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Gerd Neuhaus

Christian And Pluralistic At Once?

On Perry Schmidt-Leukel's "God Without Borders"

 

From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2006/5, p. 348-353
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

From the beginning the pluralistic religion theology had to argue with two reproaches that refer, strictly speaking, only to two different sides of its basic concern: with the relativism- and the absolutism reproach. The first imputes to it that it had dismissed the question of truth, so that it proceeded from a equivalence of all religions in principle. For if the question of religious truth exceeds the measure of the humanly understandable reality, all religions would - according to human standards - then have to rank as equally true. Reversely it makes a difference whether the human awareness in the perception of the divinity is subject to a narrowness of perspective or I know that it is subject to this narrowness.

 


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Who relates to the perspective of any perception in the way of objectiveness, is no longer blindly subjected to it but sees to a certain extent the perspectives mentioned. By this he/she rises however above the individual religion to which at the same time is certified the imprisonment in its own perspective.

No less a person than John Hick spoke in this regard of the religions of our world as streams / currents flowing through different valleys to one plain (see J. Hick, Gott und seine vielen Namen, Altenberge 1985, 45f.). That is why one, not without reason, accused the pluralistic religion theology of tending - by relativizing the religious claims to truth - for its part toward truth absolutism; thereby it would - by claiming the bird's-eye view - feel superior to other religions.

Perry Schmidt-Leukel, whose contributions to the pluralistic religion theology are inspired by the reception of Hick's writings, is anxious for more than ten years to reject both reproaches. And it must be added: At the latest since his recent programmatic work "God Without Borders" {1} they may no longer be so easily maintained - at least not against him. You must know that the example of the elephant and the blind who approach it gropingly, that is attributed to the religion-theological pluralism, is criticized by him as a combination of exclusivism and 'inclusivism' (see 174). For only the storyteller of this scene sees the whole elephant, and at the same time he/she knows in which way the partial truths felt by the blind fit into the whole seen by him. Accordingly Schmidt-Leukel wants the position of the religion-theological pluralism to be understood only as a hypothesis (see 184). Nevertheless it is a difference whether I - as in the elephant example - know positively in which way God's transcendence is particularized by the individual religions, or reversely - knowing about this transcendence - merely not exclude that there can be in other religions an equivalent healing knowledge of God in principle.

At the same time Schmidt-Leukel gets straight that already in ethical regard the equality of religious convictions is out of question: for it is not the same, whether a religion calls to war or to peace, whether it sanctifies murder or human life. Accordingly he recognizes together with John Hick a distinction- and valuation criterion of the religions in the "soterio-centred" question: To what extent "transform religions self-centred individualists to people who relate to the transcendent reality" (267)? And with Paul Knitter he wants to understand this 'de-centration' (of ego-centred individuals) as a simultaneous "transformation into loving openness for our fellow human beings". It "will prove its worth by the way how we react to their misfortune" (in the same place). Hence also for him religious variety is - otherwise than in earlier statements - not already a value in itself, because there can also be a variety of evil (see 155). In this respect the legitimacy of religious variety can be judged perfectly right by the ethical criterion mentioned. Thus the position of Lessing's Ring Parable is recovered. As long as religious claims to truth cannot be decided in correspondence-theoretical regard, we must find our way in this world time by a deputy truth criterion, i.e. the pragmatic one: How much humanity is spread by a religion in this world?

 


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One may rightfully object here that also such a deputy criterion is not religiously neutral. But in ethical regard Schmidt-Leukel does by no means (claim to) relapse into the absolutistic bird's-eye view. Similarly as Hans Küng in his "Project World Ethos", he sees in the criterion mentioned a point of intersection where the large religious currents of this world converge. And he adopts Jesus Christ's request to judge the various offers of salvation by their fruits (see Mt 7:15-23).

The matter submitted here by Schmidt-Leukel does not want to be a philosophy of religions that would argue with the religions from an outward standpoint. In his consistent rejection of the truth absolutism mentioned he submits the draft of a pluralistic religion theology that wants pronouncedly to proceed from Christian suppositions. Hence the sub-title of his work reads "A Christian and Pluralistic Religion Theology". He redeems this program by three argumentation steps. In a first step he represents the faith in God's will to save all human beings as a fundamental conviction that is constituent for Christianity. This raises then the religion-theological basic question, how the universality of the divine salvation is related to the particularity of Christianity.

