A fundamental topic in my course “Theology of World Religions” centers on Christianity’s relationship with other religions. It is an undisputable sociological reality that Western culture is a diverse array of differing worldviews and religions, constantly in contact with one another. This context contributes to where we get the sociological term ‘pluralistic’ as our world is full of diversity on many different levels, with the goal of maintaining this diversity in a tolerant and constructive manner
Ok, with this very brief contextual introduction I shift to the perspectives Christians often take in response to other religions. An excellent introduction to the various issues is a book edited by John G. Stackhouse, titled No Other God’s Before Me? In the “afterword” Stackhouse discusses a key issue as being how we understand the “means” for salvation (by salvation I mean far more than just an other-worldly, eternal heaven. In brief, salvation could be defined as participation with God purpose in the world of creating shalom in the lives of individuals, communities, and the whole of creation, which would inevitably include heaven however that is to be realized…) Basically, how is a person considered “saved” in the broader sense? Stackhouse presents the typical spectrum of options, ranging from restrictivism to pluralism, with the inclusivist view in between.
Here is a brief overview of each view:
-Restrictivism: This is the perspective that no person can encounter salvation in Jesus Christ without the “explicit preaching and reception of the gospel.”
-Inclusivism: While conceptually presented in a variety of options, the basic gist of this approach still holds to the belief that Jesus Christ is the one basis for a person’s salvation, but the manner in which a person responds varies. The implication here is that a person can encounter the salvific work of Jesus Christ without actually personally acknowledging the name of Jesus Christ in that encounter. Whether that is through the partial truths of other religions or the work of the Holy Spirit, the “gospel” as it is traditionally understood is not explicitly present. Hence, people of other religions are opened up to the possibility of encountering salvation and being considered “believers” without actually being “Christians.”
-Pluralism: Also present in a variety of different forms, this belief adheres to the idea that there are distinctly different and independent religious paths, where the question of validity in the various options becomes irrelevant. Stackhouse argues that this position is actually quite rare, and pluralism as espoused by the likes of John Hick are merely just a more radical form of inclusivism as they maintain that all paths still lead to the same end (“Ultimately Real”).
As we move forward in this class we are examining how each of these views play themselves out theologically and practically. Each perspective has direct implications for how Christians relate to people of other religions. At this point I will abstain from pegging myself in one camp over against the others, although the fact that I am usually a “middle-of-road” kind of guy may give you some insight towards where I lean. As I continue to study this subject I look forward to expanding on some of the issues, particularly in the area of religious dialogue in our multicultural society.
(For those who may be offended with my title referring to "them" I must admit my subtle sarcasm aimed towards what I deem as a possibly problematic "us versus them" presupposition inherent in much of religious dialogue.)