1: The Challenge of Pluralism
Among the many ways of formulating the Christian claim is to assert that the Christian religion is the true religion. In fact, throughout most of their history, Christians have typically asserted or implied that the Christian religion is the only true religion. But if this assertion may be fairly taken as typical of Christian witness, it has also long been more or less problematic in Christian theology—and for theologians charged with the responsibility of critically reflecting on this witness.
One thinks, for instance, of what the aged Augustine, determined to clarify his earlier writings and to retract any errors in them, had to say about his treatise, "Of True Religion”:
Again, in the same chapter, I said “That is the Christian religion in our times, which to know and follow is most sure and certain salvation.” I was speaking ofthe name here, and not of the thing so named. For what is now called the Christian religion existed of
old and was never absent from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh. Then true religion which already existed began to be called Christian. After the resurrection and ascension of Christ into heaven, the apostles began to preach him and many believed, and the disciples were first called Christian in Antioch, as it is written. When I said, “This is the Christian religion in our times,” I did not mean that it had not existed in former times, but that it received that name later. (Augustine, 218f.)
Just what Augustine’s clarification or retraction comes to may not be entirely certain. But it makes clear enough that he was no longer willing to endorse any simple identification of the true religion with the Christian religion such as many Christians both before and since have asserted or implied in advancing the Christian claim. One generalization that can be safely made about Christian theologians today is that more and more of them are evidencing the same unwillingness. Far from endorsing the claim that the Christian religion is the only true religion, they are increasingly asking whether this can possibly be a valid Christian claim. The principal reason for this is that an ever larger number not only of theologians but of Christians generally are now making or implying another very different, indeed contrary, claim. According to them, the Christian religion is but one of many religions, or logically comparable ways of understanding human existence, some if not all of which are as true as Christianity. Thus, from the standpoint of Christians and
theologians who make or imply this contrary claim, the Christian religion may indeed be the true religion, but only in the sense in which the same may be said of other religions or comparable ways of existing as human beings. Because of this insistence that there are many true religions rather than one, the name by which this claim has now come to be generally known is “pluralism." And it is because of pluralism in this sense that Christian theologians today have increasingly had to ask whether the monism typical of most Christian tradition can any longer be accepted as valid.
Of course, in some senses religious pluralism is nothing new. If the word “pluralism” is understood, as it often is, simply as a synonym for the word “plurality,” religious pluralism has always existed, since there has always been a plurality of religions in the world in which Christians have had to bear their witness and reflect theologically on the validity of their claims in doing so. Until quite recently, however, the many religions, like the many cultures with which they are of a piece, lived for the most part in mutual isolation. Only with the revolutions of the recent past, especially the technological revolution in transportation and communication, has this isolation finally been broken through, to the point where the many religions and cultures are now compelled to live with one another as next-door neighbors in a single global village. It is this enforced proximity of each religion and culture to every other that is the really new thing about religious and cultural plurality in our situation today.
On the other hand, the word “pluralism” is also properly understood to mean not simply the state or condition of plurality, but the belief or doctrine that affirms and advocates plurality as a good thing (cf. Ogden 1983), And in this sense, too, religious pluralism is not entirely new. At least since the Renaissance, theologians have spoken, in Nicholas of Cusa’s words, of “one faith in the diversity ofreligions”; and already at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, there was a clean break with the claim that Christianity is the only true religion. But what does seem to be new to our century, especially the second half of it, is the growing number of Christians and theologians who are proposing a pluralistic theology of religions. Out of their experiences of religious plurality, and thus a keener and more informed sense both of the strengths of other religious traditions and of the weaknesses of their own, they have come to affirm and advocate such plurality as a good thing—not in spite of their Christian commitment, but because of it. More and more of them are religious pluralists precisely as Christians and theologians; and this is why the challenge they pose to Christian witness and theology is new, and importantly new at that.
My concern as a theologian and in this book is to address the question that this challenge has now made theologically central: Is there only one true religion, or are there many? Clearly, if the proponents of religious pluralism are correct, the older options between which Christians and theologians have typically chosen in answering this question cannot be theologically valid insofar as they alike
imply religious monism in asserting that there is only one true religion. But the issue for theology is whether religious pluralists are right about this and whether their new option can itself be theologically validated, or whether, on the contrary, their assertion that there are many true religions is, in its way, problematic enough that it, too, is vulnerable to the challenge of some more adequate option.
