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A Theology of Religions
by Carl E. Braaten
Adolf von Harnack said, “Whoever does not know this religion (Christianity), knows none, and whoever knows this one with its history, knows all.” In sharp contrast Max Müller stated, “Whoever knows one religion, knows none.”
Recently Christian theology and the scientific study of the religions have met as long lost relatives. At the beginning the meeting feels somewhat awkward. They don’t know just what to say to each other. They have learned to speak such different languages and they function in very different contexts. Some of us have spent the major part of our lives trying to understand one religion faithfully and we do this as a matter of personal conviction. Others have crossed over to the study of another religion or two and have learned to enter into them by means of scholarly methods of inquiry, but we do so more as a matter of academic vocation than existential commitment.
The watershed date is the end of World War II. Until then a prevalent view reflected Karl Barth’s negative judgment on religion, which gave no reason to wrestle theologically with the religions. He said that all religion was sacrificed on Golgotha. The religious gods died on Good Friday. Religion is the affair of the godless person. Religion is a vain human attempt at self-salvation. But after World War II the climate began to change in favor of a more positive evaluation of religion and the religions, inspiring new attempts to forge some links between Christian theology and the scientific study of the religions. At the end of his career Paul Tillich signaled the shift that was beginning to take place in his essay, “The Significance of the History of Religions for the Systematic Theologian.” He called for a long term intensive period of interpenetration of systematic theological study and religious historical studies, and expressed this as his hope for the future of theology. That was twenty-five years ago. A lot has happened in the meantime. New hypotheses concerning the relation between Christianity and the other major world religions have been conceived, older ones have been revised, but none has gained a monopoly.
The phrase, “A Theology of the Religions,” is quite new. In the university catalogues of divinity schools and schools of religion we will find many courses with such titles as philosophy of religion, psychology of religion, phenomenology of religion, the history of religions, but only very rarely will we find this newcomer, “A Theology of the Religions,” or some variant of it. A Christian theology of the religions is the name given to that discipline which aims to think about the world religions in light of the Christian faith. A Christian theology of the religions calls upon theology to go beyond merely reflecting on the symbols and stories of the Christian tradition. Not only Christianity but also other religions become the object of critical theological inquiry. This is a new challenge to which most theologians are not yet accustomed. It is the challenge of the plurality of religions.
Religious pluralism, of course, is not new. Christianity was born in the maelstrom of a variety of Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Oriental religious and philosophical currents. From the beginning the tiny Christian movement had a great struggle to establish its own identity and viability in the ancient world. At first Christianity was attacked by the Jews as a heresy, persecuted by the Romans as a seditious movement, ridiculed as a contemptible myth by the Hellenistic philosophers, and given a run for its money by the popular cults and mystery religions. In three centuries the status of Christianity was changed from being an illegal and ridiculous sect to that of being the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then religious pluralism became drastically diminished during the age of Christendom. What is new today is the increasing awareness that Christianity is one among many religions in the global community. Religions are no longer confined to particular boundaries. The flow and speed of inter-religious traffic have increased tremendously. A wealth of knowledge about other religions has been accumulated over the past two centuries. And Christianity is now confronted by a counter-missionary thrust on the part of some other religions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Somehow the old ways of pigeonholing the religions do not seem to work anymore. They have been seen sometimes as preparations for the gospel, sometimes as the wiles and ways of the devil, sometimes as alternative experiences of the one true God. These dogmatic constructions have been broken down by the sheer gravity of the empirical and historical data that need to be dealt with in terms of their own culture and linguistic contexts. But there is no new prevailing systematic theological paradigm to replace the older constructions. We face not only a plurality of religions but also a plurality of theologies. In addition we are mired down in a swamp land of relativism. All the religions are claimed to be equally endowed with powers of liberation and salvation. The dominant feeling today is that basically all religions say the same thing and lead to the same end, only they do so in terms of different ritual symbols and language systems.
