The Urantia Book Fellowship

Ecumenic Pluralism: An Approach to Inter-religious Dialog

by Dr. Ted Peters

This document contains a chapter from the book, "God: The World's Future" by Dr. Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, California, and is used with permission of the author. It is published here for the perspective it provides on the problems of retaining the integrity of one's own beliefs while engaging in open dialog with other religionists. It also provides a comprehensive perspective on some of the issues involved in sustaining productive inter-religious dialog. Although its language is that of academic Christian theology, the content should be of great interest to readers of The Urantia Book desirous of exploring the spiritual life with other religionists.


Theology is an ongoing task with which Christians are never finished because something new is always placed on its agenda. Although it is the thinking discipline whereby faith seeks to understand itself, it is also a part of the church's ministry. Its peculiar ministry is to provide intellectual leadership. The present work in systematic theology has sought to explicate the significance of the gospel so that what Christians say is intelligible within the context of emerging post-modern consciousness. Thus, a methodological foundation was laid and the doctrinal content clarified. In turning to ecumenics and ethics now, much more can yet be done.

In a world that feels fragmentation and brokenness so acutely, Christians can offer a bold vision of union and communion. In a world that stands on the brink of gradual disintegration through the ruin of the ecosphere, and even at times on the brink of imminent immolation through nuclear geocide, a vision of global unity and peace is worth projecting. On the basis of such visions the ends and goals toward which the human race should be dedicated can be brought to inspiring effect. In short, theology can enhance the quality of social life in the world at large by offering a vision of ecumenic wholeness and a proleptic ethic.

Ecumenic Pluralism

The holism so precious to the postmodern mind is by no means intended to eliminate particularity and individuality. Post-modernity seeks a dynamic whole, a cooperative whole, a synthetic whole. The dynamism of the whole contributes to the vitality of the parts just as the parts constitute the substance of the whole. Instead of union we think of communion. I have argued that the universality and comprehensiveness of the kingdom of God lend some theological support for employing such holistic and communal categories.

I believe it is within this framework that the issue of pluralism should be placed on the theological agenda for the medium-range future. The term pluralism has many meanings and connotations, but theological usage seeks to avoid sheer plurality or anarchy, on the one hand, and unity beyond discrimination, on the other hand. Particularity needs affirmation but not at the expense of community. In the present chapter, I will argue that an anarchic force is at work in current theology. I label it "radical pluralism." Radical pluralism is an ideological stance that tends to lose sight of the whole while advocating an inviolate plurality of parts. I will recommend that the better vision is that of "ecumenic pluralism," which affirms the unity of the human race as an article of faith even though empirical differences and divisions seem so strong.

Ecumenic Versus Radical Pluralism

The contemporary situation, whether one views it as modern or post-modern, is dominated by the reality of pluralism. Speaking descriptively, the spectrum of plurality ranges from simple differences of opinion at one end to mutually exclusive definitions of reality and allegiances to differing value systems or lifestyles on the other end. When we deal with commitments to symbols of ultimacy, we are dealing with a plurality of rival religions.

The plurality of religious traditions constitutes one of the most potent challenges to Christian faith in our time. The challenge is more acute now than before. In times past, religion was so closely identified with culture that the other religions of the world just seemed to belong to other lands and other cultures that lay beyond the border of our immediate concerns. We thought they belonged to a different history from ours. But things are changing rapidly in this regard. The religious atlases of the world are becoming obsolete. No longer can we label North America "Christian" or India "Hindu" or Indonesia "Islamic." More and more Americans and Europeans are investigating Asian philosophies and adopting the mystical disciplines of the East. Third World Christian churches have come into their own and, in the case of the Church of South India, are showing exceptional leadership in ecumenical affairs. In any given geographical location, increasing numbers of alternative commitments to ultimate reality can be found. We now have pluralism right in our hometown.

Not only are these alternatives all around us. They exist within us as well. We have begun to internalize pluralism, so that the confrontation between the various reality-defining agencies takes place within us as we wrestle with truth questions. This is possible because there speaks within our soul the still small voice of the ecumené, the sense that we belong to a single universal humanity sustained by a mysterious but single divine reality. Even if we are not fully clear regarding the proper relationship between Christianity and the other religions, we still work with the assumption that all human beings share a common status before God and in relation to one another.

I call this ecumenic pluralism because it makes the assumption that there is only one human race to which people in diverse times and cultures belong. Whether it is immediately visible or not, we believe all people have something in common. It is this trans-cultural and even trans-religious unity that makes pluralism possible, that provides the warrant for respecting and appreciating people who differ from ourselves. This is sometimes difficult to see when differences in language and culture seem to run so deep and when violent conflict between peoples seems unavoidable. Nevertheless, I believe we need to affirm through faith that the eschatological kingdom of God will reveal a oneness to the human race, a oneness that may be invisible to us at present.

Ecumenic pluralism tackles a somewhat different problem from that which we know under the term ecumenical movement. Coming from the Greek root meaning "one house," the term ecumenical movement refers to the attempt by the various Christian churches to understand all Christians as belonging to the single household of faith. This is a perfectly legitimate use of the term, but what I have in mind here is a bit broader. I suggest that we think of the whole creation as God's house and that all of us are guests of equal stature in the divine living room. Corresponding to God's oneness is a oneness of humanity.

The concept of ecumenic unity goes back to the epics of Homer. There oikoumené referred to the inhabited world, consisting of islands and continents. Surrounding the oikoumené on all sides is the okeanos, the ever-running river that returns to itself. The oikoumené is our cosmic habitat. Looking out over the okeanos we see the horizon, the boundary that distinguishes our world from the mysteries that lie beyond our cosmic order. Turning around, we see that there is but one world this side of the far horizon.1

Since Galileo and the rise of the modern mind, we have come to think of our oikoumené in terms of a single sphere and the okeanos in terms of the infinity of outer space. Looking outward toward the unfathomable horizon of intergalactic mysteries, we are awed by our relative minuteness and insignificance. Yet turning with camera in hand and looking back from the moon toward earth again, we get the picture that the shiny blue sphere that is our world is but one world. The satellites cannot see the lines between nations that we draw on our maps; nor can they report the parochialism of the human mind that imagines the okeanos to flow around the borders of one's own country, one's own race, one's own culture, or one's own religion.

Ecumenic pluralism is a perspective that sees all the differences that divide the human race as but outlines of the parts that constitute the whole. It is the recognition that this side of the horizon there is but one inhabited world and that it is a shared world. It is the condition that makes pluralistic thinking possible. Without the assumption of an ecumenic unity, we have no pluralism. We have only anarchy.

