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We have witnessed in recent years the flowering of various Christian pluralistic theologies calling for unequivocal affirmation of the equal validity of all world faiths. It is argued that Christianity (and to some extent other traditions) has been infected with a virulent exclusivist virus, the disease of imagining its religious truth superior to all others and its path to salvation the only one. This sickness is perceived as similar to, and in the West often reinforced by, elements of racial and cultural prejudice, so that a devaluation of non-Christian religions goes hand in hand with devaluation of the culture and humanity of those who participate in them. 

Advocates of pluralistic theology maintain that there is no antidote to this virus but a consistent reconstruction of the fundamentals of Christian faith. They insist that any responsible theology must now claim the religious experience of all humanity as its ground and avoid shaping its understanding in the terms of only one or a few privileged traditions. Yet these pluralistic theologies themselves, in their methods and categories, bear throughout the very particular marks of Western Christianity’s conflict with modernity. Their supposed authority as a basis for reconstructing Christian thought and intensifying understanding among the faiths is hostage to the presumed universality of that conflict: a universality that the premises of the theologies themselves counsel us to question. 

Pluralistic approaches are primarily noted for their conviction that the various religious traditions must all be equally true and saving. No precedence attaches to Christianity; no normative value should be accorded to its particular beliefs or experience or to those of any particular tradition. The minor and often unstated premise of this conviction, however, is that if all faiths are valid, they can be so only at the bar of the same conditions of Western modernity to which Christianity or Judaism have long had to answer. This is the point I want to consider. 

In the past, many Christians set terms by which other religions must be considered false. Pluralistic theologies now set terms under which all religions must be considered true. The first set of terms commended conversion to Christian faith, though not necessarily to a single cultural form of it. The second commends conversion of all faiths not to any form of Christianity but to the cultural structures of plausibility against which modern Western Christianity has been tested. Whether this constitutes progress is less obvious than the pluralists assume. 

In denying that Christian faith can be taken as the norm for judging other traditions, pluralistic theologies have at the same time tended to presume that the norms they have accepted to judge Christianity in the modern West can be taken as universal standards for reconstructing all faiths. They intend to affirm the various faiths in the strongest way. . . once they have been assimilated to these terms. If this process is not to be an even more egregious imperialism than that attributed to traditional Christianity (which after all at least encompassed a quite significant variety of cultures over very many ages), it would seem to require that these norms of modern thought be successfully defended as universal categories and not the peculiar product of Western culture. 

Perhaps few are willing to make this as explicit as Raimundo Panikkar. He writes, “The modern kosmology [sic], which assumes that time is linear, that history is paramount, that individuality is the essence of Man, that democracy is an absolute, that technocracy is neutral, that social Darwinism is valid, and so on, cannot offer a fair platform for [interreligious] dialogue. The basis for the dialogue cannot be the modern Western myth.” Here Panikkar is a good deal more pluralistic and consistent than many of his companions may find comfortable. For the problem is that each of the major pluralistic theologies takes some one or more elements of “the modern Western myth” as the absolute basis on which the religions can be interpreted into a unified scheme. 

In each case, it is a perceived failing or vulnerability of religion—paradigmatically of Judaism and Christianity—in the face of modern criticism that becomes the basis for reconstructing all religion. It is hardly an accident that pluralistic theology, in its definition and treatment of the religions, takes care to inoculate them against just these objections. The question is whether the various religious traditions are equally enthusiastic about this care on their behalf, seeing that it entails a prior acceptance of the validity of Western interpretations of religion. To accept the affirmation of their faith given by the pluralistic theologies, those of other religions would need to agree first that it is actually their faith that these theologies affirm and second that they are willing for their religious life to be cast in the mold pluralistic theology has set for it.


A nice example of the difficulties involved appears in a recent exchange between Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Hans Küng. Responding to a presentation on Christian dialogue with Islam in which Küng had said, “It is important that the Qur’an as the word of God be regarded at the same time as the word of the human prophet,” Nasr made the observation that very few Muslims indeed would view the Qur’an as other than the actual Word of God received directly by Muhammad. “To assume such a view as a possibility to facilitate dialogue with the Christian world or with the Western world in general does not respond to the reality of the situation.”