This is the issue that I hope to clarify, if hardly settle, in subsequent chapters. Meanwhile, we need to look more closely at the challenge of pluralism to the older options for answering our central question. In order to do this, I want, first of all, to con¬ sider in some detail the question itself: the terms in which it is formulated and certain oftheir presuppositions and implications, as I understand them. The basic term here, of course, is “religion,” and the difficulties involved in satisfactorily defining it are notorious. Even so, we cannot expect a clear answer to the question ofwhether there is only one true religion or rather many without clarifying how we are using "religion” in asking it. Without claiming, then, to give a wholly satisfactory definition of the term, I offer the following clarification of its meaning in the present inquiry. By "religion” I understand the primary form of culture in terms of which we human beings explicitly ask and answer the existential question of the meaning of ultimate reality for us. Presupposed by this summary clarification is, first of all and most fundamentally, that among the questions that we human beings find ourselves typically asking and answering is what I call "the existential question.”
To be human is not only to exist together with others, both human and nonhuman, but also to understand oneself and others and reality generally and, within limits, to be responsible for them. At the root of this responsibility is the distinctive freedom that is ours in consequence of our capacity for understanding both ourselves and others and the encompassing whole of reality of which we are all parts. Unlike other animals whose overall course of life is largely determined by species-specific instincts, we are “instinct poor.” Not only the details of our lives but even their overall pattern as authentically human remain undecided by our membership in the human species and are left to our own freedom and responsibility to decide. To be sure, the freedom of any one of us as an individual is in a way preempted by the decisions already made by those who have gone before us in the particular society and culture into which we are born or in which it is given to us to become human. But while none of us can be socialized and acculturated without internalizing some already decided understanding ofhuman existence, the very process of internalization serves to develop our capacity for understanding and, therefore, for questioning the validity of our cultural inheritance. In other words, we acquire the ability to ask the existential question of how we are to understand ourselves and others in relation to the whole if ours is to be an authentic human existence.
Underlying this question as its “basic supposition” is the faith that there is such an authentic selfunderstanding—that the ultimate reality of one's own existence together with others in the whole is
such that some way of understanding oneself is uniquely appropriate, or authorized, and that one both can and should understand oneself accordingly (cf. Christian, 84-88). I speak of this faith as “basic faith (or confidence) in the meaning of life,” and on my analysis it is a necessary condition of the possibility of all our self-understanding and praxis (cf. Ogden 1977, 21-43, 120-43; 1986, 69-72, 106-11; 1987, 87-91). Literally everything that we think, say, or do, insofar, at least, as it makes or implies a claim to validity, necessarily presupposes that ultimate reality is such as to authorize some understanding of ourselves as authentic and that, conversely, some understanding of our existence is authentic because it is authorized by ultimate reality. But if this presupposition enables us to ask the existential question, it in no way suffices to answer it, any more than the basic supposition of science that the world has some kind of ordersuffices to tell us how the world as we experience it is in fact ordered. How we are to understand ourselves if we are to do so authentically remains an open question even with the confidence that there is and must be an answer to it.
If my analysis is correct, we must be asking and answering this question at least implicitly in all our self-understanding and praxis and thus in anything that we think or say or do. Assuming, then, that by “culture” is properly meant the concepts and symbols in terms of which we understand our existence and act to maintain and transform ourselves together with others, we may say that all forms of culture, including religion, must at least implicitly
ask and answer the existential question. The distinctive thing about religion, however, is that it is the primary form of culture in which this question is also asked and answered explicitly, in concepts and symbols whose express function is to mediate authentic self-understanding.
I stress that religion is the primary form of culture in which this is done, because it is clearly not the only form in which we explicitly ask and answer the question of our existence. Aside from the secondary form of culture that I should distinguish as theology, in the generic sense of critical reflection on the validity claims of some specific religion, the existential question is also explicitly asked and answered by philosophy. But philosophy, too, is clearly a secondary form of culture, in that it presupposes all of the primary forms, including religion, as the data of its reflection. Thus, while its ultimate objective may indeed be authentic self-understanding, it is like theology in asking and answering the existential question only indirectly, by critically reflecting on the claims to validity expressed or implied by all the forms of culture, secular as well as religious. Of course, there is no complete separation between primary and secondary forms of culture in the sense in which I am using the terms. The results of theological or philosophical reflection not uncommonly find their way back to the level ofprimary culture and there serve a properly religious as distinct from a properly theological or philosophical function. Even so, the distinction remains between making or implying claims to validity and critically validating them; and this is sufficient to distinguish
religion as a primary form of culture from such secondary forms as are more or less closely related to it.
