Robert N. Bellah is emeritus professor of sociology and comparative studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of many books, including The Broken Covenant (Seabury Press 1975) and, with others, Habits of the Heart (U. of California Press, 1996).
The article appeared in The Christian Century, April 19, 1995, pp. 423-428. Copyright by The Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at http://www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.
Building on the observations of H. Richard Niebuhr, Bellah shows how the gap between the religious pluralism of Ernst Troeltsch and the absolute distinction between the revelation of God in Christ versus other religions can be bridged by the Christian without being unfaithful. Both Niebuhr and Troeltsch talked in terms of “the truth for us” in the context of historical relativism. That, plus the fact that as central as the community of the church is for us, it is not our only community, enables us – paradoxically – to be home and not at home in a religiously pluralistic world. This article is adapted from a presentation made at Yale Divinity School marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of H. Richard Niebuhr.
Religious pluralism and religious truth are topics that preoccupied H. Richard Niebuhr at in his work but nowhere more than in The meaning of Revelation. In the preface to that work Niebuhr recognizes both Ernst Troeltsch and Karl Barth as his teachers and notes that they are frequently thought to be “in diametrical opposition to each other.” Nevertheless he proposes to “combine their main interests,” though he is modest as to whether he has succeeded.
On the question of the uniqueness of the revelation of God in Christ, Troeltsch and Barth would indeed seem to be irreconcilable. Toward the end of his life Troeltsch came to recognize that the great world religions had equal claims to validity, though he did not quite leave it at that, as we will see later. As for Barth, he drew an absolute distinction between the revelation of God in Christ and the religions, which are purely human expressions and as such more or less idolatrous. It would seem rather difficult to combine those insights.
Before making progress on that front, let us consider more closely how we understand the central Christian claim that God revealed himself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How are we to understand this claim-understand as opposed to evaluate it? I am convinced that this claim is not very well understood even in our own society and must be very hard to understand in non-Western societies.
To suggest the problem let me recount an incident that occurred while I was at the Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal in the 1950s. A couple of years earlier my wife and I had spent a summer conducting fieldwork in a Mormon community in Ramah, New Mexico. Being new to Canada and rather homesick, we invited in two Mormon missionaries from Utah when they called on us in Montreal and spoke with their familiar Western twang. After exchanging small talk, which is what we really wanted, the missionaries were eager to get down to the business of converting us. They pulled out an elaborate display of illustrated cardboards, depicting incidents from the Bible. The story developed sequentially along the lines of “if you believe this then you must believe this.” I was willing to consent up to a certain point and then I had to discourage the discourse from continuing. I already knew a great deal about Mormonism and was not about to be converted.
Aside from disappointing our new friends, the thing that most impressed me on that occasion was that their entire pitch was based on the assumption that a) we were familiar enough with the Bible to follow their argument and b) that if they could demonstrate that the Bible said something they wanted to prove, we would be constrained to agree. Ignorance of the Bible or lack of confidence in its authority would have left them completely at sea. Or rather it would have forced them back to the beginning, to prove, as they would put it, that “the Bible is true,” long before they would ever get to the topic of Joseph Smith.
It may seem as if I am making a long leap, but I believe the first Christians were in the same situation as those missionaries. There is only one point in the New Testament, as far as I know, at which the gospel is preached to those entirely lacking in knowledge of the scriptures (most of the gentiles to whom Paul preached were among the sympathizers of the synagogue, so Paul could presume what George Lindbeck calls “biblical literacy’), and that is Paul’s famous address on the Areopagus. Paul’s entering wedge is to tell the philosophically educated Athenians that he has discovered “an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Then he goes on to speak of “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth,” and he proceeds to give a brief précis of Genesis. He ends with the notion that God will “have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (17:24-33).
In short, in order to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified to the biblically illiterate Athenians, Paul must convince them of the fundamentally Jewish notion of a creator God who is Lord of all and who will bring the world to an end in a last judgment. Only in that context does the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ make sense. Even though Paul abrogated the Jewish ritual law for the gentiles, he still, in a critically important sense, had to convert them to Judaism before he could convert them to Christianity. That is as much the case today as ever and is evidenced by the fact that the Hebrew scriptures are canonical for Christians.