In the face of religious relativism Christian theology is pressed to look around for some way to secure the exclusive claim of the gospel to universal validity. The real question is how to conceive of the act of God in Jesus Christ as having ultimate significance for all people at all times in every place. The force of a few biblical passages drives Christians to acknowledge and proclaim the universal validity of the gospel. Acts 4:12 states: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” And 1 Corinthians 3:11 says: “ For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Christian theologians have learned from experience that there is no way to try to make good this exclusive claim, no matter how broadly they project the inclusivity of its content, without being accused of being so dogmatically prejudiced as to be unfit for inter-religious dialogue. It is at this point that methodological rigor is called for. Prejudice has now often shifted to the side of those who claim scientific objectivity in dealing with religion and the religions. But as a matter of methodological fairness all religious scholars should acknowledge the presuppositions with which they operate. And there is no presuppositionless approach to any of the great human passions, whether sex, politics, and religions or to any of the loftier visions of truth, beauty, and goodness. A Christian theology of the religions should acknowledge its presuppositions with a good conscience, rather than sneak them in by the back door. For one thing, it can expose as a sham the make-believe objectivity of some practitioners of the various sciences of religion.
Christian theology bears a particular burden. Its presuppositions are burning convictions that are hard to hide. The Christian thinker is a whole person whose captivity to the gospel ought to be freely and joyously articulated in every dimension of life. The Christian scholar is a slave of Jesus Christ in whom God is truly disclosed, full of grace and truth. There is no way to bracket out this commitment when dealing with religious and ethical matters. Scholars with presuppositions less clear and distinct may see the speck in a Christian theology of the religions, but fail to see the log in their own approaches. Scholars cannot measure things without some kind of ruler. For Christians the ruler is Jesus Christ and no other. Jesus Christ cannot be subsumed under some other category that is presumably more adequate to interpret the religions of the world.
The exclusive claim of the gospel continues to be a thorn in the flesh of those who would postulate the equality of the religions. The current pluralistic theory of religions that enjoys a high popularity in academic circles speaks of a Copernican revolution in the relation of Christianity to other religions. In advocating the deconstruction of the Incarnational dogma this revolution looks upon the exclusivity claim as a myth, fiction, pretense, illusion, opium, crutch, or escape, or all of the above. But Christian theology cannot relinquish the claim of eschatological finality in connection with the historical figure of Jesus, without surrendering the ground principle of Christian identity.
There are two other approaches that have a long history and continue to be the real competitors. One is along the line of the old Patristic doctrine of the Logos (the Word, i.e., the Word of God; cf. John 1:1). This leads to a large Christ principle universally present and operative in the various religions, philosophies, and ideologies apart from the gospel proclamation about Jesus and the kingdom. Justin Martyr used the Stoic concept of the logos spermatikos to account for all the truth, beauty, and goodness to be found outside of Christianity. The pagans received all these splendid things through the Logos whose seeds have spread throughout the world. This theory of the logos spermatikos found classical expression in the natural theology of the scholastics, in the rational religion of the Enlightenment, and achieved contemporary expression in Tillich’s notion of the latent church and in Rahner’s concept of “Anonymous Christianity.” This theory, in whatever particular rendition, is attractive for a number of reasons. It permits a generous estimate of what God is doing beyond the walls of the Church. It offers a point of contact between biblical religion and the virtues and values of other religions. Particularly the missionary task of the church can use it as a bridge for its own work of translating the gospel into the language of the other cultures. And today theologians of younger churches are attracted to this doctrine because it offers a basis for a positive attitude towards the spiritual heritage of their ancestors and non-Christian neighbors.
The second line of approach in the Christian tradition is slender and intermittent. It does not enjoy classical status. It is most clearly represented by Luther and reformers. For Luther the logos spermatikos and the cross of Christ don’t get along well together. One is philosophical speculation, the other is the Word of God. The Logos is a universal principle, Jesus is a concrete person. Jesus is the Logos. The subject is Jesus who gives to the predicate Logos its definitive content and meaning. The Logos idea as John used it was transformed by being filled with the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This incarnational current is non-reversible, as the Lutherans maintained against the Calvinists (Numquam extra carnem—“never outside the flesh”).
There are those who are sympathetic with the intentions of the ancient Logos christology, but don’t believe that it can bear the heavy traffic that flows between the religions in their concrete histories. Ernst Benz, one of the pioneers in promoting a theology linked to the history of religions, said that despite its good intentions “the traditional Logos theology and its modern versions proves itself to be a theological ell which is too short to measure our modern consciousness of history.”1 But there are other objections. In the age of Christendom the Logos doctrine became the substitute for the expectation of the coming Messiah, and contributed to the de-eschatologization of Christian faith. With the loss of eschatological hope the engine that propelled the global mission of the church began to idle. Another objection, one raised even by Paul Knitter and John Hick, is that it amounts to a pseudo-christocentrism. It aims to uphold the centrality of Christ, but in a way that is as artificial as upholding the old Ptolemaic view of the universe by adding a few epi-cycles to deal with the new scientific discoveries of astronomy.
