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Burning Hearts and Confused Minds

The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theologyy of Religions


Pluralistic Theology of Religions

Eds. John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, Faith Meets Faith Series, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books (1987).

“Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, NKJV)

Such was the question posed by one of the men who had encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus. His question pierces the mystery of the encounter even as it expresses great joy and wonder at the enlightenment which he has received. The nameless man is not just a solitary figure; his companion shares that amazement and joy (hence the reference to “our heart” in the singular). That same wonder can be experienced anew by all those who hear these words and receive the account of the encounter with faith and love.
I confess that I made a similar declaration as I completed reading this work by Hick and Knitter which bears witness to the enlightenment they have experienced as they have traveled on the road toward a pluralistic theology of religions. A journey that at once appears forlorn as the very thought of a pluralistic theology of religions suggests a willingness to see not just any God but a particular God in the diverse expressions of religious traditions. One cannot take such a journey and experience the burning sensation of enlightenment without shedding some of the baggage of claims to exclusivism and superiority--on this all the contributors to the book are in agreement. All also agree that there are turbulent waters that separate us from the many other people who inhabit the world and with whom we must dialogue for the betterment of humanity and the earth. That our present environment demands our journeying across these waters is borne out in the structure of the book.

The book is divided into three sections: The Historico-Cultural Bridge:Relativity; The Theologico-Mystical Bridge:Mystery; and The Ethico-Practical Bridge:Justice. A Postcript on “The Case for Pluralism” completes the work. The first group of writings argue that we cannot begin our journey except at the point of our own particular grounding in the Judeo-Christian heritage. We are not required to shed our beliefs and symbols as Christians nor are we asked to limit the things we take along to a few essentials. We are, however, commanded to rid ourselves of certain hazardous items.

In “Religious Diversity, Historical Consciousness, and Christian Theology,” Gordon D. Kaufman, Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, rejects any attempt toward a universal religion or world faith. There is no essential “oneness” as “every religious (or secular) understanding and way of life we might uncover is a particular one, that has grown up in a particular history, makes particular claims...we must find ways of relativizing and opening up our basic symbol system,” (5) to bridge the gap between those of the particular faith of Christianity and those of the other world faiths. He notes further that “absoluteness and self-idolatry...often obstruct interaction between Christians and others,” (ibid.). Thus, Kaufman calls us to recognize that our experience as Christians is grounded in our geography at a particular point of history just as other peoples’ contact with their system of fate. We must be able to relate with them without demeaning or reducing their beliefs and without giving up our own.

John Hick’s article, “The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity,” is the most gut wrenching of the articles as it reviews the history of the Judeo-Christian heritage and the death and destruction it has left in its path as it blazed across history. He looks at the crusades, the burning of witches and heretics, imperialism, the genocide of indigenous people, etc. and concludes that these dark moments in our tradition flow from our belief that the work of God in Christ is absolute and makes us possessors of the superior religion. However, Hick argues, if we were to look around us we will see that these beliefs are false. For essential to most of the world’s religions is a movement from self-centeredness to “Reality-centeredness,” (23). Hick believes this shift to be an ample point of connection at which we can begin to bridge the distance between Christians and others.

Hick, then Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at Claremont, goes on to give a critique of Christianity and why it is neither superior nor absolute when compared to other religions. He rejects culture, economics and all the other expressions and vestiges of Christianity that have been proffered to support claims of superiority. In fact, Hick argues, many of the things of which Christianity now claims ownership (science, industrialization, justice, intellect, etc.) were opposed by Christianity, or at least its leaders and institutions at the onset of these advances!

Finally, Hick, like other writers in the book and outside it, recognizes that the Christian concept of Jesus Christ continues to be a stumbling block in the road across the bridge to connecting with others. Hick advocates an “inspiration or paradox-of-grace Christology,” (32) that would assist Christians in moving closer to others in whom God has been revealed. Here, Jesus would encompass the divine spirit but would not be God who came down to earth. Such a renewing of the mind will result in the perception that “Christianity is not the one and only way of salvation, but one among several,” (33).

