Growing religious diversity, global conflicts that have a religious dimension, and the modern rise of “interreligious dialogue” suggest the importance of sound Christian theological thinking about other faiths. Permit me to sketch here a three-fold typology of Christian-theological approaches to other religions. For theologians conversant in these matters, these categories will come as old news, but they are also helpful for lay Christians to keep in mind as they engage friends and neighbors of other faiths. Briefly put, we may speak of three dominant, ideal-typical approaches to “other religions” from the standpoint of Christian theology: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Each position possesses strengths; each, weaknesses.
The exclusivist position possesses age-old sanction in the Christian intellectual tradition. It is pervasively Christological and Trinitarian in nature, stressing the unique soteriological message of Christianity. As such, it provides a strong rationale for Christian mission, stressing the universal relevance of the Gospel to all peoples. Its biblical and patristic support is copious, succinctly summed up in Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else [than Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” In modern times, a representative of this position was Karl Barth, who made a sharp distinction between Christian revelation in Christ, on the one hand, and the (misguided) project of “human religion” on the other. In Barth’s formulation: “From the standpoint of revelation religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by human manufacture.” From this starting point, Barth’s theological kindred spirit Dietrich Bonhoeffer posited the desirability of a seeming paradox: “religionless” Christianity. Variations on this position, if less rigorously theologized, have been championed by many Christians at the more “conservative” end of the theological spectrum.
Theologically understood, the strength of this outlook, again, resides its strong support in both Scripture and tradition. “Not even the most detached reader of the New Testament,” Alan Race has written, “can fail to gain the impression that the overall picture of Christian faith which it presents is intended to be absolute or final.” But historically and sociologically viewed, the strength of this position has also been the source of weakness, for it has sometimes fostered triumphalism about one’s certitude, which in turn has given birth to ham-fisted missionary enterprises, cultural imperialism, and, sadly, religiously-motivated violence. In addition, exclusivists have a hard time reckoning with biblical figures (Noah, Melchizedik, Job) who seem to stand in a right relationship with God apart from the Abrahamic Covenant and the Christian Gospel. In the late nineteenth century, liberal Protestants (often joining arms with Unitarians and Theosophists), saw themselves battling against hard versions of exclusivism in an attempt to offer a more open-armed theology of non-Christian religions, of “religion” more generally, and to justify the task of interreligious dialogue.
A distinctly Catholic, more ecclesially-oriented version of this position—extra ecclesiam nulla salus—prevailed until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), at which time the Church revisited its tradition (ressourcement) and adopted a version of inclusivism.
Inclusivism, then, might be defined as the belief that other religions have much to offer, but they are only partial measures, seeking, if unwittingly, completion in Christianity. From this perspective, other religions are not so much misguided or pernicious, as some exclusivists might say, as incomplete, awaiting higher fulfillment in Christ and the Church. If exclusivism offers a stark either-or between religion and revelation, inclusivism offers a both-and solution. In the language of Vatican II’s Nostra aetate:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.”
The strength of this position is that it confers value on other religions, allowing for their admiration, while also upholding the exceptional status of Christianity. It also enjoys considerable support in the Christian tradition. Arguably, the Apostle Paul espouses a version of it in his speech on the Areopagus (Acts 17: 22-31), where he favorably acknowledged the authenticity of Athenians’ devotion to an “unknown god” before identifying that god with Christ. Early Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria also lend support to inclusivism; both held that goodness and truth exist abundantly in the world, including in other religions and philosophies, but in the providential order of things they were ultimately trussed to the eternal divine Logos, Christ.
In the eyes of its critics, inclusivism possesses weaknesses. Exclusivists have complained that it soft-pedals biblical passages proclaiming the unique nature of Christ and it fails to provide sufficient impetus for Christian mission and apologetics. By contrast, pluralists have felt that it does not go far enough in recognizing God working in other religions, and that it even fosters Christian condescension toward them.
Finally, then, we come to the pluralist position, a viewpoint forcefully championed by theologians such as John Hick and Paul Knitter, among others—and arguably the most influential justifier of interreligious dialogue in recent decades. Paul Griffiths has called it “the underlying scholarly orthodoxy on the goals and functions of interreligious dialogue.” For adherents to this viewpoint, neither exclusivism nor inclusivism pass muster; the former is too narrow-minded, the latter too patronizing. While drawing from explicitly Christian moral notions (such as charity or humility), the pluralist unseats Christianity entirely as the destination or arbiter of religious truth. Rather, knowledge of God is partial in all faiths and all are, or should be, linked together in a common pursuit of truth. Religions must therefore acknowledge their need for one another if the full truth is ever to be available to humankind. For some pluralists, the goal of dialogue among religions is the creation of a future religion or a “universal religion,” one that incorporates the best insights from all faiths. For others, the goal is to peel away secondary and tertiary matters separating religions from one another and arrive at the already-existing “true essence” or “essential sameness” of religion.
The strength of this position is that it harmonizes well with modern notions of tolerance and equality, even as it deploys the language of Christian virtues. The weakness is that it is virtually non-existent before the modern period and heavily rests (as the others do in degrees) on the Enlightenment and colonial-era redefinition of religion as genus manifesting itself in distinctive “ism” species (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.). With respect to interreligious dialogue, moreover, this position begs the question of whether a Christian who disavows the manifold biblical and historic claims of Christian uniqueness can in good faith participate in dialogue as a Christian, for doing so would seem to deprive his/her interlocutor of the face-to-face experience of Christian alterity. From another angle, the pluralist tends to adopt a birdseye, meta-religious attitude to religions, a feat difficult for those whose more tradition-embedded ways of life and patterns of thought have not been shaped by the Western Enlightenment and the cognitive environment(s) of colonial power.
Exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism do not exhaust Christian stances vis-à-vis other religions, and it should be noted that more subtle distinctions and nuances exist within each position. Moreover, some theologians have felt that one need not necessarily pick between them, but, variously arranged, they can be held in creative tension with one another for the purposes of interreligious dialogue. But whatever the case, these categories have been invoked with sufficient frequency in relation to Christian engagement with other religions that some familiarity with them is important for thinking well and wisely about other religions.