Religions as Ways of Salvation?
The classical way of constructing the relationship between special revelation in the gospel and general revelation in other religions hinged, as we have said, on the distinction between the concrete Logos in the flesh (ensarkos) and the universal Logos outside the flesh (asarkos). Only in modern theology has the logos spermatikos been granted a soteriological function. In traditional Lutheran terminology, this means that a number of distinctions have collapsed, such as the distinction between God hidden and revealed, between law and gospel, between the two kingdoms, and so forth. Some Catholic and Protestant theologians speak of the religions as “ways of salvation.” This ups the ante considerably in working out a theological theory of the relation of Christianity to other religions.
Phenomenologically, of course, all religions are by definition ways of salvation. It is the proper business of religion to save. But not all salvation is the same. A person who seeks salvation in mind-altering drugs gets a different salvation than a person who seeks salvation in transcendental meditation. There is no such thing as a generic salvation to which the various religions merely provide different labels. Those who have converted from one religion to another are the first to provide the conclusive testimonies. The history of religions provides us with different models of salvation and different ways in which the models are supposed to work. When the slaves in Egypt cried out for salvation, to be released from their oppression, Moses led the exodus out of Egypt. Similarly, if salvation is the experience of illumination, the way of the Buddha offers this. Each religion advertises the particular salvation it promises those who are willing to follow its way.
The dialogue between the religions leads finally to a disclosure of the sacred and saving mystery that lies within the horizon of each religious tradition. Participants in dialogue meet and challenge each other by witnessing to the deepest mystery of life that defines their being and future. I do not think it should be so readily assumed that some current variant of the Logos principle is the most useful presupposition of inter-religious dialogue. This concept of the larger Christ manifest in all the religions is a way of co-opting them, and makes them mere echoes of what we know already—seeds of the same stalk that grows in our garden. The idea of the “anonymous Christ” at work to reveal and save in all the religions is not only a projection of arrogance ad extra, but also a reduction of significance ad intra that attaches to the person and work of Jesus as the Christ.
A Christian theology of the world religions has scarcely matured beyond the embryonic stage. Nevertheless, it appears to me that several lines of thought appear promising and worthy of further exploration and development. I will suggest the leitmotiv of the finality of God’s eschatological self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. The eschatological Kingdom effectively present in Jesus’ message and ministry, and revealed most profoundly and definitively in his cross and resurrection according to the apostolic witnesses, embraces the future of the whole of God’s creation, including the entire sweep of the history of humanity, its cultures and religions. The presence of the eschatological Kingdom in Jesus and in the apostolic mission can be viewed as the anticipation of the future, not only of all believers, but of all the nations.
Christians may believe that the divine mystery to which all religions are pointing in their own provisional ways has been revealed by the gospel in the name of Jesus. However, that proposition of belief is not an abstract a priori but is an a posteriori reflection of the ongoing interaction with people of other faiths. The basic presupposition of the Christian missionary faith is that all persons are in principle candidates open to a transformation toward a future that they do not yet fully possess, but which may become known to them through a declaration of the promises of God culminating in the gospel of the eschatological kingdom.
The Christian tradition exists to be a servant and sign of the still outstanding eschatological future of all the religions. The history of religions is not a body of objective data to be studied as though they were dead. They are living traditions still underway. Their final meaning, like with everything else, is related to the end toward which they are historically moving through forces beyond their control. One aim of the Christian mission is to create space in the other religions for a future that will not negate but fulfill them in accordance with the revelation of the divine love and mercy revealed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic mission.
The Christian attitude toward people of other religions, or of no religion at all, is neither one of intolerance nor one of indifference. It is one of engaged interest in how God is providentially at work preparing people to encounter the finality of the eschatological kingdom announced by Jesus and the gospel and sacramentally experienced within the community of believers.
1. Ernst Benz, “Ideas for a Theology of the History of Religion,” The Theology of the Christian Mission. ed. by Gerald H. Anderson, p. 136).
Dr. Carl E. Braaten is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Some of the material in this article will be published in his forthcoming book, No Other Gospel! (Fortress Press, 1992).