The Myth of Religious Superiority

Christian thinkers divide into three groups: one group thinks a person has to believe in Jesus Christ at some conscious level to be saved (exclusivism), another group thinks a person is saved through Jesus Christ but a person who has never heard of Christ may be saved by the light they have received (inclusivism), and yet another group thinks Christianity is one way of salvation, a true way, but there are other ways too (pluralism). There are of course shades and nuances right through this spectrum.

As you read this sketch of Knitter’s pluralism, what is your response? What do you like? Where would you disagree?

Pluralists then believe that one religion being superior to other religions is a myth, and in fact often it is said such a belief is imperialistic. A really good example of a pluralist is Paul Knitter, a former Catholic priest who is now at the vanguard of religious pluralism and someone who calls himself a Buddhist-Christian (and professor at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian). To sketch his view I rely on his own study in Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World (G. D’Costa, Paul Knitter, Daniel Strange). I have never seen such a lucid, brief sketch of pluralism this good, so I will do my best to re-sketch his sketch.

1. Theology is a mutually clarifying and mutually criticizing conversation between Christian experience and beliefs on the one side and ongoing human experience and understanding of self and the world on the other side (47-48). Thus, while the NT is given authority, it has authority only so far as it elicits and confirms our experience. And theological language is symbolic and never the thing itself.

2. The singular issues for theology are the many religions in the world and the many poor in the world. Good theology then must be liberative and dialogical.

3. God as Trinity is about our experience of God as one and many. This language symbolizes a “creating” and a “communicating” and an “animating” Mystery as Father, Son and Spirit. God and the world co-inhere, and this is a form of panentheism in that God participates in everything. Reality is a “cosmotheandric” process — world, God and humans. God is the power of Inter-Being. What we call God is Inter-Being. We know God through the mysticism of silence (the Other) and the mysticism of service (the other).

4. Creation is an outpouring of the God who is love, and God could not not have created because love inevitably creates into otherness. So evolution is inherent to God — and here he refers to Teilhard. Sin — he’s not into original sin but into selfishness and social karma. Sin is the corrupting social and cultural reality. What is needed is enlightenment.

5. “Jesus is the decisive and transforming embodiment of the holy Mystery of love and Inter-Being that pervades all of creation” (65). Jesus as Son of God means the disciples, when they met Jesus, they met God. He invites others into this relation with God. Jesus as Savior — one model sees Jesus as the Satisfaction (which is against pluralism) but his model sees Jesus as the Sacrament (who mediates, makes real, makes known). Jesus is the primary Sacrament for the Christian. Jesus the Risen One means a spiritual event — a subjective experience of an objective event [not defined]. They encountered the Spirit of Christ after his death. Is Jesus unique? Jesus is “truly” Son of God and “truly” Savior but not in the sense of “only.”

6. The Christian is called to salvation (the mystical experience of being “in” Christ) and justice (the prophetic experience of seeking the Reign of God). For Knitter the Reign of God is cultural and social and not primarily, or even, ecclesial (church).  The distinctiveness of Christian salvation is preferential option for the poor, without denying justice for all (even the powerful).

7. Church is mission, and mission is dialogue. Dialogue is how the church is missional. The mission of God is bigger than the church and therefore the church is only part of the mission of God in this world.

Here is Knitter’s gospel: “the Reign of God – the gradual, incremental growth of a ‘new world order’ … a new way of organizing society, national politics, globalization on the basis of justice and compassion instead of greed and domination” (81).

The goal is not conversions into the church but transformation of society. The dialogue is prophetic, which means calling attention to justice.

8. Eschatology is about hope. God is bringing the planet closer to the new world order of compassion and justice. And this hope is now a possibility: “the Reign of God is already fully present right now… but we have not yet awakened to it in order to real-ize it — that is, to make it real” (87). He does not believe in an eternal hell but that hell is the consequences of our own choices, and heaven is being lost (to be ‘not-selves’) into “the limitlessness of the divine life of Inter-Being” (90).

“It’s mystery. Just trust.” (90).

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • james petticrew

    A good summary and much to think about. I do have a worry or question what if my experience which is the arbriter of NT authority is not slways to be trusted? What if I selfishly interpret that experience to help me avoid the challenges I find inconvenient in the NT?

    He also seems to have an emasculated Jesus. The Jesus of the NT claims absolute devotion from those who hear his message of the Kingdom Knitter may claim jesus is one among many that we can pick and mix but Jesus says there are ultimstely two ways, two gates and he calls us to choose.

