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Different Paths Meeting in God

This is an anthology1 of 12 articles contributed by distinguished theologians Catholic and Protestant, all belonging to prestigious divinity schools and universities. Some authors speak more philosophically, others more sociologically, but the book has a kind of unity which comes from a shared outlook. The authors also met at the Claremont Graduate school, California, where their first drafts were subjected to mutual criticism, thus ensuring further unity in the final product.

The authors represent a minority view among Christian theologians, probably the future view too. They are rendering a great service to Christianity by trying to improve its ideological quality - they are trying to make it think more charitably of its neighbours’ religions, a quality which it has traditionally lacked.

We in India used to a liberal religious outlook can scarcely realize the boldness and difficulty of their venture. To us, the views they represent are normal, but to their fellow-theologians in the Christian world, their views are abnormal. Hindus tend to regard different religions as different paths which eventually meet in God, but Christianity has looked upon this plurality as wicked and as the handiwork of the devil. From its beginning, Christianity has believed that it is the sole guardian of truth and salvation and all outside of the Church are mere, “massa damnata, an abandoned heap, excluded from salvation”, as Fulgentius Ruspe, disciple of St. Augustine, put it.

But due to many reasons into which we need not go here, during the last half century, a new approach was tried. An unceremonious and soulful denunciation of other religions became less evident. It was conceded that they were not that depraved and that they also contained some positive elements of moral and spiritual life. But the superiority of Christianity still remained beyond question. Christianity is “unique”, it is “absolute”, its revelation is “final and definitive”, it provides the standard by which other religions are to be judged which by themselves are not sufficient and which truly find their fulfilment in Christianity - these still remained the premises of Christian theologians. Arguing it out proved an interesting game for them and they played it with enthusiasm and proficiency. In the process, they developed the art of sounding liberal without ceasing to be diehards.

But under a continuous pressure silently exerted by Hinduism-Buddhism, even this approach is found to be unsustainable. Therefore, a new theology is coming up which not only recognizes a plurality of religions, but also accords them some sort of a rough and ready parity. Other religions are co-valid. The authors of this anthology are spokesmen of this view. They are doing pioneering work.

No wonder mainline theologians resist this view, which puts them in a great dilemma. As Hans Kung puts it, “If all religions contain truth, why should Christianity in particular be the truth?  the fate of Christianity itself is in question.” But not deterred by this difficulty, the new theologians of pluralism and parity keep pressing on with their views.

Langdon Gilkey, Professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, argues that “the sole efficacy had even superiority of Christianity are claims we can no longer make, or can make only with great discomfort”. John Hick of the Claremont Graduate School, California, one of the editors of this anthology, makes an outstanding contribution. He rejects Christian “absolutism”: he shows how Christianity and imperialism have been inseparable; he quotes the British historian, James Morris, who says that “every aspect of (British) Empire was an aspect of Christ”.

Rosemary Ruether, Professor at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, holds that the traditional understanding of Christianity as the bearer of the only or highest revelation has led to “an outrageous and absurd religious chauvinism”. She finds it astonishing that “even Christian liberals and radicals fail to seriously question this assumption”.

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Dean at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, tells us of the “invidious effects that follow when one mode of humanity is made normative for others”. Writing as a feminist, she says that Christianity’s practice of absolutizing one religion, such that becomes normative for others,” has its parallel in its “sexism, whereby one gender is established as the norm of human existence”.

She thinks that much of current Christian liberalism is phoney. She discusses the celebrated Hans Kung counted among liberal theologians, and points out how he establishes false comparisons: according to her the “fearsome, grimacing gods of Bali” - this is how Kung describes them - may be no worse than “some bloody depictions of a crucified Christ”. Similarly, one is not very sure if the devadasi system of the Hindus described as “temple prostitution” by many missionaries is very different from Kung’s “Christian consecration of virgins”.

Tom F. Driver, Professor of Theology and Culture at the Union Theological Seminary, New York, observes that from an early date Christianity’s “attitude to other religions has been shaped by the colonial mentality”; that when “local religions could not be brought under the Christian banner . these religions were eradicated not infrequently by the burning of books destruction of symbols and the torture and slaughter of infidels”.

