I have, for some years, been struggling with how to understand the meaning of the uniqueness of Christ in a pluralistic world. The challenges have come from my fellowship with Christians in Southeast Asia and the encounters with their pluralistic context. Often, they have let me know that my thinking around these issues was rather black-and-white in a typical Western world of either/or. Another challenge has come from the memories of my youth when the mission preachers told us that all who had not heard the good news were doomed to perdition.
It is against this background that I use a term I have learned from Lesslie Newbigin: committed pluralism. “Commitment” is not a new concept in my life, but how do I, as an evangelical, uphold commitment in a pluralist world? And how does my commitment fare as my thinking has moved in a direction where I struggle with the concept of “a wideness in God’s mercy?”
One could, in this situation, simply quote from the World Council of Churches San Antonio statement from 1992: “We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ. At the same time we cannot set limits to God’s saving power….This tension we shall not attempt to solve.” Here I shall try to take a few cautious steps further into a plural world. As I do so, I shall particularly lean on the British missiologist and theologian Newbigin.
The claims of Rationalism have left us with a heritage that gives priority to the world of facts in the public sphere, while faith and values belong in the private sphere. In the private sphere our Western culture has accepted pluralism. The Christian faith, together with other religions and religious worldviews, has been relegated to this sphere, where pluralism reigns in a growing jungle of religiosity and values, and where facts and truth are absent and belong to science in the public sphere.
One major consequence is that we have lost the concept of Christian faith as a public truth (i.e., as a truth that relates to all of us and which has importance for society and community). This development may be acceptable for some religious views and for new spiritualities which view themselves as an esoteric gnosis to be worshipped in closed circles.
For the Christian faith it is different. The Christian faith is a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, not only my Lord or the Lord of the Church, but Lord of creation. Therefore, the Christian faith cannot accept to be relegated to the sphere of the individual, and it cannot accept that there is more than the reality over which Christ is Lord. The claim of the incarnation is that God has entered our common history, not just as one offer of interpretation among many, but as his presence in flesh and blood.1
This does not imply that we should return to a Constantine era where only one truth was allowed. Neither does public truth imply a truth that cannot be discussed or queried, as if it originated from mathematics. It is rather so that only claims that may be questioned have to do with real life. When talking about the Christian faith as a public truth, we therefore accept pluralism in the public room, instead of relegating it to a private sphere.
In other words, truth about faith is as valid as other truths; we therefore accept pluralism, but we also maintain the right to challenge pluralism because we insist that there is something called truth also in the realm of religion. And for this truth I am ready to argue and debate.
This is what Newbigin calls committed pluralism, in contrast to agnostic pluralism.2 Agnostic pluralism (to which much of Western culture subscribes) has renounced any talk about knowledge and truth in relation to faith. The committed, engaged pluralism, on the other hand, takes other religions more seriously and dares to raise questions about the other’s faith and to reveal the dogmatic background for the rationalistic claim about the world of facts. Committed pluralism will argue for a place in the public sphere and it will reveal the idols of materialism, consumerism, and individualism. It will call the many spiritualities to account in a public discourse—spiritualities which often disguise themselves in a private sphere.3
Religion as Ultimate Commitment
This view of committed pluralism is based upon the understanding of religion as that which has final authority for a believer or a society. Each religion is in that sense based upon an ultimate commitment, and these different commitments cannot be brought together in a single framework (as, e.g., John Hick has tried with his “Copernican revolution”). As my ultimate commitment, my faith must defend its claim to truth over against other truth claims. This implies
that the Christian will meet his friend and neighbour of another faith as one who is committed to Jesus Christ as his ultimate authority, who openly acknowledges this commitment, and seeks to understand and to enter into dialogue with his partner of another commitment on that basis.4
As a Christian believer I enter the dialogue on the basis of my own belief or confession and recognize that others will do the same.
This further implies for me as a Christian that truth is to be found in a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ, as he is known through a life lived in the fellowship of disciples, in faithfulness to the tradition about him, and in openness to all truth which may be discovered in the history of the human race.
My commitment is to a historic person and to historic deeds. Without these events, my faith would be empty. And there need not be any dichotomy between “confessing Christ” and “seeking the truth.” As I meet the other, I expect and hope to hear and learn more of truth. At the same time I shall interpret these new truths by means of the truth to which my life is already committed. How can it be otherwise? How can I shed my faith in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ, as the true light and the true life? My encounter with Christ through scripture and faith represents my ultimate commitment. And I expect that my neighbour will be in the same position: the faith of each provides the basis of his or her own understanding of reality and truth.
Commitment without Judgement
What then does this mean for my understanding of other faiths? My evangelical background has led me to consider many of the answers given to this question:
- other religions and ideologies are wholly false,
- non-Christian religions are the work of the devil and demonic cunning,
- other religions are a preparation for Christ (which the gospel fulfils; this was the view of Edinburgh 1910),
- there are essential values in other religions,
- the Roman Catholic view of the world religions as concentric circles (with the Catholic Church as the centre),
- Karl Rahner’s view of non-Christian religions as the means through which God’s salvation in Christ will reach those who have not been reached by the gospel,
Could it be that some of these answers somehow judge my neighbour even before we have started our dialogue? For example, I am “saved,” he or she is not. And as I meet my neighbour, I do not feel especially “saved”; what I do feel is that I am a witness (martyr) who has been placed in this relation where I can only point to Jesus as the one who can make sense of my situation and the whole human situation—situations which my neighbour and I share as fellow human beings.
So I am committed to believing that every part of the created world and every human being is already related to Jesus (cf. Paul’s speech on Areopagos where the presence of the altar for the unknown God implies that God is already there). Everything was made through the Logos, he is the life of all, and he is the light that gives light to every person. The presence and work of Jesus are not confined within the area where he is acknowledged.
In every human there is not only a moral consciousness (Romans 2:14-15), but also a religious consciousness. This does not imply that everything is light; both scripture and experience make it clear that there is also darkness, but the light shines in the darkness.
And this light may also shine in the lives of other human beings. My Christian confession does not force me to deny the reality of the work of God in the lives, thoughts, and prayers of men and women outside the Christian Church. Neither do I deny the dark side of religion. But this dark side does not prevent me from seeing the light of God in the lives of men and women who do not acknowledge him as Lord. Paul’s speech on Areopagos points to a continuity between our lives and the only God, at the same time as there is confrontation and a call to conversion. This “twofoldedness” means that I am challenged to think two thoughts at the same time.
1. See Newbigin, Lesslie. 1986. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
2. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
3. Arendt, Niels Henrik. 2004. ”Når de nu alle sammen tror på Gud…” In Religionsteologi. Ed. Harald Nielsen, 12-14. Fredriksberg: Unitas Forlag.
4. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1978. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 185.
5. Thiessen, Terrance L. 2004. Who Can Be Saved? Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 107ff.