  • Steve Tyra

    Pluralists are in fact exclusivist in their privileging of their “bird’s eye view” of world religions. If you stop and ask, “how do they KNOW neither Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc is the ‘thing itself’” then you realize they have in fact elevated their perspective above all the faiths they claim to bring into harmony. In a sense, pluralism is “right” whereas the “exclusive” claims of Christianity, Islam, etc are wrong. A Pluralist (watch it) has a truer picture of the actual state of the universe than a traditional adherent of any world faith. Religious pluralism founders on the same problem as epistemological relativism generally: Self referential incoherence.

  • Susan N.

    Well now, this book is looking much more interesting to me. :-)

    “Pluralists then believe that one religion being superior to other religions is a myth, and in fact often it is said such a belief is imperialistic.”

    I have always thought that I am more inclusivist than pluralist, but maybe I’m changing in my old age, if Knitter’s definition of pluralism is accurate.

    Religion, as I see it, is simply our (human) articulation (theology, worship) of God. Because religion is a system, there is great potential for corruption and “sin” (missing the mark) within the very vehicle we adopt in our efforts to bring God into our midst — as we understand Him.

    Christianity is no exception. We, as a religious group, have at times become the enemy of God’s “other” children. If we truly believe (and I know very well that some do not) that Jesus came to save all, then religious superiority, it seems to me, is counterintuitive to what Jesus came to say and do.

    #7 is my FAVORITE of Knitter’s description of pluralism, as sketched above! Amen, please let it be so, and let me be part of the solution (not part of the problem), Lord.

    Mark 12:28-34!

  • scotmcknight

    Steve, it may appear clever to say the pluralist is actually an exclusivist, and I’ve heard this a number of times, such a view operates with a view of exclusivism that doesn’t make sense. Let me explain:

    The exclusivist believes people can be saved through one religion and one religion alone, and all other religions are more or less false.

    The pluralist says no one religion is privileged and that all lead to salvation.

    It makes no sense to me to call the pluralist view exclusivist.

    It is, however, true that they have a point of view on religions that incorporates all others and that in fact denies that the exclusivist view is the true view.

    The irritating thing about the pluralist view for many is that they run roughshod over many in each faith tradition who really do believe their faith is the one true religion.

  • scotmcknight

    Susan N., your comment requires a question for you: Is Jesus the Lord or a Lord?

  • Jasen Lutz

    Well said Steve!!!

    You really have to side-step the words of Jesus to make these pluralistic claims. From what I can tell, there is a significant difference between the way the Buddha and Jesus taught. The Buddha would say “It’s not me, follow my Dharma (teaching).” Jesus on the other hand would say “Follow ME”, “I AM the way”, “he who as seen ME has seen the Father”, “If any one is thirsty let him come to ME and drink”. Jesus was clear about this, it wasn’t just his teaching that was the answer it was Himself. That is either right or wrong, but it’s not the same.

  • Scott Gay

    Is that a typo in the fourth sketch….”God could not have created”……?

  • Rick in IL

    I’ve never seen a threefold option laid out in that manner Scot; it’s helpful and under its rubric I’d call myself inclusivist. Now to the points: just a few comments…

    #1 seems to place human experience above scripture in terms of authority.

    #2 seems more compassionate than motivated by what is true – sort of like saying the basic facts of math are only true if they help poor people have a higher balance when the finish balancing their checkbook.

    #7 Like Susan N., I think that is very well-said.

  • Susan N.

    Scot, you know the answer, don’t you? I talk so much here in the commentary…I guess I assume that I’ve been understood. Maybe I’ve just confused the heck out of everyone!

    He is *The* Lord. *My* Lord. The Incarnate Word. Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of the Universe, of course. :-)

    But I think that Christians who claim Jesus as their God (myself included) often do not have a complete and perfect understanding of who He is. I’m continually humbled at the frequent realization of what I didn’t previously know! The way I see it, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, the way we know God, and of course are reconciled to God.

    But is it our right knowledge/understanding/beliefs about Jesus that saves us? Is it saying the right words? (“Lord, Lord…”) Doing the right works? Seems to me that maybe we just keep learning of Jesus and following His example as best we can, and when we connect with others in loving friendship, humbly dialogue about the One who has been such Good News to us personally…and I might add, is Good News for all. Invite others to join the pilgrimage with us. Love them anyway, if they do not.

    I have no other gurus or lords (at least on purpose.) I readily admit that I am as susceptible to reductionist-god, golden-calf, god-management idolatry as probably your average middle-class American Christian. I’m working on confronting those idols on a regular basis. ~Peace~

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I agree with him that the church is only part of God’s mission in the world. Christopher Wright, among others, makes this case well. I think God works outside the church to evolve a more compassionate and just order. But the idea that this is the summation of the Christian message is a seriously deficient view of the Christian Story. God is at work doing all these things inside and outside the church as he works to bring humanity to a point “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It completely ignores the “Jesus as God’s fulfillment of the story of Israel and ultimately the world” gospel.

