by Guy Elsmore
from Signs of the Times No. 56 - Jan 2015

Part 3 of 3: Pluralism

• Part 1: Christian Exclusivism

• Part 2: Christian Inclusivism 

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 first article in this series, I explored advice from ‘classic’ and a ‘contemporary’ theological voices advocating an exclusivist approach.
  • In the second, I looked at the advice which might be offered by those who speak for Christian inclusivism.
  • In this final article, I am considering the arguments put forward by those whose approach has been called Pluralist.

Theocentric Pluralism:

Pluralist theologies maintain that all ways to God are equivalent and that Christianity is not privileged as a special revelation any more than are Islam, Hinduism or any other of the world’s faiths.

Famously, John Hick argued for a new ‘Copernican revolution’ by which Christianity should come to realise that it is not at the centre of the theological solar system, but rather that God at the centre. The religions of the world revolve around and derive life and light from God, who is source and axis of them all. Programmatic for Hick is a citation from the Hindu Scriptures: ‘Whatever path men choose is mine.’

Hick’s anti-Christocentrism is based upon:
  1. an interpretation of the incarnation as mythological
  2. his embracing of relativism with regard to all religious truth claims, and
  3. the positing of a divine being, latterly termed as ‘the real’, as the true source and goal of religious faith, always and everywhere ‘pressing in upon the human spirit.’

Were he still alive to offer his advice, I think John Hick would certainly not wish me or the people of the St Luke’s Team to abandon our own faith. Hick remained committed to his own religious experience and would wish all believers to be free to maintain such personal convictions, while being free from the danger of heavy-handed evangelism. Hick would encourage me to talk with those of other faiths about our faith experiences but to try to do so without a feeling of competition or superiority on either side. In speaking of our experiences we should be open to the revelation of the God who is the author and source of all faiths, and thus be open to the potential enrichment of one another.

There is much to commend Hick’s approach as a basis for toleration and understanding, but there is no escaping the ‘relativist paradox’ (how can you say anything is true when everything is true?) Hick’s statement that there is a divine reality behind all faiths is an assertion of faith which logically cannot be said to be prior to or superior to any other religious truth claim. How is it possible to both fully embrace relativism and make any statement, no matter how minimal, about God?

The location of ultimate truth is one starting point in the thinking of Paul Knitter, a theologian whose thought has evolved, like Hick’s, from an originally exclusivist position. Knitter argues that truth should not and cannot be seen as propositional, definite and eternal. Rather, even a ‘scientific’ truth is now recognised to be a proposition on the way to fuller understanding. Truth is a fundamentally relational concept:

what is true will reveal itself mainly by its ability to relate to these other expressions of truth and to grow through these relationships.

Religious language for Knitter is not like propositional or scientific language, it is more like ‘love language’. He offers a helpful parallel between language about and commitment toward God and the language one might use to, or about, a loved one:

one can be totally and faithfully committed to one’s spouse, even though one well knows that there are other persons in this world equally as good, intelligent, beautiful…

Where Hick is philosophical and propositional, Knitter seeks to be practical and relational. He seeks to avoid the philosophical dead end of Hick’s appeal to ‘the real’ by grounding his picture of God in the lived experience and liberation struggle of the powerless. Knitter’s canon is simply a religion’s capacity to offer liberation from all that enslaves people in the world today.

Knitter would not wish me and my friends of other faiths to become tied up in abstract religious arguments about the superiority of our different ways but rather, in some ways echoing the suggestion of Newbigin, discussed in the first article, he would urge us to find unity and fellowship rooted in liberating social and environmental action. Furthermore, Knitter’s liberation ethic would require me to ask hard questions about some Islamic attitudes to women, just as it would require my Muslim friends to ask hard questions about the political and military involvement of Christian countries in the Middle East.  

Standing on the steps of St Luke’s (Liverpool’s ‘bombed out church’ and memorial to the Blitz) alongside Rebecca, from Jews for Justice and Amjad, a local Imam, sharing a silent vigil during the invasion of Gaza, we all felt both a common sense of grief at the unfolding tragedy and a shared sense that in our solidarity we were standing on holy ground.

Series conclusion:

Having, in these three articles, explored a representative and broad range of thought, I find that both strict exclusivism and strict pluralism seem to violate the reality I find myself working with. To pass judgement against other faiths, as if they were competing scientific hypotheses, as strict exclusivism demands, seems as blinkered an exercise as refusing to accept the reality of religious knowledge, as extreme pluralism demands. Furthermore, I find myself agreeing with the criticism of strict inclusivism’s tendency to end up seeing other faiths as franchises of the ‘real thing’. In short, each ‘classic’ approach seems flawed when held up against experience. 

The three contemporary theologians considered in these articles, Newbigin, D’Costa and Knitter each present different yet powerful cases. Yet in one respect, all of them tend in a similar direction in supporting shared praxis as foundational for a Christian approach to people of other faiths.

In the end, in my own context, I find myself most drawn to Knitter. To put it bluntly, might not ‘Speaking about God to people of other faiths’ be said to be rather a luxury when there are questions about poverty, injustice and ecology for all of us to address together?  It may be that growing together in community through shared action for the peace and justice is a far better place to begin dialogue than speaking words alone.

On a Christian Aid visit to the Dogon Plateau in Mali, I asked why some villages appeared much poorer than others. I was told one factor was the influence of extremist, exclusivist missionaries (Wahhabi Islamists from Saudi Arabia and Southern Baptists from the USA). In those villages, sectarianism, new to Dogon culture had been introduced. For many years, Dogon villages have survived in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth because of close cooperation between Animists, Christians and Muslims but when the whole village ceases working together, the village begins to fail.

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