RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: ORTHODOX APPROACHES



RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: ORTHODOX APPROACHES

In this section an attempt is made to evaluate the developments of Christian attitudes toward people of the other faith-traditions.  To start with, a bird’s eye view of the official positions of both Catholic and Protestant churches are evaluated. Then an examination of the orthodox views expressed under three different labels namely exclusivist, inclusivist and relativist, are done. 

10.1  Earlier Attitude
Christianity, from its inception, had to face diverse religions and philosophies as it penetrated varied forms of cultural boundaries.1  The same situation continued until the second and third centuries A.D.2  Subsequently, the issue was at the background for 1500 years, emerging only occasionally and “in the nineteenth century it began to appear again as an issue of major importance for the church and in our day it is perhaps more vital than ever before.”3 
The nineteenth century missionary attitude toward other faith-traditions was negative.  Marcus Bray Brooke maintains, “with a few exceptions, the predominant attitude of nineteenth century missionaries was one of stark hostility to Hinduism.”4   But by the end of the century and the beginning of the twentieth century the missionary attitude towards other faith-traditions witnessed a marked change.  This change was obvious in the official declarations of both the Catholic and the Protestant churches.

10.2  The Catholic Church
The traditional Catholic attitude towards other faith-traditions was wholly negative.  This negative attitude was made vivid in the declaration of the Council of Florence (1438-45) i.e., “there is no salvation outside the Church”.5  But this negative attitude took a complete new turn in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).  The official declaration of the Council on the relation of the Church with other faith-traditions reveals the Church’s openness to people of other faiths:
She therefore urges her sons, using prudence and charity, to join members of other religions in discussions and collaboration.  While bearing witness to their own Christian faith and life, they must acknowledge those good spiritual and moral elements and social and cultural values found in other religions, and preserve and encourage them.6

This declaration marks the beginning of a new era of inter-religious understanding between the Catholics and the people of other faith-traditions.  For Marcus Braybrooke, “it is since the Second Vatican Council that Roman Catholic writers have started to take full place in the on-going discussions.”7  In the words of Eeuwout Klootwijk “a watershed in the relations of the Church with followers of other religions was the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).”8
As the Church in India was placed in the midst of many living faith-traditions, the declaration of the Vatican II was very crucial.  A Catholic writer remarks that “when the Second Vatican Council began on October 9, 1962 the first Christian Hindu Dialogue meeting had already taken place in India.”9  Even before the Vatican declaration, the Catholic Church in India had experimented different methods to make the Gospel relevant to the Indian context.  The Vatican declaration was a great boost for such attempts.  In other words, “by making a positive attitude towards other religions normative for the whole church and calling for dialogue, the council approved the efforts that were being made in India in this regard and obliged the Indian church to commit herself more earnestly and fully to the cause of dialogue.”10 
Although some call the Vatican declaration open and charitable,11 a sincere evaluation of the declaration reveals its theological limitations for the present global context.  It is rightly stated by Kuncheria Pathil that “however, I should say that the official documents still project a theology of ‘fulfillment’ and an ‘inclusive Christocentrism’ which affirms that all grace and fullness is given to all in and through Jesus Christ.”12  Whatever may be its limitation, the declarations of the Vatican II was a great encouragement for missionaries encountering people of diverse faith-traditions in the newly emerging global context and very specially to the Indian pluralistic context.

10.3  The Protestant Church
Parallel to the stand of the Catholic Christians, the Protestants too maintained that there was no salvation outside Christianity.  In consonance with the changing world scenario, for the first time the missionaries of the world met together at Edinburgh in 1910, to discuss their mission strategies.  It is observed that “for the first time, too, a common search was undertaken to formulate a missionary approach to other religions.”13  Although the International Missionary Council was chaired by John R. Mott who had the vision of “Evangelization of the world in this generation,”14 the commission for the International Missionary Council took efforts to feel the experiences of the missionaries who really encountered people of other faiths. Wesley Ariarajah writes “in summing up its findings, the commission reiterated its conviction that the Christian attitude to Hinduism, notwithstanding the elements which the Christian must reject, should be one of understanding and sympathy.”15 
The Second World Missionary Conference took place at Jerusalem in 1928.  New issues that captured the attention of the conference were secularism and the relation between older and younger churches.  Yet this conference was significant form the point of Christian relations to the people of other faith-traditions. In the words of Ariyaraja, “it is significant that in spite of these stated new priorities, when the preparatory meeting listed the priority issues for commission work, Christian relationship to other faith was at the top.”16  Still further “the members denounced the imperialism of the missionaries and demanded them to respect the religious sentiments of the people of other religions.”17 
The next missionary conference was held at Tambaram in 1938.  the Tambaram conference was dominated by Hendric Kraemer’s The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World.   Kraemer following Karl Barth maintained a radically negative attitude towards people of other faith-traditions.  His stand was vehemently criticized by Indian thinkers and theologians who had their early nurturing in the rich Hindu soil.  However, the subsequent missionary conference followed a more positive outlook about other faith-traditions.
The World Council of Churches too adopted a positive approach to other faith-traditions, from its early days.  It formed a subunit called “Dialogue with people of living faiths and ideologies,” in 1977.  After two years of serious consultations and discussions, WCC issued a set of guidelines for dialogue with the people of living faiths and ideologies.  The gist of the guidelines, according to,  Sreenivasa Rao is “while calling on the Christians to keep themselves open rather than closed, towards the faiths of our neighbours, the ‘Guidelines’ insist upon the Christians to witness fully to their deepest convictions.”18  In the later WCC gatherings, more positive approach to people of other faith-traditions concerned the attention of all.  Yet it is clear that, the Church always used inclusive language in this regard. 

