Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective
by j. a. dinoia, o.p.
catholic university press, 200 pages, $29.95

We live at an odd moment. One mark of that oddness is the corruption of words that name important virtues. “Diversity,” for example, these days often turns out to be little more than a code word for intellectual gerrymandering, while “tolerance” appears largely as a synonym for trivialization and moral complacency. It is one of the chief merits of J. A. DiNoia’s new book on the diversity of religions to remind us that such terms are not entirely bankrupt. He shows that, in thinking about religion, we may still appeal to diversity and tolerance without requiring a moratorium on personal commitment or critical intelligence. DiNoia, a Dominican priest who teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., is concerned in this short book partly with the nature of religious truth, partly with prerequisites for constructive dialogue among persons of different faiths. His guiding ambition, he writes in his preface, is to “affirm Christian confidence in the universality of salvation in a way that [gives] full value to the diversity of aims of life and subsequent patterns of life commended by other religious communities.” 

It is the thoughtful union of these two things—affirmation of a particular position joined with the frank and open recognition of alternatives—that makes The Diversity of Religions an important contribution to contemporary reflection on the cogency of religious commitment. All too often today, in religious matters as well as elsewhere, the desire to be intellectually ecumenical and nondiscriminatory results in a vacuous pluralism. “Diversity” is purchased at the expense of truth. Real differences of opinion and conviction are papered over in the name of tolerance. Unfortunately, what one achieves thereby is not tolerance but critical stupefaction. The deep divisions that separate people cannot be wished out of existence simply by repeating the mantra of diversity: anaesthetizing our powers of judgment creates more problems than it solves. As DiNoia notes in his first chapter: 

The Christian claim that there is no salvation except through Jesus Christ, or the Buddhist claim that there is no attainment of Nirvana except in the following of the Excellent Eightfold Path, reflects not an unwarranted exclusivism on the part of these communities but the seriousness with which each regards the true aim of life and the means necessary to attain and enjoy it. Genuine tolerance, it turns out, requires the assertion of one’s own convictions about the truth no less than the acknowledgement of other points of view. Otherwise what one achieves is not dialogue but a series of more or less isolated monologues. That may nurture warm feelings, but it also encourages dishonesty and intellectual sloth. As with any book, it is important to recognize at the outset what The Diversity of Religions does not attempt to deal with as well as what it does deal with. Its primary aim is to establish the intellectual ground rules for fruitful discussion among religions, not to defend religion itself against the criticisms of secular philosophy. It is perhaps an open question whether intra-religious conversation is, as DiNoia puts it, “more challenging” today than the battle against skepticism. But there can be no doubt that he is fully aware of the corrosive effects that secularism has had on religious life in the modern age. Acknowledging the situation, he quotes this poignant passage from John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version :

In the sixteenth century astronomy, in the seventeenth century microbiology, in the eighteenth geology and paleontology, in the nineteenth Darwin’s biology all grotesquely extended the world-frame and sent churchmen scurrying for cover in ever smaller, shadowy nooks, little gloomy ambiguous caves in the psyche where even now neurology is cruelly harrying them, gouging them out of the multifolded brain like wood lice from under a lumber pile.

The argument of The Diversity of Religions neither concedes nor rebuts the familiar picture that Updike has sketched in this melancholy paragraph. Rather, it proceeds alongside it, focusing on the language and commitments of professed believers.

DiNoia concentrates primarily on the logic, as distinct from the history or development, of various religious doctrines. Most of his examples compare and contrast Christianity with Buddhism, but he also makes frequent reference to Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. In its baldest form, the problem he deals with is the problem of how a given religion can recognize the claims of other religions while still asserting the truth of its own central beliefs. Traditionally, most major religions, at least in their orthodox versions, have presented themselves as being in unique possession of the truth about what DiNoia calls, in a phrase that occurs frequently in this book, “the true aim of life.”

Nirvana for the Buddhist, the beatific vision for the Christian, submission to the will of Allah for the Muslim, etc.: prima facie, anyway, these are very different, perhaps irreconcilable, conceptions of the “true aim of life.” Attainment of nirvana requires the extirpation of desire and the setting aside of the self; for the Christian, salvation involves the fulfillment of desire in the personal enjoyment of the visione dei . Moreover, most major religions in their orthodox versions present themselves as providing privileged access to the truth that they proclaim: the Dharma for the Buddhist, the teachings of Christ for the Christian, the Koran for the Muslim. Not only the definition of what counts as “the true aim of life,” but also the prescription for its attainment—the modes of life enjoined for adherents—differ radically from one religion to another. There is the further complication that some religions—Judaism, for example—do not seem to include anything like what Christians call “salvation” in their conception of the “true aim of life.” Given these differences, how is real tolerance or conversation, as opposed to polite indifference, possible?