    As noted in comment #4, you have to do serious harm to the integrity of exclusive claims of individual religions to get to pluralism. Only by believing you have more light than the true believers of specific religions to distill out greater truths can you be a true pluralist.

  • JohnM

    How plural are pluralists? Thoroughly and exhaustivley, or are some religions still excluded as false or inferior? Does pluralism make room for, say, Santeria or Neopaganism? Are those ways to salvation? Did Quetzalcoatl worship make the grade?

    Those might be rhetorical questions or there might be answers. Am I wrong in guessing the explanation will be “other ways” does not mean ‘all religions ever’ ? If any pluralist use any kind of filter they might want think about explaining their filter. And what to call themselves next.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I fall very close to Susan#3 and #9. But I want to touch on a couple of other topics from the post.

    As long as I have hung out with evangelicals I am still uncomfortable about the way many/most seem to operate that in that the bible is the sole source of god.

    james#1 touched on this as i would expect a good evangelical to do it. But james, I feel you are missing the point. The point is not about having a nice tidy rule book, it is about having Jesus who is so much bigger than the rule book. Just because you don’t have a nice book to debate when experience is considered does not make it wrong. And I also disagree about the emasculated Jesus. If you view Jesus as the Word, then Jesus is even bigger than Jesus, so to speak, and can show up in the most unusual ways.

    I break out my next point in another rely.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think number 3 is quite key in this:

    God as Trinity is about our experience of God as one and many. This language symbolizes a “creating” and a “communicating” and an “animating” Mystery as Father, Son and Spirit. God and the world co-inhere, and this is a form of panentheism in that God participates in everything. Reality is a “cosmotheandric” process — world, God and humans. God is the power of Inter-Being. What we call God is Inter-Being. We know God through the mysticism of silence (the Other) and the mysticism of service (the other).

    I share the sort of panentheistic view here probably because of my Catholic and Buddhist experiences. From the time I was a child I asked where is god? and came to the realization that god is in and perhaps is everything. Now that does not drive me to worship rocks, but it does drive my to view my existence as interconnected via god. If he means something close to this by Inter-Being then I am there too.

    I don’t know how much he goes into it in the book, but both Catholicism and Buddhism have this interrelated part to an extent that I have yet to see in evangelicals. We all participate in the cosmos and are intertwined. We are not individuals, because as individuals we are empty, we are only not empty when we are in relation to someone or something else. It is the Other/other that defines us.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Near the end of The Open Secret, Lesslie Newbigin has a diagram of interfaith dialogue. The diagram consists of two staircases facing each other. Between them, at the bottom of the staircases, stands the Cross.

    The staircases represent “all the ethical and religious achievements that so richly adorn the cultures of humankind.” They are the various means by which people try to reach God. The great paradox is that God meets each of us not at the top of our staircases but at the bottom.

    In my opinion, Christians who engage in interfaith dialogue need to come downstairs and make ourselves vulnerable. We should be willing to put at risk any and all aspects of our identity, subjecting ourselves to painful scrutiny and even rebuke by the Other. But we do so at the foor of the Cross, where every human being stands on the same level ground.

    There is much good in Knitter’s pluralism. I do agree with many aspects of it. But it seems to me that he is trying to meet the Other by walking down from his staircase (Christianity) and then climbing partway up the Other’s (Buddhism). He may be doing so in with a spirit of authentic empathy and generosity. But if the final point of meeting is not at the foot of the Cross, then in my opinion the relationship becomes appeasement, not reconciliation.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    “Thus, while the NT is given authority, it has authority only so far as it elicits and confirms our experience. And theological language is symbolic and never the thing itself.”

    It strikes me that both these criteria (even granting that he lays them out much more fully in his book) are simply inadequate to fully explain and encounter the biblical texts. The biblical authors must be ignored, understood as mistaken, or radically reinterpreted, beginning with the foundational teaching of creation and God’s otherness from that creation. Several main lines of NT argumentation about various things must also be mistaken; the apocalyptic elements of early Christian thought must be ignored or labeled mistaken or demythologized; Jesus must be displaced from his Jewish Messianic framework and reworked into something that fits eastern mystical categories. This is both historically anachronistic and unlikely given that it runs counter to the stories told by our most reliable interpreters of Jesus’ life and mission (the authors / editors of the canonical Gospels).

    Beyond this, as you mentioned, Scot, this does run roughshod over the beliefs of millions (whether Christians or no) whose faith and practice entails a level of exclusivity.