The reason pluralism and the human ecumené should appear on the theological agenda today is that they are currently being undermined by the ideological stance I have identified as radical pluralism--that is, a pluralism that fails to shoulder responsibility for its corresponding unity. Although the problem is by no means unique to theology, we have our version of it in current North American liberation rhetoric. Religious literature during the 1970s and 1980s told readers that white people simply cannot understand black people, that the rich cannot understand the poor, and that men cannot understand women. A hands-off policy has emerged. To some extent htis is justified. Past wrongs need to be righted. Neverheless, if left to persist in its own logic, such thinking will lead to baptizing a radical pluralism that will justify a return to tribal parochialism and the loss of a sense of responsibility to the shared ecumené.

Radical pluralism espouses the belief that plurality, variety, and diversity are in themselves a positive good. In its extreme form, radical pluralism defends what is different just because it is different; so it opposes the combining of various traditions. It judges the integrity of any existing approach to life inviolate; so any attempt to change it in behalf of transcultural or trans-ethnic unity is considered culturally immoral. Radical pluralism is antiholistic.

When the logic of making an "ism" out of cultural integrity is pressed to the extreme, the principle of supracultural human unity evaporates. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz gives us a hint regarding which way things might go. He suggests that "the basic unity of mankind" might become an empty phrase. To view the diversity of custom across time and over space not merely as a matter of garb or appearance but rather as an affirmation that humanity itself is various in its essences and expressions, he contends, "is to cast off the moorings of philosophical humanism, thus leading to an uneasy drifting into perilous waters. 2 In other words, if we are so intent on emphasizing the diversity or plurality, we will lose the sense of unity. We will sacrifice the very idea that there is one house for humanity. Geertz as an anthropologist is speaking as a social scientist. He is speaking descriptively. Pluralistic ideologists turn radical pluralism into a prescription, and this cannot but help somewhere down the line to fuel the flames of competition, division, and disunity.

What we need to affirm, I believe, is ecumenic pluralism. Ecumenic pluralism is based upon a vision of the whole. While from day to day on the surface of our earth we encounter the dividing walls of culture and the barriers of prejudice, we can still imagine the one world seen by the astronauts looking back from the horizon. Therefore, ecumenic pluralism affirms descriptively the side by side existence of various and contradictory perspectives, worldviews, or approaches to human understanding and living. In conjunction it affirms prescriptively that we should act as if all this plurality belongs to a greater whole. Such acting would be founded not upon what can be observed from our day to day perspective, nor upon the judgments of academic anthropologists, but rather upon our faith in God's unifying and fulfilling plan. The vision of one world is an anticipation of things to come.

All this comes down to this: the concept of a universal humanity must become an article of faith. We cannot prove this universality empirically on the basis of present terrestrial experience, yet it is something we both assume and strive after. Like other proleptic realities, the envisioned fullness of human unity will be realized only in the consummate kingdom of God. Now, amid the old aeon with its cultural conflicts, hierarchies, racism, and discrimination, it is not easily demonstrable that all people are equally and fully human. But we must assume it on the basis of a holistic vision, on the basis of a trust that God will eventually reveal that it has always been so.

This vision of a single universal humanity has already served as a driving force in the modern era. This belief in the unity of humanity ignited the fires of religious liberty, energized revolutions against monarchical tyrannies in the name of democracy, burned in the hearts of abolitionists and civil rights martyrs, still stokes the fires of opposition to apartheid and the caste system, and keeps ablaze the desire for equality between the sexes and the generations. This vision of human unity, whether an implicit or explicit article of faith, burns with the explosive power for transforming society.

This power may become defused, however, if the principle of radical pluralism like a Trojan horse makes its home within the citadel of theology, let alone within our culture. In the face of challenges in the past, the Christian faith has responded with confessional statements. Perhaps the time is coming when we will need to confess our faith in the existence of a single universal humanity, a faith not based upon empirical proof but upon trust in God's will for the consummate unity of the creation.

Interreligious Dialogue and the Universality of Christ

Now we need to ask: just what might be the implications of ecumenic pluralism for inter-religious dialogue? One of the general themes indicative of the postmodern consciousness is the re-emergence of an appreciation for things religious. Modern scientism, secularism, and materialism are now losing currency. A new respect for ancient traditions, a curiosity about esoteric symbolism, and a desire to learn mystical techniques are gaining in currency. Inter-religious dialogue is just one of the many exciting opportunities spawned by this new atmosphere.

Four Principles of Inter-religious Dialog: Confessional Universalism

Given what I have said about ecumenic pluralism, it seems to follow that Christians should have nothing to fear from engaging in interreligious dialogue. In fact, the opportunity to converse with people of other religious traditions about the things of greatest importance to our respective faiths should be greeted with enthusiasm. I suggest that one approach this matter with what I call a confessional universalist position, one that does not shrink from stating the authentic claims of the Christian faith while at the same time open-mindedly listening to and learning from the insights of others. It is confessional because it takes a stand regarding the gospel that has been borne through history by only one religious tradition, namely, Christianity. It is universal because its claims are ultimate--that is, they are thought to be valid for all people of all times and all places. In short, Christians have something to say. But in dialogue, they also listen.

This suggests certain conditions necessary to make interreligious dialogue fruitful. In addition to a cheerful and courteous demeanor that helps to make any conversation pleasant, there are four theoretical conditions necessary for genuine dialogue to take place.

First, each party to the dialogue must have a position to put forth. This is the pluralist assumption. If everyone were to agree with each other, or if the parties were to so waffle on their commitments that the issues became either blurred or lost, a pleasant discussion and a friendly visit might result. But unless there are two or more distinct positions represented there can be no real dialogue.

The second condition is a genuine disposition toward openness combined with the willingness to listen sympathetically to the position being advanced by representatives of the other tradition. It requires in principle the openness to consider seriously the possibility that there is validity to the claims being made by our partners in dialogue. It requires a readiness to be persuaded that reality is not the way we have assumed it to be, that there is some truth for us yet to learn, and that this dialogue just may provide the time and place where our understanding will be expanded and enriched. This is a situation in which the self-critical principle of systematic theology is appropriately invoked.

Attitude is important. Inter-religious dialogue is not based on the model of a labor-management negotiation that, although it has two parties in conversation, is strictly an adversarial debate. Labor-management negotiations are approached for the sole purpose of seeking the best interests of the side one is representing. They assume there is a finite pie of wealth and that each side wants the biggest slice it can get. There is no gain in losing. Dialogue, in contrast, is not adversarial. Here, ironically enough, losing could be winning. The spiritual pie is infinite in the wealth it offers the human soul. To lose-which consists in giving up some aspect of one's position because a new and better insight has come to replace it-results in a net gain of knowledge and understanding and perhaps even a strengthening of faith.