Küng rejoined that this was as if a Christian were to say to a Muslim, of the Trinity, that all Christians believe it: if you don’t, there can be no dialogue. Should the Muslim object that some Christians seem at the least to have reservations about the Trinity, the Christian would say, perhaps so, but they are wrong. Küng goes on, in regard to the critical historical consciousness he commends: “This is not specifically an Islamic problem, because for a long time in Christianity we had exactly the same thing. And this question was just not allowed to be asked; it was deadly. The story is more or less the same in all religions.” With so many bright Muslim students all over the world, he added, it will be impossible in the long run for Islam to avoid these questions. Küng is convinced that “to take a more historical approach to the Qur’an would not damage Muslim faith in the one God and in Muhammad his Prophet, but could strengthen this faith.”

Nasr in return makes several points. One is that he has not said the Christian must accept the Muslim belief in order to dialogue, only that the Christian has to recognize that this is the Muslim belief. To talk meaningfully with a person you must see what they are, right now, in themselves, and not what you would like them to be in order for you to talk to them. Nasr also rejects Küng’s assumption that the categories of Western modernity are universal and obligatory for all. “Let us imagine for a moment that we are all in Cairo carrying out this dialogue and a Muslim scholar speaks and Professor Küng answers for the Christian side. The Muslim may say that since the Islamic world has followed a certain path and carried out such and such actions, if the West begins to follow the same course, which in all likelihood it will, we will all be able to speak together. Returning to this hemisphere, we see that here there is a presumption that the history of Islam in the future will follow the same path as that of Western civilization from Spinoza to the present. I am very doubtful about that . . . .”

Aside from the shaky analogy Küng seems to assume between the role of the Bible and its historical-critical interpretation within Christianity and the role of the Qur’an within Islam, we can see the main issue here. Küng would not think of saying that in the long run Muslims—especially bright young ones—will be unable to avoid a doctrine similar to the Trinity, or of saying that on the grounds of his Christian faith he rejects certain Muslim tenets as impossible. That would be particularism of the worst sort.

However, he does say that to contemplate preferring the Muslim version of the crucifixion to the Gospel’s version, when it is the case of a seventh-century source over against those six hundred years earlier is “for an historically thinking man, I think, personally impossible.” Nasr inconveniently fails to agree that this is simply a neutral statement of universal principles that apply equally to people in all cultures and religions, the application of these principles being an area where Muslims have just not yet caught up. Küng’s assurance that adopting the categories of historical consciousness developed in the West need not be feared because Christians have developed ways to cope with them—ways Muslims presumably would adapt—seems not to envision the possibility that those ways might be anything less than enviable to others. Nasr gently chides Küng’s confidence that the modern problems, if not the traditional answers, of Christianity constitute the necessary crown of other traditions’ development.

It is often observed that some form of the golden rule is nearly universal among religions. Our example illustrates the ambiguity of this observation. Even if all believe we should do unto our neighbors as we would have our neighbors do unto us, what we want done for us may not be at all what our neighbor wants done for him. The offer to be inoculated against the dangers of modernity, made on the solicitous ground that modernity in its Western form is the destiny of every faith, is apparently an offer that can be refused. It can be refused either on the grounds that not everyone is required to replicate the West’s history or on the grounds that the specific responses recommended are not highly convincing.

I am quite aware that Küng is not himself a full-fledged pluralist theologian. And it may be that Nasr overstates the total unanimity of Muslims on this subject—though such overstatement is vastly less than Christians will suppose by analogy to attitudes toward the Bible. That does not affect the point.