My contention, however, is that this is all that is required to distinguish religion not only from theology but also from philosophy. Unlike substantive definitions of religion in terms of some particular way of conceptualizing and symbolizing ultimate reality, the understanding offered here is strictly functional and, therefore, much broader and more inclusive. Thus, whether or not a particular “cultural system” allows for thinking and speaking of human existence in terms of “God” or “Emptiness,” “the One” or “the True Self,” it is properly understood as a religion, provided only that it is the primary form of culture through which persons living in some social group are given to explicitly ask and answer the existential question (cf. Geertz, 87-125). This means that even so-called secular understandings of existence that satisfy this same condition may be forthrightly designated “religions,” rather than categorized as “ideologies” or merely as “religion surrogates” or “quasi-religions” (cf. Tillich 1963, 1-25). It further implies, for reasons that will presently become clear, that the number of at least potential candidates for the title “true religion” is considerably larger than might well be supposed, assuming some narrower, substantive understanding of “religion.” On the other hand, the functional understanding of religion that I am trying to clarify is not nearly so broad as are understandings of it as simply a basic human attitude—such as, for instance, Paul Tillich's well-known definition, according to
which “religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern” (4). Although my concept of “self-understanding," or “understanding of existence,” is indeed functionally equivalent to Tillich’s concept of “ultimate concern,” I have not defined religion simply as “self-understanding.” On the contrary, I am concerned to clarify it as the primary form of culture, or, in Clifford Geertz’s sense, the “cultural system,” in terms of which human beings are given to understand themselves in an explicit way. Thus, in my view, the term “religion” by its very meaning always has an objective as well as a subjective reference—analogously to the way in which, on a traditional theological analysis, the term “faith” refers to the “faith which is believed” (fides quae creditur) as well as to the “faith through which (it) is believed” (fides qua creditur) (see, for example, Schmid, 265). Accordingly, religion is not only the explicit understanding through which our existence is understood; it is also the explicit understanding which is understood as and when we so understand ourselves. Being in both respects explicit understanding, however, religion essentially involves not only an understanding of our existence, but also, and just as essentially, the particular concepts and symbols through which the question of our existence can alone be asked and answered in an explicit way.
Yet another implication of this understanding of religion is that it never exists in general or simply as such, but always and only as some specific religion or religions. Like all other forms of culture, secondary and primary alike, religion is thoroughly
historical and, therefore, is “natural” only in the sense that, while it is evidently the nature of human beings to be religious in one way or another, none of these ways may fairly claim to be the natural way of being religious. On the contrary, all religions show themselves to be historical emergents enjoying de facto authority only within some limited social and cultural group. This is particularly obvious in the case of the so-called axial religions, each of which traces its origin to a historical founder, or to some special moment of insight or revelation occurring at a particular time and place. But even in the case of "primitive,” or preaxial, religions, there is as little reason to think them natural as to suppose this of the languages or of any other components of the cultures of which they are integral parts.
Nevertheless, it is a defining characteristic of religion generically, and hence of every specific religion, preaxial as well as axial, to lay claim to decisive authority. Precisely as the primary form of a culture in which the question of our existence is explicitly asked and answered, a religion claims to be the authorized representation of the answer to this question. Here, again, the axial religions exhibit this characteristic of a religion with particular clarity, since they make this claim explicitly over against the preaxial ways ofbeing religious ofwhich they are the more or less radical criticism. But even in these preaxial ways themselves, there is at least an implicit claim to de jure existential authority. Because the self-understanding they represent is uniquely appropriate to, or authorized by, the very structure of ultimate reality, their own representations of it
explicitly in concepts and symbols have decisive authority for the understanding of human existence.
