Only One Way? Critical Perspectives on Christian Pluralism

SCM Press recently released Only One Way?: Three Christian Responses to the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Pluralistic World.  The book presents three theologians’ perspectives on religious pluralism in critical dialogue.  These theologians’ past expressions suggest Only One Way’s content:

Gavin D’Costa, Roman Catholic theologian, has rejected absolute religious pluralism (see Gavin D’Costa, The Impossibility of a Pluralist View of Religions, 32 Rel. Stud. 223 (1996)) as fundamentally flawed.  That view could not, for example, evaluate the truth claims of the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”), who equated Nazism and gospel and were known to preach in SA uniforms; and the Bekennende Kirche (“Confessing Church”), who refused to embrace Nazified, Christo-Aryanism (see Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power 223–28 (2005)).  In an absolute-pluralist view, how could one distinguish between Reichsbischof (“Reich Bishop”) Müller, who preached Hitler, the national redeemer, and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defied National Socialism and was hanged for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler?  (See D’Costa at 226; Evans at 228).  For an account of Bonhoeffer’s defiance of Nazism, pastoral rebellion (he founded an illegal seminary), and eventual execution on April 9, 1945, eleven days before Berlin’s fall, watch Bonhoeffer (Journey Films 2003).

By analogy, from D’Costa’s examples, absolute pluralism would also prevent us, say, from distinguishing between the Islam that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks and the ancient, peaceful, and culturally profound Islam that abhors the violence that occurred on 9/11.

Daniel Strange, reformed evangelical Christian,  has also rejected pluralism, but in an entirely different way.  Strange has suggested that the unique character of the Christian God renders other faiths non-redemptive, even idolatrous.  Strange contrasts the single, co-extensive Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with the single, non-triune God—such as Allah—or a multiplicity of Gods—such as that of the Hindu tradition—and sees them as inherently in conflict.  Strange draws the trinitarian conception of God, he claims, from Christianity’s ultimate authority: scriptural revelation.

Conversely, Paul F. Knitter, liberation theologian, embraces what D’Costa refers to as a pragmatic pluralism (D’Costa, 227).  From the perspective of Knitter, Christ is the Way (‘Oδος, ), yes, but Christ is not the Way to only one destination.  Rather, for the Christian, Christ defines God—expresses God’s nature in its fullness.  But Christ does not confine God.  Thus, the truth to which Christ leads is not limited to the figure of Jesus; it is larger than Jesus and Jesus, therefore, points also to truths other than himself, other than Christianity.  From this viewpoint, Knitter speaks of Buddhism as a faith that both clarifies and corrects his Christian perspective.

SCM describes Only one Way? as follows:

This book presents three different, influential and representative theological approaches towards the world religions. Students are not only introduced to the field, but get three passionate and intelligent ‘takes’ on what is at stake. By means of a response to each of the primary essays, the authors are put into interaction with each other, and are also engaged with the most contemporary scholarship in the field of theology of religions.This sustained and high level critical interaction between the authors provides a feature that is not to be found in any other current work in theology of religions. The three views represent: conservative Roman Catholic Christianity (D’Costa), Reformed evangelical Christianity (Strange) and liberationist liberal Christianity (Knitter). This book will therefore appeal to a very wide theological market from all sections of the theological spectrum.

An exceptional resource for the general reader or student of theology, this volume succinctly introduces the three major Christian positions on religious diversity. Written with theological precision, readable prose and autobiographical detail, the dialogical format puts the reader at the center of an intimate conversation where she can follow closely the moves each theologian makes to defend his position. Simply put, the exchange illuminates the very different stances Christian theologians take in the response to other religions, and helps readers to see the diverse methodological options for a Christian theology of religious pluralism.

— DRS, CLR Fellow

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