world council of churches

Religion and Plurality: Central Theological Issues in the Christian Faith
S. Wesley Ariarajah

Character of the Christian Faith
Dealing with religious plurality is a special problem to what are known as the ‘founded’ or ‘prophetic’ religions. This is because the ‘founded’ religions arise from a core vision of a founder, resulting in the emergence of a new religious tradition. This happens either in response to a revelation (as in the case of Islam), or as a radical reform movement that eventually separates itself from the parent religious tradition (as in the case of Buddhism and Christianity). The strength, vitality and credibility of these traditions depend on their faithfulness to the core visions of their founders. These religions also capture and preserve their core visions in canons of scripture, which play a major role in the life of the faith community.

It is in the nature of such religions that they are also actively "missionary" in character. The new revelation needs to be proclaimed; reformation and the alternate perspectives it brings need to be advocated. These visions grip the imagination of their immediate followers imbibing in them a sense of urgency and obligation to spread the "message". It is little wonder then that such religions, unlike ‘traditional’ religions, have little time to reflect on plurality or on the merits and demerits of other ways of believing and being.

In the case of Christianity the sense of urgency and the preoccupation with its own message was heightened by the eschatological setting of Jesus’ own teaching and ministry. The early church saw itself as a community on which "the end of time had broken in". The messianic expectation and the conviction of the impending Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ that would wound up history) shaped the psychological make up of the early church. This ethos continues to stay with it to the present day.

Seen from this perspective, Christianity was never intended to be a ‘settled’ religious tradition, (as it eventually developed into), but a ‘prophetic challenge’. Its goal was the ‘proclamation’ of the good news of the in-breaking of the Reign of God over all of life which demanded a new discipleship, particularly in the way one related to God and to one’s neighbours. When the expected Parousia did not take place as a historical event that brought human history to its intended conclusion, Christianity gradually settled down into a religious tradition. It has, however, not come to terms with its new status of a "religious tradition". Nor has it been able to stand on its own as a religious tradition. While Buddhism to a large extent became a separate religious tradition by gradually breaking off from its Hindu moorings, Christianity retained the Hebrew scriptures as its Old Testament to provide the "story" of the human predicament within which its message might be interpreted and understood. And yet it would not see itself as a sect within the Jewish tradition.

This peculiar character and history of its development has much to do with Christianity’s inability to handle religious plurality. While it accepts plurality as a reality it does not have handles to relate to it. Its preoccupation is with how it can remain "faithful to the core vision" that brought it into existence, its need to "proclaim the Good News" of God’s reign over all life, and the need to "call people to a new discipleship". Christian exclusivism, thus, does not arise from ill will towards other religious traditions but is innate to its self-understanding.

The theological traditions through which it has tried so far to integrate its reality as a religious tradition with its desire to be an eschatological community appear to be inadequate in the pluralist context. This has resulted in many misunderstandings of the purpose of its mission in the world and its calling together of an expectant community, the Church. Its mission today is often experienced as imposition and a race for numbers. Many Christians themselves have strayed from the original intentions of the mission and of the original purpose of the creation of the community of faith.

The challenge to Christian theology today, therefore, is to come to terms with its new status as a religious tradition among other religious traditions and to effectively interpret its core message within the disciplines of living within this reality. Without this Christianity will continue to be ill equipped to deal with religious plurality.

Its Approach to Other Religious Traditions
As a consequence of the above, Christianity has never really had an adequate theology of other religions. Even though there are volumes on the Christian "Theology of Religions" and descriptions of the different approaches of Christians to other religions, in a strict sense a "prophetic" religion does not function on a theology of other religions. Within this scheme there is the "prophetic message" and "the world in need of it". It is little wonder then that Christians relate to the world as the potential Church, and Islam sees humanity as the potential Umma. Within this scheme of things all religious and cultural traditions of the world merge into one reality in need of the "message" that had been shaped by the core vision of its founder. It is not uncommon then to see all other ways of believing to be in "error", and not to give theological validity to other ways of being and believing. In such situations, as is clearly the case in Christianity, theology is at the service of missiology. Mission precedes theology; theology follows mission and provides the rationale for the mission. Mission also becomes the rationale of the church whose existence could only be justified as the proclaimer of the message the world is believed to be in need of.

It is therefore not surprising that, for example, in India, there is a dispute over the issue of "mission" between Christians and Hindus. The discussions so far have been frustrating because there appears to be no common grounds for this discussion that would bring out the deeper issues involved. The argument by some Christians that the mission issues is one of ‘freedom of religion’ and the ‘right to convert and to be converted’ addresses the issue at the level of civil liberties. But it misses the heart of the misunderstandings. Hindus have always respected the rights of people to test and to follow different spiritual paths (for which there are numerous examples within Hinduism.) As a ‘traditional’ religion, which has prophetic streams within, Hinduism accepts the possibility of spiritual experimentations, crossings over from one spiritual tradition to another, and even of moving from one spiritual fold into another. In its world-view, however, all these take place within the overall affirmation of the total religious life of the people. Religious distinctions within India are considered sampradayas, branches, and it is quite acceptable to belong to different strands of religious beliefs ranging from strict atheism to monism, theism, polytheism and so on, and to move from one to the other.