Third, genuine dialogue requires the disposition of love. Openness to new possibilities requires imputing integrity at the outset to one's partner in the discussion. It also elicits a desire to make the entire conversation serve to enrich all parties involved. This issues from love. By love here I mean a genuine enjoyment of the sharing that is taking place, the hope for affirming some degree of unity, and the desire to see the other partners in the discussion edified.

The fourth condition is sufficient time and stamina to discuss matters in depth and with thoroughness. Superficial banter about forms and practices in which each side feigns interest in the trivia that plague all ethnic and religious traditions is something less than genuine dialogue. Time and energy must be given for claim and counterclaim regarding the cardinal foundations and pillars of each position to be explicated, analyzed, criticized, defended, and discussed again. Depth and thoroughness are the tools with which we mine the dialogue for its precious jewels of enrichment.

I offer an etymology of the word dialogue to make my point. Logos is commonly known to be the Greek word for "word" or "conversation." The prefix di attached to words such as dipolar means "two," so it might seem obvious that a dialogue is a conversation between two parties. But a closer look will show that the prefix is dia, not di. Dia is the Greek preposition meaning through or throughout. Could we think of a dialogue as a conversation in which we talk a subject through, in which we exhaust its details and nuances and implications and draw out its full significance?

Confessional Exclusivism

There are a number of alternatives to the proposal I am offering here. One we might call the confessional exclusivist position. This is the view that once I have affirmed my faith in the centrality of Jesus Christ and the absoluteness of the revelation that he is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), then it would follow that interreligious dialogue is unnecessary if not outright apostasy. The assumption here is that the revelation that the Christian church possesses is complete and sufficient; hence, interreligious dialogue cannot add anything new or essential. In fact, it may even lead to some compromise and deterioration of the faith. The net result is that someone holding the confessional exclusivist position is not likely to show up for a dialogue with Buddhists or Hindus.

Confessional exclusivists seem to fear that in dialogue they will learn of new truths that will change their minds about things. Yes, it must be admitted: it is quite likely that dialogue will lead its participants to change their minds. But there is absolutely nothing to fear on this score. If the God in which Christians believe is in fact the creator of the cosmos and the gracious reconciler of all that is disparate, then there is no truth-if it be genuine truth and not partisan propaganda-that one could ever learn that could possibly lead away from God. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," said Jesus (John 14:6). This faith is in the truth. Dialogue and the honest listening for truth cannot knock one faithful to Christ off track. To have the "Spirit of truth" (I John 5:7) is to have truth's testimony within one's soul. A person of faith can live and converse with confidence-not arrogance-in this.

For the confessional universalist this means that the presentation of the claim to truth in Jesus Christ can be open, aboveboard, without tricks or gimmicks, and nondefensive. If one is genuinely concerned with the truth, and if the Spirit is in fact the truth, then one can speak with a certain attitude of letting go, of letting the truth do its own work. This is in part what Paul means when he says that "we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2). The temptation to employ techniques of persuasion such as belittling, brow-beating, cajoling, flattering, or verbal bribing should be resisted because they tend to deny the integrity of the dialogue partner and even give evidence of one's lack of confidence in the truth. In the long run, truth for both ourselves and for our friends in other religious traditions must be a matter of the heart, and a conviction of the heart cannot be won by force or trickery (Ps. 51:6; 1 Peter 1:22).

What happens if amid dialogue the partner refuses to accept the gospel or perhaps makes a flat and categorical denial of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the gracious promises that accompany this lordship? What happens if our partner says that what we say is untrue? Such a repudiation should come as no surprise, of course. This opposition to the gospel is generally implied by the very presence of non-Christians in interreligious dialogue, and it occasionally surfaces and becomes the issue under discussion. If at this point one has already become fully committed to the dialogue process, the temptation will be great to modify and weaken the Christian position, to reduce or eliminate its demands so as to avoid offending the others. This is a genuine and heartfelt temptation because the Christian does not want to appear to be uncompromising or inhospitable. Such a temptation is actually a healthy sign because it signals that love and a sense of ecumenic unity are present. Nevertheless, it is in fact a temptation and as such deserves caution. Giving in to this temptation would sever the tie with the very reason one entered into dialogue in the first place. Therefore, I suggest that the temptation to surrender one's commitment to Jesus Christ for the sake of a contrived unity of belief should be resisted. Regarding this commitment, the confessional exclusivists and confessional universalists have something important in common.

Yet at this point in the dialogue-the point of position and counterposition-the Christian conversant ought to probe further and ask for the fullest possible exposition of the alternative position. Through listening carefully he or she should employ the tools of critical consciousness to apprehend how the world looks apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather than looking for those features of religion that Christianity and the other religious tradition hold in common so as to make agreement appear easy, one should ask for a critical appraisal of the very heart of the Christian faith's foundations, the gospel itself. This means listening with such a degree of openness that the question is honestly asked: is the Christian claim regarding the universality of Christ wrong? There is room for this question because on this side of the eschaton we still live by faith. We await God's confirmation. It is logically possible that Christians are wrong in what they believe, and should the temporal process roll on and on with no parousia it would in principle disconfirm the Christian faith. One cannot cover up this realm of doubt with a phony claim to certainty. At its very heart the Christian belief system has made itself subject to a still outstanding truth, and the believer must not waver in trusting in the truth when confronted with the most direct challenges. This openness to divine confirmation or disconfirmation has a byproduct-that is, it permits and even encourages honesty in assessing the claims of non-Christians.

This is by no means a license to be gullible or a call to surrender faith's most cherished beliefs in advance. It is a simple plea to remove the dogmatic wax from Christian ears long enough to hear what is being said and to reassess honestly one's own confessional commitment. The process of making this reassessment should be carried on out loud and in light of the perspective and logic of the counterposition in the existing dialogue. There is nothing to hide. No violent defense is called for. What is called for is a careful and thoughtful rethinking amid the context of the open dialogue that critically and evangelically reassesses the symbols of Christian faith. The process itself, whether one restates the original Christian claim or not, will carry its own integrity and power.

Supraconfessional Universalism

Not all who advocate interreligious dialogue agree with the confessional universalist position I offer here. Confessional exclusivists do not. Neither do theologians in the camp of John Hick, Paul Knitter, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, or Hans Kang, who represent a school of thought that would prematurely abdicate Christian universalism. This group is critical of the emphasis on the centrality and universality of Jesus Christ in the confessional faith of historic Christianity. Hick in particular argues that the Chalcedonian two-natures Christology represents an unwarranted deification of an otherwise human Jesus, and this he believes has led to the unconscionable Christian attitudes of exclusivity and triumphalism. To have genuine interreligious dialogue, Hick contends, Christians must overcome this tendency toward exclusivity at the outset, and that can be done by removing Jesus Christ from his position at the center of God's revelation and from his position in the divine Trinity.