Langdon Gilkey, Shailer Mathews Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, completes the first section. His article, “Plurality and Its Theological Implications,” argues that cultural changes since the 1920s have “effected a move toward parity--that is, from Christianity as the definitive revelation among other revelations to some sort of plurality of revelations,” (39). He sees this shift toward parity as being one in which people have moved from an emphasis on faith to a greater expression of love. This does not mean a universal religion for Gilkey; rather, it means that “each particular religion is true and yet relative, a true revelation for that community, relative to other true revelations to other communities, and relative to the Absolute that each only partially and so somewhat distortedly manifests,” (43).
Gilkey does not see this relativism as a less than desirable outcome. On the contrary, he sees it as a “creative paradox,” (47) that enables us to move from faith to praxis as a common place of connecting with those of other religions.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Professor Emeritus of the Comparative History of Religion at Harvard University, begins the next section with his article, “Idolatry: In Comparative Perspective.” His main point is that theologies “are conceptual images of God,” and as such “No such form is either final or complete. No such form is negligible,” (56). Idolatry then, is not another’s religion, but rather the sin of those who labor under the “misapprehension that the divine is to be fully identified with or within one’s own forms,” (61).

The next article, “The Cross and the Rainbow: Christ in a Multireligious Culture,” is by Stanley J. Samartha, Visiting Professor at the United Theological College and formerly first Director of the Dialogue Program of the World Council of Churches in Geneva. His thesis is that all religions must recognize the “Mystery of God” and the different responses that have been made to it by the great religious traditions (70). He reviews how India has been a leader in theological pluralism and calls for a “theocentric christology,” (79).

In a moving article that is pregnant with symbolism, Raimundo Panikkar, Professor Emeritus of the University of California and of Hindu/Christian extraction, writes in “The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges: Three Kairological Moments of Christic Self-Consciousness,” that “the christic principle is neither a particular event nor a universal religion ... it is the center of reality as seen by the Christian tradition,” (92). Panikkar contends for a cosmic Christ akin to Pauline doctrine.

Seiichi Yagi, Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, continues the call for a cosmic Christ in his article, “I in the Words of Jesus.” He argues that the “ground of salvation is the primary contact of God with the self, and this is the common ground of both Buddhism and Christianity,” (117). He argues further that a dialogue with Buddhism “might aid Christians in formulating a more pluralistic christology and theology of religions,” (119) though such reformulation should not contradict the findings in New Testament studies (130).

The final section contends for a common ground of dialogue that springs from justice and liberation. Here, the arguments are grounded in praxis more so than faith or theology. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, writes in “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Particularism and Universalism in the Search for Religious Truth,” that “true revelation and true relationship” can be found in all religions (141). Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, then Academic Dean at Wesley Theological Seminary, continues the justice argument in her article, “In Search of Justice: Religious Pluralism from a Feminist Perspective.”

Aloysius Pieris, S.J., Director of the Tulana Research Center in Kelaniya (north of Colombo), returns to the Buddha/Christ motif in his article, “The Buddha and the Christ: Mediators of Liberation.” This section is completed by Paul F. Knitter, Professor of Theology at Xavier University, whose article, “Toward a Liberation Theology of Religions,” sets forth the bare bones” of what a liberation theology of religion looks like.

The final article is by Tom F. Driver, Paul J. Tillich Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. Entitled, “The Case for Pluralism,” the article refreshes our memory about the need for the pluralism of theology project.

Yes, my heart burned with the majesty and profundity of the writings and the hope which it engendered. After all, it is no mystery that most of the world’s conflicts have their origins in religious misunderstandings and conflicts. If the world’s religions can get together and work together, then the first step will be taken in healing the world and the people who inhabit it. Unfortunately, I am confused by the strategies offered and am not convinced that the project as outlined will convince many Christians that they need to rethink, reframe, reimagine, or rework their theologies and especially their Christology. Surely, there ought to be a way for all members of the religious community to sit at the same table and sup together without altering their beliefs and practices. All religions have a version of the Golden Rule and all preach and teach love. Why can’t we all come together and work for the betterment of humanity and our planet because that is what love commands?

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