To put this in Niebuhrian terms: converting people to Christianity without Paul’s background of Hebrew radical monotheism would be converting them to a sort of henotheism, a belief in Jesus as a kind of “guardian spirit.” It would confirm the suspicion of the Athenian philosophers about Paul: “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18). Indeed, today much missionary work carried on by Americans or Western Europeans in the non-Western world, emphasizing individual salvation rather than a transformed way of life, may be only the proclamation of a foreign divinity. As the missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbigin puts it: “A religion of individual salvation had been taught, along with a wholesale rejection and condemnation of traditional culture. The result has been . . . a superficial Christianity with no deep roots and then-later-a reaction to an uncritical and sentimental attachment to everything in the discarded culture.” Only much later when the new Christians have the Bible in their own language will they or their children or grandchildren be able to discern what of the missionary culture and what of the traditional culture is really consonant with a genuine living-out of the gospel in their own circumstances. Theirs will presumably no longer be a “superficial” Christianity.
Thus it would seem that a nonsuperficial Christianity must be based on something more than an individual decision for Christ, must be based on induction into the Christian cultural-linguistic system. Without such induction the individual decision may be not for the biblical Christ but for
a henotheistic guardian spirit. And that is true not only for so-called new Christians, but for many of us in our own allegedly Christian society who do not understand what Paul would have required us as Christians to understand.
In short, understanding the meaning of Christ as Lord and Savior is deeply contextual, dependent on historical memory and cultural-linguistic literacy. Because it is so, understanding Christ requires membership in a confessing, worshiping community-the church. It is for this reason that Stanley Hauerwas has recently reasserted the old claim that “there is no salvation outside the church.” Although it goes against the grain of our culture to say so, the notion of a private Christian is a contradiction in terms.
Yet if we insist, as I believe we must, relentlessly on the historical, linguistic, cultural and social particularity of the Christian faith, how can we proclaim its universality? How can we say with Peter, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)? Or with Paul, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11)? Particularly, how can we say those words when we live side by side with good people of other faiths or, in their own eyes at least, of no faith at all?
Christians have taken several positions on this question. The polar ones are the inclusivist or pluralist position, namely that there is salvation in other names and Christians should simply drop the language of Peter and Paul, and the exclusivist position that the words must be asserted straightforwardly: there is no salvation in any other name. For many, however, these stark alternatives seem equally unattractive, or even arrogant, as though we know what only God can know: who is saved and who is not. The effort to maintain the biblical assertion without consigning most of humanity to perdition has developed a number of arguments, two of which George Sumner calls implicit faith and prospective salvation. He illustrates the idea of implicit faith with Karl Rahner’s notion of the anonymous Christian. The idea of prospective salvation is the notion of an eschatological moment at the end of time when everyone will be given the opportunity of a saving encounter with Christ.
Both notions are of considerable interest, though, both can also easily bog down in baroque complexities. In any case, the whole issue arises from a category mistake. The mistake arises when we take language which is deeply contextual, that is confessional, and in the case of Paul probably also liturgical, and turn it into objective assertions of a quasi scientific form that give us information about the eternal fate of non-Christians. Here I am trying to redeem Ernst Troeltsch’s notion of a truth for us. He wrote, “A truth which, in the first instance, is a truth for us does not cease, because of this, to be very Truth and Life.”By a truth for us I do not mean only a truth for Christians: Peter was speaking to non-Christians. It is a truth for non-Christians if they can hear it, and we have already seen how difficult that may be. As to the fate of non-Christians, as well as of those who lived before Christ, the only Christian thing to say is that that is in the hands of God, or, to put it more colloquially, God can deal with that.
The words of Peter and of Paul are, like so many words in the Bible, dangerous words, easily turned into triumphalism, which Niebuhr would call the henotheistic worship of the Christian community rather than the one God. But if we take them confessionally, in the double Niebuhrian sense of confession-saying what we believe and repenting of our sin and lack of faith in the same breath-then we can find in them, with Troeltsch, very Truth and Life. A too easy, although quite compelling, way of making the point is that “salvation” is a notion whose meaning is understandable only within the Christian cultural-linguistic system, so of course no one else has it; whatever Buddhists or Confucians, say, are after, it is not salvation.
A stronger way of putting it is that the idea that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus has the horizon of universality from the point of view of the context in which it is used. It is not the truth of Buddhists or Confucianists, but there is no truth, even scientific truth, that transcends the community that produces it. Yes, this means that all truth is relative, but it does not mean that all truth is relativistic, that anything goes. All truth is potentially fallible and can in principle be contested, but contested by people living within a community of intelligibility for whom both the truth and challenges to it have meaning. There is no truth that truths itself, although modern rationalism since the time of Descartes assumes there is.