To recognize this is to be in position to understand the other more specific term in our question— namely, “true religion.” If it belongs to any religion to express or imply a claim to decisive existential authority, the reason for this is that every religion at least implicitly claims to be the true religion. To see just what this further claim implies, however, requires introducing a distinction between two senses in which a religion may be said to be true. An analogue of this distinction is provided by the concept of the "true church" in traditional Protestant ecclesiology (see, for example, Schmid, 370, 376f.). According to this concept, a church is correctly said to be “true” or “false” depending upon whether or not the pure doctrine of the gospel is proclaimed in it and the means ofsalvation otherwise are rightly administered. Whether or not this is in fact the case is always to be determined by comparing the church’s doctrine and sacramental practice with those ofthe apostolic church as attested by the formally normative witness of scripture. Thus a church may be said to be substantially true provided that its doctrine and practice agree with those of the apostles, whose church alone may be said to be formally true. I should say by analogy that a religion, also, may be said to be true in either of these two senses. It may be said to be formally true provided that its representation of the meaning of human existence is that with which all others must agree in order themselves to be true religions. On the other hand, it may be said to be substantially
true provided that it exhibits just such agreement with whatever religion is correctly said to be the formally true religion.
Making use of this distinction, we may say that the claim to be true that is characteristic of a specific religion is the claim to be formally, and not merely substantially, true. In other words, it belongs to a religion to claim to be the true religion, and hence the formal norm by which all other true religion, if any, has to be determined. It is typical of religious traditions, of course, that they are more or less explicitly self-defining in that they specify certain oftheir elements as normative for some or all of the rest. Thus, in the Christian tradition, for example, the elements comprising the Old and New Testaments have been specified as the formal norm or canon for determining whether other elements putatively belonging to the tradition do, in fact, substantially belong to it. But thus to determine whether or not elements claiming to belong to the Christian tradition have a valid claim is not the only or the most important function that the canon of scripture is ordinarily taken to perform. On the contrary, given the claim of the Christian religion itself to be formally true, Christians typically employ their canon also to determine any and all religious truth. They do so, however, not because they are Christians, but because they are religious, and because it is the very nature of a religion to make or imply the claim to formal religious truth. What exactly does this claim imply? What truth is it of which a religion as such claims to be the formal norm? From what has already been said, it
should be clear that the truth in question is existen¬ tial truth, or truth about the meaning of ultimate reality for us. But just what it means to say this still needs to be unpacked.
We saw earlier that human beings find themselves typically asking the existential question, because how they are to exist as authentically human is not already decided simply by their membership in the human species. Although they exist and must exist in the basic faith that there is an answer to their question, it is left to their own freedom and responsibility to determine the answer. This is true, indeed, even though, having been somehow socialized and acculturated, they have normally already internalized the answer to the question that is expressed and implied in some specific religion and culture. Because the process of internalization serves to develop their capacity for understanding, and thus for asking the question as well as answering it, they remain free and responsible in any answer they give to it; and under particular social and cultural conditions, or at a certain stage in their individual development, they may well feel themselves pressed by the question, notwithstanding claims made for the answer to it in their religious and cultural tradition. Nor is this the only reason why the existential question may become pressing. On the contrary, all ofthe so-called boundary situations of human existence, social as well as individual, not only challenge any naive understanding of the meaning of life but may also call into question even well-established religious answers. The keen sense of having to die.
or, often more poignantly, the experience of the death of another, may reopen the question with such elemental force that no answer to it any longer seems credible. And the same thing may happen with experiences ofsuffering and guilt, or of loneliness and misfortune, or when one is condemned to exist in poverty in the midst of plenty under conditions of structural injustice and systemic violence. In all ofthese situations, and others like them, one's underlying faith that life has a meaning and that one can and should understand oneself accordingly becomes profoundly problematic—somewhat in the way in which one's basic faith that the world has an order is rendered problematic by unfulfilled expectations or falsified predictions. Consequently, the need arises to make sense at once of one's basic faith in the meaning of life and ofthe actual facts of one’s experience, by which attempts at understanding one’s faith are again and again confounded.
