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Hans-Joachim Höhn {*}

"We are the Original!?"

The Evangelical Project and the Danger of Exclusivism


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2007, P. 11f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


Actually Evangelicals do everything the right way - not only from their view but also according to marketing criteria. They have everything one needs to be competitive. They have a clear profile; they identify with their brand; they are just as creative, innovative and engaged as uncompromisingly well versed in the Bible and faithful to their confession. They represent the original of being a Christian - whereas the established churches and denominations appear compared with them like black and white copies of a colour photo. The Evangelicals are serious about the fact that one cannot believe in God and at the same time remain idle. They do missionary work. For faith is primarily something that is to be done. The best that can happen to the gospel is that it is practiced.

But that is only half a theological truth. The faith in God gives also to think. One cannot believe in God without through it coming into thinking. The best that can happen to the gospel is that it is not thoughtlessly practiced. So that faith can be distinguished from all ways of unscrupulous license and thoughtless arbitrariness it must be interested in an intensive relationship to reason.

In view of the evangelical project in a first step it is about finding out what attitude its theological options assume towards thinking and reason, i.e. to what extent itself is capable of discourse, or whether it supports the cause of faith by fading out procedures of rational reasons and justifications. In a second step it is about the Evangelical movement's attitude regarding the fact that in the modern age religion occurs only in the plural. Is the Evangelical project religiously capable of tolerance and pluralism or does it support a claim of recognition that members of other religions on principle excludes from God's salvation? Basis of my inquiries are the two "Confessions" of the German Evangelist Alliance: the "Lausanne Covenant" (1974) and the "Manifesto of Manila" (1989). In them an interpretation of the Christian faith in the modern age is found that asserts an "exclusivist" position for it with regard to the cause of reason and of other religions' claim to recognition.


Religion in the Modern Age: Sociological Relativizations - Evangelical Denials

From sociological view the Evangelical project is an anachronism. It misjudges its own contingency and relativity; it counter-caricatures them by defiantly maintaining to have last certitudes at its disposal, and by claiming infallibility compared with secular orientations of life. Here obviously the fate is misjudged that any religion in the secular modern age befalls. One can compare this fate with a picture that for a long time hung on a wall in a flat - held by a nail. When for renovation purposes this picture is now taken off, at first its outlines are still visible on the wall. The bright area outlined by them clearly differs from its surrounding area. It will take some time until it gets darker. For a long time also faith had a firm place in society - long enough to leave traces in this society. These traces become visible the moment when the society rids itself of this faith. But these traces will disappear with the time - or be painted over. Longer than faith its "peg" lasts. It is the nail in the wall that makes faith perceptible in the society and keeps it present. Faith was only an "appendage" of this nail. Now something else can be hung on this nail. That can again be something religious but also something quite different. It must only be suitable to cover the obvious empty area. The nail itself is not of great effect - the real eye-catcher is what hangs on it. But in its function it remains superior to what hangs on it and depends on it. For the "appendage" is exchangeable but not the function of the peg - there is no replacement for it. That is something lies ahead of faith - faith is something conditioned. Faith may give hold to man, but it needs for its part something that gives hold to it. Said in the jargon of philosophy of religion: Faith is a means of coping with contingency, but itself and for its part something contingent (i.e. it is not necessarily without alternative and thus replaceable, exchangeable). That it gives hold to man applies only with the reservation that it does not claim only faith, or only some special faith could give hold in life.

A modern outward view on the phenomenon "religion" in culture and society, which emphasizes the contingency of existence and religion, contributes in its critical variant to relativize the claim of religion, i.e. to limit the claim to be the sole legitimate representative. To illustrate it again by means of the just presented "model": The nail is a symbol for the human subject and its existence. Each human being exists quasi as such a nail - hammered into the wall of history, nature, and society. It is sense and purpose of existence to be a peg - to make something presentable, visible, and present. It is sense and purpose of existence to point out goods and values, ideas and ideals that make existence important and show how man can say 'Yes' to the world. Also religion belongs to it: It is a carrier of meaning; it shows what matters so that existence becomes acceptable. It gathers and bundles answers to the question in what respect life is acceptable, although in this world there are so many things that are unacceptable "without ifs and buts". But in this function religion competes also with science and art, myth and reason.