Christian tradition, coming from the "prophetic" mode, has a different concept of mission as that which challenges, separates and creates an alternate community within the larger community, often over against it. Therefore while Christians, coming from one angle, insist on being a separate and separated community, Hindus, looking at the issue from quite a different angle, cannot understand why Christians and Muslims would not agree to be part of the total religious life of India, which has been given the name "Hinduism" by its Western exponents.

The issues are of course more complicated by the political and social dimensions of the life in India and the use of violence by some sections of the community. These issues need to be faced on their own right. It is important, however, that one does not loose sight of the divergences in the understanding of what constitutes appropriate "mission" in a pluralistic context. While Christians understand their mission in the original sense as the "messianic proclamation" of the "Good News" with the invitation to discipleship, and insist on the freedom people should have to respond to it, Hindus see and experience Christianity as a "religious tradition" that seeks to increase its power and influence by dragging people from the main stream religious life into an alternate community.

Hindus, speaking from within one logic, say, without malice, that Christianity and Islam are welcome as distinct religious traditions, if they become "part of Hinduism" i.e., part of the totality of Indian religious life. Christians, hearing this invitation from within another logic, see this as an attempt on the part of the Hindus to absorb them.

In order to live and function in a religiously plural world Christianity, therefore, needs to develop a considered theology of religions that it so badly lacks. It is only within such a theology of religions, which takes theological account of the religious and spiritual life of India, that the church would be able to understand for itself and explain to others the place and role of Christian witness. Such a theology of religions can emerge only if it moves from its Christocentric starting point to a Theocentric one. It can emerge only when it begins its theology where it all began - "Creation"- rather than with the "Fall". It would demand the disciplined spelling out of the church’s mission as part of God’s mission in the world. It would require the ability on the part of the Christians to see peoples of other religious traditions as fellow pilgrims and co-workers.

Thus Christianity needs a more considered theology of religions for it to be able to function in a religiously plural world.

Its Readiness to Relativize Itself
The considerations above brings into focus the greatest challenge to the Christian faith in living in a religiously plural world, namely, to see its paradigm or ‘story’ of the human predicament as one among many other ways of understanding the nature of existence and its destiny. The Christian paradigm is of course built on the basic world-view of Judaism of its time as modified and informed by the Greco-Roman world into which it moved in its very early stages. Several doctrines and teachings that are central to the Christian faith, such as the nature of the human condition, the meaning and purpose of history, nature of salvation and fulfillment, the uniqueness and finality of Christ, the nature and authority of scripture, the role and function of the church and its mission, are all built on and make sense within this particular paradigm. The Christian insistence that it is the "only" paradigm to understand the human condition has been at the heart of its inability to deal with plurality.

It is of course necessary to have a paradigm of the human condition within which one would make sense of the core religious experience/revelation given to a community. Such a paradigm may be indispensable to the community and its message. It is also true that not all paradigms are "equal" in the sense that they draw out different responses and ways of life from its adherents. Yet, the existence and the validity of the existence of different paradigms of human existence are yet to be affirmed positively within traditional Christian theology.

Where there is no room for plurality of paradigms of human existence, there is no room for plurality of religions. Where such a plurality of paradigms is affirmed there is also the need to relativise one’s own paradigm, important and decisive as it may be to the community, as one among the many. It is the distinctiveness of the paradigms that account for different religious traditions.

In other words, Christianity would continue to have difficulty in functioning in a religiously plural world if it insists that its paradigm of understanding the human condition and its resolution is the only possible way to look at reality and relate to it. Its story needs to take its rightful place alongside other stories.

The Living Tradition
The discussions above raise some fundamental questions about the nature of Christianity and its future. Should the prophetic, eschatological character of Christianity be compromised in the interest of plurality? Should Christianity cease to be a missionary religion and give up its intention to call all peoples to the discipleship of the Reign of God? Is it justified to ask of a "Prophetic" religion to "settle down" alongside other religious traditions and to live with them in harmony and peace?

The Hebrews, who have had the experience of Yahweh as the Lord of the mountains and desert, had considerable difficulty in adjusting to understanding Yahweh anew in the settled life in Canaan. The early Christian community had to re-do and rethink its theology when the expected Parousia did not materialize and it had to enter the phase of being a church in the world. A living tradition is one in which theology is done and re-done in faithfulness to the original vision and yet to respond to the realities into which the faith communities enter with the passing of time. Easy compromises can of course happen and the community may stray away from that which gives it its specificity and purpose. But there could also be true discernment leading to responsible rethinking and the emergence of new theologies that make the original vision and its impulses relevant to the new context in new ways.

Gradually Christians are coming to grips with the new reality of plurality and are beginning to come to terms with it theologically. There is a long way ahead.

Dr. S. Wesley Ariarajah is Professor of Ecumenical Theology at the Drew University School of Theology, Madison, New Jersey, U.S.A.

Go to The Significance of the Hindu Doctrine of Ishtadeva for Understanding Religious Pluralism -- Anantand Rambachan
Return to Current Dialogue (37), June 2001

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