The myth of religious superiorityBy Scot McKnight
Christian thinkers divide into three groups: one group thinks a person has to believe in Jesus Christ at some conscious level to be saved (exclusivism), another group thinks a person is saved through Jesus Christ but a person who has never heard of Christ may be saved by the light they have received (inclusivism), and yet another group thinks Christianity is one way of salvation, a true way, but there are other ways too (pluralism). There are of course shades and nuances right through this spectrum.
As you read this sketch of Knitter’s pluralism, what is your response? What do you like? Where would you disagree?
Pluralists believe that one religion being superior to other religions is a myth, and in fact often it is said such a belief is imperialistic. A really good example of a pluralist is Paul Knitter, a former Catholic priest who is now at the vanguard of religious pluralism and someone who calls himself a Buddhist-Christian (and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian). To sketch his view, I rely on his own study in Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World (G. D’Costa, Paul Knitter, Daniel Strange). I have never seen such a lucid, brief sketch of pluralism this good, so I will do my best to re-sketch his sketch.
(1) Theology is a mutually clarifying and mutually criticizing conversation between Christian experience and beliefs on the one side, and ongoing human experience and understanding of self and the world on the other side (47-48). Thus, while the New Testament is given authority, it has authority only so far as it elicits and confirms our experience. And theological language is symbolic and never the thing itself.
(2) The singular issues for theology are the many religions in the world and the many poor in the world. Good theology, then, must be liberative and dialogical.
(3) God as Trinity is about our experience of God as one and many. This language symbolizes a “creating” and a “communicating” and an “animating” Mystery as Father, Son and Spirit. God and the world co-inhere, and this is a form of panentheism, in that God participates in everything. Reality is a “cosmotheandric” process — world, God and humans. God is the power of Inter-being. What we call God is Inter-being. We know God through the mysticism of silence (the Other) and the mysticism of service (the other).
(4) Creation is an outpouring of the God who is love, and God could not not have created because love inevitably creates into otherness. So evolution is inherent to God (and here Knitter refers to Teilhard). Sin — he’s not into original sin but into selfishness and social karma — is the corrupting social and cultural reality. What is needed is enlightenment.
(5) “Jesus is the decisive and transforming embodiment of the holy Mystery of love and Inter-being that pervades all of creation” (65). Jesus as Son of God means the disciples, when they met Jesus, met God. Jesus invites others into this relation with God. Jesus as Savior: one model sees Jesus as the Satisfaction (which is against pluralism) but Knitter’s model sees Jesus as the Sacrament (who mediates, makes real, makes known). Jesus is the primary Sacrament for the Christian. Jesus the Risen One means a spiritual event — a subjective experience of an objective event [not defined]. They encountered the Spirit of Christ after his death. Is Jesus unique? Jesus is “truly” Son of God and “truly” Savior but not in the sense of “only.”
(6) The Christian is called to salvation (the mystical experience of being “in” Christ) and justice (the prophetic experience of seeking the Reign of God). For Knitter, the Reign of God is cultural and social and not primarily, or even, ecclesial (church). The distinctiveness of Christian salvation is preferential option for the poor, without denying justice for all (even the powerful).
(7) Church is mission, and mission is dialogue. Dialogue is how the church is missional. The mission of God is bigger than the church, and therefore the church is only part of the mission of God in this world.
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