Here a strong denial is to be heard from the part of the Evangelicals. Denied is the outlined outward perspective on the phenomenon religion and its core thesis of the contingency of religious coming to terms with contingency. Denied is the relativizing of the religious reality, its degradation to a subordinated variable of human existence and existence ascertainment. Against this view a reversal of the made relation is set. As it were like a mirror image all basic theses of an outward perspective are turned into a religious inward view: The nail symbolizes faith. Only by it life finds hold. Only by it life becomes something that can be presented and something considerable. Only in it value and dignity of man are founded. Without it everything is up in the air, i.e. without it nothing has existence. Faith guarantees last certainties; it stands for what one can go by. Everything else is only of limited durability.


Capable of Discourse? Against the Scepticism about Reason in the Evangelical Project

Against the tendency typical of the modern age to expound problems, historicize and relativize the claims for recognition the Evangelical exclusivism asserts its entitlement to the promise of a divine guarantor that releases it from all relativity, the infallibility of the Bible: "We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." ("Lausanne Covenant"). Here faith becomes the standard of reason; here thinking gets from faith the measure for developing standards for the orientation of life. One may already regard as precarious this taking the Bible for absolute in clarifying religious questions, such a procedure becomes no less problematic when it is made the basis of a science- or general education programme. According to the information of the Evangelical theologian Friedhelm Jung for Evangelical denominational schools is in force that the pedagogy practiced there "does - with regard to epistemology - not refer to the autonomy of human reason; also the 'good nature' of man, held by many pedagogues, is not recognized; on the contrary, the Christian pedagogy is based on God's revelation in Jesus Christ and his word."

The Evangelical scepticism about reason becomes understandable before the background of a most pessimistic view of man and a just as pessimistic view of the world: "Because he is fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic." (Lausanne Covenant). If one already sees demons at work, reason is no longer capable of achieving anything. Where one can no longer achieve anything by reason, doing without it is no longer of any consequence. May be that a modern age that has become godless is in danger now to idolize the world. But is that already a sufficient reason to demonize the world? For a long time the ambivalence of modernization and rationalization processes has been recognized and acknowledged within secular circles. But Evangelical circles and authors just take the dialectic of Enlightenment and the pathologies of reason as sufficient reason to say goodbye to reason as guiding authority of the conduct of life. They already see the fact that the secular powers of progress have overdone it as sign that they are again to clear the place for that one the place of which they have taken.

Sometimes in Evangelical circles the insisting on the reasonableness of religion is regarded as turning away from the seemingly especially "pious" conviction that faith is "higher" than any reason. When one looks round in charismatically moulded circles of the Evangelical movement one wins plentiful illustrative material for the thesis: Religion is the matter of people who are beside themselves! Indeed, "being beside oneself" hits the core of what constitutes religion. Religion is a performance of self-transcendence; here man goes out from himself and beyond himself. He does no longer circle around himself, wins an idea of something greater, higher, different. But "being beside oneself" is an ambivalent phenomenon. Who is not quite "with himself", who seems to be carried away could also be not quite right and "crazy". Who feels as if he were "out of his senses" will seldom do something sensible. Experience admittedly shows that hardly anything better can happen to man than to surpass himself, to go beyond boundaries (also the boundaries of reason!) to discover new and unknown things. But experience also teaches that with it any increase in insight and personal maturity can be thrown away, if reason has no part in it. Beyond reason not only begins what is "higher" than every reason. There also lurk stupidity and counter-rationality, arbitrariness and the attitude of 'just as you like', illusion and projection. That is why thoughtful people among the Evangelical lovers of religion cannot get away from the question whether and how one can in a reasonable way go beyond reason, in order to discover religion as the reasonable "counterpart" of reason.

It would be a religious illusion if faith wanted to assert itself as counter-force to reason without realizing that it can only exist together with it. If faith adopts the cause of critical thinking it does by no means submit to a foreign power. The idea of guardianship is foreign to reason. The only compulsion known to it consists in the unyielding demand that statements are to be converted into reasons and claims to authority are to be supported by arguments.



The redemption of those demands serves the repeal of minority and missing enlightenment. Its result is that one at the end can say why something can be regarded as reasonable and reliable, and in what it differs from religious escapades. It prevents that one must admit the question: "Have you perhaps rashly accepted faith?" (1 Cor 15, 2). Where faith accepts reason, this serves to prevent negative consequences of a thoughtless religious practice.

Before this background critical queries to the Evangelical project are inevitable: Can it in the enlightened, critical reason only recognize the relativistic adversary of a resolute Christianity faithful to its confession? Can it in the modern age afford to exclude reason from processes of justifying the Christian claim to authority without also its cause being adversely affected? Doesn't one find here an attitude related to fundamentalism, which makes the knowledge of the mysteries of life, which is allegedly superior to the discursive reason, the basis of arrogance toward dissenters and of intolerance toward persons of a different faith?