In this position there is a shift away from a christocentric religion toward a theocentric model of a universe of faiths. Rather than advocate one or another existing religious perspective, this supraconfessional theology would see the existing world religions as different human responses to the one divine reality. Like Ramakrishna in the last century, who saw all the religions of the world as different roads up the same mountain, today's supraconfessional universalists see the various religions as different roads to the same center. What is at the center? The godhead. There is one divine noumenon (transcendent religious reality) behind all the religions, they say, that provides for the cognitive or informational input for each tradition. This divine input is interpreted by the minds of each tradition in terms of its own categorical system of thought, so that the one numinous reality becomes expressed in different modes of historically conditioned interpretation. The Christian religion allegedly consists in one of the many such historical modes of expression for this one divine reality. Thus, the claims of confessional Christianity can be said to be true for Christians in Western society, but what Hindus and Buddhists believe in the East is equally true for them.

Hick writes again and again that we need to get beyond what he calls the "older view"-which I take to be the confessional exclusivist view where we see the non-Christian religions as "outside the sphere of God's saving activity... And so the older assumption that all human beings must be converted to Jesus as their only Lord and Saviour, if they are to become acceptable to God, has given place to dialogue with people of other traditions on a basis of full mutual respect." He quotes Bishop John V. Taylor with approval, "We believe now that the Ultimate Reality upon which the faith of all believers is focussed in every religion is the same." 3

I have been calling this position supraconfessional universalism because it seeks to supersede previous confessional commitments within Christianity in order to embrace what we might call an extra-religious or perhaps philosophical affirmation regarding a universal or comprehensive perspective. Hick's metaphysical thesis, expressed clearly in the title of one of his books, God Has Many Names, is that there is only one very transcendent divine reality that is partially revealed in Christianity and is similarly revealed in non-Christian religious traditions as well. 4

This transcendent reality is depicted theistically by Hick, especially when he advocates theocentrism in opposition to Christocentrism. Nontheistic religions there is not only universal revelation-what has traditionally been called natural revelation-but also universal salvation. Every religious tradition is said to be salvific. How does Hick know that every tradition is salvific? It is important to note that this assertion regarding the presence of salvation in all the religions is a philosophical assumption. It is not the result of an empirical investigation of existing religious traditions to see if salvation is actually present. That each religion has salvific efficacy is imputed as a condition for establishing mutual respect in order to pursue dialogue.

Once this position is assumed, then the ground for the centrality and universal normativity of Jesus Christ as well as for the Christian mission of evangelism is undercut. Why would anyone want to give up this confessional commitment to the centrality of Christ? Answer: for the purpose of redefining mission in terms of interreligious dialogue. Paul Knitter makes this explicit when he says that intellectually and psychologically it is not possible to give oneself wholly to Jesus and at the same time recognize the possibility that other saviors have carried out this same function for other people. In order to avoid being hamstrung by the exclusivist mindset that prevents dialogue, we need to consign claims for Jesus' exclusive role in salvation for humanity to a past and now outdated thought-pattern. Knitter invites us to consider a new thought-pattern belonging to a new minority of theologians who consider taking the position that Jesus Christ is no longer normative for Christian faith. 5

The method seems to be that if we can spread the assumption that all religious retailers are brokers in the commodity of salvation, then the Christian monopoly will be broken. Once the monopoly is broken, then the quality of interreligious dialogue will improve because the Christian conversant will then allegedly be pursuing truth rather than stating their confessional positions. Instead of carrying out their mission to evangelize, they will be going to school.

If we were to use a food analogy to track the scope of salvation envisioned by the ancient Hebrews, by the teachings of Jesus, and by the supraconfessional universalists, I think it would look something like this. According to the mindset of the ancient Hebrews, only the chosen people of God would be invited to eat. According to the teachings of Jesus, God's messengers would go out to the highways and hedges to bring people in so that no one goes hungry. According to the supraconfessional, universalists, we would simply declare that everyone has already eaten, eliminating the need to offer them any food.

Now, people such as John Hick and Paul Knitter certainly offer a refreshing freedom with which to reassess critically the Christian symbols, and their desire to place dialogue on a foundation of mutual respect is no doubt well intentioned. However, there is also a glaring non sequitur in the argument. The logical inconsistency of the argument can be demonstrated by showing how if pressed very far it first destroys the heart of the Christian commitment and, thereby, second, destroys the ground for interreligious dialogue itself

First, let us ask if we can have genuine Christian faith if we remove the universal and normative significance of Jesus Christ that is already present within the most compact forms of Christian symbolization. Beginning with Yahweh hardening pharaoh's heart during the Exodus-which means that the God of Israel was also the God of Egypt even if the Egyptians did not know it-and extending through the competition of Elijah with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel to the repudiation of idol worship in Isaiah, the Hebrew tradition that the Christians inherited consistently affirmed the universal reach of the God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. The New Testament claim is that this same God has become Emmanuel, has entered the finite confines of human history at a particular time and place, and has acted decisively in Jesus of Nazareth. "No one comes to the Father except through me," says Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (John 14:6). One of Peter's addresses implies an undeniable uniqueness: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). That name has been exalted "above every name," writes Paul, so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11).

This bold confession, "Jesus Christ is Lord," is itself a phrase that accounted for numerous martyrs amid a climate in which it was thought that only Caesar was lord. Would it have helped in the pursuit of truth for the early church to make it clear that it believed there was a single nameless and transcendent divine reality that was revealed equally through Caesar and Jesus, and that salvation could be found in both? Should Christians have affirmed the saving efficacy of Caesar right along with that of Jesus Christ? The New Testament Christians could not do this because the very truth to which the symbols pointed would not permit such compromise. One needs to ask: would Christianity actually be Christianity without its commitment to the universality of the truth regarding Jesus, a commitment so strong that death is preferable to its denial?

All this adds up to the observation that the universality of Jesus Christ belongs indelibly to the basic symbols of the faith. We have no picture of the historical Jesus apart from his universal significance. Should we remove all claims having to do with his close relationship to God the Father and the creation as a whole, then like sand flowing through our fingers the identifiable Jesus would dissipate. There is no getting around the Christian explication of the evangel that holds that Jesus Christ is not just one son of God among many; he is the only begotten Son of God. He is not a savior but the savior. He is not one lord sharing his lordship with other rulers divine or human or both; he is the Lord. In the words of Carl Braaten, "He is the one and only Christ, or he is not Christ at all. He is the one and only Son of God, or he is not God's Son at all. He is the one and only Savior, or he is no Savior at all. 6

Consequently, the supraconfessional universalist position in effect asks Christians to deny an essential element in their identity. Christians are being asked to repudiate the significance of Jesus inherent in scripture's most basic symbolic formulations. Christian representatives are being asked to enter into dialogue but not to represent the full tradition of which they are a part. By denying the unique and universal relationship that exists between Jesus and the ground of all being at the outset, people holding the supraconfessional position are hoping-hoping in vain in my view-that the dialogue will yield more truth.

