Thursday, December 27, 2012

Is Christian Inclusivism Really Inclusive?

In my latest reading of Paul Knitter's No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I read Chapter VII, "The Catholic Model: Many Ways, One Norm".

Where I was confused in reading Knitter's discussion of Catholicism's stance towards non-Christian religions was on this: According to Catholicism, once people hear about Jesus, is their religion any longer good enough to bring them salvation?  The post-Vatican II theologians whom Knitter discusses believed that people in other religions could be saved, even though they did not subscribe to an explicitly Christian creed.  As Knitter notes, these theologians overlapped with what certain prominent ancient Christians averred, for (to use an example) Justin Martyr affirmed in his apologies that those who partake of the logos (who would later be incarnated as Jesus Christ) and behaved reasonably were Christians, even though they did not know about Jesus of Nazareth.

But what happens when people from other religions hear the Christian Gospel?  Can they be saved while still following their own religions, or are they now held responsible for accepting Christianity?  As I read this chapter, I encountered what appeared to be elements of both sides: there was an element that said that Catholics should encourage Buddhists to be good Buddhists, and there was an element that treated other religions as preparatory to Christianity and that seemed to hold that other religions became inadequate once Christianity entered the picture.  In terms of how Knitter understands Catholicism, my impression is that he thinks that Catholicism holds that even people who have heard about Christianity can still be saved in their own religions.  He discusses the relevance of the Catholic stance to inter-religious dialogue, and the very existence of inter-religious dialogue presumes that the other religions at least know about Christianity----so Knitter is talking about a scenario in which Catholics are bringing their inclusivist stance into a setting in which non-Christians know about Jesus.

Is the notion that people can be saved in other religions actually inclusive?  I'll grant that it is more inclusive than the view that those who don't affirm the Christian faith will burn in hell forever and ever.  But there does seem to be a stress on works in the notion that people from other religions will be saved----that they have to be saved because they do good deeds or live rationally, and that is evidence that they have experienced God's grace.  In my opinion, though, basing salvation on works is quite unstable, for how good is good enough?  At what point can I have assurance that my works are good enough for me to be saved?  I can identify somewhat with the Protestant idea that I need to be covered with the perfect righteousness of Christ because my own righteousness is not good enough.

That doesn't mean that I want to dismiss the good works of non-Christians, however.  I'd like to think that God is happy when anyone does something that's good.  When it comes to salvation, though, I'd prefer to root that in God's love for humanity, not in any good works that people do.


  1. I think it is usually said that people should become 'Christians' because it seems natural that if you are of God you would join with others who are of God, believe certain things, profess certain things, act in certain ways: in all, be part of a particular section of society with its various common customs visibly in this world. It would seem to be unnatural to be of God but go one's own way, not join with other Christians and even deny some Christian professions and customs. After all, God is one and would visibly have 'one people', wouldn't he? But, would they all even dress the same?! In what respects should we expect sameness? So, does it really follow that we should reasonably expect these 'natural' and 'unnatural' entailments? Why should we think so! People are limited. We can only encounter a limited number of things, only take in a limited amount of information, and only process it in a limited way, and we are limited in many other ways too. There hasn't ever been, in fact, one homogenous Christian society, nor are things heading that way. Plus, we don't even know what we are professing in some doctrines. We don't know what Christ being God and man could be, what the Trinity could be - they are forms of words (disagreed about), with no other visible entailments in any Christian society. Why might it be thought we will know what such things mean even in the coming Kingdom, what difference will they make there? Some people just don't like gathering together in churches with other people and singing 'simple-minded' songs and partaking in dressed-up rituals, and studying old documents with what seem to them to have nothing much to say about their lives, and reciting prayers and ... etc. What does God really want of people? We might reckon, not to be part of a people with certain common customs, but to be 'good trees', who will then naturally bear the right kinds of fruit whenever and wherever they are (not as 'works', and imperfectly in this world, but perfectly in the coming kingdom). Will there be a homogenous society in the coming kingdom? Why should we think that? We will still be limited. Why not, in the eternal coming kingdom, people being and doing all sorts of diverse things (chopping and changing, themselves, through the aeons), though all being always 'good trees'? Why not, then, in the coming kingdom, various Christian sects, and even those professing other religions still professing them, or even atheists still not believing in God (of course, the atheists would have to think up various weird scenarios for how it was things were as they were! But, why should that not be reasonably possible. For example, they might try saying that maybe all that happens to us is in virtual reality overseen by super-intelligent aliens. There are published accounts to this effect now in the scientific literature, claiming it is overwhelmingly the most probable eventuality that this world is a computer simulation by super-intelligent beings.)?

    Or, do we want to claim that God requires (and in calling them, ensures) everybody who is to count as among his people to visibly profess some basic essentials, and adopt some common customs (if imperfectly)? What, then, are they? The writers of the Bible did think in terms of there being different nations (societies) with their different characteristics, but why should we?

  2. I wrestle with a lot of those issues: wouldn't God want to make himself known, on some level, though revelation and a body of people. But, as you note, that scenario can break down because of how messy things are.

    I'm curious about the part about the world being a computer simulation overseen by superintelligent beings. To me, that doesn't sound like something that would appear in a legitimate scientific journal. At the same time, I know from comments you've made here that you read and interact with the works of real scholars, like N.T. Wright, so you don't strike me as the type who just believes anything. Was there a scientific journal in which you read that claim about computer simulation?

  3. Hi James,

    for starters (I never said I believed it!):

    Knowing God 'on some level'. We cannot, and never will, understand God completely, or even to an 'objectively' significant degree. We must be talking about the extent to which it actually makes a difference to us. The historical details of knowledge of God in the Bible are, in a sense, of little significance to us as we live our lives (now and in the coming kingdom). It is historically true that all sorts of things happened, but except when thinking about them, they mean nothing to us as we are engaging with other things. What difference does it make as we are doing a piece of mathematics that Caesar crossed the Rubicon? That God created the universe is in practice also irrelevant to us as we do the maths. That Jesus died and rose is similarly irrelevant here. So, we need to think about what 'God' things are relevant in the various things we do. The relevance will vary. If an atheist in the coming kingdom (as I hypothesize) is getting on with enjoying things there and living as a 'good tree' with everybody else, why should it matter what Christian historical and doctrinal things he believes or doesn't? We will never understand creation from nothing (by God), so the scientists in the coming kingdom will still be exploring the Universe (origins of things?) with their theories, mathematics and experiments as scientists do now, whether theistic or atheistic ones.

    Now, there may be some infallible 'intuition' of the things of God, so that everyone in the coming kingdom will 'know' God in that sense. But, such an intuition is claimed by people now, and indeed it looks like (many of?) those who profess belief feel they have such an intuition. Some Christians can identify when they were born again, or became filled with the Holy Spirit. Many can't. Anyway, it is not clear just what work such 'intuitions' do. Or what!?

    I'm not presenting conclusions here, just thinking around and about things! Though, I find that even being seen to be having a go at thinking about such things as these does seem to disturb many Christians. But why should it?


  4. Thanks for the web-site, Davey. It is surprising! Though I guess I did encounter the simulation idea a couple of times in academia. Usually it was in philosophy classes, and it was used to explain Descartes, who asks how we can be sure that an evil genius is not simulating what we think is real.


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