World Religions in Terms of Christian Faith
(and not the other way around)

Telford Work, Westmont College
Scholars' Day, February 28, 2004

Sources: Lesslie Newbigin, "The Gospel among the Religions" in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1995); Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology (Yale, 1992); Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995); Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis, 2002); James V. Brownson et al., StormFront: The Good News of God (Eerdmans, 2003); John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed., No Other Gods Before Me? Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions (Baker, 2001); Alan Race, Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology (SCM, 1993); James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness: Systematic Theology vol. 3 (Abingdon, 2000).

Common Ways of Thinking about 'Christianity and World Religions'
Alan Race proposes a popular typology of ways of comparing religious traditions:
Exclusivism: One religion has a monopoly on truth and salvation.
Inclusivism: There is only one truth and salvation, but access to it is not confined to one religion.
Pluralism: Several (all?) religions have independent, valid claims to a common truth and salvation.
This framework assumes that religions are basically alike, and implies certain (overlapping) responses:
Imperialism: All should accept the Christian faith as it is (or was).
Absolutism: All should appraise the Christian 'worldview' in terms of universal objective truth.
Relativism: All should respect Christianity as one of many valid religions/worldviews/value systems.
What would this response look like?
Paul Knitter expands upon these to develop a series of models of 'Christianity and other religions':
Total replacement, partial replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, acceptance.
In our culture this seems like a logical spectrum of possibilities. But is it appropriate?
Exposing the Paradigm
The phrase suggests that 'world religions' are counterparts of 'Christianity.'
What is a religion? An idea? a worldview? a veiled group identity? a tradition?
Do American patriotism, Marxism, soccer, individualism, and consumerism count as world religions?
Our word 'religion' belongs to the modern project.
Modernity strives to discover the universal metanarrative encompassing particular narratives.
Its methods include Religionswissenschaft ('religious studies') and Religionsgeschichte ('history of religions').
In different ways, 'postmodernity' reconceives or abandons that project. But what happens then?
The Worldviews Behind the Scenes
Hans Frei outlines five general ways recent thinkers have related theology to philosophy:
"Theology within Philosophy": Theology can be translated entirely into philosophical categories
(Immanuel Kant, Gordon Kaufman).
"Theology under Philosophy": Theology can be judged by general structures of meaning
(Rudolf Bultmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, David Tracy, Karl Rahner, Carl Henry).
"Theology as Philosophy": Theology expresses universal structures of meaning practically
(Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich).
"Theology over Philosophy": Theology is a sovereign discipline that may match up with other structures
(Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth).
"Theology Enclosing Philosophy": Theology describes Christian life and narrates outside philosophies
(D.Z. Phillips).
As we move down this list:
Emphasis shifts from generality to specificity (see Bruce Marshall in Frei 88-89).
The Christian faith shifts from being a label for something else to being understood on its own terms.
Analysis shifts from redefinition to description.
The method of analysis shifts from philosophy to anthropology.
Relationship to the wider culture shifts from absorption to distinction.
Biblical interpretation shifts from allegorical to literal.
The shift is not from liberal to conservative, but modern to postmodern.
'Christianity and world religions' is nearer the top of the list;
'world religions in terms of Christian faith' is nearer the bottom.
A Truer Way of Speaking: 'World Religions in Terms of Christian Faith'
Christian worship, doctrine, and life see everything in the context of the ascended, reigning Christ.
Christ came not to save individuals, but to save the world out of love for the Father.
The issue of 'religions' is about the significance and end of particular gods and lords (cf. 1 Cor. 8).
'Religion' is thus "that which has final authority for a believer or a society" (Lesslie Newbigin).
So what do communities of different authorities mean according to Christ's reign (Newbigin 174ff)?
1. Good: all things are already related to Jesus as their alpha and omega and his glory.
2. Evil: humanity sinfully uses God's gifts as means of independence ('self-righteousness').
3. Atonement: God exposes and meets sin in the story of the cross as God's judgment of self-righteousness and offer of Christ's righteousness.
4. Salvation: brings all Christ's treasures into obedience to him (John 16:12-15).
5. The Church: is (no more than) the sign of that promise's fulfillment.
6. Mission: brings the Church into 'kenotic [self-emptying] dialogues' with others.
(Newbigin's list fits my own story of encountering the risen and reigning Christ. Cool!)
A Truer Way of Living: Missional Christianity
God's mission through Israel, Jesus, and Church is to gather together all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
The good news is seed that yields a harvest in the cultural soils of all nations (McClendon).
Every culture encounters the good news as a fundamental challenge.
Every culture finds in the good news its true hope (every language has adequate words for 'God').
How does this perspective affect issues such as exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism, etc.?