Yet this position overlooks the problem of belief versus unbelief. "Do you not believe," asks Jesus, "that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (John 14:10). This passage implies that it is possible-perhaps even likely-that some people might not believe what is said about Jesus or what Jesus says about himself. It must be admitted that the claim is a bit outrageous, so outrageous that some who heard it but did not believe it became angry and "sought all the more to kill him" (John 5:18). From New Testament times on the question has been: do you believe it? There are two possible answers, yes and no. Both have been given with considerable frequency.

The supraconfessional universalist position would alter this to read: I no longer believe it, so I wish to enter dialogue to find a different truth I have already presupposed, namely, that revelation and salvation can be found equally in the various religious traditions. What this does, first, is water down the yes-no conflict within Christendom. Supraconfessional universalists say no to Jesus' uniqueness and universality, but yes to the general presence of revelation and salvation within the Christian religion. Then they do the same for non-Christian religions, denying them the opportunity to say no to Jesus by affirming that they have already said yes to the same revelatory and saving power. It is all quite positive and upbeat. According to the supraconfessional agenda, interreligious relations will have left the yes-no conflict behind and entered a Shangri-La of yes, yes, yes.

This brings us to the second implication of the supraconfessional non sequitur. Without a genuine Christian position taken and represented, a genuine dialogue between Christians and non-Christians cannot take place. Dialogue requires two different perspectives or positions of understanding that face and engage one another. But if we look at the Christian chair and find it empty, it will leave the non-Christian to engage in a monologue. What would make the Christian chair empty is not the absence of a theologian, but the presence of a theologian who has given the position away before the dialogue has begun. For authentic dialogue we need theologians, priests, and laypersons whose lives are guided by their respective religious symbol systems to engage one another, not philosophers or even scholars of the world's religions.' The quest for supraconfessional universals belongs to the province of the philosophy of religion and should not be mistaken for interreligious dialogue.

The supraconfessional universalists are actually a tertium quid. They could not represent either of the religious traditions engaged in a given dialogue. Consequently, conversations between supraconfessional universalists are not likely to yield much in the way of new truth regarding basic religious perspectives. Why? Because they believe they have already established an unassailable truth at the level of assumption-that is, they have taken the equivalent of a confessional stance. The cardinal doctrine of this stance is this: there is a mysterious and transcendent reality that has only partially revealed itself in each of the various religious traditions, and the normative claims of each tradition are due to human narrow-mindedness and not to the validity of any of the claims. Therefore, one need not investigate the possibility that normative claims-whether Christian, Muslim, or whatever-are true. This assumption prevents dialogue because it deems in advance the possible validity of any normative claim made by one tradition over against a competing claim made by another tradition. No normative claim by any particular religion can be the result of an actual normative revelation on the part of the divine. In other words, the a priori inclusivist position taken by these philosophers of religion has ruled out in advance the possible validity of any of the exclusivist claims. This is hardly open-mindedness.

I am not trying to discourage dialogue. I am rather trying to encourage it. The issue is whether a Christian needs to give up his or her commitment to the universality and normativeness of Christ before entering into dialogue. I say no. Nor does a Muslim have to give up commitment to the normativeness of the Qur'an. Nor does a dialogue partner from any other religion-even if it makes exclusivist claims-have to surrender key commitments before dialogue begins. What is necessary for dialogue is critical consciousness, the willingness to listen carefully to the other party and openly consider what valuable things might be said. This implies willingness to look at one's own religious commitment from the point of view of the other tradition, exploring the broadening of one's own horizon of understanding. We may in the process of conversation discover the presence of revelation or even salvation in another tradition. It is also possible that we may not. But we cannot decide in advance. We need the actual dialogue in order to find these things out.

In sum, interreligious dialogue is eviscerated by the supraconfessional universalist position on two counts. First, there is the loss of two distinctly different perspectives. Second, the dogmatism of the supraconfessionalist position assumes a universalist doctrine that is itself immune from criticism by any particular religious tradition.

Thus, I believe the confessional universalist position I advocate here is more honest regarding the nature of the unity that must be presupposed if dialogue is to take place. The supraconfessional universalists seem to assume they already know what that unity is-that is, it is an eternal transcendent noumenon. The confessional universalist position entertains this as a hypothetical possibility, but it goes on to posit that such a unity does not in fact exist as a historical phenomenon. It has yet to become actualized. Our historical experience is in fact one of plurality. What turns plurality into ecumenic pluralism is our act of faith in the one God who promises to actualize a unity that we now can only anticipate.

The confessional universalist position is also more honest regarding the fundamental claims of the Christian faith; and it is better able on this count to understand sympathetically the normative if not exclusivist claims of other traditions such as Islam. On the one hand, it grants the realistic possibility that dialogue just might end with a standoff, with a set of claims and counterclaims with no resolution, and with no pretense of an invisible higher unity of agreement. On the other hand, this is by no means inevitable. Christians must remember that the basic symbols of their faith are open and protean in character. The explicated doctrines of faith arc not engraved in everlasting cement. Growth and change can be expected, even encouraged. Dialogue just may help in this growth. One does not know unless one engages in it. One can enter into the conversation with nothing more than the desire to see what comes of it.

The Question of Universal Salvation

We must work our way through the smoke screen to see just what in fact is burning in this issue of supraconfessional universalism. The smoke might make us think at first that the issue is that of universal revelation; but a bit of fanning the smoke then makes us see it is really the issue of universal salvation that fuels the flame. What is really hidden in the smoke and what is really creating the heat is the underlying intolerance of the supraconfessional universalist position toward certain ideas belonging to one religious tradition, Christianity. John Hick is intolerant of the Christian idea that some people might spend eternity in hell. Let me try to trace the steps through the smoke to the fire.

First, the supraconfessionalist position acknowledges in its own way what scholastic theologians used to call natural revelation-that is, the knowledge of God available to other religious traditions and philosophies apart from revelation in Jesus Christ. Then it proceeds to assert that salvation is universal too.

I have some sympathy here. The mood of the present work in systematic theology, concerned as it is with an ecumenic faith, is somewhat critical of Christian churches for narrow-mindedness when they assert extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church). Such criticism appears pertinent from time to time when Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, or some Protestant denominations claim excessive authority and so closely identify themselves with the church that the slogan comes to read: no salvation outside our denomination. I criticize this position because it is presumptuous, because it puts a human institution in the position of doing Christ's work of saving people.