    Furthermore, if the kingdom of God really is justice and compassion spreading out on the earth, it strikes me that, historically, it is orthodox (in the broad sense) Christians who took the Bible more or less at its word, rather than Buddhists or the like, who have accomplished the most in that regard. Think of the rise of hospitals, research universities, democracy in which religious freedom and pluralism is not only allowed but vigorously defended. I do not like measuring a system’s truth by its pragmatic impact or value but on his eschatological terms it seems it’s historically more likely that the historic Christian faith most truly furthers the kingdom (and I think this remains true despite the many black eyes dealt the world by the church).

  • TJJ

    It seems to me that for all the high sounding language and “thrlogical expression”, when you actually peel away the layers of pluralism get down to the core of it, there really is no “there” there. Including no real gog there.

    You really end up with nothing much of anything. Just Moralisms, kum ba ya lets all love and repect and get along with each other, and there really is no god at all, just our thoughts/emotions/experiences of what we have ceated god to be, which is why all expreassions of god are more/less equally valid. Plualism also essentially rejects all religions, rather than affirming all. It realy says: your pathway is valid, because all pathways are just made up, created, theological constructs to validate human experience.

    So while it is kind of interesting to discuss and think about, i actually repect and prefer the athiest to the pluralist, because I think the athiest is more honest in just cutting out all the theologucal thickets, and saying, there is God, no true theology, no Wizard of Oz.

  • TJJ

    soory for mis spells, small keypad, bumpy train

  • Luke Allison

    In regards to the idea that exclusivism is imperialistic…

    What about the early church? Were they imperialistic? Did they insist on an exclusive Savior?

    There is real live history we can look at that tells us about early church practice, not just theological speculation.

    I want to believe everything described here, because it makes life so much easier (not necessarily in evangelical circles).

    But the fact that there are tons of people who have thoroughly studied world religions just as deeply as Knitter and come to an exclusive view of Jesus makes this all relative to me. Just like Dr McKnight has studied Scripture deeply and come to a somewhat different conclusion from Bart Ehrman. To label those peoples’ viewpoint imperialistic is just plain crazy. And I think that’s where the pluralistic argument gets shaky: it smells like western faculty lounges and pipe smoke.

    The Dalai Lama himself isn’t a pluralist. So why should I be?

  • Alan K

    I have to agree with Michael in #10. Pluralism requires the particularity of Israel to pretty much be non-particular and thus requires the whole tradition to become something different than it understands itself to be.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Luke Allison#18, “The Dalai Lama himself isn’t a pluralist. So why should I be?”

    I heard him say that he feels all of the world religions can succeed in making good people, but he is most familiar with Buddhism and thinks it is a good one for everyone to try.

    I know that the theological types on this blog will scream pelagianism because we can’t make it on our good works, we need Jesus, but you do have to admit that it is better to produce good people than bad. It is better to help the poor than not. It is better to minimize suffering than enhance it.

    I think that is a big part of the difference between the soteriological gospel and the Kingdom gospel. The kingdom gospel has a much more rational view of why it is important to do good works.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have not stated it, but let me do that, I feel that Jesus is the Lord and my Lord and am an inclusivist. I like the why the Catholics use the language of experiencing the fullness requires Christianity, because that inherently respects other religions.

  • Karl

    “Christian thinkers divide into three groups.”

    Where would a Christian Universalist (like George MacDonald) fit in? Not pluralist – they still believe Jesus is the only way. Would such a view be a subset of the pluralist category? One of the “shades and nuances” mentioned? Or a separate fourth category?

  • Luke Allison

    DRT:

    “The kingdom gospel has a much more rational view of why it is important to do good works.”

    I completely agree with this statement. The King Jesus Gospel breathes life into dry bones waiting for heaven.

    I guess my response to Knitter is always, “Wouldn’t you still believe this if you had nothing to do with Jesus? Because, like, that’s what educated kind-hearted liberal older men believe?”

    Maybe that’s snarky. I recently was part of a meeting with a local Mullah here in the Minneapolis area (one of their big “church planters”). During the meeting, a younger Muslim woman who was participating said something along the lines of “we all believe the same thing, we are all the same”, and the Mullah shushed her. It was pretty funny and awkward. He was extremely educated (knew the Bible front and back, spoke several languages, seemed to understand physics and evolutionary biology in a working way)but he wasn’t making any overtures toward pluralism. He knew that it doesn’t work to synthesize Christianity and Islam, because, well….they just say two completely different things, don’t they?

    Here’s a question worth pondering: Why do the similarities in major religions usually rest in the ethical dimension, and never the theological or doctrinal?

  • scotmcknight

    Karl, that’s a good point … we could add a fourth or make the universalist a kind of inclusivist.

  • Susan N.

    Karl (#22) – Yes!