W.C. Smith is Professor Emeritus of the Comparative History of Religions at the Harvard University. Older generation in India will remember him as a teacher in pre-Partition days at Forman Christian College, Lahore, and author of an excellent book, Modern Islam in India. He says that he has given up for good the word, idolatry, a Christian’s fond name for Hinduism. Several decades have passed since he used the word last, for he now believes that no one has ever worshipped an idol though “some have worshipped God in the from of an idol”. He says that he came to this realization when he read in the Yogavasishtha: “Thou art Formless. The only from is our knowledge of Thee.” He now believes that a Christian “doctrine” too is no more than a “statue” and that for Christians to think that “Christianity is true, or final or salvafic is a from of idolatry”. He adds that Christianity has been our idol. In the same vein, Tom Diver says that there is “such a thing as an idolatrous devotion to God and that Christianity has a lot of “Christodolatry”.

Raimundo Panikkar, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, another contributor, is well known in India. Heir to two religious traditions, he was born and brought up in Spain as a Catholic, became an ordained priest and a celebrated Christian theologian (Martin Heidegger dedicated to him a poem of his, perhaps his very last). But as he grew up, he also claimed his patrimony from his father’s side and became and interpreter of Hindu thought to his fellow-theologians in their arcane language. In 1964, he wrote a book, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. But it will not disagree with his new thought if he now wrote a book, The Unknown Krishna of Christianity. He has successfully crossed the theological Rubicon.

Dr. Panikkar narrates how Christian missionary work from its early beginning has passed through various phases, the current phase being that of Dialogue. He reminds us that this word has come into prominence after the dismantling of the colonial order and that “were is not for the fact of the political decolonization of the world, we would not be speaking the way we are doing today”.

Paul Knitter, Professor of Theology at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, writes as a liberation theologian. According to him, the essence of Christianity is “doing the work of resolving hunger, injustice, and war - work that God through Christ called people to do”. So we are back to the same old story and dramatic personae: a mandate communicated to the people at large through a favoured medium. In this format too, Jesus remains the first or e even the sole fiddle and messianism retains its full play. The only difference is that religious messianism is replaced by a secular one which is no less arrogant and no better as communism has proved. But the old power-adepts know that secular-radical slogans sell better these days; therefore, they are up-dating their packaging legends and marketing strategy.

If the medium is also the message in some way, we have to be wary on that account. We know how liberation theology operates in India; its work is full of mischief. We have to remember that it has been floated by the same old Imperialist set-up.

At a recent International Conference of Mission Work in Rome, Cardinal Josef Tomko criticized theologians like Knitter for being more occupied with “social work” and “inter-religious dialogue” than with announcing the Gospel. The answer to this criticism by one truly pluralist was obvious: that announcing the Gospel was redundant, that it was even arrogant, that other people do not need a Christian Gospel and probably many of them have a Gospel of their own as good as the Bible.

But Dr. Knitter’s answer was very different. “We are not saying outreach evangelization should only consist of action of human welfare but we are saying that working for human welfare, is an essential part of the work… It is essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. Missionary strategists will have no difficulty in agreeing with this view. They already know that “social work” is a great aid to proselytizing.

A true pluralist would demand that Christianity liquidates its missionary apparatus. What does it matter what theory is propounded so long as this apparatus is intact.

The poor of the earth, the Third World countries have no chance against it whether it stays religious or goes secular.

We cannot mention here all the contributors of the anthology but it is thanks to their pioneering work and of others like them that a pluralist theology is already in sight. But a fundamental question has yet to be asked: How could Christianity live without pluralism for the last 2,000 years and do with so much hate for other ways and other fraternities? Is it an accidental lapse or does it arise from a serious defect in its fundamental spiritual vision, from an inadequate view of man and deity? Has it to do with its Semitic origin? Or, even, is it at all the spirituality of the meaning in which the word is understood by Hinduism-Buddhism, Taoism, or Stoicism?


  1. The Myth of Christian Unqueness: Towards a Pluralistic Theology of Religions. Edited by John I-Eck and Paul F. Knitter (Orbis Books $ 17.95.) reviewed by Ram Swarup in The Statesman, Sunday Edition, January 14, 1990.