Curiously enough the supraconfessionalist position seems to be assuming the same authority. Only instead of withholding salvation from those outside the church, it now distributes it willy-nilly. John Hick seems to be passing out salvation to the various religions as indiscriminately as a street preacher passes out tracts to pedestrians. Everybody gets it. But how do we know that everybody gets it? We know it evidently because we assume it, not because we have studied all the religions and drawn this conclusion. It is the assumption of a philosopher of religion, not the product of empirical study.

Yet in pondering this assumption, we cannot help but wonder: if so many billions of people for so many centuries in so many religious traditions all have had salvation, why is our world in the shape it is today? In practically every nation we have domestic quarrels, alcoholism, drug abuse, petty crime, felonious crime, disappointment, want, guilt, anxiety, fear of death, suffering, and strife. In some countries millions if not billions are plagued by hopeless poverty, oppression, famine, and starvation. The whole world trembles in the grip of the technological and political forces that threaten geocide through thermonuclear war. Whether from a nonmaterialist or spiritual point of view, the peoples of our world continue to walk in the darkness of selfish desire and narrow-mindedness without even the zest for seeking enlightenment. With all this salvation everywhere, why are we in such a mess?

Salvation Defined

The question needs to be refined because the term salvation or its equivalent does not mean exactly the same thing in every religious tradition. In fact, what constitutes salvation can vary so significantly from tradition to tradition that various traditions seem hardly to be speaking about the same thing. The contrast between materialism and mysticism can serve as an example. According to a materialist ideology such as Marxism, the equivalent of salvation consists in the satisfaction of economic needs and the triumph of the oppressed class over bourgeois exploitation. If that is so, then certainly salvation could not be universal because millions and billions of people have died and are dying amid a state of economic injustice. They will never live to see the success of the revolution. In mystical schools of ancient Asian traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, in contrast, the equivalent to salvation consists in some form of egoless enlightenment, in the realization of the oneness of the self with the whole of the cosmos, and with escaping the wheel of rebirth so that the finite material world can be left behind forever. Now these two views of salvation are mutually exclusive. There is no way to reconcile mysticism with materialism because, according to the mystic, the materialist's very preoccupation with economic well-being and temporal justice is exactly what precipitates karma and prevents the soul's release. If the finite material world brings only ephemerality and grief, as Asian mystics think, then the materialist doctrine of economic liberation would point to just the opposite of salvation. What, then, does it mean to say we find salvation everywhere?

The Christian understanding of salvation differs from both of these. Here the concept of salvation emerges from the compact symbol of the gospel itself. In brief, salvation consists in Christ's forgiveness of sins and the gift of a transformed and renewed life in the kingdom of God. "Salvation in the New Testament is what God has done to death in the resurrection of Jesus," writes Carl Braaten. "The gospel is the announcement that in one man's history death is no longer the eschaton, but was only the second-to-last thing.... Our final salvation lies in the eschatological future when our own death will be put behind US. 8

This Christian doctrine of resurrection appears problematic from the point of view of materialists and mystics. Marxism accuses the Christian emphasis on the resurrected life of being escapist, of fostering belief in the happiness of another world that eliminates motivation for improving this one. As I will argue later in my discussion of proleptic ethics, the Marxist interpretation is simply wrong on this; but the important point here is that materialists believe it. Similarly, from the mystical point of view, the Christian hope in resurrection appears to be an impediment to true salvation because it amounts to the illusory hope for an eschatological return to ego-consciousness. If, as the Hindus or Buddhists think, salvation consists in enlightened knowing beyond ego-ness, then the Christian gratitude for forgiveness would appear irrelevant. In short, the content of salvation differs from tradition to tradition, and salvation in one case rules out salvation in other cases.

Even with these observations, we have not yet taken account of what happens within a given religious tradition. Within each tradition one can sometimes discriminate between those who get salvation and those who do not. What rational sense would it make, then, to say that all religions arc salvific? Whose definition of salvation would we use? If we use the definition of only one of the various religions, then we are right back where we started.

Therefore, the problem is not merely one of asserting the existence of salvation everywhere. It is knowing what it is.

It is also knowing what it is not. Salvation is not going to everlasting hell. Here is the fire that has been sending up all that smoke regarding universal revelation and universal salvation. Hick opposes the traditional Christian doctrine of hell, which he says "is as scientifically fantastic as it is morally revolting." 9 He opposes the very concept of a double destiny and the exclusivism and religious discrimination that he believes are produced by it. Hick thinks a universalist position will foster more humane treatment of non-Christians by Christians. This is a noble intent. I can only applaud his desire to fostcr mutual respect and friendship in social relationships. Yet, this position creates confusion because Hick's own philosophical position actually functions as one position within interreligious dialogue while pretending to serve as the inclusive framework for dialogue itself

How do we get out of this confusion? We need to clear the smoke and fully accept the reality of pluralism. This means we must recognize Hick's proposal for what it is, namely, one confessional position within the plurality of positions regarding the nature of revelation and salvation. It is not a precondition that all must accept in order for dialogue to take place. We must keep in mind not only that there are different concepts of salvation in the different traditions, but that within a given tradition it is not necessarily the case that everyone is thought to attain salvation. A particular religion might conceive of more than one ultimate destiny, such as heaven and hell, and disagree with the premise that everyone goes to heaven. If there is no doctrine of universal salvation already within a given confessional tradition, to force it upon such a tradition from a supraconfessional point of view violates the integrity of dialogue. The acceptance of pluralism means, among other things, that if a given religious tradition teaches double or multiple ultimate destinies, then it should be permitted to express that position without an attack on its integrity at the outset. This should include all major religions, Christianity included. There is no reason to discriminate against Christianity just because it may teach double destiny. Many other religions do too.

The Universality of Christ's Saving Work

After all this is said, I must thank Hick for the insight and courage to question critically the Christian understanding of salvation and damnation. Let us for a moment continue the questioning along this track.

I raise again the question of double destiny versus universal salvation. For centuries the Christian church has taught that the existence of an everlasting heaven and an everlasting hell is necessary for the execution of divine distributive justice. But in the modern period this has been challenged by nonreligious Marxists who deny the existence of heaven and by religious universalists who deny the existence of hell. This is one of those issues that stretch to the limits the theological method of symbol explication. It is stretched necessarily because of an inconsistency that seems to be built into the compact symbol structure itself. One could easily line up passages in the New Testament that say three different-and perhaps even incompatible-things.

First, the New Testament seems to say that salvation will apply to some people and not others on the grounds that one must have faith in order to be saved and only some people have faith while others obviously do not. Saint Paul says salvation is for "everyone who has faith" (Rom. 1:16), and the oft-quoted John 3:16 says eternal life is given to those who believe in Jesus. Now we just might ask: what happens to those who do not have faith? Do such passages imply that those without faith are condemned to everlasting perdition? If so, then salvation is by no means universal.