    I was thinking further on where I fall in on the inclusivist –> pluralist *spectrum*, remembering that Scot issued that caveat in his introduction. The “inclusivist/universalist” category seems like a best fit for me, which brings me to what’s good about point #8!

    God’s hesed and emet do not depend on us and our worthiness. He is faithful. Live out of that abundance in actively blessing others and, in so doing, worshiping God now. The rest is mystery. “Trust God.” No fear…

  • John W Frye

    While I do believe evangelicals (including me) have a lot to learn about the beauty and benefits of other world religions and a lot to learn about missional dialoguing so that in respectful cooperation we (religionists) all try to promote justice/shalom in this broken world, I cannot give an inch on the particularity of God’s work in the world through Israel (chosen and called out from the world religions) and the specificity of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and *the* Lord and King of all the earth. All the love and compassion and respectful cooperation in the world does not and must not dilute the fierce specificity of the Christian faith. Pluralism homogenizes religions into palpable mush.

  • brad

    When I think about pluralism I’m confronted with what God’s word claims and not what I want to think. God’s word is either the filter by which we arrive at our beliefs or it isn’t. God made narrowly and exclusive claims about himself, so why is it that He would do so? If all roads lead to heaven, why was God so insistent that the baals not be worshipped? What did Jesus’ answer to Thomas mean in John 14:5-6? What Jesus didn’t say is, “I’m a way”. This whole pluralism thought process isn’t new, it’s just regurgitated thought / hope – processes that have been around for a great deal of time. I don’t know the boundaries of God’s grace, but it certainly appears that grace and boundaries (exclusivism if you will) do march hand in hand.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Luke Allison#23 “Why do the similarities in major religions usually rest in the ethical dimension, and never the theological or doctrinal?”

    Is this a trick question? If they had the same doctine then they would be the same religion?

  • Gearoid

    I have often thought that some expressions of pluralism are driven by an argumentum ad misericordiam (arguments or appeals to pity). Especially, is this so as it relates to the numbers of devout impoverished religionists in the world. The argument goes something like this: “Certainly God will not condemn the sincere poor religionists who are seeking God the best way they know how.”

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I vote for universalism as described to be part of the inclusivist view. That was what I assumed in the definition of inclusivist.

  • Deets

    Steve #2,
    I wonder if it might be more true to say that pluralists are elitist in what they proclaim, as are exclusivist. But exclusivist are more consistent in what they proclaim.

    That is to say, and exclusivist says “I know the right way and it is my way, therefore other ways are wrong.”

    The pluralist says, “I know that there are many ways, so the exclusive way is wrong, but it is right.” Right that it might be a way to God. Wrong that it can know the right way to God. That seems inconsistant to me.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    BTW, I happen to be watching the Left Behind movie this morning and it is quite a contrast with this post and discussion :)

  • Percival

    Wow! Knitter is playing the oldies. Having disassociated from a liberal mainline church some time ago, I didn’t know people were still peddling that stuff. Keep moving folks. Nothing to see here.

  • Jesse

    I’m a bit confused. Pluralism sounds like a wonderful option, until you begin to realize that the very tenets of many of these other faiths are in direct opposition to each other, and to marginalize or simply ignore those tenets begs the question as to whether one can even be considered as an adherent to that religion, does it not? What does belonging look like with that view? Isn’t belonging a two-fold act? One in which a member affirms his/her participation in a particular movement/group/community/religion, and is likewise affirmed by the adherents of the respective community that one belongs?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    “The singular issues for theology are the many religions in the world and the many poor in the world.”

    What does Knitter base this statement on? I think the issue of many religions is a natural one for theology’s concern, but where does the “many poor in the world” come from? I ask this because, while concern for the poor IS a major issue for most forms of Christianity and Buddhism, there have existed and do exist religions that are relatively unconcerned about the poor.

  • Bo Eberle

    @ Gearoid

    argumentum ad misericordiam is a powerful “fallacy,” I favor and endorse it over almost any “valid” rationalization any day! I would built a theology around it!

  • Luke Allison

    I wonder if there aren’t two separate issues that flow into and out of this topic:
    1. The legitimacy of a doctrine of “hell” (judgment, whatever)which is part of the greater “destiny of the unevangelized” debate, and….
    2. The legitimacy of exclusivity as a concept in religion. We have no problem with exclusivity in surgery, technology, nutrition, etc. But religion seems to be something that demands plurality, at least to many people.

  • Bo Eberle

    Luke, you have to know why that comparison between religion and surgery, for example, doesn’t work, and this points to another distinction in Knitter that you’re missing. First, surgery, or medecine, is testable and empiricle, i.e. a surgical method either works or it does not. We cannot say the same of religion, if we do, we must concede that Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are all “working” for people in some sense, or they would not be adhered to by millions or billions.

