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Introducing Theologies of Religions by Paul…
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Introducing Theologies of Religions

by Paul F. Knitter

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Knitter, one of the major voices in Catholic theology of religions and inter religious dialogue, is a professor at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. He's also an ex-priest and a very nice guy (I met him at a conference). I thoroughly enjoyed his most well-known book, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. So it was with excitement I picked this book up on amazon.

Knitter's book, less of his own research and more of a review of the literature in theology of religions, is designed to be a textbook introduction to the field. He covers four models for how Christians looks at other religious traditions: replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, and acceptance. First, a summary.

The first, replacement, is pretty standard, especially in Evangelical churches. Essentially, all other religions are completely wrong and their members need to be converted to Christ. This doesn't exactly jive with today's pluralistic and postmodern age, but it does have the most New Testament support ("No one comes to the Father but through me," etc.). Knitter holds up Karl Barth as the primary proponent of this position.

Yet the next position, fulfillment, is also found in the Bible. In the Hebrew Wisdom literature (and its echoes in John's Gospel) and Acts 17, we find that other religious traditions do know about God. Though the real God is the Christian triune God, Hindus, Muslims, animists, and Greek pagans are in fact worshipping this God, although they do not know it. Their knowledge of God is partial; not knowing God's true nature, their relationship with Him is limited. The most well-known proponent of this is Karl Rahner, whose "anonymous Christian" concept echoes the Church Fathers' "seeds of the Word" that they believed were strewn about the non-Christian religions. Christ fulfills the partial truth all the religions have. It's even possible anonymous Christians can be saved.

The fulfillment model is the orthodox position of the Catholic Church. It's represented in Vatican II's Nostra Aetate, a declaration that was originally going to cover the Church's relation to the Jews but was expanded to cover all the religions. Essentially: whatever goodness and truth other religions contain is only preparation for the Gospel. Later documents of the Church declare explicitly that members of other religions can be saved, that the Church need be dialogical (including both sides learning), but also that Jesus is the only true Savior and that evangelization is an essential part of dialogue. (Think of evangelization and the mutual learning of dialogue as a two-sided coin.)

Theologians such as Gavin D'Costa and Jacques Dupuis S.J. push the fulfillment model to its limits, pointing out that if the Spirit works in other religions, then Christians committed to following the Holy Spirit must learn from other traditions. Yet critics of the fulfillment model point out that dialogue can never be mutual if Christians believe their truth has the last Word (no pun intended). These critics often find their way to the mutualist mode, which sees all religions as equally true and good. Knitter groups mutualists into three types:
- the "philosophical-historical" mutualists such as John Hick, who take a kind of Kantian turn and say that no humans can know Divine Reality in itself, but that all religious traditions point to it/him/her;
- the "religious-mystical" types such as Raimon Panikkar, who see a core mystical experience at the heart of all religions, and each religion as only touching one aspect of that Ultimate Mystery
- the "ethical-practical" bridge between religions, which says that doctrinal dialogue should take a back seat to constructively helping one another heal the world. All religions have an equal role in helping heal the world.

While the mutualists seek to make bridges between religions in humility and well-intentioned love, the acceptance model's proponents find themselves frustrated with its fluffy and mushy blending of all religions into one. These thinkers, galvanized by postmodern critiques of Grant Narratives, respect the diversity of the religions and do not try to blend them into One Truth. The groundwork for this model was laid by George Lindbeck, whose "postliberal theology" takes a cultural-linguistic model of religions as being totally different linguistic systems. Even pointing out that all religions speak of "love," he writes, is pointless because "love" is conceptualized in different ways and caught in different webs or words in different traditions. There is no common ground in religion, neither in doctrinal truth nor mystical experience.

And here is where I go from summary to polemic. Because reading Knitter's book was a complete eye-opener for me. I, too, have become sick of mutualist fluff, of the nonsensical search for some "common core" of the world's religions, which is always so vacuous as to be a mockery of deep traditions! Knitter points out that the mutualists, in their effort to find common ground, in fact create a quite elaborate set of dogmas. The biggest: no religious tradition has the full truth, something which many religious traditions would deny (including the first two models discussed here, which cover almost all mainstream Christians). Mutualist dialogue become banal, a common affirmation of bland truths about the importance of dialogue and peace. What's more, it's not even pretending to be resonant with Scripture.

So yes, I subscribe to the fulfillment model. But while that model, and the Catholic Church, teach that there must be mutual learning in dialogue, they don't describe any praxis for this. That is where the acceptance model comes in. Once we can accept that religious traditions truly are different, we can appreciate both ways of looking at other religions. First, as Christians committed to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in history and salvation, we naturally view other religions from the perspective of our own as lacking full truth. This is similar to how the New Testament "history of salvation" views Jews and Greeks, only this new history of salvation must include Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the other "isms," while recognizing that the idea of a religious "ism" is largely an essentializing Western construct. But secondly, we can try in humility to set aside our presuppositions about other religions and view them as they view themselves. The first and second ways can be brought into a creative tension.

What kind of activities does this lend itself to? First, apologetics (which I used to have a strong distaste for), which if done in a spirit of kindness can be a great dialogue tool. I learn much more from debating and arguing than I do from bland affirmation of shared beliefs. Second, comparative theology seeking to bring into dialogue specific strands of two traditions, as Francis Clooney does in his Hindu-Christian comparative theology. Third, interreligious work to change the world, to reduce suffering, which would in turn lead to dialogues about the nature of justice and human rights.

Knitter's book is not an easy read, but it does help me contextualize many other books on my shelf. His bibliography is going to be very bad for my already-long amazon wish list. Sigh. ( )
1 vote JDHomrighausen | Dec 8, 2012 |
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