by Guy Elsmore
from Signs of the Times No. 55 - Oct 2014

Part 2 of 3: Christian Inclusivism

• Part 1: Christian Exclusivism

• Part 3: Pluralism

In the Parish of St Luke in the City, Liverpool, I regularly meet followers of other faiths. Life together brings opportunities and invitations to work alongside one another. How should I relate to people of other faiths? Should I be trying to convert them to Christianity? Should I refuse or welcome acts of worship which involve other faiths? How should the Churches in the St Luke’s Team relate in mission to multi-faith neighbourhoods?

In the previous article I explored advice from ‘classic’ and ‘contemporary’ theological voices advocating an exclusivist approach. In this second of three articles, I shall look at the advice which might be offered by those who speak for Christian Inclusivism.

Inclusivist arguments seek to balance the Christian revelation with either or both of two other factors: (i) the reality of the experience of God in other faiths and (ii) the notion of a God whose love is universal or has universal intent. Inclusivists argue that while Christianity may be the ‘ultimate answer to the ultimate question’, nonetheless, other answers to the ultimate question are true but draw that truth from a hidden relationship to the Christian answer.

A ‘classic’ exponent of inclusivism is Karl Rahner. Rahner’s starting point is the familiar exclusivist assertion that the Christian revelation is the absolute and ultimate religious truth. However, this truth cannot be stated without consideration of the historical reality within which Christian mission occurs. Rahner, looking at the hard end of the ‘scandal of particularity’, asks his readers to consider whether if Christianity, for reasons of history, geography or politics is not a real option for people, how can there be an absolute obligation to submit to Christ?

Until the fullness of Christianity is a real and viable option in history for all people, Rahner argues that the pre-existing non-Christian religion, while in some ways sinful, must be seen as God’s chosen way of salvation for that particular people in that place and time. Furthermore, as a way of salvation, it is bound to contain, amongst its imperfections, elements of grace, on account of Christ. Rahner’s thesis rests on appeals both to Paul’s speech in the Areopagus and to the will of God for everyone to have the chance to be saved. The person thus saved is not merely an adherent of another faith but may be seen as an ‘anonymous Christian’ in Rahner’s famous and controversial terminology. The church, however, is and remains the outward and visible sign of hope in Christ which is the hidden reality behind all faiths. For Rahner, full-blown Christianity is a preferable and a more sure way of salvation than those offered by other religions.

Rahner might urge me to be reassured that my friends from other traditions are ‘saved’ through Christ whose dispensation reaches them even through Islam/ Judaism/ Buddhism etc. and he might ask me to think of them as anonymous Christians. However we must be careful not to misunderstand Rahner’s careful and idiosyncratic use of words. The notion of anonymous Christianity should never be offered as theology by which they might consider themselves saved in Christ under the dispensation of a different faith. Rahner would still urge me to play my part in bringing them into a full encounter with the living Lord Jesus. In my approach he would advise me to be like Paul in the Areopagus ‘tolerant, humble and yet firm’ in giving implicit faith the opportunity to become explicit.

A contemporary inclusivist who builds on Rahner’s work is Gavin D’Costa who argues for what he terms a ‘Trinitarian inclusivism’. For D’Costa, the doctrine of God as Trinity explains and enables both the particularity of the Church and the universality of the God’s work. In particular, D’Costa’s thought focuses upon the agency of the third person of the Trinity. It is through the Holy Spirit that God acts in and through other faiths. By proposing the Spirit as the universal expression of God’s saving will, D’Costa seeks to avoid the charge of triumphalism or imperialism which is so often laid at inclusivism’s door. The Spirit is the universal Spirit whose action in history is always particular. The agency of the Spirit is a theme which finds resonance within many other religions in a way which Rahner’s notion of a ‘hidden Christ’ within the religions may not. In Christian thinking, D’Costa’s emphasis harks back to a very ancient line of thinking, held by the Orthodox Christian tradition, a tradition with a long history of cross-fertilization and dialogue with Islam.

In my case, D’Costa might propose that in dialogue with friends of other faiths, I will be privileged to recognise new truth about God through their testimonies and that I will have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from me. Where my non-Christian friends might have felt their faiths reduced to a franchise of Christianity in Rahner’s approach, it might be that D’Costa’s positive pneumatology would strike a chord and enable a yet deeper dialogue and understanding to develop.

On my way to St Bride’s, late for a meeting, I rushed into Ahmed’s corner shop for tea, coffee, milk and biscuits. Reaching the counter, I realised that I had no money and started to put the items back on the shelves. Ahmed invited me to take them anyway and told me that Islam taught that he would be blessed if I received his gift to the Church. I found myself wondering how many Christian shopkeepers would have done the same and whether I should use Ahmed as an example of the ‘economy of the Kingdom of God’ in that Sunday’s sermon.

In the next Signs of the Times Part 3: Pluralism


Guy Elsmore is Rector of the St Luke in the City team ministry in Liverpool, and General Secretary of Modern Church.