    Second, remember that Knitter claims a mutualist position (he prefers this term instead of pluralism) because all religion is symbolic in nature. It may well be, then, that there is an absolute, but our religious language MUST be symbolic because of the epistemicological tools available to us, and the basic fact that other religions than our own “work” jsut as well as ours, to go back to the first point. Thus, we are pluralists, or mutualists, insofar as we acknowledge that what we experience as salvation is also available in other religions. Now, we may postulate that others experience of salvaiton is an illusion, but the pluralist would respond that claiming that kind of superior position of claiming who is experiencing legitimate salvation and who is not is a bit absurd. The distinction here that differntiates from inclusivism is that we needn’t claim that Jesus is actually disguised in other religions, we stop at the symbolic level of discourse and avoiud patreonizing other traditions by accepting and trustung that these ‘others’ are indeed finding the value and experience of salvation in their own traditions, just as we claim we are in ours, and that in the end, this fact is mysterious, yet it is a mystery worth trusting.

  • Luke Allison

    “Thus, we are pluralists, or mutualists, insofar as we acknowledge that what we experience as salvation is also available in other religions.”

    Really? I’m not sure other religions are concerned in any way shape or form with ‘salvation’ as we experience it.

    Here’s where I get confused by the relativistic nature of this whole conversation: I know that you perceive yourself to be extremely loving and wise with your position. But others perceive this kind of pluralism as elitist and smug. So who’s right?

    Why even bring the notion of the divine into the conversation? Why not just take a naturalistic bent on religion and call it a useful trick of the brain that gives us security and happiness in the face of mortality?

    Again, many people who have studied world religions just as much as Knitter have come to an exclusivist understanding of Christianity or an exclusivist understanding of another religion.

    Are they wrong? And if so how would we know?

  • TJJ

    It seems to me that for all the high sounding language and “theological expression”, when you actually peel away the layers of pluralism and get to the core of it, there really is no “there” there. No real religion there, no real god there.

    You really end up with nothing much of anything. Just Moralisms, kum ba ya lets all love and repect and get along with each other. Religion becomes just our thoughts/emotions/experiences of what we have created god to be, which is why all expressions of god are more/less equally valid.

    Plualism also essentially rejects all religions, rather than affirming all. It realy says: your pathway is valid, because all pathways are just made up, created, theological constructs to validate and explain and cope with human experience.

    So while it is kind of interesting to discuss and think about, I actually repect and prefer the athiest to the pluralist, because I think the athiest is more honest in just cutting out all the theological thickets, and saying, there is God, no true theology, no Wizard of Oz, and does not muddle it up with religion/deity/theology feel good talk.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Luke#39, if I can butt in on Bo’s dialog,…

    If salvation from a Christian perspective is believing in Christ, then it is inherently exclusivist, by definition. But is that salvation?

    I can see how people can experience pluralism as elitist and smug, but would not those same people consider any faith, not their own, in the same light? Aren’t they really just disagreeing with anyone who does not agree with them?

    Wouldn’t they consider the Muslim that feels Christianity has it totally wrong elitist? Or the Hindu that laughs at the quaint Christian? Or the atheist…? Those people consider everyone except themselves to be elitist.

    I agree with our host Scot#4

    Steve, it may appear clever to say the pluralist is actually an exclusivist, and I’ve heard this a number of times, such a view operates with a view of exclusivism that doesn’t make sense. Let me explain:

    The exclusivist believes people can be saved through one religion and one religion alone, and all other religions are more or less false.

    The pluralist says no one religion is privileged and that all lead to salvation.

    It makes no sense to me to call the pluralist view exclusivist.

    It is, however, true that they have a point of view on religions that incorporates all others and that in fact denies that the exclusivist view is the true view.

    The irritating thing about the pluralist view for many is that they run roughshod over many in each faith tradition who really do believe their faith is the one true religion.

    The only difference is that I feel there are pluralists who do feel great respect for other religions. Many who don’t.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    TJJ#40, your argument is too easy to dismiss. You argue that if they say all those paths can lead to god then there is, in essence, no right path and they reject all paths.

    If you live in a black and white world without wonder and mystery and god, then you are right. But to me, I have followed Catholicism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and believe that they each have wonderful and treasured truths in them. I have not followed Judaism but can easily see that too.

    Your argument sounds like someone arguing that since the four gospels do not have the exclusive truth of events then we cannot love any of them. That simply is not true. Each gospel has its own orientation.

    If you feel you are saved by believing in Jesus, then I guess I can see your point. Some sort of mental ascent to a fact of history.

    But is that the point?

