non-Christians be lost, but rather simply proclaims that the heart of the Christian message requires that sola fide be maintained. In response to the 'problem' of non-Christians, many an exclusivist will emphasize the urgency and necessity of world-wide evangelization, rather than spend time and energy on improper speculation about the possibility of salvation occurring in the non-Christian religions. However, the salvation of all non-Christians is addressed in the following statement taken from the proclamation of the Chicago Congress on World Mission in 1960:

In the years since the war, more than one billion souls have passed into eternity and more than half of these went to the torment of hell fire without even hearing of Jesus Christ, who He was, or why He died on the cross of Calvary. (Percy 1961:9; see also Frankfurt Declaration 1970; Lausanne Statement 1975)

This type of exclusivism faces a number of theological objections. First, Hick has criticized this position for being incompatible with the God of love disclosed at the heart of Christianity. Quoting the statement of the Congress on World Mission (see above), Hick argues that such an outcome is theologically unacceptable especially when one considers the invincibly ignorant (Hick 1977:121-2). There are two important points in the exclusivist response. First, for some exclusivists Hick presumes too much in questioning the ways of God as being unjust! Rather, given human sinfulness, we should start from being amazed that God saves anyone at all. Clearly, here the issue concerns human nature. Second, a number of exclusivists have taken seriously the problem of those who through no fault of their own have never heard the Gospel. This group is increasingly large among exclusivists and a number of strategies is employed regarding the invincibly ignorant. The first is to suggest that we cannot know the fate of non-Christians and must simply trust in the mercy and justice of God (Newbigin 1981:20; Stott 1988:327). Hence, such exclusivists are willing to acknowledge that salvation may be offered to the invincibly ignorant, although they refuse to speculate further about how this will happen. Second, some have gone further and suggested that there will be a 'time' after death in which the non-Christian may come to faith in Christ. Perhaps the boldest and most carefully spelt out proposal comes from a Roman Catholic theologian who utilizes the doctrine of purgatory to allow for this possibility (DiNoia 1992). DiNoia develops critically the theological insights of his mentor, Lindbeck (1984; see also Pinnock 1976). A third and somewhat novel strategy has been suggested whereby reincarnation is posited to solve the problem so that the invincibly ignorant will have a chance to hear the Gospel at least once before they 'properly' die (Jathanna 1981). These responses go some way to address the prime weakness regarding the invincibly ignorant, although further criticisms may follow regarding the specific options outlined or regarding other theological tenets within exclusivism. It is to the latter we turn now.

Another criticism aimed at exclusivists is that grace, within the Christian tradition, is not limited purely to an explicit confrontation with Christ (D'Costa 1986:52-79). This contention is based on a number of arguments. In traditional Christian theology, Judaism up to the time of Christ was certainly accorded revelatory status. Hence, a Christian exclusivist who denied any revelation outside Christ would be hard-pressed to explain the use of the Old Testament as part of Christian Scripture. In fact, Marcion (second century) was deemed heretical for just such an exclusion of the Old Testament. Besides the history of Israel testifying to salvific grace outside the particular event of the historical Jesus, there are also a number of passages within the New Testament that highlight the importance of right living. If for instance, a person's courageous self-sacrificing love is due to certain demands within his or her religion, can these acts of responding to grace be divorced from the mediators of such grace? Or, can the humanist's self-sacrificial love for another, so powerfully portrayed in Camus' The Plague, have nothing to do with Jesus' implied teaching that 'as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me' (Matt. 25:40)?

The exclusivist may respond in a number of ways. First, by pointing out that the revelation Israel received was always directed towards Christ and was not properly salvific. Hence, the real question here is whether implicit faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation. Furthermore, if salvific grace is available through creation and history, apart from explicit faith, does this not call into question the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation? Exclusivists are also likely to suggest that any resort to argument from virtuous actions is to depart from the sola fide principle, and concede to Pelagianism. Clearly, the arguments have no clear-cut conclusion, but again we find the central questions revolving around christology, God, human nature and the Church. We will find that this is true of the final position to which we now turn, and here again there is a differing construal of these central issues.

3 Inclusivism

Inclusivism has a venerable pedigree in the Christian tradition. Quite a number of Roman Catholics share this approach with varying differences. The main concern of inclusivists is to balance the two central axioms in this debate: solus Christus and the universal salvific will of God. Many maintain that while Christ brings salvation into the world, God's grace is not absent in his creation and in history. However, the various intimations of God's grace find their source and completion in grace made flesh: in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Hence, inclusivism has often been related to theologies of fulfilment, drawing on the ancient tradition of a praeparatio evangelica. The main division within inclusivism is between those who argue that the grace of Christ is available within the non-Christian religions and therefore the non-Christian religions have a certain salvific status (Rahner 1966), and those who argue that while the grace of Christ is available to non-Christians, one cannot confidently attribute the mediation of this grace to the non-Christian religions (van Straelen 1966; Ruokanen 1992). Within Catholic circles, both these groups claim the support of Vatican II for their position, and this indicates the ambivalent nature of the main document of that council on other religions: Nostra Aetate (1963). However, both groups are united in affirming that Christ's saving grace is available to the invincibly ignorant and therefore question a rigorous and literalist application of the ancient axiom: 'no salvation outside the Church' (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) (see D'Costa 1990a). It is a well-known irony that Fr Leonard Feeney SJ was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in the mid-1950s for teaching that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit, is probably the most influential inclusivist theologian of the twentieth century. Rahner's theological anthropology shapes his form of inclusivism. He argues that the precondition of finite (categorial) knowledge is an unconditional openness to being (Vorgriff), which is an unthematic, pre-reflective awareness of God—who is infinite being. Our transcendental openness to being constitutes the hiddenness of grace. Men and women therefore search in history for a categorial disclosure of this hidden grace. In Jesus' total abandonment to God, his total 'Yes' through his life, death and resurrection, he is established as the culmination and prime mediator of grace. Therefore Christian revelation is the explicit expression of grace which men and women experience implicitly in the depths of their being when, for example, they reach out through the power of grace in trusting love and self-sacrifice, or in acts of hope and charity.