10.4  Individual Thinkers
Apart from the openness shown by these two church-bodies, there were many profound thinkers who were and are committed to the issue of religious pluralism.  Some of them held exclusivist views, others inclusivist view and still others relativist view.  These views are not the result of a process of evolutionary development.  Rather, they exist side by side at all times.  Similarly each of them influences different sets of people. In fact Alan Race was the first scholar to use the terms exclusivism, inclusivism and relativism to categorize scholars who were representing certain specific view points. 

10.5  Exclusivist View
Those who subscribe to this view hold that, ‘only one’s own religion is true and good; others are erroneous, false or evil’.  A few such representatives are Karl Barth, Hendrik Kraemer, David Lochhead, A.C. Bouquet, Ajith Fernando etc.

10.5.1    Karl Barth
Barth distinguished between revelation and religion.  For him, Christianity was revelation and all other faith-traditions were religions.  In revelation God reveals himself to people whereas in religion man/woman is attempting to play the role of God.  So, for Barth “religion is unbelief,”19 and Church is the locus of true religion because it is founded on the basis of revelation.  In his words “we have to give particular emphasis to the fact that through grace the Church lives by grace, and to that extent it is the locus of true religion.”20  

10.5.2    Hendrik Kraemer
Following Barth, Kraemer maintained what is called “Biblical realism”.  For him what is revealed in the Bible is absolutely true.  Christianity is derived from the revelation given in the Bible.  Therefore, it is true.  All other faith-traditions are human attempts and therefore, they are false.  He claimed ethical superiority for Christianity.  He says, “this radically religious revolutionary ethic upsets all human thinking, and just as the Christian faith is the crisis of all religions, so the Christian ethic is the crisis of all ethic and ethics.”21  He claimed a unique place for the church, too.  In his own words, “just as the prophetic religion of Biblical realism is a religion Sui generis, so the Christian Church according to the conception of the New Testament is a community Sui generic.22  Kraemer conceived other religion to be in error and wrote, “the other religions describe themselves as “paths to salvation”, and indeed they are in the end paths which man has discovered and has made for himself.  That is their radical and fundamental error in which, however, from time to time, the truth or something pretty close to it can begin to dawn.”23 
About The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, it is remarked that “this was aimed at attacking the “Laymen’s Report and the liberal writings of W.E. Hocking.”24  Because, prior to Kraemer, Hocking had proposed what is called the theory of re-conception.  According to Marcus Braybrooke, the theory of discontinuity25  was the outcome of Kraemer’s faithful adherence to Karl Barth.
Another writer who reflects Barth’s idea is David Lochhead.  He says, “a theology of isolation might seem to be required by any Christian doctrine of special revelation.”26  For him God’s activity in Jesus Christ cannot be equivalent to any other act.  And he says, “the theology of hostility, it should be noted, has substantial biblical support.”27 
A.C. Bouquet also claims superiority to Christianity.  He writes, “let no one suppose that I wish to promote Christianity simply because it is my own religion.  I only do so because to the end of a long and full lifetime I still believe more than ever that it is the true and best of all faith, rich in marvelous recuperative powers and in the capacity for objective self-criticism.”28
According to Ajith Fernando “the Christian approaches the unbelievers with a sense of authority, an authority not intrinsic to himself, but wholly derived from God whose word he proclaims.”29  The Christian revelation judges other revelations, “so the Christian approaches any discussion on religion from the perspective of conversion.”30
About the result of exclusivist Christian claims Owen C. Thomas remarks that the resulting practical attitude toward other religions is what Hocking calls “radical displacement”; they are to be conquered and replaced by Christianity.  The general outlook of the scholars who represented exclusivist claims was that all religions should be replaced by Christianity. 