  • Luke Allison

    DRT # 41: “I can see how people can experience pluralism as elitist and smug, but would not those same people consider any faith, not their own, in the same light?”

    Maybe….I happen to think that sincere adherents to Islam like the Mullah I described above are much more admirable than those who downplay differences out of some desire for peace. I know they think they’re helping, but they may actually be doing more harm.

    I believe the challenge isn’t finding a way to synthesize every approach (not saying Knitter is doing this, but a lazy person with less desire to study could easily do so), but to affirm each others’ sincerity while working toward mutual understanding. This does not require us to believe about ultimate reality. And who would want to????

    From what I can tell, true pluralism is just that: acknowledging the right to differ and the uniqueness of that differing opinion. We live in America. Time to deal with difference.

    Otherwise, you have to come up with a way in which religions which deny personal gods of any kind can somehow be revealing the same thing as those which have at their center a personal judging, loving, or communicative god.

  • Luke Allison

    Correction: “This does not require us to AGREE about ultimate reality.”

  • Bo Eberle

    Luke –

    Your final question “how do we know” encapsulates the issue at hand. We don’t “know,” and that isn’t the project pluralists are engaged in. I may be departing from Professor Knitter in this respect, but reall this is an issue not of relativism as such, but epistemilogical relativism, when several traditions are making exclusive claims with their source of “knowledge” being some holy scripture or revelation, the pluralist steps back, and istead of negating all religions, as TJJ suggests, it is an explanation as to how there can be value and truth inherent in all religions, and the issue is mistaking symbolic, direct language for symbolic language of a greater ineffable absolute. It is not, like TJJ claims, the claim that all religions are just “made up,” but symbolically expressing REAL truth filtered through the cultural context through which is was founded. I would also challange TJJ in his assumption that “believing in Christ” is exclusivist. Here, I think John Cobb’s work on Christ and Pluralism is relevant, as Cobb argues that Jesus is “The way that is open to other ways,” and in fact I think Knitter gets at this point as well in his book “Without Buddha I could not Be a Christian,” it is THROUGH our relationship with Christ that we are open to the other, open to truth wherever it is found. It is the inclusive, addirming nature of Christ that opens us up to the realization of truth outside of Christ (and we neednt quote John here, those verse are exegeted very well by both Cobb and Knitter in their respective works). It is BECAUSE I believe in Christ that I believe that creation is good, that God is working in all things, and that whatever I think about God’s characteristic via my own tradition, it is never sufficient, and my religion is not responsible for the caretaking of God. Which is a great relief. God is bigger than Christianity, and pluralism is one way of addirming this.

    For the record, I am not actually a Knitterian pluralist (yet! Professor Knitter still has time to help me!) , but I am deeply sympthetic with the position, which is quite tenable, and I see man out of hand, simplistic rejections of it based upon misunderstandings and false assumptions. But I enjoy the dialogue!

  • Luke Allison

    “It is BECAUSE I believe in Christ that I believe that creation is good, that God is working in all things, and that whatever I think about God’s characteristic via my own tradition, it is never sufficient, and my religion is not responsible for the caretaking of God. Which is a great relief. God is bigger than Christianity, and pluralism is one way of addirming this.”

    Bo, I agree and resonate with this entire beautiful statement.

    I’m not even necessarily an exclusivist. I just find some of the “epistemilogical humility” expressed by loving and kind men with the best of intentions like John Hick and Dr. Knitter to be somewhat vapid.

    There is an interesting point that no one has brought up yet: Christianity started as a “Way”, not a religious system. Religious behavior naturally seemed to follow this Way, but it’s not necessary to it. What is true religion after all?

    But on some level devotion or fidelity to an actual being (couched in historical objective claims like death and resurrection) seems to be at the center of this Way. So a system that proclaims no such being exists would be hard to agree with outside of ethical concerns. And ethical concerns are important!

    Anyway, who cares what I think in the grand scheme?

  • Bo Eberle

    First, I apologize for all my typos, not typing on a proper keyboard today.

    Second, Luke, I think you misunderstand the argument if you are under the impression that “no such being exists.” Paul Knitter, for example, claims fidelity to Jesus, to God, that is taken as “real.” However, this fidelity to a specific being is an understanding that our conceptions of said being are symbolic in our conception of this being. The being, God, exists, but is beyond direct statements about God. I think (I could be wrong on this) that the distinction then, between plurlalism and mysticism/apophatic theology is that symbolic discourse of God is embraced as useful, so long as it is dialogical and liberative, like Knitter says. And to address someone else’s concern as to “why dialogical and liberative,” these necessitities derivive from the simple facts of suffering and multiplicity, which seem to be the two obvious issues that religion has to deal with. If there is something else on par with these problems, anyone is free to speculate.