This need for a deeper and more adequate understanding of one's faith is clearly the more or less urgent need to which all religions are so many attempts to respond. They exist not only to provide the terms in which the question of existence can be explicitly asked and answered, but also somehow to solve the basic problem of making sense of one's faith and of the facts of life as we live it, which drive one beyond all superficial answers to the question. Therefore, the truth of which each religion claims to be the formal norm is the truth that solves this basic problem and so answers to the urgent need. There are important differences, of course, in the ways in which specific religions represent this
truth. They typically focus the problem on different situations and facts of life, and they vary considerably in both the scope and the depth of their proposed solutions. One such difference is sufficiently great, in fact, to require the distinction already introduced between the axial and the preaxial religions. Characteristic of the axial religions is their focusing of the existential problem, not on any of the boundary situations of individual and social existence, but on a fundamental flaw in each individual person. At the root ofthe human predicament is an inauthentic understanding of our own existence, a thoroughgoing self-misunderstanding, that pervades the whole of our ordinary life in society and culture. Indeed, even religion as it ordinarily exists serves more to further this misunderstanding than to overcome it. Accordingly, the only solution to our problem is a correspondingly radical transformation of our own individual existence; and the truth of which the axial religions each claim to be the formal norm is the truth that authorizes the transition to such a transformed self-understanding. But great as the difference certainly is between the axial and the preaxial religions, there is no mistaking their fundamental similarity. Both are responses to the same basic problem, and the truth they represent, insofar as they do so, is the same existential truth.
How far they represent such truth has to be determined, naturally, by procedures appropriate to determining this kind of truth. We noted at the outset that the existential question to which any religion claims to represent the answer is the
question of the meaning of ultimate reality for us. This means, first of all, that the reality about which it asks is the ultimate reality of our own existence in relation to others and the whole. I speak of this reality as “ultimate” on the assumption that by the term “reality" used without qualification, we mean, in William James's words, “what we in some way find ourselves obliged to take account of” (James, 101). Clearly, whatever else we may or may not find ourselves obliged to take account of, we can never fail to take account somehow of ourselves, others, and the whole to which we all belong. In this sense, the threefold reality of our existence simply as such is the ultimate reality that we all have to allow for in leading our own individual lives. But if this reality is what the existential question asks about, the second thing to note is how it does this—namely, by asking about this reality, not in its structure in itself, but in its meaning for us. This implies that in asking about ultimate reality, the existential question asks, at one and the same time, about our authentic self-understanding, about the understanding of ourselves in relation to others and the whole that is appropriate to, or authorized by, this ultimate reality itself.
Thus, by its very nature, the existential question is a single question having two closely related and yet clearly distinguishable aspects. In one of these aspects, it asks about the ultimate reality of our own existence in relation to others and the whole. This I distinguish as its metaphysical aspect, because, while it is distinct from metaphysics proper in asking about this ultimate reality in its
meaning for us rather than in its structure in itself, it is nonetheless closely related to metaphysics in that any answer to it necessarily has metaphysical implications. Unless ultimate reality in itself has one structure rather than another, it cannot have the meaning for us that a specific religion represents it as having. In its other aspect, which I distinguish as ethical, the existential question asks about our authentic self-understanding. Thus, while it is distinct from ethics proper in asking how we are to understand ourselves rather than how we are to act and what we are to do, it is nonetheless closely related to ethics in that any answer to it necessarily has ethical implications. Unless acting in one way rather than another is how we ought to act in relation to others, ultimate reality cannot authorize the understanding of our existence that a specific religion represents it as authorizing.
This means, of course, that, by the very nature of the existential question, there are also two main aspects to the procedures appropriate to determining the truth of specific religious answers to it. Broadly speaking, we may say that a specific answer is true insofar as it so responds to the question as to solve the problem that all religions exist to solve— the problem, namely, of making sense somehow of our basic faith in the meaning of life, given the facts of life as we actually experience it. But whether, or to what extent, a specific religious answer is capable of doing this can be determined only by verifying its necessary implications, ethical as well as metaphysical. If it is true, its implications also must be true; and unless they can be verified by procedures ap-
propriate to ethical and metaphysical claims respectively, it cannot be verified, either.
