I raised a question in my sermon yesterday which I didn’t then address (you can only do so much in one sermon!). I used an example of religious exclusivism to ask a question about the nature of truth, suggesting that, for Jesus, truth was not so much a system of thought as his own embodied way of living. Truth is found in living as he lived – by dying to self. The question I left hanging was whether Christians consider that those of other faiths could ‘come to the Father’ while remaining within their own faith tradition. To put it in traditional terms, is there salvation outside the church?
This is a far more complex question than it seems, hence my decision to leave it alone in a sermon that was really about other questions! For a start, we would need to ask whether a Christian notion of salvation would even make any sense to people who belong to that other faith. Many religions see that there is a problem at the heart of being human, but may diagnose that problem differently and, therefore, propose a different remedy. If, as a Buddhist, you see the problem in terms of suffering caused by our cravings and a false view of the world, then release from suffering comes from an awakening to our true nature, not through forgiveness of sins. Even this example is complex when you begin to explore how these two approaches, Christian and Buddhist, may in fact offer different angles on a similar problem, and how, even within Buddhism, there are many accounts of how this operates (through disciplined effort? through invocation of the Buddha Amida? through sudden awakening?).
Of course, some people do not see any kind of problem here at all: live and let live, each religion is truthful on its own terms (an approach often called ‘pluralist’). The problem is that Christianity does make claims that are universal in their scope – ‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world [kosmos] to himself’ (2 Cor 5:19) etc. To take a pluralist line would require a significant modification of this kind of claim, so the exclusivist approach does at least have the merit of consistency. What it lacks, however, is the sense that God and God’s truth may be somewhat bigger than our capacity to grasp them, or the sense that God may be free to use other means to draw people to himself.
One kind of approach that seeks to honour both the universal claims of Christianity and its humility in the face of religious diversity is often called ‘inclusivist’, though these terms, like all attempts at taxonomy in complex realms, have their limitations. One way of describing an inclusivist approach would be to say that God’s action in Christ is far greater than our ability to describe it and that, in God’s own economy, God is able to ‘save’ Muslims as Muslims, Hindus as Hindus through the cosmically significant work of incarnation and redemption in Christ. The risk here, of course, is the suggestion that good Muslims are just good Christians without knowing it. A more nuanced approach might be to say that, for Christians, we see the pattern of God’s salvific activity in Christ (the pattern of self-transcending love) and that this pattern may well be present in other faiths and expressed in very different ways. Additionally, if we think that those of other faiths may be ‘saved’ through the exercise of that faith, then, as Christians, we must believe that it is God who is doing the saving and, as Christians, we can only describe God in trinitarian terms and, therefore, Christ and the Spirit must be active in that saving activity. This approach could only ever be a Christian account of the theology of how God might work through other faiths and any respectful dialogue would be open to hear that faith’s own account of how human beings reach their ultimate fulfillment. In other words, an inclusivist theology of religions is an internal discourse for Christians but, in a subtle form, might be capable of opening Christians up to the possibility of divine action through the exercise of another religion.
What about pluralism? Surely this is a more satisfactory approach which respects the equality and distinctiveness of religions without trying to see one through the lens of another? I think it has much to commend it but is also not without its challenges. Is truth only ever relative? Are there no categories for discerning the truthfulness or otherwise of any religious claim, whether within or outwith our own faith? Might it also limit our understanding of God, making him only ever a ‘tribal’ rather than universal deity? I do think it is possible to describe a more subtle pluralist approach that, again, expresses humility in the face of what we cannot know and assumes that divine activity transcends our categories (but would we then say that God is active even in those who are not theists? Is that not back to an inclusivist approach?). And there are certainly pluralists who are willing to work at some means of discerning both good and harmfulness in religions, thus refusing a lazily relative account of truthfulness.
All of this is a work-in-progress for me, but as a Christian, I think I find myself drawn to an account of other faiths that fully respects them on their own terms, yet admits the possibility that our Christian account of God’s saving action in Christ is partial, and that there is, indeed, a cosmic truth revealed in the shape of divine self-giving love as seen in Christ which transcends religion. To approach dialogue in this way makes it possible that, among other things, we might learn more about Christ from those who are not Christians. It would not be for me to speculate what the non-Christian partners in that dialogue might take from it. If that makes me an ‘inclusivist’, rather than a ‘pluralist’, then so be it, but I’m not too concerned about labels!