  • Bo Eberle

    Perhaps you can think of “God,” the absolute being, as being behind a screen of sorts, and our language and experience of God is filtered through this screen in different ways, or perhaps as light is refracted through a prism, which gives rise to our traditions’ various expresions of this absolute.

  • Luke Allison

    Bo # 47

    “Second, Luke, I think you misunderstand the argument if you are under the impression that “no such being exists.”

    Bo, just to clarify, I’m speaking of other religions, not necessarily the mutualistic or pluralistic ideas presented in Dr. McKnight’s post. Buddhism, for instance, doesn’t articulate a personal god of any sort, and sees suffering primarily as illusory (I’m simplifying for the sake of a blog post, sue me). This is as untenable to me as Calvinism.

    Knitter, in my mind, is a firm and devout follower of Jesus Christ.

    Interesting point, though: much of questioning of exclusive positions began after I encountered a group of Buddhist monks at a video store I worked at. They were so wonderfully kind and peaceful, and they gave the best hugs, that my entire world got shaken. Experience is powerful.

  • Bo Eberle

    We are converging quite a bit, at this point, Luke! Cheers!

  • Luke Allison

    We are probably more converged than you might think.

    All I’ll say is that perhaps an argument against your “prism” or “screen” analogy would be: how do YOU particularly know that there’s a screen, when everyone else seems to think there’s no screen?

    How have you been made aware of the prism, when everyone else is just seeing the light? Isn’t that a claim to an enlightened position that is similar to the ones espoused by exclusive religions?

    This is where many Christians land on this argument. And I think it’s worth thinking about. No matter what anyone says, we’re all making decisions which leave out some options and allow for others.

  • http://www.parkpresbyterian.org J. Christy Wareham

    Jesus is the Lord of my life, I and commit my whole being to him. In terms of my moral knowledge, it is not my business to select and identify those whom God is drawing to God’s self — or how God is doing so, or with what metaphors, or according to which narratives, or conveyed in which texts. I only trust that, whenever I am speaking with someone, God is actively saving that person, and, respecting the sovereignty of God, I regard that person’s path as sacred and true. Others may falter and fail, as I do, but that does not take away from the validity of their faith journey. For all I know, this may even be true for the agnostic and the atheist. It is to my great relief that all of this is left to God to work out, and not me.

  • http://patridew.wordpress.com Patricia

    Anne Lamott is my go-to theologian on the big questions. I like her ‘slightly over-weight auntie’ image of God’s love. “You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed in certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee. God loves you crazily, like I love you…like a slightly overweight auntie, who sees only your marvelousness and need.”
    ― Anne Lamott

  • TJJ

    DRT #42, there being “wonderful and treasured truths” in different religions is not the same thing as saying any/some or all or one give us a true undesrstanding/revelation of God.

    I suppose there is “wonderful and treasured truths” in many things and places….literature, movies, high schools, songs/musical compositions, Desperate Housewives. Or at least someone can find truths for them in those and many other places Are not any of these just as valid a source and just as authoritiative as religious texts or holy books (as accorsing to nitter).

    Truth from what, from where, from whom, and who determines it? According to Knitter as summerized by Scot, the only authority is ourselves and our experiences. and God/diety is defined as some kind of universal inter-being-ness.

    Knitter is not saying Christianity or Jesus/God is a valid path of many, but rather he says a radical reconstruction, deconstruction of Christianity so redefined and eviscerated of content, that what is left is not Christianity at all except in a very tangental way, that “that” may be a real reference of experiencde of the universal inter-being, if it matches the life experience of human beings all over the world in all cultures and peoples.

    And that universal inter-connected-ness inter-being, which sounds like something very non-personal and perhaps even very non-beingness, we may call divine/God.

    This is what I mean by peeling of the layers of the thing, and finding there is no “there” there.

    Your comment did not really even touch that issue, much less dismiss it. IMHO

  • tim e

    the myth of religious superiority…this just makes me want to do my superior dance with church lady!! mmm who could have put alllllllllll these thoughts into Paul Knitter’s mind? hmmm let me see now….could it be……

  • Craig Wright

    I read Knitter’s book, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.” What struck me, as a Christian, is that I would have to give up my belief about the divinity of Jesus to be accepted by Knitter’s view.
    On the other hand, I don’t appreciate the way some Christians use John 14:6, “I am the way…” as a hammer to beat down everyone else. Those words were meant to be a comfort to the disciples as Jesus was about to depart, not to be used as fighting words in a culture war.

  • Luke Allison

    Dr. McKnight:

    Do you have any books on this issue that you’ve found particularly encouraging, exhilarating, or enlightening?


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