To recognize this is to understand the difficulties of validating claims to religious truth. As compared with science and technology, where there is extensive agreement concerning appropriate procedures of verification, ethics and metaphysics are both profoundly controversial fields ofinquiry, even at the level of the principles and procedures by which true claims are to be distinguished from false. In fact, there is not even agreement about the proper analysis of metaphysical and ethical utterances, which some philosophers construe as having a noncognitive kind of meaning that obviates even asking about their truth or falsity. Small wonder, then, that one of the standing temptations of religious believers is to try to find some way of avoiding the difficulties of validating their claims, whether by simply deducing their truth from some alleged divine revelation or by construing them as matters of faith, whose truth supposedly cannot and need not be validated. But only a little reflection confirms the futility of all such moves, especially in a situation such as ours today, in which the plurality of religious claims is an ever-present fact of life. Unless one is prepared to allow that one's claim to religious truth is something very different from the kind of cognitive claim that it gives every appearance of being, one is left either with reneging on the promise implied in making the claim or with redeeming its validity in a non-question-begging way by the only procedures appropriate to doing so. Consequently, there is no avoiding the difficulties of
validating religious claims if one is to be responsible in making them as claims to truth. By the very logic of such claims, the only way to validate them is to verify their necessary implications both metaphysical and ethical by the same procedures that would be appropriate for any other claims of the same logical types.
This is not to say that any specific religious answer can be deduced simply from a true meta¬ physics and a true ethics, taken either singly or together. Any religion, as we have seen, is more than self-understanding insofar as it is also the primary “cultural system" through which a certain understanding of existence is explicitly represented as authentic. Therefore, while the truth of its selfunderstanding, insofar as it is true, must indeed be implied by a true metaphysics and a true ethics, it itself as a particular way of conceiving and symbolizing its self-understanding is irreducibly historical. As such, it is simply given—a datum for metaphysics and ethics rather than a deduction from them. And this means that validating its claim to truth also always involves certain properly historical and hermeneutical procedures. I should perhaps also make clear that I in no way suppose that one must first have a true metaphysics and a true ethics before one can determine whether or not a specific religion is true. To argue, as I have, that determining the truth of a religion logically requires verifying its necessary implications for both belief and action does not imply that one must already be in possession of metaphysical and ethical truth when one undertakes to verify
them. On the contrary, it is entirely possible that in following the procedures requisite to their verification, one will not only determine the truth of the religion implying them, but will also determine the falsity of a metaphysics or an ethics that one previously took to be true.
To sum up, then, the term "true religion" refers to one or more specific religions whose claim to be formally true, and hence the norm for determining all other true religion, is a valid claim, as determined by the procedures of verification that have just been indicated. I stress the words "one or more” here because in other things that I have written on this subject I have sometimes failed to express myself with sufficient care. Thus, in one such passage, I inferred from the statement that "religion never exists in general, . . . but always only as a religion” that "even the true religion, if there be such a thing, could not be identified with religion in general or simply as such. It could only be one particular religion among others distinguished from all the rest solely by the unique adequacy with which its particular concepts and symbols answered to the need that each religion exists to meet” (Ogden 1986, 110). No doubt, the main point of this inference was to underscore my claim that religion is like any other form of culture in never existing in general but always only in particular. But the way in which I made this point unfortunately suggests that, by the very meaning of the term, there could be only one true religion. And if this were so we could not ask our central question except by begging it. This, however, I in no way want to suggest; and so I emphasize
that the term “true religion,” as I have tried to clarify its meaning, fully allows for the possibility that there is more than one specific religion whose claim to be formally true is a valid claim.
Of course, there is another important question that is, in fact, begged by asking. Is there only one true religion, or are there many? The supposition of this question is that either some religion is or some religions are formally true; and the point of asking it is to decide which of these two possibilities is really the case. But to suppose that either is the case is to take neither of two other positions, both of which are also possibilities from a purely logical point of view (cf. Kiing, 278-85).
Thus it is not to take the position, first of all, that no religion is the true religion. Indeed, as the logical contradictory of this position, the supposi¬ tion that we make simply in asking our question al¬ ready rules it out as necessarily false. This may not seem unreasonable, considering that ours, after all, is a theological inquiry occasioned by the challenge of pluralism to the monistic claim that there is only one true religion. But thus to suppose that not all religions are false because one or more religions are true is clearly to beg a question to which others have given a contradictory answer only after offering relevant evidence and argument to support it. Often enough, to be sure, the convincingness of their case has depended upon some substantive definition of “religion” much narrower and more exclusive than the strictly functional understanding that I have argued for here. Given this broader, more inclusive understanding, it is certainly not obvious that no
religion is formally true. Even so, whether or not any religion at all is true is and remains an important question; and this is so even if it is not the question that we are pursuing in these chapters.