In a second step he discusses the possible solutions resulting from the religion-theological positions of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. While exclusivism tends to deny God's will of a general salvation, inclusivism is able to admit that the reality of God's salvation transcends the lines drawn by the church "Zeugnisgestalt" (church doctrine, teachings). In this conviction he meets of course the view of pluralism (pluralistic religion theology). But unlike the latter, Christianity is led from the conviction to have won "saving knowledge of God" in an abundance that raises it above other religions. Indeed, the Catholic Church confesses "that outside of its structure various elements of sanctification and truth are to be found", and adds at the same time that these elements "as the special gifts of Christ's church force (mankind) towards the Catholic unity" (LG 8) {2}. But Schmidt-Leukel sees an "insufficient empirical evidence in this church claim to superiority over other religions" (156). If one applies to Christianity the outlined truth criterion 'soteriological efficiency', there is no reason to speak of its superiority over other religions. Thus he arrives at the position of a religion-theological pluralism that understands quite plausibly to connect the conviction of God's general salvation will with the multiplicity of religions.

In a third step he shows then that Christianity is - by its faith in God's transcendence and thus by its own conditions - enabled to relativize itself and to meet other religions with the readiness to learn from them. The in this way realized dialogue deserves now, contrary to its inclusivistic variant, really this name: It recognizes in other religions "good, true and holy things", without having to determine them as deficit. It is looking for "ways ... that enable the creative integration (of them) into the own faith" and that leave thereby this faith "not unchanged" (58). Only in this way tolerance can change from the air of condescending toleration into an attitude of positive appreciation.

Before this background it must surprise that in the church doctrinal documents the outlined inclusivism comes sometimes to quite other statements than those

 


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with which one would credit it - due to the representation given to it by Schmidt-Leukel. For there we find by no means that arrogant gesture of truth possession that makes the representatives of other religions at best learners. In relation to Jesus Christ the church rather relativizes itself by choosing that way of pilgrimage to truth, that according to Schmidt-Leukel is reserved to the pluralistic position. The church "strives in the course of the centuries always toward the divine truth" (DV 8) {3}. Facing this truth it will "always need cleansing", so that it always goes "the way of penitence and renewal" (LG 8).

The religion-theological position held by Pope Benedict XVI in the past, is therefore only insufficiently determined by the doctrinal writing "Dominus Jesus". Because for him too the consorting with other religions means "to demand the readiness to let widen the narrowness of my understanding of truth, to learn my own faith better by understanding the other person('s faith), and to let me bring so on the way to the always greater God (Deus semper maior) - in the certainty that I will never have 'the truth' in hand, and will always be a learner before it, always a pilgrim toward it, whose way will never end" (J. Ratzinger, Der Dialog der Religionen u. das jüdisch-christliche Verhältnis, reprinted in: Die anstößige Wahrheit des Glaubens. Das theologische Profil Joseph Ratzingers, edited by H. Hoping and J.H. Tück, Freiburg 2005, 102). He goes here even so far to state: "Those who set on unification of the religions as result of their dialogue will only be disappointed. This is hardly possible within our historical time and perhaps not even to wish" (in the same place).

How is it possible that religion-theological points of view that are so far from each other come so close to each other in the assessment of the interreligious dialogue? The reason for it lies in the different understanding of revelation. Schmidt-Leukel understands revelation as a communication happening between two poles: The infinite God bending lovingly down to us human beings stands on the one side. On the other side stand finite human beings who with their limited intelligence can receive this self communication only in a limited way - and who therefore also limit it. Thus Kant's distinction between "reality in itself" and its "appearance for us" is actually applied in analogous way to Revelation. In which shape God's infinity becomes apparent then for us, depends not on God but on the structure of the human awareness resp. intellect. In this sense the appearance of divinity exists only as appearance for me. An appearance that does not reach man is in this sense a contradiction in itself: "'Revelation' is a term for 'relation'. That is, 'revelation' stands for a certain relation between the one who reveals itself and the other who receives the revelation. Or differently said, one can only speak of revelation, if somebody receives the revelation, because revelation that reaches nobody is no revelation" (217).