Capable of Plurality? Religious Exclusivism in the Evangelical Movement

In recent time one can increasingly notice that interreligious dialogue is felt as danger for maintaining one's religious identity. In Christian circles too more and more often the view can be found that - in the context of a religious and ideological pluralism - one can hold one's ground only by preserving "individual characteristics": Ecumenism? Yes, but please without loss of denominational profiles. Dialogue of the religions? Yes, but please without renouncing the "distinguishing features" of Christianity. The "Lausanne Covenant" too imposes close limits to such a dialogue: "We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the Gospel every kind of ... dialogue which implies that Christ speaks equally through all religions and ideologies." And the "Manifesto of Manila" says: "We affirm that other religions and ideologies are not alternative paths to God, and that human spirituality, if unredeemed by Christ, leads not to God but to judgment, for Christ is the only way."


Challenge: Religion in the Plural - Loss of the Profiles?

For the dialogue of the religions (the) referring to the "distinguishing features" of Christianity is discordant. For Christians the decisive thing of their faith is not yet to differ only from others: The "decisive feature" of Christianity is not without further ado identical with the differences that are set out in comparison with persons of a different faith or disbelievers. The decisive Christian feature is the message that all human beings are indiscriminately addressees of God's absolute loving attention. In it its identity lies. Who in contrast to that defines identity with the help of differences must always also eliminate and exclude. But who wants to protect his identity alone by the procedure of excluding gets into the neighbourhood of ideology.

For Christians the easiest way to avoid the ideology trap is by identifying the "decisive" Christian feature as the reality that connects all human beings and makes them equal to each other. Jews and Christians find in the Bible after the tale of the Flood the story of a new beginning in the history of man. It begins with God's covenant with the entire mankind. His promise of salvation applies not only to a chosen people but to all human beings (see Gen 9). In view of this covenant there is no difference between human beings that is not embraced by a greater common feature. Of course it is not fair to fade out the existing differences in the interreligious dialogue. But it is even more dishonest to misjudge the unequally higher measure of common features - particularly in view of the monotheistic religions. Both aspects are to be taken into account in the interreligious discussion. Indispensably a basic attitude orientated towards understanding is needed and likewise hermeneutics of the difference of the religions with their divergent claims to authority, which does justice to the diversity of the interlocutors.

For considerable time three models have been available for a theology of the religions: (1) Exclusivism holds that only one religion fully represents the revelation (of the one God) that brings about salvation. The supposed ways of salvation of other religions are impasses - that is why their different nature cannot be religiously recognized. The Evangelical movement holds such a pure exclusivism. (2) Inclusivism assumes that there is a religion in which God's saving revelation is completely represented. But it thinks that it is conceivable and possible that in other religions partial aspects and intersections with that revelation appear. Their different religious nature can be positively appreciated in the measure in which it is compatible with the "perfect type" of revelation and salvation. (3) Pluralism regards all religions as of equal rank and equal ways of a salvation-effective revelation. None of them can claim to be the one and only saving one or to surpass all others. There is no sufficient reason to devalue their different religious nature or to withhold a religious appreciation from them.

But the previous models of an exclusivistic, inclusivistic or pluralistic theology of religion could in the end not sufficiently take into account the double task of appropriately recognizing the identity and difference of the various religions. Either the different nature of the other religion was a priori devalued (exclusivism), only recognized with regard to its compatibility with one's own religion (inclusivism), or only regarded as a faceted reflex of the manifestation of one and the same religious reality (pluralism). In these attitudes just that did not succeed what constitutes the elementary challenge of a theology of religions: to recognize the different nature of another religion and to ask after possibilities of its religious appreciation that does not delete the factor of difference on which just the identity of what is different depends. But both moments are decisive for the possibility of a respectful living and working together of religions.