The second position that is not taken in asking our question is the logical contrary of the first— namely, that all religions are formally true. Although this position is in no way ruled out by supposing that one or more religions are true, neither is it immediately implied thereby in the way in which it, in turn, implies the supposition. This may well explain why, with certain notable exceptions, religious pluralists have not usually claimed that ail religions are true or have equal adequacy (see, however. Hick and Knitter, 137-48; cf. Ogden 1988, 498-503). In any event, I shall assume here that what pluralists wish to hold is not that all religions are true but only thatsome ofthem are. Thus, while monists hold that there is only one true religion, the pluralists' position that there are many true religions requires, as a bare minimum, only that there be more than one specific religion that is formally true.
But is this, in fact, the pluralists' position? Or do they wish to hold, not that there are many true religions, but only that there can be?
I raise this question because it is not always clear from the statements of pluralists themselves just what their challenge amounts to. Of course, my concern here is with pluralism as a certain type of theological position, rather than with the views of individual theologians who are regarded, or regard themselves, as pluralists. But there would be little point in taking up a challenge unless it represented
the best thinking of at least some theologians who are concerned to deal with the real theological problems now facing us. For this reason, I was more than a little interested in a recent attempt by Paul F. Knitter to avoid what he speaks of as “common misunderstandings” of the “pluralist option.” Prominent among the things that this option does not mean, he holds, is that “this is necessarily the case— that Christianity is one among many; rather, a pluralist theology urges that this may well be the case and that Christians must explore it.” In Knitter's view, then, a “pluralist approach to other faiths” is “one that recognizes the possible independent validity and ‘rough parity' of other religious paths”; and Christians who take this approach “feel obliged to face the possibility that Christianity may be ‘one among many"' (Knitter 1988, 2).
Clearly, if these statements are accepted at face value, the challenge of pluralism is rather different from what I have up to now taken it to be. It is not made from the position that there actually are many true religions, but rather proceeds from holding only that this is a possibility, and that Christianity, therefore, may be but one true religion among many others. One difficulty with so interpreting Knitter's statements, however, is that this is hardly the view that he himself goes on to express in what immediately follows them, to say nothing of his arguments in other writings. Thus, for example, he holds that “Christ remains a universally normative, a tremendously important, manifestation of what the human condition can be, but he is not the only”—“is not the only,” it will be noted, not, as one might have
expected Knitter to say, “may not be the only” (30). Considering this and other passages to the same effect, I incline to think that Knitter’s statements should be interpreted somewhat differently—not as qualifying the position for which he and other plu- ralists are prepared to argue, but, rather, as qualifying the way in which they hold their position and the obligations that they take to devolve upon both themselves and others in consequence of their holding it. He is allowing, in other words, that pluralists have to make a case for holding that there are many true religions; he is not denying that this is the position that pluralists wish to hold.
But whether or not this is a sound interpretation of Knitter, other theologians undoubtedly argue not only that there can be many true religions but that there actually are. Thus John Hick, for one, has long defended just such a view. As he uses the term, “religious pluralism” refers to the kind oftheological position from which “the Christian tradition is . . . seen as one of a plurality of contexts of salvation—contexts, that is to say, within which the transformation of human existence from self- centeredness to God- or Reality-centeredness is occurring.” Thus for the pluralist, in Hick’s view, “Christianity is not the one and only way of salvation, but one among several”—“one of the great world faiths, one of the streams of religious life through which human beings can be savingly related to that ultimate Reality Christians know as the heavenly Father” (Hick and Knitter, 23, 33, 22; cf. Hick 1989, 297-380). Several other theologians argue for essentially the same view; and I find it
significant that interpreters who have developed typologies of the positions represented in the Christian theology of religions have agreed in taking this to be the pluralistic position (cf., e.g., D’Costa; Race).
In any event, this is the position that I understand pluralists to want to hold. Their contention is not only that there can be many true religions, but that there actually are and that, therefore, the monistic position that there is only one is invalid. The issue raised by the challenge of pluralism, then, is whether or not this contention is correct. And the task of the chapters to follow is to clarify this issue.