If the Muslim is not willing to acknowledge and discuss the historical conditioning of the revelation in the Qur’an, Küng seems to suggest, there is little to talk about. A similar viewpoint is expressed surprisingly often by pluralists. At one conference, a well-known pluralist theologian said, in good humor, to a decidedly non-pluralist representative of another religious tradition, a veteran of long years of interfaith discussions, “With your views, you shouldn’t be involved in dialogue.” “Nevertheless, I am,” he replied, and suggested that it was perhaps the pluralist theory that ought to be adjusted and not the reality he represented. In any event, he continued, when liberal Christians and liberals of other traditions get together to talk about their liberalism, he did not call that dialogue. This affable exchange was capped by another pluralist voice in the audience who argued that though this person might dialogue “after a fashion,” he would be unable to participate in authentic dialogue until he had adopted a pluralistic outlook. Here it would seem that the old lamented triumphalist attitudes of Christians toward others remain in vigorous health as applied by pluralists to those of different views in any faith.

No doubt a primary motive of pluralistic theologies is to affirm the validity of various religious traditions. But it is an implicit primary assumption of such theologies that these traditions are without exception indefensible as they stand. Only as demythologized, adapted to the categories of critical historical thought, put in the context of Western understandings of epistemology, and measured against modern conceptions of equality and justice can these religions be pronounced valid. It could be no other way, since only in these terms can Christianity itself possibly be valid for these writers. In this indirect but powerful way, Christianity remains normative as a kind of photographic negative against which other traditions are constructed.


We turn now to some major examples of pluralistic theology in the work of John Hick, W. C. Smith, and Paul Knitter. All three have played significant roles in bringing religious diversity to the center of theological discussion. Each emphasizes rather different elements of what Panikkar called the modern Western “myth” in their understanding of the religions. In Hick’s case, the elements are primarily philosophical, in Smith’s primarily historical, and in Knitter’s primarily social.

John Hick summarizes his “pluralistic hypothesis” this way. An “infinite Real, in itself beyond the scope of other than purely formal concepts, is differently conceived, experienced, and responded to from within the different cultural ways of being human.” The great world faiths then embody correspondingly different responses to the Real from within these variant cultural ways of being human. Within each of them “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place” by which humans find ultimate fulfillment.

This hypothesis rules out both arrogance and fallibility at once. No religious tradition can claim its truth or end is better or even different than another’s. And, in Hick’s highly abstracted vision of religion’s bottom line, none can possibly be wrong. Obviously, there is no way to affirm all religion as true unless that statement can be insulated from the denials of modern critical thought, just as a claim that Judaism or Christianity in particular were true would have to be defended. (Of course, were a claim to Christianity’s truth to be defended, say, in Thailand, the categories would be dramatically different.) So in order to affirm the universal validity of religion, it is necessary to put every religion in a defensible form. The character of that form in Hick’s case is clear.

Hick’s positing of “an infinite Real” as the true referent in all religion, the single Reality on which all religious practitioners are centered, depends for its significance on acceptance of the Kantian world of things in themselves. Hick appeals frequently to those strains in various religious traditions that assert the ineffability of God, or nirvana, or moksha, or Sunyata. But these strains in the traditions generally assert ineffability of their religious referent in contrast to other objects in the world, which can be known as they are. Hick stresses the intrinsic gap between subject and object in all knowing that has marked modern Western philosophy. The Real is an instance of this general principle. Kant’s move to sacrifice knowledge to make way for faith has been universalized.

Even mysticism, which is sometimes claimed as an indication of the identical unitive destiny of all religions, is not in Hick’s view actual contact with the Real. It remains experience in the categories brought by believers from their historical tradition. The truth of religion then remains the truth of a regulative category that is not in danger of empirical testing. Hick claims it nevertheless has real cognitive content because it is eschatologically falsifiable.

Those familiar with Hick’s work will recognize that eschatological verification is a key concept he has developed to defend the meaningfulness of Christian beliefs as truth claims in the face of logical positivist challenges to indicate what differences in experience those beliefs predicted. Here again we see an apologetic strategy developed in the face of modern Western philosophical critiques universalized as a feature of all religion. But do other religions choose to be defined and constituted in these terms? Even in the West, not all Christians by any means have agreed to do so. And are the standards proposed by the analytic philosophical critics in fact universal ones, binding on all, and not themselves conditioned?

