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Survey of Theology 9. Christianity and the World's Religions

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1. Introduction

2. Three Christian Approaches to Other Religions

3. Particularism

3.1. The Argument for Particularism

3.2. The Two Camps of Particularist

3.3. Criticisms of Particularism

4. Inclusivism

4.1. Karl Rahner's Arguments for Inclusivism

4.2. Criticisms of Inclusivism

5. Pluralism

5.1. John Hick's Arguments for Pluralism

5.2. Pluralism's Explanation for the Radical Differences Among Various Religions

5.3. Criticisms of Pluralism

6. Concluding Comments

6.1. Summary Table

6.2. Concluding Quote

References

 

 

1. Introduction

 

"... it is impossible today for any one religion to exist in splendid isolation and ignore the others. Today more than ever, Christianity too is brought into contact, discussion and confrontation with other religions. To the extension of the geographical horizon of religion at the beginning of modern times there has been added in our own time an enormous extension of the historical horizon."

- Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 89

 

 

In has become a commonplace to say that we live in a pluralist society -- not merely a society which is in fact plural in a variety of cultures, religions and lifestyles which it embraces, but pluralist in the sense that this plurality is celebrated as a thing to be approved and cherished.

- Lesslie Newbigin

 

 

Note the two senses of pluralism in the quote from Newbigin. Pluralism is:

  • 1. a fact of life

  • 2. an ideology, a belief that pluralism should be encouraged, that any claims to a unique truth are imperialist and divisive.

 

 

2. Three Christian Approaches to Other Religions

Christian approaches and attitudes towards other religions can be broadly grouped as:

 

 

3. Particularism

3.1. The Argument for Particularism

 

God has revealed the Way and the Truth and the Life in Jesus Christ, and wills this to be known throughout the world.

- Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965) Christian Message in a Non-Christian World

 

Particularism says that:

  • The revelation of Christianity is in a category of its own. It is a unique, and distinctive faith

  • The "revelations" found in other religions are inauthentic, purely human inventions

 

Another term for particularism is exclusivism

 

 

3.2. The Two Camps of Particularist

There are two "camps" of particularists:

  • 1. Those who say there is no knowledge of God to be found outside of Christ (Karl Barth)

  • 2. Those who say that God's self-revelation may occur outside of Christianity, but can only be interpreted correctly in the light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ (Hendrik Kraemer)

 

 

3.3. Criticisms of Particularism

The predominant criticism of Particularism is that it is inconsistent with the God's desire to save all human beings. What of those who have not heard the gospel, or choose to reject it? For centuries within the church, a standard answer to this question is that they would be condemned. A quote from Fulgentius of Ruspe, disciple of Augustine in the 4th century:

 

The holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and proclaims that none of those who are outside of the Catholic Church -- not only pagans, but Jews also, heretics and schismatics -- can have part in eternal life, but will go into eternal fire, 'which was prepared for the devil and his angels,' unless they are gathered into that Church before the end of life.

 

However, while a Particularist may believe as above that all non-Christians will be condemned, they do not have to believe this. In particular in Karl Barth's theology, particularism is still compatible with universal salvation:.

Barth:

  • knowledge of God and salvation are possible only through Christ

  • at the end of history, grace will triumph over unbelief, and all will come to faith in Christ

  • the particularity of God's revelation through Christ is thus compatible with belief in universal salvation

 

 

4. Inclusivism

4.1. Karl Rahner's Arguments for Inclusivism

The most significant advocate of inclusivism has been Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. In volume 5 of his Theological Investigations, he argues that:

  • 1. "Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all people, which cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right."

  • 2. revelation of God in Christ took place at a specific time in history. Those who lived before, or who have not yet heard of it, would seemed excluded from salvation. This is incompatible with God's will to save all.

  • 3. Knowledge of God, and God's saving grace must therefore be available outside Christianity, including other religions, despite their errors and shortcomings

  • 4. faithful adherents of non-Christians religions should be regarded as "anonymous Christians"

    • "Somehow all people must be able to be members of the church."

  • 5. Religious pluralism will always be part of human existence

 

In other words, Rahner says:

  • Christianity and Christ have a unique and exclusive status that other religions do not share

  • Nevertheless

    • knowledge of God (God's self-revelation) may be present in other religions

    • the grace of God and even salvation may be present in other religions

      • grace might be mediated by the lifestyle they evoke, e.g. selfless love

 

Rahner justifies his position as follows:

Consider the Old Testament, the outlook of a non-Christian religion, Judaism.

  • We discard some practices we regard as unacceptable (e.g. dietary laws)

  • We retain others as valid (e.g. moral laws)

We can do the same with other religions

 

 

4.2. Criticisms of Inclusivism

The term "anonymous Christians" has been widely criticized:

  • John Hick: paternalistic: "honorary status granted unilaterally to people who have not expressed any desire for it."