Second, a double destiny is clearly articulated by those passages that claim that salvation is dependent upon the virtuous works we perform. The most forceful statement of this position is Jesus' parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. The sheep are separated from the goats. What is the criterion? Love of neighbor. The saved sheep go to the right hand of the Son of man because they visited the sick and imprisoned and gave food and drink to the hungry and clothes to the destitute. The goats who failed to love their neighbors in this way follow the direction the left hand is pointing. It points to everlasting hell. Faith and belief are not mentioned in this passage. Only good works determine if a person goes to heaven or not.

There is a third category of passages that tend to support the position of universal salvation. These so emphasize that salvation is dependent upon God's grace and not human works that all conditions are precluded. Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we are saved by grace. "It is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8- Rom. 3:24). God's grace is universal. It knows no bounds. Christ "died for all" (2 Cor. 5:15), "so all will be made alive in Christ" (I Cor. 15:22). How should we interpret this "all"? Does it refer to everybody? To those without faith as well as the faithful? To non-Christian as well as Christian? It would seem to. "The act of righteousness of one leads to acquittal and life for all" (Rom. 5:18; ILL).

It appears that we have three irreconcilable positions within the New Testament: whether we are granted everlasting salvation depends on (1) whether or not we have faith; (2) whether or not we love our neighbor; or (3) neither of the above, because salvation is totally a free gift of God's grace and hence cannot be earned by anything we do. Are these three positions just three different ways of saying the same thing, or is there a real incompatibility here? Unfortunately for the theologian, the differences seem to run deep. Certainly these three approaches as they stand could not be taken up into a theological system without introducing inconsistency and incoherence. What shall we do?

Based on all I have said above, I think most favorably of the third alternative, a universalist interpretation of sola gratia. But before I develop this any further I need to be honest and admit that all of the New Testament cannot simply be swept into this basket with nothing left over. Strict exegesis would lead in more than one direction. Therefore, any systematic theology that seeks to harmonize everything so that all the elements cohere with one another must be alert here. It will be difficult if not impossible to do successful systematics without doing injustice to one or another path taken by exegesis.

Nevertheless, let us proceed and ask where evangelical explication might take us. John Hick's sensitive question is worth repeating: is it credible that the loving God and Father of all of us has decreed that only those born within one particular thread of human history shall be saved? It would not seem credible. Why? Because as we try to explicate the meaning inherent in the gospel, we begin to think of God in certain ways. Rather than a ruthless and capricious despot, God is a loving Father, gracious in disposition, just in his judgment, sympathetic in feeling, and caring in action. Furthermore, the very concept of forgiveness of sins so tempers justice with mercy that one wonders if there is room left for exacting as fierce a punishment as the concept of hell seems to imply. To consign persons to hell for not loving their neighbors when they have been forgiven seems to remove the force of forgiveness. To consign some people to everlasting damnation because they do not confess that Jesus is Lord, which may be because they just happen to have been born in an Islamic or Buddhist or Shinto setting, sounds unjust, unfair, unbefitting the God of mercy we have come to know through the saving work of Jesus Christ. These considerations tend to lead toward a doctrine of universal salvation.


Let us for a moment follow where the logic of evangelical explication might lead, even if it prescinds from something less than the whole counsel of New Testament symbols. I suggest that a focus on divine love and grace would lead to offering two complementary hypotheses, First, salvation will be universal-that is, it has been given in Christ and will be applied to all human beings regardless of their sinful behavior on earth. Second, hell, if it does exist now, cannot last forever. Only God's kingdom is everlasting. Why does evangelical explication lead in this direction?

Let us mention the two attributes of God that are called into question by the theodicy issue, namely, God understood as both all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-loving (omnibeneficent). If God is all-powerful, then the forces of evil cannot have ultimate power. If hell or hades represents the domain of the devil, and if this domain is understood as the kingdom of evil standing over against God, then it cannot be as enduring as the kingdom of God. If hell were to remain forever, it would also remain as a constant reminder that God's will is not completely done, that God's power is less than complete. Unless God's kingdom is universal and all-inclusive, God is not all-powerful. Therefore, hell, if it exists, must be temporary, and once it passes out of existence all will be taken into the consummate kingdom of God.

Now, one might counter: what if we think of hell not as the domain of the devil that exists contrary to the will of God, but rather as existing under the domain of divine power itself? What if we think of hell as God's means for executing distributive justice? Then we would have to ask what it means to say that God is all-loving. This divine love is understood by the Christian gospel to apply even to sinful people, even to those who have not loved God in return. "Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). Hence, this love is expressed in terms of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. If God's love is capable of extending grace and forgiveness even to those most detestable to God, then it seems that this love would effect the elimination of hell. Thus, to posit that God uses omnipotent power to establish a place of everlasting torment and suffering as retribution for sin would appear to draw a limit to this gracious loving.

This leads to another much more delicate argument in behalf of the concept of universal salvation in heaven, when heaven is understood as the kingdom of God. It has to do with the nature of love and the New Testament observation that "we love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Love is holomorphic-that is, it is more than simply a quality of an individual's personality. It is a participatory power or energy that unites one individual with another and both to the whole. One of the significant characteristics of holomorphic love is sympathy. Combining syn with pathos, the word sympathy means feeling someone else's pain with him or her. The precedent begins with God. Yahweh of Israel saw the sufferings of the chosen people in Egypt and "heard their cry" (Exod.3:7) and responded with the Exodus deliverance. So also Christians believe God has responded to the sufferings of the whole world by sharing in them through Jesus' sufferings, and by using such sufferings as a means of deliverance. To love is to feel the pain of the other. To feel someone else's pain is to be pained in oneself; and we cannot be released from sympathetic pain until healing has occurred. Just as God so loved this world (John 3:16), so also do those who love God groan in travail (Rom. 8:22) in behalf of the healing of all things. This is the interconnectedness and wholeness of things coming to expression through sympathetic love. Love will not rest from sympathetic suffering until all things are made whole.

This implies universal salvation and the end to hell. How? Suppose heaven were populated with persons who genuinely love others just as God first loved us. Further, suppose these loving souls were aware that somewhere beyond the walls of heaven there existed another place, hell, where the souls of the damned were undergoing continuous and everlasting suffering from incessant, hot flames that neither consumed them nor let them lose consciousness. How would those people in heaven feel? If they loved sympathetically, they too would feel the pain of the damned. So anxious would they be to see the sufferings of the damned stopped and their souls released from agony, that they would find heaven a miserable place; and if heaven is miserable, then it is not truly heaven. It is intrinsic to the nature of love that it be complete and whole. Partial fulfillment-fulfillment for oneself while others remain unfulfilled-runs contrary to the very nature of the love that we believe we have been bequeathed by God. In short, heaven could not be heaven if there existed a hell alongside it.