10.6     Inclusivist View
According to this view ‘all religions are inspired and empowered by God but find their fulfillment only in one religion or saviour’.  Eeuwout Klootwijk maintains that, “a strong exclusivist conviction is that, ultimately, God will sum up all things in Jesus Christ, therefore, by whatever way people come to know God, it is ultimately Jesus Christ who is himself the final cause of salvation.”[31]
The earliest form of inclusivist view was found in the theories of fulfillment.  Jose Kuttianimattathil underlines the implications of fulfillment theory as “according to the fulfillment theory, Jesus Christ is unique, because in him also is to be found the fulfillment of the most profound aspirations of human beings and salvation is made possibly only because of his life, death and resurrection.  He is universal because, anyone who is saved, is saved through him.”[32]  The re-conception theory of W.E. Hocking also alludes to the fulfillment pattern.  He envisaged a world faith through the process of re-conception.  T. Slater, who laid the foundation for the implementation of fulfillment theology, said that ‘all those noble and true in the non-Christian religions would be taken over into Christianity for their complete fulfillment’.[33] 
One of the popular figures associated with the fulfillment theology was J. N. Farquhar.  The title of his book The Crown of Hinduism, is evident of his commitment to that conviction.  He “took this fulfillment theology to its extremity by demanding the death of Hinduism in order to give place to Christianity.”[34]  William Miller, the principal of Madras Christian College also envisaged a world religion.  he expected this fulfillment to take place through the simultaneous development of all higher religions along with Christianity into a world religion with Christ as the centre.[35] His is thus a Christo-centric approach.
Another pattern of inclusivist view is that Christ is already present in other religions.  Kenneth Cragg maintains that, “authors may write to the ‘unknown Christ’ or the ‘anonymous Christ’ of other faiths.  But the paradox, rather, is not that he is unknown or anonymous.  It is that they know him by their own naming.”[36]  A similar idea is found in the works of M.M. Thomas, Marcus Braybrooke, Panikkar and S.J. Samartha.  Of course, Panikkar and S.J. Samartha had changed their stand in their later writings.
Scholars who viewed other faith-traditions as requiring fulfillment had their own interpretations of other faith-traditions.  For example, Karl Rahner said “Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all men, which cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right.”[37]  Whatever good is found in other faith-traditions belongs to Christ.  Therefore, the religious people who are outside the visible Christianity are called “anonymous Christians”.  He says, “it would be wrong to regard the pagan as someone who has not yet been touched in any way by God’s grace and truth.”[38]  Hence the missionary always has a duty to bring this fact explicitly.  Summarizing the view of Rahner, Sreenivasa Rao says, “all non-Christians belonging to various religions, he said, are anonymous Christians, and are within the sphere of divine grace.”[39] 
A similar but more orthodox view was that of Hans Kung.  According to Sreenivasa Rao ,“though the religions of the world are recognized by Kung as ways of salvation for their followers, their salvation will have to be confirmed finally by the saviour of the world, Jesus Christ through communion with him.”[40] 
Paul Tillich proposed a new pattern to find out the presence of God in other faith-traditions.  He “acknowledged the existence and validity of revelation and salvation in all the non-Christian religions, but at the same time, he affirmed that the crucified Jesus is the most valuable criterion for discerning God’s activity within the non-Christian religions.”[41] 
Heinz Robert Schlette recognized the significance of other faith-traditions for a meaningful Christian theology.  Yet he concluded that there are ordinary and extraordinary ways of salvation.  In his words “the ordinary ways of salvation represented by the religions lead to the one living God, it is true, but, relatively speaking they are paths through the darkness while the extraordinary way of special sacred history, that is to say now, the Church, is one which leads through clear light.”[42]
Jacques Dupuis represents the general perception of Catholics about other faiths.  Along with other leading Catholic thinkers who proposed Jesus to be the norm to evaluate other faith-traditions, Dupuis says, “the mystery of Jesus Christ, the center of Christian faith, could only be the principle of understanding, the yardstick by which the data of other religious traditions would be measured.”[43]  He was also of the opinion that all religions do not have equal stand in the salvation history.  Hence he proposed that “far from fostering exclusivism, Christian Christocentrism is capable of integrating, in their difference, all religious experiences into a truly Catholic – inclusive and universal theology.”[44] 