DiNoia begins by outlining some typical strategies that Christians have adopted for dealing with these issues. The oldest and most obvious strategy—though hardly one calculated to encourage dialogue—is to dissolve the problem by insisting on the truth of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. Typically, this amounts to the idea that salvation requires explicit faith in Christ prior to death. The “exclusivist” option is not much in favor these days, and DiNoia mentions it—usually preceded by the word “arrogant” or some other negative epithet—only to dismiss it as inappropriate. “Faith in God’s all-embracing providential care for the human race,” he writes near the end of his first chapter, “would seem to require of Christian communities that they admit that their own traditions could not have a monopoly on religious truth and virtue.” (In an aside, DiNoia points out that the notorious medieval doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus —“There is no salvation outside the Church”—is not as draconian as it sounds: among other things, it applied primarily not to Christians but, in the words of one scholar whom DiNoia quotes, “to those who have separated themselves from the church voluntarily” by heresy or schism.)

DiNoia describes the other main strategies for dealing with religious diversity as “inclusivist” or “pluralist.” Inclusivists hold that all religions implicitly aim at the salvation that Christianity proclaims, even though their adherents may be unaware of the fact. Pluralists go one step further. They hold that all religious communities aim at transcendence of some sort, but that the nature of this transcendence is essentially ineffable. Particular religions, the pluralists claim, are by their very nature inadequate, culture-bound attempts to conceptualize something beyond conceptualization.

The inclusivist option has a long history, going back to some church fathers. Nicholas of Cusa’s De pace fidei , written soon after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is a classic example of the genre. Cusa presents a Greek, a Turk, a Jew, and others discussing the diversity of religious belief, only to conclude that “this diversity is reducible to the worship of one God,” and a triune God at that.

The pluralist option also has a long history, and it has become especially popular in recent decades as many theologians have come to fear nothing more than the accusation of being narrow-minded. Unlike the inclusivist, who tends to keep his critical powers intact, the pluralist prefers to close his eyes and murmur exquisitely vague formulations about the goal of religion. John Hick’s notion of “Reality-centeredness” is one recent example (capital letters are typically called upon to do a lot of work for the pluralist), Paul Tillich’s once-famous, still vapid, existential slogan, “ultimate concern,” is another.

One of the chief aims of The Diversity of Religions is to steer a course between the exclusivist position on the one hand and the inclusivist and pluralist options on the other. If exclusivism is unwarrantedly dogmatic, inclusivism and pluralism are unacceptably indeterminate. And the latter two, DiNoia notes, “tend to divorce what in most religious traditions are understood to be inseparable,” i.e., belief and practice.

The inclusivist indulges in the irritating shell game, perfected by Freudians and Marxists, of refusing to take things on their own terms: what seems to be an innocent friendship is “really” a relationship fraught with sexual tension; what seems to be a purely artistic phenomenon is “really” an expression of exploitative economic relations, etc. In religious matters, this interpretive gambit works by reinterpreting any given expression of religious life in terms of some previously accepted paradigm. “In effect,” DiNoia writes, “such accounts assert that the adherents of other traditions attain through [their own traditions] not the aim defined and fostered by their distinctive patterns of life but that fostered by the Christian pattern of life.” The Buddhist monk might think he is aiming at nirvana, but “really” he is aiming at personal union with Christ. This patronizing attitude is not tolerance but a caricature of tolerance. “It cannot,” DiNoia observes, “be truly respectful of the doctrines and lives of the members of other religious communities to attribute to them the unwitting pursuit of the aim of life as one defines it in one’s own community.”

