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The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity
New York: Orbis Books, 2000. Pp. xi + 187; $20.00 paper.
senior lecturer in theology at the University of Bristol
in England, has been publishing in the field of the theology
of religions for the past fifteen years. This book, his
most recent, has two main parts, the first (chapters 1-3)
arguing that the widely used typology of exclusivism, inclusivism,
and pluralism has such serious deficiencies that it would
better be avoided and the second (chapters 4-5) claiming
that a Christian trinitarian theology will in fact be more
rigorously open to the
as found in the worlds
religious traditions than will the approach of those scholars
commonly called pluralists. The second part concludes with
a chapter on interreligious prayer, offered as a way of
testing the validity of DCostas
claims for his trinitarian orientation. In this review I
will first summarize his main arguments and then conclude
with some evaluative reflections.
The threefold typology that DCosta finds faulty goes back to a nineteenth-century missionary, John Farquhar, but began to be widely used only in the mid-1980s under the influence of Alan Races book Christians and Religious Pluralism. DCosta himself used this typology for some years, understanding (1) exclusivism as the position that only one religion is true and the others ultimately false, (2) pluralism as the assumption that all religions (with qualifications) lead to the same divine reality and that religious harmony will result if exclusivistic claims are dropped, and (3) inclusivism as a mediating position contending that only one religion is definitively true but that saving truth can be found in incomplete form in other traditions. DCosta devotes most of part one to a critique of pluralists, whether Christian (John Hick and Paul Knitter), Jewish (Dan Cohn-Sherbok), Hindu (Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan), or Buddhist (the Dalai Lama). He finds the first three of these five to be heavily influenced by Enlightenment modernity, especially by its denial of the possibility of Gods self-revelation in historical particularity. Thus John Hick argues that all religions are salvific paths to the one divine Real, but since this Real is, in itself, absolutely incomprehensible (a Kantian noumenon), the attempts to specify it in the various religions (as when Christians address it as our heavenly Father) are mythological (that is, not literally true but evocative of an appropriate attitude in the worshiper). DCostas main point in this part of his book is that such authors are in fact exclusivists, their own (hidden) faith position being the ontological assumptions of Enlightenment modernity. This, he writes, is not surprising, since every religious or philosophical tradition requires an element of self-committing faith. The real problem is that these authors do not recognize their own exclusiveness, even though it is, for example, evident in Cohn-Sherboks blanket judgment that neither Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, nor Buddhist has any justification for believing that his respective tradition embodies the uniquely true and superior religious path (44).
What DCosta calls the de facto exclusivism of Radhakrishnan and the Dalai Lama differs from that described above in that theirs is properly religious rather than philosophical.Thus, Radhakrishnan criticized the Enlightenment philosophy of Kant for its denial that humans could have an intuitive apprehension permitting direct communion with the Absolute. The experience in which this communion is realized was, for him, Advaitic (non-dualistic) Hinduism, which accordingly ranked supreme in his religious hierarchy. In Radhakrishnans words, The worshippers of the Absolute are the highest in rank; second to them are the worshippers of the personal God; then come the worshippers of the incarnations like Rama, Krishna, Buddha; below them are those who worship ancestors, deities and sages, and lowest of all are the worshippers of the petty forces and spirits (64). A hierarchy of religious traditions may likewise be found in the teaching of the Dalai Lama. He sincerely promotes the practice of compassion within all religions, the point being that this practice will help persons develop the kind of motivation that leads to the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta) and thence to full liberation and buddhahood. As he said in a published interview, Liberation in which ‘a mind that understands the sphere of reality annihilates all defilements in the sphere of reality is a state that only Buddhists can accomplish (83). Other traditions can lead one nearer to this goal but can never attain it in their own right.
In light of the above, DCosta concludes the first part of his book by stating that pluralism as such simply does not exist. In one way or another it is always some form of exclusivism, and of the various forms he has discussed, Enlightenment exclusivism fares worst of all, because despite its claims about granting equality to the religions, it grants no such thing but instead privileges liberal modernity as the mastercode within which all the religions are positioned, and neutered (91). Inclusivism likewise collapses into some form of exclusivity inasmuch as it does not affirm other religions as they understand themselves but only those elements that the inclusivist tends to prize. Better, then, to acknowledge the unavoidably tradition-specific forms of exclusivism that characterize each tradition. Promising to do this himself, DCosta turns to the second half of his book, in which he develops the argument that the trinitarian exclusivism that he advocates on the basis of his own Roman Catholic tradition actually better meets the demands for openness, tolerance and equality that pluralists prize, though it does so in a way that transforms the meaning of the three terms.
