Gavin DCosta

In the modern world Christians cannot ignore the existence of other religions. Global communications, extensive travel, migration, colonialism, and international trade are all factors that have brought the religions closer to each other in both destructive and creative ways. While statistics are difficult to interpret and their accuracy is open to question, the changing situation is clearly depicted in a comparison between 1491 and 1991. In 1491 roughly 19 per cent of the world's population was Christian and while 2 per cent of the non-Christian world was in contact with Christianity, 79 per cent remained entirely ignorant of its existence. Some 93 per cent of all Christians were white Europeans. Compare these figures with 1991 where 33 per cent of the global population were Christians, with 44 per cent of the non-Christian world being aware of Christianity, while only 23 per cent had no contact with Christians and the Gospel. The ethnic basis of Christianity has also radically shifted so that from a position of white European dominance, the largest Christian community is now to be found in Latin America, followed by Europe, with Africa third (and growing much faster than Europe), followed by North America and then South Asia. Statistically, the majority of Christians are non-European although it would still be fair to say that the power base of most mainline Christian communities lies within the European orbit.

To complement this overview, it will be helpful to survey briefly the figures for 1991 regarding the numerical strengths of world religions. After Christians (roughly 1 billion), Muslims are the largest religious group (962 million), followed by Hindus (721 million), with Buddhists forming less than half the number of Hindus (327 million). New religions, notoriously difficult to classify, number some 119 million, followed by another amorphous classification, tribal religions which constitute roughly 99 million. Finally, and in Western consciousness far more prominent, come Sikhs with nearly 19 million and Jews, with nearly 18 million (Barrett 1991:72-3).

From these statistics it is safe to say two things. First, Christians cannot ignore the existence of other religions. Second, with the awareness of their existence a host of theological, philosophical, methodological and practical questions are raised. Should, for example, Buddhist meditation groups be allowed the use of church halls?; how should religious education be taught?; what kind of social and political co-operation or opposition is appropriate with people of other faiths? There are also fundamental theological issues at stake. If salvation is possible outside Christ/Christianity, is the uniqueness of Christ and the universal mission of the Church called into question? Or if salvation is not possible outside Christ/Christianity, is it credible that a loving God would consign the majority of humankind to perdition, often through no fault of their own? Can Christians learn from other faiths? Can they be enriched rather than diluted or polluted from this encounter? Clearly, other religions in varying degrees have also undergone their own self-questioning in the light of religious pluralism, but that is altogether another subject. (See for example: Jung et al. 1963; McKain 1964; Coward 1985; Hick and Askari 1985; D'Costa 1988; Kung & Moltmann 1990; Griffiths 1991; Braybrooke 1992; Cohn-Sherbok 1992).

There have been many different Christian responses to the world religions in the modern age. Equally, there are many different motives behind these attitudes involving theological, political, social and economic factors. For Christians living in the twentieth century there is also the recent history of colonialism and imperialism in which many large parts of the non-Christian world have been subjugated by white Christian powers. The history of internal carnage is equally shocking: two world wars, and the destruction of nearly a third of Jewry within a culture deeply nourished by Christianity. This chequered history has caused a crisis in confidence both within Christianity and also in its relation to world faiths.

No set of categories is adequate to analyse and deal with the complexity of the topic, but it may help to label three types of theological response to other religions for heuristic purposes. There are, of course, considerable differences between theologians belonging to the same 'camp' and many features of overlap between different approaches. I shall use the following terms for these approaches:

1 Pluralism=all religions are equal and valid paths to the one divine reality and Christ is one revelation among many equally important revelations.

2 Exclusivism=only those who hear the Gospel proclaimed and explicitly confess Christ are saved.

3 Inclusivism=Christ is the normative revelation of God, although salvation is possible outside of the explicit Christian Church, but this salvation is always from Christ.

Various presuppositions undergird each approach, often revolving around christology and the doctrine of God and the doctrine of human beings.

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