  • Hans Küng: "It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an 'anonymous Christian' as presumptuous"

 

In Rahner's defense, the term "anonymous Christian" was perhaps intended to suggest that Christians should give the faithful adherents of non-Christian religions the same "status" in their reflections on the People of God as they give to their fellow Christians.

 

 

5. Pluralism

5.1. John Hick's Arguments for Pluralism

Pluralism posits that each religion is a distinctive yet equally valid understanding of God / ultimate reality.

 

The most significant advocate of pluralism has been the radical English theologian John Hick (b. 1922). Pluralism is presented in his books:

  • God and the Universe of Faiths (1973)

  • The Second Christianity (1983)

 

"...we need a Copernican revolution in our understanding of religion. The traditional dogma has been that Christianity is the centre of the universe of faiths, with all other religions seen as revolving at various removes around the revelation in Christ and being graded according to their nearness to or distance from it. But during the last hundred years or so we ... have realized that there is deep devotion to God, true sainthood, and deep spiritual life within these other religions; and so we have created our epicycles of theory, such as notions of anonymous Christianity and of implicit faith. But would it not be more realistic now to make the shift from Christianity at the centre to God at the centre, and to see both our own and the other great world religions as revolving around the same divine reality?"

- John Hick

 

Hick says we must distinguish between:

  • the ultimate spiritual, transcendent reality underlying the various religious systems

  • the perceptions of this reality within the various religions

 

He draws on Immanuel Kant's distinction between:

  • the "thing in itself" (never directly knowable)

  • our indirect knowledge of things, always colored by our subjective experience and our limited ability to conceptualize

 

Following Kant, Hick would argue:

  • We have no direct knowledge of "The Real"

  • Religions are human responses to "The Real," and are colored by the historical and social contexts in which the religions evolved

 

This distinction enables us to acknowledge both the one unlimited transcendent divine Reality and also a plurality of varying human concepts, images, and experiences of response to that Reality.

- John Hick

 

 

5.2. Pluralism's Explanation for the Radical Differences Among Various Religions

What of the radical differences in beliefs and practices among the various religions?

 

Hick:

  • the same spiritual reality lies at the heart of every religion, yet "their differing experiences of that reality, interacting over the centuries with the different thought-forms of different cultures, have led to increasing differentiation and contrasting elaboration"

  • Differences should be regarded as "both-and" rather than "either-or" -- that is, as complementary rather than contradictory

 

 

5.3. Criticisms of Pluralism

Criticisms of Pluralism include:

  • Some differences between the various religions cannot be reconciled with any intellectual honesty in a "both-and" manner. They are clearly contradictory

  • Sets aside a major Christian conviction: that Jesus Christ is a unique revelation of God. This point of view therefore cannot be considered a "Christian" perspective

 

 

6. Concluding Comments

6.1. Summary Table

A table summarizing to a "first order" the salient features of "particularism", "inclusivism" and "pluralism" is:

 

 

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is unique, revealing most fully the true nature of God

God's self-revelation and grace are present outside of Christianity

Particularism

yes

no

Inclusivism

yes

yes

Pluralism

no

yes

 

 

6.2. Concluding Quote

Hans Küng (an Inclusivist):

 

Not only Christianity, but also the world religions are aware of man's alienation, enslavement, need of redemption: inasmuch, that is, as they know of man's loneliness, addiction, abandonment, lack of freedom, his abysmal fear, anxiety, his selfish ways and his masks; inasmuch as they are troubled about the unutterable suffering, the misery of this unredeemed world and the sense and nonsense of death; inasmuch as they therefore await something new and long for the transfiguration, rebirth, redemption and liberation of man and his world.

Not only Christianity, but also the world religions perceive the goodness, mercy and graciousness of the Divinity: inasmuch, that is, as they know that the Divinity, despite its closeness, is distant and hidden, that the Divinity itself must bestow closeness, presence and revealedness; inasmuch as they tell man that he may not approach the Divinity as a matter of course, confident in his own innocence, that he is in need of purification and reconciliation, that he needs sacrifice for the remission of sin, that he gains life only by passing through death; in fact, that in the last resort man cannot redeem and liberate himself, but is thrown back on God's all-embracing love.

Not only Christianity, but also the world religions rightly heed the call of their prophets: inasmuch, that is, as they receive from their great prophetical figures -- models of knowledge and behavior -- inspiration, courage and strength for a new start toward greater truth and deeper understanding, for a breakthrough toward revival and renewal of the traditional religion.

 

 

References

  • "Christianity and the World Religions," Chapter 17 in: Christian Theology. An Introduction. Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2001

  • "The Challenge of the World Religions" Part III in: On Being a Christian, Hans Küng, Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1976

 

 

 

Survey of Theology

 

1. The Doctrine of God

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity

3. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 1. Classic Christology

4. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 2. Modern Views and Concerns

5. The Doctrine of Salvation in Christ

6. The Doctrines of Human Nature, Sin, and Grace

7. The Doctrine of the Church

8. The Doctrine of the Sacraments

9. Christianity and the World Religions

10. Last Things: The Christian Hope