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Religious Plurality: A Modern Christian Theological Perspective

Updated on August 15, 2014
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An Overview

The term ‘religious plurality’ is used to denote the existence of a large number of diverse religions. The plurality of religions inevitably entails the matter of truth. This is because religions can be understood as systematisations of the attempt of human beings to answer the ultimate questions of their existence in relation to other human beings and the transcendent. In light of this, each religion claims to provide the most truthful answers of what it means to be human, and the most truthful insight and paths to the transcendent. As this is the case, one would correctly assume that the phenomenon of religious plurality generates a number of problems and tensions within the context of the modern world.

It is clear that the question of religious plurality poses a unique and urgent problem for the universal Christian Church in the modern world. It is particularly acute for the Roman Catholic Church, with her fundamental missions of proclamation and dialogue. The Christian Church has responded in a variety of ways to religious plurality in the modern world. However, the Second Vatican Council (1962-195) serves to illumine the position that the majority of, if not all, Christian Churches may necessarily be called on to adopt in order to fulfil their missions as witnesses of Jesus Christ in all religious and cultural climates throughout the modern, and future, epochs. This is important in order for them to preserve their unique identities whilst simultaneously being capable of true and fruitful dialogue with non-Christian traditions.

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The Issue of Religious Pluralism

Religious plurality poses a particularly urgent problem for people in the modern world, not least for those of a religious affiliation. This owes to a number of factors, which are rather unique to modern times:

1) Shifting patterns of mobility have revolutionised the understanding of religions. No longer are they viewed as geographically or culturally confined.

2) Significant technological innovations in communication and travel, witnessed especially within the last sixty years or so, have lead to an extraordinary increase in personal contact between members of different cultures and faiths.

3) Major developments in the Christian academic field of ‘comparative religion’ have resulted in a veritable explosion in the accumulation of broader and more comprehensive information regarding the world’s religions.

In terms of practical theology, religious plurality contains several issues which impact on the way members of the Christian Church interact with those of different faiths. These issues include – among many others – the implementation of proper religious education in schools whose student caucus proves to be multi-faith and/or denominational, the practice of appropriate inter- and intra-national social and political cooperation, the maintenance of correct Christian witness amongst members of other faiths. Perhaps most serious and far-reaching issue is the apposite participation of Christians in interreligious dialogue.

The most pressing theological issue from the Christian point of view is whether or not salvation is available to those outside the Christian fold. This is due to the cornerstone of the Christian self-understanding within the plurality of religions: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the relation to human salvation contained therein. In light of this, there are three possible realities, each with their own inherent theological problems:

1) Salvation is possible through Jesus Christ alone, in reference to John 14:6 where Christ Himself stated this was the case. If this is true, Christians are inevitably confronted with the feasibility of maintaining their belief in a God who desires salvation for all humanity.

2) Salvation is possible through non-Christian religions. If this is true then Christians are faced with the validity of Christ’s claim to be the sole means of salvation, and Christianity’s to be salvifically absolute.

3) Salvation is possible despite non-Christian religions. If this is true, then what of the social and historical nature of human beings and the ‘communitarian character’ of religions - all unambiguously present in the history of humanity?

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The Christian Response: Exclusivist, Inclusivist, or Pluralist?

In response to the theological problem of possible non-Christian salvation, modern Christian theologians and philosophers have invariably adhered to one of 3 positions: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.

Exclusivism

Maintains that Christianity is the only valid path to salvation. This owes to the belief in Jesus Christ as the only means of such and Christianity as the one and only way into His salvific presence. Exclusivists deem all non-Christian religions to be erroneous due to humanity’s fundamental and irrevocable taint of sin. Any answers contained within other religions are understood as false as they are inescapably marked by this sinfulness, due to their religious frameworks being humanly, not divinely, ordained. This is in direct contrast to Christianity, which exclusivists hold to have been directly ordained by Christ.

This paradigm has been adopted my many modern Christian theologians - most often within the Evangelical tradition. Furthermore, it was the main position of the Catholic Church prior to the 20th century - most remarkably evidenced in the medieval and classical periods. One of the most, if not actually the most, influential modern exclusivist theologians is the Dutch Protestant Hendrik Kraemer. Profoundly affected by the German theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Kraemer significantly developed the exclusivist position; particularly through his propositions of ‘biblical realism’ and the ‘missionary imperative’.

Inclusivism

Entails the maintenance of God as salvifically present in all religions,albeit experienced and understood in different ways, depending on the cultural worldview of those involved. Having said this, the inclusivist still claims that Christ is the definitive and authoritative revelation of God, retaining Christianity as the fulfillment of all other religions and their searches for God and the truth contained therein.

This paradigm originated with the Scottish Protestant missionary John Farquhar in the early 20th century, and has since then been frequently and extensively attacked by both exclusivists and pluralists. It has been adopted by the Catholic Church and the majority of Catholic theologians following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Perhaps the most influential inclusivist theologian in religious history is the Germanic Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. It was he who advised the German bishops sitting at the Second Vatican Council, and is said to have influenced a large number of the Council’s deliberations and decisions. With his propositions of ‘categorical knowledge’, ‘transcendental revelation’, and the ‘Anonymous Christian’, Rahner set the scene for the Catholic Church’s understanding of, and attitude towards, non-Christian religions in the 20th century and beyond.