It would of course be possible to affirm the salvific effectiveness of varied religions (as some nonpluralistic theologies do) or even to affirm the separate and independent validity of all religions on grounds that were not so insulated from modernity’s criticism. For instance, one might affirm this and hold that it implies that the historical events any particular religious tradition deems essential to its life and faith (the death and resurrection of Jesus, the life and career of Muhammad) were actual events of history and took place substantially as believed. That kind of affirmation of the faiths would, however, open itself to possible contradiction. Hick’s formulation makes these issues matters of indifference to pluralistic theology’s affirmation of, say, Christianity and Islam. He says that “both correct and incorrect trans-historical beliefs, like correct and incorrect historical and scientific beliefs, can form part of a religious totality that mediates the Real to human beings, constituting an effective context within which the salvific process occurs.”

The crisis of faith that arose in the modern West in the wake of the Enlightenment had as its primary component the simple encounter with doubt. Rather than living in an environment in which the fundamental validity of a particular religious worldview was largely unquestioned, Christian faith had to be framed in relation to an insistent suggestion that it might be or probably was simply wrong. The pluralism of religions was one of the instruments by which that suggestion was pressed. The vision of religious traditions in Hick’s hypothesis is one in which it is no longer possible to doubt any specific religion per se. If one is true, all are. In a single swoop, the apologist’s task is greatly simplified. One can enter a religious tradition with no concern that any other actual alternatives existed, with the confidence that though there are many and even apparently conflicting religions, that provides no reason to doubt the validity of your own or of religion generally.

The value of the immunities that Hick’s theory grants to all religions is directly proportional to how acutely threatening the conditions they ameliorate are felt to be. And this is not necessarily the same in all cultural or religious contexts. To affirm the equality and truth of all religions can be seen from one perspective as an apologetic step that greatly eases the ability to commend religion generically or specifically in the West. Where there is political guilt and a widespread feeling that religious intolerance is a specially Christian vice, the ability to make this statement is highly prized. In those religious traditions where analogous convictions are lacking, there would seem to be little reason for those who have not already accepted the hegemony of Western thought to accept the reconstitution of their own traditions in such terms simply to reach the pluralistic conclusion. This does not mean, of course, that the condemnation of Christian sins cannot be appreciated in its own right. But it does mean that pluralistic theologies still look rather like a consultative mode for doing what is unequivocally Western theology.

We may turn for another example to Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Smith is a particularly interesting case because, following some rather euphoric estimations of modernity early in his career, he has become notable for crusty evaluations of it. Modern rejection of a transcendent realm appears to him a nearly pathological aberration. The overwhelming majority “of intelligent persons at most times and places, and all cultures other than the recent West, have recognized the transcendent quality of man and the world.” At the same time Smith sees this Western world, so oddly parochial in its secularism, as specially gifted with an historical perspective on faith. This perspective is the key to a new view of religion, one that will cast off as anachronistic many assumptions inherited from that right-minded historical consensus he lauds.

The point of departure for Smith’s approach to a world theology is his conviction that a certain unity of the world religions already exists. It is the unity of humankind’s religious history, the fact that all manner of influences, borrowings, and relations have intertwined the various religious communities throughout their existence. In Towards a World Theology (1981), Smith’s two delightful illustrations of this are mini-histories of the rosary and of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, which latter he traces from its origin as a tale of the Buddha to its effect on Tolstoy as the story of a Christian saint. It is impossible, he suggests, to give a full account of one tradition without tracing the threads that lead to and from others. This truth, he adds, is “newly discovered.” It has been revealed by means of the history of religions, that characteristic product of the West and its aberrant anti-transcendent thinking.

As discerned by historical study, religions are constantly shifting processes: hence the inappropriateness of the term “religion” itself. Actually, Smith’s discovery about the religions had been well prefigured by some historians’ discovery a generation earlier that there was no Christianity as such, only the developing story of different groups within the tradition that had happened to come out on top at different times. The application of this conclusion to Hinduism and other traditions, which had first of all themselves to be constructed as “religions” in a prior phase of the history of religions, does not seem to have required the collaborative evidence of field studies.