10.6.1  General Analysis
Most of the inclusivists held either uniqueness of Jesus Christ or Christocentrism.  Some of them are, Jacques Dupuis,[45] Michael Amaladoss,[46]  Bede Griffiths[47] and Ajith Fernando.[48]  A more dynamic and constructive Christocentric perspective is found in the theology of M.M. Thomas.  For him all the positive changes that are taking place in other faith-traditions are the work of Christ.  He writes, “today we recognize universally the possibility and even the necessity of Jesus Christ taking form in different cultures and re-forming them from within.”[49]  In a nut-shell “the Christocentric models affirm the universal salvific will of God as well as the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ for the salvation of all, while accepting participatory forms of mediation by other saviour figures and the salvific value of other religions.”[50] 
Earlier Panikkar had maintained that Christ is present in Hinduism and that Christians should find the presence of Christ in Hinduism.  He was also of the opinion that anything good in Hinduism is as a result of the presence of Christ. In his Unknown Christ of Hinduism Panikkar went to the extent of saying that, Hinduism is a form of Christianity in potency.  It has to die and rise again in Christ. 
Eeuwout Klootwijk raises two serious questions about the credibility of the inclusivist perspective for inter-religious dialogue.  One was, ‘does not the inclusivist attitude assume a one way road?’[51]  and the second is “when we start from inclusivist premises, can any dialogue between people of different faiths be a real dialogue.”[52]

10.7     Relativist View
Those who hold that all religions are equal and that lead to the same goal are called relativists.  Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian advocated the relativist view.  In his earlier days he had maintained the superiority of Christianity and in his later writings he proposed the relativist character of all faith-traditions.  His view was that all religions come from God and they represent some fact of God’s truth.  So he writes, “I think that it is possible for us, while holding that our own convictions are true and right, to recognize that, in some measure, all the higher religions are also revelations of what is true and right.”[53]  Even after recognizing the existing differences between faith-traditions he says: “… we should recognize that they too are light radiating from the same source from which our own religion derives its spiritual light.”[54]  He also points to the fact that Christians also should strive ‘to win the attention and good will of the followers of those other faiths’.
Ernst Troeltsch was another scholar who held the relativist perspective in his refined scholarly works.  To him history is not concerned with abstract and the Universal but with the concrete and relative.[55]  He firmly maintained that as Christianity is superior in certain cultural backgrounds, other religions can claim superiority in different cultural settings.
A. Pushparajan also maintained that “the different religions, despite their differences are fundamentally one, because saints of parallel heights are found in all of them.”[56]  He insisted that ‘Christianity should accept equality of all religions’.[57]  Kuncheria Pathil writes that “all religions are in fact activated by the saving spirit of God and have a salvific role to play in God’s plan of salvation, though all religions may equally become distorted due to human sinfulness.”[58]  He is right in indicating the human elements involved in the faith-traditions.
Relativist perspective has been criticized by many scholars.  Arvind Nirmal writes, “any talk of a radical relativization of all religions’ trends to undermine religions.”[59]  In the words of Panikkar “such liberals, whether Christian or Hindu, who claim that we are the same and that ‘ultimately’ the two religions are ‘transcendentally’ one, overlook the concrete and historical religious situation of real people.”[60]  P.D. Devanandan, in Preparation for Dialogue maintained that the practice of relativism by Hindus is to cover up all the sects of Hinduism and to continue secularism.  A genuine criticism is raised by S.J. Samartha, that, “the affirmation that all religions are the same makes little room for critical interaction between them.”[61]
The exclusivist maintained separatist attitude, the inclusivists propounded continuity between Christianity and other religions and the relativists entertain equality of religions. 