The Matchlessness of the Gospel: Against an Evangelical Exclusivism

If a possible appreciation of other religions is to be compatible with every religion's conception of itself, it must be set in relation to the core of its message. If one tries now to derive criteria of a relation between Christianity and other religions from the content of its preaching, first the "material" matchlessness of Christianity becomes apparent, which at first sight seems to block any religious appreciation of other religions: Christianity understands nature and reality of God's salvation-will as event of his absolute bestowment. This bestowment is absolute because it does not take measure from any inner-worldly matter. No inner-worldly thing can found or produce, limit or reduce it. In such a way underivable it also can not be read by the world, but remains hidden by it. It becomes only apparent by being accessible in God's Incarnation and happens in just that revelation event. The revelation of God's salvation-will does not mean a manifestation of God's intention that only refers to its realization but happens together with it. As historical event of that revelation, as historical revelation of God's salvation-will Christianity asserts life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in which becomes apparent that God in life and death is permanently devoted to man. In this form and shape of God's salvation-will also the corresponding unity of content and performance is realized. Jesus reveals God's relationship to man by carrying out inter-personally what he reveals: absolute devotion. No power of the world - not even death - is able to revoke God's promise of community with man. From Christian view God's revelation in Jesus of Nazareth can as regards content neither be supplemented nor can it be increased. Man cannot expect "more" of God than that he promises her/him his community in life as well as in death.

From that material unparalleled status of the gospel now an Evangelical exclusivism with a formal "claim to be the sole legitimate representative" could be concluded. But just that is impossible, because Christianity represents a "cause" the content of which is not limited to the circle of Christians: the universality of God's salvation-will. In view of that the material unparalleled status of Christianity is at the same time the reason of its relativity. It announces God's devotion to mankind, which is not limited to the historically particular community of Christianity. It admittedly applies: There is no "more" to God's revelation in life, death and resurrection of a man, of which the Christian revelation is only a part or a partial truth. But the special importance of Jesus is rather that in him God's devotion to the world, as it hidden exists since the foundation of the world ("creation"), becomes apparent in the world and happens in it ("Incarnation"). That is also why Jesus for Christians belongs to the "identification" of God's salvation-will, i.e. as Christian one cannot talk about God's salvation-will as manifestation of an absolute devotion without talking about the event of that devotion in Jesus. And likewise God's salvation-will belongs to the "identification" of Jesus, i.e. one cannot appropriately talk about Jesus without associating him with the event of absolute devotion.

But what results from it for the possible "revelation content" of other religions? How are Christians to react when representatives of other religions too claim for themselves to have an unparalleled status (as e.g. in Islam)? Can there be such a claim "in the plural"? Or doesn't one get here into insoluble contradictions? A way out of that dilemma is possible if one's attention is drawn to the question for what in each case the unparalleled status is claimed, and which specific form of an experience of the absolute can support this claim. To Christianity applies: The becoming one of content and performance in the process of (God's) inter-personal devotion constitutes the event of absolute devotion. What constitutes absolute devotion can only be demonstrated by absolute devotion. Only in this way it can "originally" be experienced and communicated. Outside of this practice for Christianity God's reality as reality of an absolute personal devotion is not ascertainable. That is why in Christianity the way of salvation and the content of salvation cannot be separated from each other, since here it is about the access to a materially unparalleled absolute (personal) devotion.

But for Christianity a materially unparalleled reality exists only in the sense that in the performance of (inter)personal devotion God's reality respectively his relationship to man is originally given. The unconditional and unparalleled character applies to the interpersonal way of God's devotion. It cannot be excluded a priori that beside it there are other ways of an experience of the unconditioned reality respectively of the absolute, in which the one unconditional reality of the salvation-relevant revelation can be completely and nevertheless differently experienced. Also Christianity knows such a possibility when it talks about God's general salvation-will, the content and logic of which make conceivable that God chooses other (i.e. non-personal) ways of his presence.

Just that is overlooked by the Evangelical movement. One even denies that a never cancelled covenant made the Jews God's People: "It is sometimes held that in virtue of God's covenant with Abraham, Jewish people do not need to acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah. We affirm that they need him as much as anyone else, that it would be a form of anti-Semitism, as well as being disloyal to Christ, to depart from the New Testament pattern of taking the gospel to "the Jews first...". We therefore reject the thesis that Jews have their own covenant which renders faith in Jesus unnecessary." (Manifesto of Manila). This statement can in no way be brought into agreement with the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relationship of the Church to the Non-Christian Religions respectively to Judaism.

If it is true that Christianity is the event and the consequence of God's devotion to man, which is unconditional and infinite and does thus also not end at the boundaries of Christianity, then Christianity makes present a reality that is present in it in an unparalleled way and at the same time exceeds it. That is the reason why Christians cannot at all be followers of a religion-theological exclusivism! It would be inconsistent with God's unconditional and universal salvation-will, if one wanted to see him at work only in Christianity. He actually subsists in Christianity in the above described way and at the same time he exceeds Christianity.


    {*} Professor Dr. Hans-Joachim Höhn, professor of systematic theology and philosophy of religion at the University of Cologne


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