The pair of hypotheses I am suggesting here does not try to answer the question of whether hell exists now or not, although it is obvious that if hell does exist it belongs to an interim period prior to the consummation. Certainly Jesus and the New Testament writers assumed that hell does exist. My point here is that one path evangelical explication can take is toward the position that hell, if it does exist, cannot last forever and that salvation is for the whole of God's creation. The power and love of God would forbid the everlasting existence of hell. For textual evidence, one can cite the dramatic conclusion of the Apocalypse of John where the devil, death, and Hades itself are all destroyed when they are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Perhaps this is a vivid way for the New Testament to make the point that when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, there will be no more room left for hell.

Now let me repeat a methodological caution mentioned earlier. The hypothesis regarding universal salvation is just that, a hypothesis. It is not dogma. It is an attempt to explicate evangelically the New Testament symbols. But in pursuing this line of theological reasoning I have never ceased to be aware that some other biblical texts seem to lead in another direction, in the direction of an everlasting double destiny. In fact, through the years the double destiny position has dominated Christian thinking and become the orthodox position in many circles.

To be more precise, the hypothetical position I suggest here is a form of an ancient doctrine that has often been repudiated, namely, apocatastasis, which holds that Satan and all sinners will ultimately be restored to God. Even in our own time apocatastasis has been rejected, but when it is rejected, curiously enough, there seems to be considerable pussyfooting around it. Karl Barth argues, on the one hand, for the universal saving work of Jesus Christ for all persons while, on the other hand, he will not permit us to say that God's salvific intention will "finally be coincident with the world." 10 Barth will say yes without equivocation to the universality of God's grace, but the answer to the question of universal salvation he consigns to divine mystery. Karl Rahner waffles in a similar fashion. In his article on hell in Sacramentum Mundi he takes a firm stand against apocatastasis. But in his Foundations, where the weight shifts a bit toward universalism, he shrinks from positively endorsing double destiny, saying that "the existence of the possibility that freedom will end in eternal loss stands alongside the doctrine that the history of the world as a whole will in fact enter into eternal life with God." 11 Now one could sharply criticize Barth and Rahner on systematic grounds for lack of consistency and coherence, for their inability to bring universal grace and double destiny together. But it is not the fault of the systematicians here. The ambiguity lies in the biblical symbols themselves, and this ambiguity continues to be reflected in the systematic yet faithful explication of those symbols.

    • Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread;
    • Still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.
    • As you, Lord, in deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul,
    • By your Spirit send your power to our world to make it whole.
    • -- Albert E Bayly

The spirituality that accompanies a proleptic understanding of the Christian faith is what I call the life of beatitude. The name comes from the structure of Jesus' Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, where the blessings of the future kingdom of God are mysteriously present now in anticipation. Those who are poor in spirit, or who mourn, or who are meek are blessed in some enigmatic way, says Jesus, because these dispositions somehow anticipate the salvation that God has promised will come. Those who hunger and thirst after justice, show mercy, and make peace already participate even if unknowingly in the wholeness that will imbue the new creation.

The ethical thinking appropriate to the life of beatitude, I think, should lead in the direction of proleptic ethics. In this chapter I will describe the ethics of a Christian life influenced by postmodern ecumenic consciousness as holistic, creative, ecological, and proleptic. It is probably obvious that the proleptic ethic I plan on developing here will be an evangelical ethic-that is, it takes as its point of departure the freedom won for humankind by the gospel, by the evangel. Having been freed from the tyranny of the law and having received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians can develop an ethic that seeks to give co-creative expression to the power of love.

Co-creative love is crucial for meeting the challenges of the present global crisis, what some futurists call the world problematique. World leadership desperately needs middle axioms that bridge the gap between the universal imperative to love and the concrete actions that individuals and groups must decide to take. In the following discussion I will suggest seven such middle axioms. I will call them proleptic principles, and they are intended to provide guidance in the face of international strife, the environmental crisis, and economic injustice. The remaining step is for Christian individuals and groups to make creative application-that is, to engage the world passionately yet with wisdom and sound judgment.

  • Bibliography
    • 1. See Eric C. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, vol. 4 of Order and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956-1987), 201-7. Postmodern theorist Jean Gebser develops the notion of "oceanic thinking" based upon okeanos, in which the "not-only-but also" sense of inclusivity is emphasized. This contrasts with the alleged "either-or" attitude of the modern mind (The Ever-present Origin [Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985], 253).and that men cannot understand women. A hands-off policy has emerged. To some extent this is justified. Past wrongs need to be righted. Nevertheless, if left to persist in its own logic, such thinking will lead to baptizing a radical pluralism that will justify a return to tribal parochialism and the loss of a sense of responsibility to the shared ecumené.
    • 2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Harper Colophon edition, 1973), 36-37.
    • 3. John Hick, "A Response to Hebblethwaite," in Michael Goulder, ed., Incarnation and Myth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979), 193; see John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973), 131; idem, "Jesus and the World Religions," in The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 179, and in God Has Many Names (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 73-75-1 see also Paul Knitter, No Other Name? (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1985), 147, 208-9. Also in this genre belongs Wilfred Cantwell Smith's Theology of the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 198 1) and Hans Kung's Christianity and the World Religions (New York: Doubleday, 1986). A critical alternative can be found in Carl E. Braaten, No Other Gospel! Christianity among the World's Religions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
    • 4. On some occasions this transcendent reality is depicted theistically by Hick, especially when he advocates theocentrism in opposition to Christocentrism. Nontheistic religions such as Buddhism, may find this a dubious concession, however, because they do not affirm the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, Hick kicks himself up into a higher level of abstraction and speaks of "reality-centrism" or the "Eternal One" so as to include both theists and nontheists. The effective result is a transcendental agnosticism in which we posit a nournenon without any qualities. Gavin D'Costa criticizes Hick here for cutting his moorings with all of the Semitic religions ("Theology of Religions," in David E Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians, 2 vols. [Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989], 2:281).
    • 5. Knitter, No Other Name? 146, 230.
    • 6. Braaten, "The Person of Jesus Christ," in Chr.D., 2:561.
    • 7. Fortunately, Knitter agrees that in dialogue theologians (not history of religions scholars) should represent their traditions (No Other Name? 203-4). So does John Cobb in Beyond Dialogue (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1982).
    • 8. Braaten, "The Person of Jesus Christ," in Chr.D., 1:566.
    • 9. Hick, Death and Eternal Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1976), 199.
    • 10. Barth, CD, 2/2:417.
    • 11. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (New York: Seabury, Crossroad, 1978), 444; see idem, TI, 5:121-22.

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