The focus for Smith then falls on faith as an existential attitude, a “quiet confidence and joy which enables one to feel at home in the universe and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate . . .” The uncanny resemblance of this attitude, which we are told is the central and universal religious characteristic, to the existential form of Christian faith developed particularly in the Protestant West in the train of Kierkegaard needs little amplification. It arose specifically in relation to the intensive historical consciousness that Smith has adopted as his key to understanding religions, as a form of faith significantly insulated from historical judgments. A gentle internal logic leads Smith to the discovery that this particular faith is the underlying meaning of all other religious traditions. It would have been inconvenient to discover that any religion’s fundamental element was one less well suited to prosper under historical criticism.

Thus where Hick’s primary focus is philosophical, Smith’s is historical. If Hick stresses the noumenal Real beyond all historical characterization. Smith stresses the existential human response that is appropriate to ultimate “truth-Reality.” Modern historical consciousness is the central key to the world theology he sees in the making. No religion can rightly be understood in any other terms. This leads to his famous insistence that “religions” themselves are fictions of abstraction from the flux of history and to his proposal of “faith” as the generic religious reality.

Both Hick and Smith stress religion as relation to the transcendent. Indeed, for both of them, the absolute character of the religious referent’s transcendence is crucial. For if this were compromised at all, that referent would come within the range of modernity’s criticism and at the same time become describable in some way, which would seem to raise unavoidably the need of discriminating among the religious traditions’ characterizations of the object. So while wanting to stress in the strongest possible way the completely conditioned and historical character of all concrete manifestations of religion, they simultaneously need to stress the utter otherness of the Real to which all these projections respond.

Finally, we may consider a quite different version of pluralist theology. Paul Knitter has taken justice and the focus on a thoroughly this-worldly salvation as the key to validity in all religious traditions. Whatever trans-historical referent there may be for any religious tradition is for him a matter than can be left aside to focus on the struggle against poverty and oppression. In this approach, the apologetic dimension perhaps comes through most clearly. In Hick and Smith all religions are implicitly defined into the forms of true religion allowed by modernity. Knitter more straightforwardly says that any religion that does not make the struggle against structural poverty and oppression primary “is not authentic religion” at all, and he has no desire to affirm it.

All religions are true, then, insofar as they exercise a preferential option for the poor and work to eliminate suffering and oppression. Knitter and those with a similar approach are quite aware that a particular definition of “justice” from a single religious tradition or from any combination of traditions may serve the interests of some over others. They therefore see the various religious traditions—the “great world religions” that Hick and Smith tend to focus on as well as the feminist, liberationist, and other challenging traditions within or outside them—as constituent voices in an ongoing cycle of dialogue and praxis that will serve continually to refine the end being sought. Since no existing ideal is adequate, criteria taken from the various ideal visions of the various religious traditions along with those taken from the agendas of concrete liberation movements must be used to construct a kind of heuristic guide to salvation, an interim definition of justice, to drive the process on. It is around this emerging truth-in-action that the religions and their members should unite.

Clearly, the distinctive feature of this approach is a focus on structural and systemic change that affects the state of poor and oppressed groups, not to be confused with those traditions (or any combination of them) of charity, renunciation, or social transformation that have existed among the religions historically. The religious traditions presupposed premodern social relations and for that reason these pluralists conclude that no dialogue among them or unity of them as they exist can be adequate for human life. Modern awareness of the structural and interdependent character of societies leads to the necessity of inter-religious integration, for the problem is too big for any religion alone. The unity of the religions is not a fact but a future accomplishment, to be realized as they bring about what Knitter in Christian language calls “the Kingdom of God.”