1 A.C. Bouquet, The Christian Faith and Non-Christian Religions (New York: Harper and
Brothers, 1958), p. 335.
2 E. C. Dewick, The Gospel and Other Faiths (London: The Canterbury Press, 1948), p. 11.
3 E. C. Dewick, The Gospel and Other Faiths (London: The Canterbury Press, 1948), p. 11.
4 Marcus Braybrooke, The Undiscovered Christ, A Review of Recent Developments in the
Christian Approach to the Hindu (Madras: CLS, 1973), p. 1.
5 Valson Thampu, “Christian Spirituality in a Religiously Plural Context”, NCC Review, Vol.
CIX. No. 1 (January 1989), p. 4.
6 John Hick and Brain Hebblethwaite, ed., Christianity and Other Religions, Selected
Readings (Great Britain: Fount Paperbacks, 1980), p. 82.
7 Marcus Braybrooke, The Undiscovered Christ (Madras: CLS, 1973), p. 31.
8 Eeuwout Klootwijk, Commitment and Openness: The Inter-Religious Dialogues and
Theology of Religions in the Work of Stanley J. Samartha (Zoeetermeer: Bockencentrum, 1962), p. 97.
9 Jose Kuttianimattathil, Practice and Theology of Inter-religious Dialogue (Bangalore: Kristu
Jyothi Publications, 1995), pp.75-76.
10 Ibid., p. 77.
11 CH. Sreenivasa Rao, ed., Inter-Faith Dialogue and World Community (Madras: CLS, 1991),
p. 29.
12 Kuncheria Pathil, “Christian Approach to the Other Faiths: An Historical Perspective,” NCC
Review, Vol. CX, No.2 (February 1990), p. 76.
13 Eeuwout Klootwijk, op. cit., p. 103.
14 Wesley Ariarajah, Hindus and Christians: A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought
(Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 18.
15 Ibid., p. 27.
16 Ibid., p. 32.
17 CH. Sreenivasa Rao, ed., op. cit., p. 21.
18 Ibid, p. 31.
19 Karl Barth, “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion”, Christianity and Other
Religions, ed., by John Hick and Brain Hebblethwaite, op. cit., p. 35.
20 Ibid., p. 33.
21 H. Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, (London: The Edinburgh
House Press, 1938), p. 88.
22 Ibid., p. 415.
23 Hendrik Kraemer, Why Christianity of all Religions?, Trans. By Hubert  Hoskins
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 118-119.
24 CH. Sreenivasa Roa, ed., op. cit., p. 23.
25 Marcus Braybrooke, The Undiscovered Christ, op. cit., p. 3.
26 David Lochhead, The Dialogical Imperative, A Christian Reflection on Inter-faith Encounter
(New York: ORBIS Books, 1988), p. 11.
27 Ibid., p. 17.
28 A.C. Bouquet, The Christian Faith and Non-Christian Religions, op. cit., p. 15.
29 Ajith Fernando, The Christian’s Attitude Towards World Religions (Mumbai: Gospel
Literature Services, 1980), p. 158.
30 Ibid., p. 182.
[31] Eeuwout Klootwijk, op. cit., p. 238.
[32] Jose Kuttianimattathil, op. cit., p. 238.
[33] CH. Sreenivasa Rao, ed., op. cit., p. 19.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Kenneth Cragg, The Christ of Other Faiths (Great Britain: ISPCK, 1986), p. 4.
[37] Karl Rahner, “Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions”, Christianity and Other
Religions, ed., by John Hick & Paul F. Knitter, op. cit., p. 56.
[38] Ibid., p. 75.
[39] CH. Sreenivasa Rao, ed., op. cit., p. 30.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid., p. 31.
[42] Heinz Robert Schlette, Towards a Theology of Religions (London: Burns & Oates, 1966),
P. 104.
[43] Jacques Dupuis, Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions, Op. cit., p. 242.
[44] Ibid., p. 247.
[45] Jose Kuttianimattathil, op. cit., p. 248.
[46] Ibid., p. 253.
[47] Ibid., 263.
[48] Ajith Fernando, op. cit., p. 43.
[49] M.M. Thomas, Man and the Universe of Faiths (Madras: CLS, 1975), p. 151.
[50] Jose Kuttianimattathil, op. cit., p. 242.
[51] Eeuwout Klootwijk, op. cit., p. 9.
[52] Ibid., p. 10.
[53] Arnold Toynbee, Christianity Among the Religions of the World (London: Oxford University
Press, 1958)), pp.99-100.
[54] Ibid., p. 100.
[55] CH. Sreenivasa Rao, ed., op. cit. p. 21.
[56] A.  Pushparajan, From Conversion to Fellowship: The Hindu Christian Encounter in the
Gandhian Perspective  (Allahabad: St. Paul Publications, 1990), p. 166.
[57] Pushparajan, “Prospects of Christian Dialogue with other Religions”, Journal of Dharma,
Vol. VIII, No.3. (July – September 1983), p. 330.
[58] Kuncheria Pathil, “The New Encounter with other Faiths,”Jeevadhara, Vol. XXIII, No. 136
(July 1993), p. 276.
[59] Arvind P. Nirmal, Heuristic Explorations, (Madras: CLS, 1990), p. 75.
[60] Raimundo Panikkar, Unknown Christ of Hinduism,  New edition, (Bangalore, Asian Trading
Corporation, 1982), p. 75.
[61] S.J. Samartha, “Commitment and Tolerance in a Pluralistic Society,” NCC Review, Vol.
CVI, No.2 (February 1986), p. 75.

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