“Each religion is alone true, in the same way, each landscape, each picture, each poem, etc. is alone beautiful.”— Simone Weil
Ever since the time of the early Church, Christians have been concerned about the relationship between and among the various world religions. Scholars in religious studies deal with this problem under the rubric of “Religious Pluralism.” When I raised the question whether the world religions are ways to salvation in my classes, students had very strong feelings about this matter.
St. Paul (5-64 A.D.) and St. Justin the Martyr (100-165) were concerned about the relationship of Christianity to other religions. In the 19th century, thinkers like Frederick Schleiermacher, Ernst Troeltsch, and Georg W. F. Hegel spoke about the relationship between Christianity and other world religions. They raised the question “How can the church be bound to Jesus and still remain a community open to other religious traditions?”
There appears to be a negative attitude on the part of Protestant and Catholic theologians regarding the possibility of salvation for members of non-Christian religions.
Theologians like Emil Brunner argued that non-Christian religions were works of sin and vain attempts at self-redemption. Other theologians like Hendrik Kraemer and Karl Barth are also proponents of the exclusivist model. Millions of Christians today would agree with the viewpoint of these Protestant scholars.
Scholars now speak of three models for understanding religious pluralism. The first one, the exclusivist model, focuses on Christ and its proponents cite Acts 4:11-12 and 1 Timothy 2:5 to support their position. Prior to the Vatican Council II (1962-65), Catholic theologians believed in the axiom “Outside the Church, no Salvation.” That’s no longer the case, though there are still Christians who believe this axiom still holds water today.
Fundamentalist Muslims also subscribe to the exclusivist model. Fundamentalists would argue that Muhammad is the final prophet sent by Allah as noted in the Qur’an. Though Muslims believe in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament (NT), what the Qur’an teaches out-trumps anything said in the Hebrew Scriptures and the N.T.
Roman Catholic theologians generally support the inclusivist model. Some inclusivists would say that there’s the ‘ordinary’ way to salvation and the ‘extraordinary’ way. The ordinary way to salvation would be that of the world religions. Why so? Most of the world’s population do not belong to Christianity. Hence, God will not deny them salvation, provided they follow the light God gives them in good conscience. Individuals must always follow the truth as they see it.
A leading theologian, Karl Rahner, a Jesuit, deems those who possess an implicit faith in Christ “anonymous Christians.” For Rahner, non-Christians who make no explicit faith or even lack faith may be called ‘anonymous Christians.’ For example, when I lived in Wuerzburg, Germany I had a Jewish friend (who was a pre-med student) who loved to ask me questions about the existence or non-existence of God.
I’m still in touch with this friend, who as a family physician had a scaling fee for his patients. He had great compassion for all his patients rich or poor. I think of him today as an ‘anonymous Christian,’ for two reasons: he desperately wants to believe in a God or higher power and I greatly respect his care and concern for the poor and marginalized. They show that his heart and values are in the right place.
The third model may be called the pluralist option. Pluralists like the Presbyterian John Hick, a controversial minister and philosopher, would say that the world religions are equally effective ways to the Truth. Hick would submit that Brahma, Buddha, Allah, and Jehovah, are all manifestations or revelations of God.
Raimon Panikkar, a Hindu Christian, compares the world religions to the thousands of languages found throughout the globe. All language is effective in communicating to various people around the world. Hence, we cannot truthfully say, for example, that the English language is superior to Chinese, Spanish, or French. All of these languages make communication possible between persons. There’s no way the various languages can be rank-ordered.
For 40 years I’ve taught courses in religious studies such as the Eastern Religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Confucianism) and the Western religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity). In teaching a course on Judaism or Islam, I would say to myself I could easily become a Jew or a Muslim. Both religions make good sense to me.
Nevertheless, I have stayed a Christian, because I was born into and raised a Catholic for the past 80 years. I’m already extremely comfortable in my religion and too settled in my ways to change.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.