On this assumption the threefold pattern of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism must indeed apply as an exhaustive typology of religion-theological possibilities, and Schmidt-Leukel takes again great trouble to prove this (see 62-95). But if one takes the personal understanding of revelation favoured by him quite seriously,

 


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then the assumption mentioned is not conclusive. If God namely addresses "from overflowing love ... us human beings like friends" (DV 2), then revelation means not necessarily also revelation for me. This becomes apparent already when expressions of human love address the other person as friend. Sometimes these words and signs reach the other person completely wrong or not at all. A wooing can remain not only unheard but also unnoticed, and the bouquet put by me before the locked door of an adored woman, can also wither there without the door having opened. In this sense also the divine self communication can come into the world without the world having recognized or received it (see Jn 1:10f.).

Hence the distinction of divine nature in itself and its appearance for us is too little differentiated, in order to comprehend the Christian understanding of revelation. The concept 'appearance' is rather to be understood in a double sense. It can mean first the personal self realization, i.e. the concrete shape (words, signs, gifts) with which love reveals itself to a vis-à-vis. But this means still no preliminary decision on the fact that and how such a realization is noticed by the other person. In this respect one has to distinguish between the concretized shape and the perceived shape of revelation. And in view of the latter one has with Schmidt-Leukel to underline the dependence of perspective and the limitation of any appearance of the divinity.

But how can a concretized shape of the divine love be infinite, if it appears in a declaredly limited historical shape? This question can only be answered if one considers the kenotic basic structure of love (see Phil - God's 'kenosis'), the greatness of which is found in the capability of the lover to make him/herself small and defenceless. The excessiveness of divine love becomes manifest then in the defencelessness of a human being that exposes itself to its rejection and exclusion by force, without answering with force.

The latter happens on the cross. For a love that woos for an answer can do this only force-free. If this love however is boundless, then its wooing must at the same time overcome the borders which are erected by human beings against each other by acts of violence. In this way it draws upon itself - with a necessity that is founded in the historically caused 'conditio humana' - those mechanisms of violence which it wants to overcome. The Christian tradition uses the term 'sin' for this inclination to violence that has become the nature of human beings, and by which they feel superior to each other. In this sense the crucified Jesus draws the power of sin upon himself and becomes the victim. He becomes the "victim lamb" upon which the load of sin was imposed. Since Jesus does not answer this violence with (counter) violence, but on the cross even asked for forgiveness for his tormentors, just the cross event becomes the place where the excessiveness of divine love takes the concrete human shape.

These considerations may be sufficient, in order to mark the state of discussion where the further argument with pluralistic religion theology is to make a start. So as this theology further developed and learnt from objections raised against it, its opponents should no longer globally raise the reproaches of relativism and of - open or hidden - truth absolutism, but lead the argument with it in the place where from a Christian

 


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perspective the distinction of the 'concrete shape' and of the 'perceived shape' of revelation is to be made. That means the task to show to what extent the power of sin does not only bring Jesus on the way to the cross, but also darkens the human powers of cognition. Because the latter is the reason for it that the human perception of that revelation which finds its absolute culmination in the cross, is subject again to those ties of perspective on which the pluralistic religion theology rightly insists.

But that means that the relation of holiness and sin, of invisible and visible church is to be taken as theme - more clearly than it happened in the past discussion about the pluralistic religion theology. For the church knows that it - as society that is moulded by human beings - is a community of sinners (see LG 8), in which certainly the true church "subsists". Only by such a clear qualification of that relation can convincingly be conveyed that the Catholic Church needs the interreligious dialogue not only on the way of its historical pilgrimage but for the sake of this pilgrimage.

 

Notes

{1}Schmidt-Leukel, Perry: Gott ohne Grenzen. Eine christliche u. pluralistische Theologie der Religionen. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 2005. 536 pages. bound 29,95 Euro.

{2} Dogmatic Constitution on the Church

{3} Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

 

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