Rahner (1966, 1978) attempts to balance the solus Christus principle with that regarding the universal salvific will of God, so as to maintain that Christ is the sole cause of salvation in the world, but that this salvific grace may be mediated within history without an explicit confrontation with Christ. Such is the case with the history of Israel. If with Israel, may it not in principle be the case with other religions of the world? Rahner argues that christology and the doctrine of God should not be separated from the Church in which they are found, and Rahner therefore maintains that Christ is historically mediated through the Church. This means that Rahner must reconcile membership of the the Church as a means of salvation and the possibility that salvific grace is mediated outside the historically tangible borders of the Church. He does this along the lines of the traditional Catholic teachings regarding the votum ecclesiae (a wish to belong to the Church), and the related notion of implicit desire. (See the beginnings of Rahner's thought on this matter in relation to Pius XII's Mystici Corporis Christi: Rahner 1963:1-89).

Rahner argues that if salvific grace exists outside the visible Church, as he believes it does in the history of Israel, and in creation and through conscience, then this grace is causally related both to Christ (always and everywhere—as prime mediator) and to his Church. Furthermore, given the socio-historical nature of men and women, grace must be mediated historically and socially. The incarnation is paradigmatic in suggesting this. Hence, if and when nonChristians respond to grace, then this grace must be mediated through the non-Christian's religion, however imperfectly. Rahner thus coins the term 'anonymous Christian' and 'anonymous Christianity' (Rahner 1966: ch. 5; 1969: chs. 16, 2; 1972: ch. 9; 1974: ch. 9; 1976: ch. 17; 1979: chs. 4, 13; 1980: ch. 5). The first refers to the source of saving grace that is responded to (Christ) and the second refers to its dynamic orientation towards its definitive historical and social expression (the Church).

Because God has already been active within the non-Christian religions, the Christian can be open to learning about God through a non-Christian partner. Furthermore, the Christian is also free to engage in active social and political co-operation when appropriate. Hence, the inclusivist has a firm theological basis for fruitful dialogue. Given Rahner's notion the grace must seek to objectivize itself, mission is clearly important. Hence, Rahner is able to affirm that Christianity is the one true religion, while at the same time holding that other religions may have a provisional salvific status.

Rahner has been criticized by both pluralists and exclusivists. Pluralists have argued that the term 'anonymous Christian' is deeply offensive to nonChristians and creates a stalemate in dialogue, with each side calling the other names (anonymous Hindus, anonymous Muslims and so on) (Hick 1977:131-2; Race 1983:45-62). Hans Kung, a fellow Roman Catholic, has accused Rahner of creating a terminological distinction to sweep a resistant nonChristian humanity into the Christian church through the back door (Kung 1976:77-8). Rahner has made it very clear that his theory is for internal Christian consumption only, i.e. it is a question within dogmatic theology and not a reflection meant for interfaith dialogue. He is simply reflecting on the possibility that the non-Christian may already have encountered God and that if this is so, then 'God' must be the same God as disclosed by Christ. Pluralists have also criticized the way in which Rahner wants to secure all grace as christologically mediated when he in fact acknowledges that it is mediated within other religions where Christ is not known. Rahner would respond that his argument is one regarding ontological causality, not particular historical mediation.

Rahner has also faced severe criticism from those who oppose pluralism and see in his work certain pluralist tendencies. For instance, it is argued that Rahner compromises the solus Christus principle in a fundamental manner. Salvation is made possible without surrender to Christ, thereby rendering Christ unnecessary in the economy of salvation (van Straelen 1966; Lindbeck 1974, 1984; DiNoia 1992). If salvation requires no explicit faith at all then this dangerously obscures the way in which the Church claims to form and nourish genuine faith within a historical-social community. Furthermore, Lindbeck accuses Rahner of operating with a very defective view of the relationship between experience and interpretation such that experience is given priority, followed by interpretation of it. Hence, Christianity is seen as just a better interpretation of the same experience had by different religions. But surely, Lindbeck argues, Christian faith is more than this? It is a matter of the person's being shaped in a specific 'Christoformic' fashion by involvement within the specific community of the Church. Hence, the question posed to Rahner: what would the difference be between an anonymous and explicit Christian in terms of faith? Rahner's invisible Church, it is claimed, is unbiblical and also detracts from the importance of explicit confession as a criterion for membership (Lindbeck 1974, 1984:30-46). The very foundations of Rahner's theology have also been called into question by his Roman Catholic colleague, Hans urs von Balthasar, who has seen in Rahner's transcendental anthropology the danger of the conflation of nature and grace (von Balthasar 1969; Williams 1986). Balthasar is concerned that by viewing supernatural grace as being part of the very nature of men and women, Rahner minimizes the character of sin and of tragedy, and consequently has an impoverished theology of the cross.

Rahner has responded to these criticisms and one cannot follow the complex debate here, except to say briefly that he has maintained against his more conservative critics that there is no compromise on the basic tenet (shared with exclusivists) that salvation comes exclusively through faith in Christ; and that Christ's life, death and resurrection have ontologically (not chronologically) brought salvation irrevocably into the world. Rahner claims he is simply offering one explanation of a teaching maintained by the Church that salvation is available to invincibly ignorant non-Christians and he is not unconditionally giving theological endorsement to the value of non-Christian religions per se. Once again, christology, God, human nature and the Church are the central questions which determine the attitude to non-Christian religions.

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