We do not, however, live in only one community, human beings never have. Some of us have managed to live, at least imaginatively, in other religious communities. I suspect, in some cases I know, that those Christians who espouse a pluralist or inclusivist position, who reject the notion of salvation in no other name, have personally experienced the truth and the light that is discerned in Buddhist or Hindu or Confucian or Islamic communities. They also live in the academic world of religious studies and comparative religion, which is also a community of sorts and also claims to know at least something of the truth. One of the virtues of participating in several communities is that one can see problems with the language of one community from the point of view of another. When it comes to claims about the uniqueness of the revelation of God in Christ it is certainly appropriate for Christians to learn what that language has meant to other communities, especially though not exclusively the Jewish community, and to be careful about how they use it and what they mean by it.
But we are getting our wires crossed if we think we can jettison defining beliefs, loyalties and commitments because they are problematic in another context. Reform and reappropriation are always on the agenda, but to believe that there is some neutral ground from which we can rearrange the defining symbols and commitments of a living community is simply a mistake-a common mistake of modern liberalism. Thus I do not see how Christians can fail to confess, with all the qualifications I have stated, but sincerely and wholeheartedly, that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus.
One of the wisest statements about our present situation of religious pluralism comes from Herbert Fingarette in his book The Self in Transformation:
It is the special fate of modern man that he has a “choice” of spiritual visions. The paradox is that although each requires complete commitment for complete validity, we can today generate a context in which we see that no one of them is the sole vision. Thus we must learn to be naïve but undogmatic. That is, we must take the vision as it comes and trust ourselves to it, naïvely, as reality. Yet we must retain an openness to experience such that the dark shadows deep within one vision are the mute, stubborn messengers waiting to lead us to a new light and a new vision . . . We must not ignore the fact that in this last analysis, commitment to a specific orientation outweighs catholicity of imagery. One may be a sensitive and seasoned traveler, at ease in many places, but one must have a home. Still, we can be intimate with those we visit, and while we may be only travelers and guests in some domains, there are our hosts who are truly at home. Home is always home for someone; but there is no Absolute Home in general.
For Christians the church is home. For H. R. Niebuhr the church was finally home, though somewhat grudgingly because he was so acutely aware of its faithlessness and its disloyalty.
I would argue for a stronger doctrine of the church than I find in Niebuhr, perhaps a more catholic one, one that emphasizes the church as the body of Christ-the church as the one sacrament from which all the particular sacraments are derived, as Karl Rahner put it. I am attracted by communion theology as David Yeago has recently expounded it (in “Memory and Communion: Ecumenical Theology and the Search for a Generous Orthodoxy,” in Reclaiming
Faith: Essays on Orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church and the Baltimore Declaration, edited by Ephraim Radner and George R. Sumner). He speaks of the trinitarian structure of the communion of the church:
This Trinitarian complex of remembrance of Christ, appeal to the Spirit, and thanksgiving to the Father is not simply one aspect of the church’s life; rather, it is the very act of the church’s life, the act in which the church’s koinonia is realized. The church is that community whose common life is a lively remembrance of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. And it is in this way that the communion of the church in history becomes a living sign of the eschatological reconciliation of the world with God.
Concretely, of course, this means that the church is the community that celebrates the Eucharist. The Eucharist is by ecumenical consensus the corporate act in which “the community of God’s people is manifested,” and it is of crucial importance that the identity-defining rite of the Christian community is precisely a rite of remembrance, an act in which the many are united in a common turning in the Spirit to one in particular, to the Palestinian Jew Jesus, through whose life and in whose person the salvation of the God of Israel is confessed to have been conclusively bestowed on humankind.
On occasion students come to me and ask what church to go to, adding, “but I’m afraid I don’t believe in God.” I never tell them what church to go to, but I do say not to worry. about believing in God. I tell them that if they become part of the life of the church, then they will begin to see how the word is used and what it means. Believing in God, I say, is not something one decides in the privacy of one’s room, but something one comes to in a living community, which for Christians is the church. Maybe, to be realistic, it depends on the church.
In Radical Monotheism Niebuhr spoke of God as Being itself or the principle of Being. These terms make sense only within the tradition and community of Western philosophy-“Being” in Niebuhr’s or Tillich’s or Plato’s sense is missing in East Asian thought; even the word is lacking in Chinese and Japanese. Niebuhr’s philosophical language about God was more a commentary on the Bible’s (and thus the church’s) language than a foundation or a substitute for it.