Pluralism

Maintains that all religions are found to be equally salvific ways of reaching the transcendent and equally valid providers of truth. One inherent problem with this paradigm is that it can lead to an attitude of ‘one religion is just as good as another’, which can in turn lead to a multitude of serious issues in the context of religious claims to truth. According to the foundation of this position, the traditional claims of Christianity should be rejected on the basis that all religions are equally valid and true. Such claims include itself as either the only path to salvation and the transcendent and the only provider of truth, or the fulfillment of all other paths and providers.

This paradigm is, unsurprisingly, a minority view among modern Christian theologians though it is rapidly gaining support, particularly within Protestant and Catholic circles. The most influential and controversial proponent of the pluralist position is the English Christian theologian and analytic philosopher John Hick. Utilising the cornerstone of the pluralist position - the universally salvific will of God - Hick proposes what he denotes as a ‘Copernican revolution of theology’. This involves a shift within Christian theology from being Christianity-centred to being God-centred, with all religions revolving around and serving God rather than Christianity.

A Vatican II session.
A Vatican II session. | Source

The Roman Catholic Response: Vatican II (1962-1965)

The Second Vatican Council was the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII on the 11th of October 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI on the 8th of December 1965. It is considered the official position of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world. The intention of Vatican II was pastoral, and in the context of non-Christian religions it was convened in order to establish and foster new attitudes of esteem, dialogue, cooperation and mutual understanding between them and Christian traditions (cf. Nostra Aetate [NA] 3).

Vatican II was a watershed event regarding the Church’s attitude towards and theology of other religions. In previous Councils and their documents, the Roman Catholic Church only cautiously affirmed, never decreed, the possibility of salvation for those outside Christianity; Vatican II however, unambiguously decreed such a possibility with unparalleled conviction. In the teachings of Vatican II on the issue of non-Christian salvation, there is a clear distinction between the salvation of individual non-Christians and the significance and role of non-Christian traditions in God’s design for humanity and in the salvation of their members.

Lumen Gentium

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church affirms that the possibility of salvation is available to all non-Christians who possess the correct disposition; those “who, not without grace, strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium [LG] 16). This affirmation is extended even to those who are yet to arrive at an explicit knowledge of God, with their positive attributes of goodness and truth considered as a “preparation for the Gospel” (LG 16). In terms of non-Christian traditions, Lumen Gentium explains the rites and customs of other religions as often idolatrous. The Catholic Church takes up the positive values within these traditions into herself and fulfils them through her fundamental mission of proclaiming the Gospel message given to her by Jesus Christ.

Nostra Aetate

The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions is perhaps the most significant in regards to the Church’s worldview in the religiously plural modern world, and broke away from previous related Vatican II documents. Where previous documents were fundamentally concerned with the graded orientation and relation of other traditions towards the Church, Nostra Aetate is essentially focused on relations between members of the entire human family (NA 1). This document affirms the common origin and destiny of all human beings in God. It thus immediately places the Church in a broader context of the common search to answer the ultimate questions of humanity which is found at work in all the world’s religions (NA 2). Having said this, Nostra Aetate still maintains that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all religious life (NA 2), with the Church as the necessary means of this fulfillment through her unceasing mission of proclaiming the Gospel message to all humankind.


Lumen Gentium: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

Nostra Aetate: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

References

  • Adler, Mortimer J. Truth in Religion. New York, NY: Collier Books, 1990.

  • Barnes, Michael. Christian Identity & Religious Pluralism: Religions in Conversation. Nashville, TN: The Parthenon Press, 1989.

  • Cassidy, Edward Idris Cardinal. Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue: Unitatis Redintegratio, Nostra Aetate. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005.

  • Coward, Harold. “Religious Pluralism and the Future of Religions.” In Religious Pluralism and Truth: Essays on Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion, edited by Thomas Dean, 45-63. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

  • D’Costa, Gavin. Theology and Religious Pluralism: The Challenge of Other Religions. Worcester: Billing and Sons Ltd., 1986.

  • Dupulis, Jacques. Toward a Christian Theology of Pluralism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001.

  • Hyers, Conrad. “Rethinking the Doctrine of Double-Truth: Ambiguity, Relativity and Universality.” In Religious Pluralism and Truth: Essays on Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion, edited by Thomas Dean, 171-188. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

  • Race, Alan. Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.

  • Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.

  • Smart, Ninian. “Truth, Criteria and Dialogue Between Religions.” In Religious Pluralism and Truth: Essays on Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion, edited by Thomas Dean, 67-71. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

  • Stenger, Mary Ann. “Religious Pluralism and Cross-Cultural Criteria of Religious Truth.” In Religious Pluralism and Truth: Essays on Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion, edited by Thomas Dean, 87-107. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

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