At the beginning of part two, DCosta examines the documents of the Second Vatican Council to see what they might have to say as regards the question of whether other religions are, in themselves, means of supernatural revelation and hence vehicles of salvation. He finds the conciliar and post-conciliar documents to be silent on this point. Since the council did, however, speak of revelation with respect to the Old Testament, he concludes that its silence with regard to religions other than Judaism implies a refusal to affirm them as salvific bearers of divine revelation. Still, he finds this altogether compatible with a positive affirmation in both conciliar and post-conciliar texts that the Holy Spirit is active within the religions and cultures of non-Christians, a truth that requires the church not only to listen to other religions but also to be ready to be challenged and developed through its dialogical listening. Indeed, if the church does close itself off from other religions, then it will be guilty of being inattentive to the promptings of God which may lead it into greater holiness, truth, and goodness. Being inattentive to other religions is a form of idolatry (133), though one could never say in advance just what other religions may disclose or how such disclosure may lead the church to change in its practice and theology.
Since one possible form of openness is interreligious prayer, DCosta devotes his fifth and final chapter to this topic, using it as a way of evaluating the effectiveness of his trinitarian exclusivism. Since all Christian prayer is understood to have a communal dimension, he avoids the dichotomy private/communal, though he does distinguish between public cultic acts and non-cultic worship on the grounds that the former cannot normally be shared by those outside the cult. The less problematic non-cultic prayer may take two general forms: multireligious prayer, during which representatives of different traditions take turns praying aloud while the others present listen in reverent silence, and interreligious prayer, where the key point is genuine praying together. Risky as the latter may be, he believes the risk is sometimes worth taking, and not simply by using prayer formulas that cautiously avoid reference to what is distinctive in the creeds of the various traditions represented.
To give focus to his reflections, DCosta imagines an interfaith prayer group of Christians and Muslims in which one of the prayers would be the Ftiha, the opening lines of the Quran with its praise of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate but also its prayer to be delivered from the path of those who are astray, a phrase commonly understood by Muslim commentators to castigate Christians for their belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Obviously a Christian could not affirm everything that would resonate with a Muslim in this prayer, but DCosta does not think that this would necessarily rule out its use in interreligious prayer. Indeed, if it were followed by the Lords Prayer or some other Christian prayer, this juxtaposition would necessarily introduce further significations, even as the use of antiphons from the New Testament in the Liturgy of the Hours generates multiple meanings when juxtaposed with Psalms from the Old Testament. In DCostas imagined example, one could not say that the Christian and Muslim participants either simply were or were not of one accord. The reality would likely be both/and rather than either/or. Both sides could well be praying with one accord, however imperfectly, and through such prayer a Christian may be all the more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit within Islam and be able to understand Islam more sympatheticallyand criticallyfor praying together allows us uniquely to sense the heart of the people we pray with (161). Discerning whether or not the risk is worth taking in given instances is first the task of the local church and its bishops, and then the universal church, for the blessings that may come through such participation are blessings for the whole church, or they are not blessings at all (166).
The foregoing summary should indicate what a thought-provoking book this is. DCosta is well aware that in some major respects he is in the minority among Christian scholars engaged in interreligious questions today. He admits, for example, that Knitter is factually correct in holding that the majority of Catholic thinkers interpret the Vatican II documents as implicitly affirming that the world religions are ways of salvation. This, DCosta writes, seems due largely to their interrelating nature and grace more closely than those like himself who wish more sharply to distinguish supernatural grace in terms of the explicit Christian revelation (105). DCosta is, however, surely in line not only with the conciliar and post-conciliar documents that he examines (including the encyclical Redemptoris Missio of 1991) but also with the Vaticans more recent Dominus Iesus, which appeared after his book had gone to press and which states that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions (no. 21).
More problematic to me is the way DCosta deals with the threefold typology of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. To be sure, he convincingly unmasks the Enlightenment faith commitment found in writers like Hick and Knitter and likewise shows that non-Christians like Radhakrishnan and the Dalai Lama rank religious traditions hierarchically in ways that might be surprising to casual readers of their works. But to assert that all of these positions collapse into exclusivism is not very helpful either, for this leaves no nuanced way of differentiating these positions from ones that hold membership in a particular denomination to be absolutely crucial for salvation. DCosta proposes at the end of part one to jettison the threefold typology, but performatively he seems unable to abide by his promise; indeed, at one point in part two he refers to pluralists or the pluralist goals five times within a single paragraph (132). Perhaps someone offering a critique of a widespread typology is not strictly bound to offer an alternative that would allow readers more easily to grasp the truly significant differences in the theology of religions held by the Baptist authors in the book The Churchs Worldwide Mission, by the Dalai Lama in The Bodhgaya Interviews, by Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, and by John Hick in An Interpretation of Religion. Nevertheless, the differences among these authors are so substantial that it is not very helpful to call them all exclusivists. Perhaps Professor DCosta will seek to remedy this shortcoming in his next publication.
A. Wiseman, O.S.B.
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