The primary sources for this type of pluralistic theology are in the Christian movement of liberation theology, in social liberation movements, and in the Western tradition of social-scientific analysis that undergirds both, including but not limited to Marxist analysis. The need for various faiths to be reconstructed in these terms is stated quite plainly. The equality of the religions resides in the fact that people within them all have and do move toward partial realization of the justice that has been primarily revealed and named through these Western categories. But it is based perhaps most fully in the negative fact that all religions as systems are equally far from fulfilling that justice. However, just as in the “reality-centered” pluralistic theology of Hick the religions are not permitted to differ in their actual definitions of reality, and in Smith’s faith-centered world theology the religions are not permitted to differ in the nature of their faiths, so in this salvation-centered perspective religions that might have a different conviction about what it means to be saved are left aside as inauthentic.

In some respects, Knitter’s is the most straightforward of all pluralist theologies. The vision of social justice that serves as his norm does not need to wait upon inter-religious conversation for its validity to be assured. It is true that it cannot be fulfilled without the assistance of those of all faiths, and he is more than open to receive complementary perspectives from traditions that will extend or revise the dimensions of the justice he already seeks. But he will accept no changing of the subject. And he is frank to say that he has no time, not even time to dialogue, for those who simply do not see what true religion is and demands. So long as all these certainties are in no way explicitly Christian, Knitter seems to feel he can impose them on his religious neighbors with untroubled conscience.


As theorists of artificial intelligence work with various procedures for computer translation between languages, some opt for the use of a “middle language.” In such a program, the sentences from Swahili are first translated into an artificial language or symbol system and then from that structure into French or any other tongue. The advantages of such an approach are obvious: rather than working out specific terms for translating each language into every other language, it is only necessary to work out a program that takes each language into and out of the middle language. For pluralistic theologies, modern critiques of religion constitute a kind of middle language. In their approaches, the central elements or dynamics of each religious tradition must be able to go into the terms demanded by such critiques and then come out again intact in the equivalent forms of another religious tradition.

It is not surprising that when these authors aimed to affirm the vitality and validity of the great religious traditions of the world, they would interpret “affirm” in categories drawn from their particular religious and cultural setting: in this case, one not only in the Christian modern West but predominantly one within the academic world. To affirm other religions as true and efficacious meant to put them in such terms as could plausibly claim those titles according to the canons operative in that context. This would not be so serious a defect had these writers not insisted so vehemently that it is illegitimate to apply universally standards that stem from a particular location.

Pluralistic theologies have struggled conscientiously to avoid imposing explicit Christian categories on other religions. But it seems obvious that they have enthusiastically made normative, in the negative as it were, modern Western views on true religion. To their credit, they have taken the brute fact of multiple religious traditions with utter seriousness. But the philosophies, the theologies, the views of history, the social thought of these other traditions and their societies are, rather contrary to general pluralist principles, hardly taken seriously at all. The religions are accepted as salvific options. Yet they are not even considered as the sources of alternative fundamental categories for approaching religious diversity itself, alternative to those of modern Western critical philosophy, understandings of historical process, and standards for justice.

One would suppose that the pluralistic ranks would be enriched by entries that took as the central categories for defining and interpreting religions those shaped by forces other than Christianity and the Enlightenment and that contrast with the accepted norms of Western modernity. This would give us examples of how our own faiths and our own current cultural norms would need to look if recast to count as “true religion” on someone else’s terms, to balance against these numerous examples of how the other traditions are recast to count as true religion on ours.

There is a great deal of discussion today about “postmodernity” and about the possible transformations that may follow the dethroning of North Atlantic views of history, knowledge, and justice from their supposed universal status through a recognition of valid alternatives from other cultures. Insofar as such a transformation were actually to take place, pluralistic theologies would seem to be among the most likely casualties, defensively structured as they are around the presumed universality of these modern Western categories. Ironically, these antidotes to Christian particularism may prove to be much more culture and time bound than the theologies they condemn, and the very religious traditions they wish to affirm may find on the whole they have no less to fear from the pluralists’ embrace than the exclusivist’s confrontation.

S. Mark Heim, a new contributor to First Things, is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. 

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash. Image cropped.