Niebuhr was nervous about any mediation of God, even through Christ, certainly through the Bible or the church. Yet what would an unmediated access be? We have no unmediated access to truth. The cultural-linguistic communities in which we live are only the most obvious of the many mediations that connect us to our world. So truth cannot derive from some unmediated encounter; it depends on the quality of the mediations. It is perhaps to get at this mediating aspect of truth that Vaclav Hável speaks of “living in truth” as something different from knowing the truth. And it is to this dimension too that Paul at the Areopagus is referring when he speaks of the God not just that we know but in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
The value of communion theology for me is that it emphasizes the church not only as a community that links us to our fellows, but as a community that links us to the trinitarian God in common membership. In the Eucharist we become members of his Body; the Spirit enters not only the bread and the wine but the members of the congregation; and the glory of God the Father becomes present in the act of worship. In the creed we say that we believe not only in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit but in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” not a fourth member of the godhead but the place where the triune God becomes actual in our lives. The life of the church gives a particularly vivid example of the fact that a cultural-linguistic community is a living membrane that unites us to reality.
Niebuhr knew well that clause of the creed. His commentary on it in the last, unfinished chapter of Faith on Earth is one of the most remarkable things he ever wrote:
The line between church and world runs through every soul, not between souls. Neither is the distinction between visible and invisible church as idealism makes it, that is between the actual and the ideal church, a tenable one. For the church in which we believe, on which we count as the supporting, interpreting community of faith, is actual, interpersonal reality, not a form, but an action, trust and loyalty experienced over and over again . . .
[But the church] is forever involved in the great inversion whereby man turns back upon himself and his works, back upon his faith, away from the God of faith. When it seeks to correct this tendency in one direction, as when it reacts against idolatrism of subjective reliance on religious feeling, it swings into the opposite direction and substitutes right doctrine about God for God himself. History and contemporary visible church life make it quite clear to us that when we say “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” we cannot mean this church. And yet, without it the community of faith does not exist, anymore than the personal self which lives by faith exists without mind and without body.
In this extraordinarily powerful but extraordinarily ambivalent statement Niebuhr is, as is often the case with him, holding together two almost incompatible things neither of which we can abandon without peril.
I would emphasize, if anything even more strongly than Niebuhr, the empirical church, the communion of the saints that has come down in unbroken continuity from apostolic times, so that we see the resurrection through the eyes of the disciples, because they and all the intervening generations are still present to us. The preface for the eucharistic prayer for the Epiphany season in the Book of Common Prayer says that in the mystery of the Word made flesh God has caused a new light to shine in our hearts “to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of your Son Jesus Christ.” But if we find the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we find the light of Christ in the faces of the saints down through history to the present. Who can become a Christian without seeing that reflected light? And if the light is not shining in our churches, is that not one of the reasons why people turn away from them? If we lose the doctrine of the communion of the saints, then we have nothing but separate individuals, and the witnesses to the acts of Christ are simply people long ago and far away with beliefs and purposes not our own, so what are they to us or we to them?
And yet, central as the community of the church is for us, it is not our only community. Robin Lovin, commenting on a sentence of Niebuhr’s that I have quoted above, “The line between church and world runs through every soul, not between souls,” says:
The relativity of Niebuhr’s theocentric relativism derives not from the variety of religious and cultural contexts in which different people live, but from the awareness that each person lives in several of these contexts at once. We are not fully integrated centers of reflection astonished by the discovery that there are others who see the world differently from ourselves. We understand the pluralism of our social context in part because it reflects the variety of ways in which we understand our own experiences.The problem of being the church is acute for us not only because we must live side by side with those of other religious communities, but because the church is only one of the communities in which we live. Pluralism is within us as well as without us. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith has said,
in the university we live in a community with a religious devotion to truth which ultimately descends more from Plato than from the Bible.
If the church is still our defining community, as I think for Christians it must be, then it is so in part because it breaks the metaphor of home. The church is a sign of the kingdom of God, and in that sense participates in it, but it points beyond itself to the eschatological kingdom in all its fullness. Its telos is not in itself but beyond itself, in the “city out of sight.” It is our home and yet not our home; it directs us toward what Niebuhr called the universal community. Though there are plural religions and plural communities, and no absolute or unmediated truth, and only God is at home absolutely, still the truth for us in the church, so far as in humility and repentance we can grasp it, does not cease to be very Truth and Life.