The pluralist position is even more problematic. For if inclusivists tend to reduce one thing to something else, pluralists are happy to wallow in a cozy vagueness. In a Christian context, DiNoia notes in a phrase that deserves greater currency, the pluralist position amounts to “christological minimalism.” It is also an admission of epistemological despair. DiNoia is unfailingly polite, but his criticism is devastating. “To say that religions aim at ‘ultimacy’ or at ‘reality,’“ he writes, “is to state an aim of such generality as to fail entirely to describe what actually transpires in religious communities.” Moreover, the pluralist forfeits the authority to say anything about the truth of the ideas he espouses. As DiNoia notes, “If religious doctrines expressing predications are in principle construed as failing to assert anything definitive about that which is transcendent, then there is no point in debating the truth of religious doctrines expressing contradictory or even just different accounts of it.” In this sense, pluralist talismans such as “ultimate concern” and “Reality-centeredness” may be best understood as prophylactic devices employed to forestall specific judgments about the content of religious life: I’m ok, you’re ok.

In criticizing the failings of inclusivism and pluralism, DiNoia seeks to make room for a view of religious diversity that does justice to the distinctness and integrity of different religious traditions while at the same time leaving open the possibility of salvation for non-Christians. Drawing on the work of Yale theologian George Lindbeck and others, DiNoia proposes as an alternative the idea of “prospective salvation,” which projects “the moment of experienced salvation into the time of death or beyond death.”

In essence, the notion of prospective salvation is a variation on the idea of Purgatory. DiNoia admits that this use of the doctrine of Purgatory may seem like trying “to resolve one set of difficulties with a proposal infinitely more problematic.” But he notes, to begin with, that Purgatory need not be thought of “as a place or duration, and certainly not a punishment by fire.” What is crucial is the idea that certain modes of life render one unfit for the immediate enjoyment of salvation: an additional experience of purification or transformation is required. The idea of prospective salvation is an attempt to extend the grace implicit in the idea of Purgatory to non-Christians.

At bottom, as DiNoia acknowledges, the idea of prospective salvation looks suspiciously like a version of inclusivism: after all, it is a specifically Christian salvation that is being proposed. But by postponing the decisive moment, the idea of prospective salvation grants an unusual degree of autonomy to other religions even as it preserves a distinctly Christian outlook. Other religions are seen neither as covert forms of Christianity nor as more or less unsatisfactory gesturings towards an ever elusive transcendence. The idea of prospective salvation may thus provide one means of satisfying the demand for diversity and tolerance without sacrificing the particulars of a Christian vision of salvation.

How convincing is the idea of prospective salvation? It is not, I think, entirely clear. What DiNoia presents here is little more than a sketch. He is probably right that it avoids the grosser failings of other inclusivist strategies. But by projecting the denouement of the piece into a moment beyond death, he has not only inoculated the idea against certain criticisms, he may also, as it were, have rendered it hors de combat. In this sense, the idea of prospective salvation does not so much solve as defer the problem that DiNoia sets out to examine.

Stepping back for a moment, it must also be pointed out that his discussion occasionally exhibits some unfortunate stylistic quirks. The most annoying is the accommodation of a certain amount of feminist PC-speak (which was, perhaps, demanded by the publisher). The feminine pronoun, for example, is regularly used where the masculine pronoun is expected, “humankind” replaces “mankind,” etc. There is also the matter of “logically speaking,” a phrase that occurs with alarming frequency, especially towards the end of the book. As it happens, DiNoia’s logic is perfectly sound. But in a book of some 200 pages, more than a handful of logically speakings are bound to strike the reader as gratuitous or worse.

Near the end of The Diversity of Religions , DiNoia describes his book as “deliberately exploratory and hypothetical.” Certainly it is a model of intellectual patience and scrupulousness. DiNoia exhibits a rare sensitivity to what we might call the specific gravity of religious language. His criticisms of inclusivist and pluralist positions are at once definitive and fair, his efforts to construct an alternative attractively tentative and open-ended. As someone interested in fostering greater communication among people of different religious beliefs, DiNoia is acutely aware of the dangers of prematurely curtailing discussion. But”what is perhaps rarer in today’s latitudinarian atmosphere”he is equally alert to the perils of pretending to a unity that one has not yet achieved. “A theology of religions that assumes the religious unity of humankind by dissolving rather than resolving religious differences,” he writes in his conclusion, “seeks prematurely to enjoy an eschatological promise whose fulfillment will come only as a stunning and undeserved gift.” Whatever else it is, DiNoia’s intelligent and humane study is an excellent preparation for appreciating that gift when and if it is granted.

Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of The New Criterion. His book, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, is available in paper from HarperPerennial.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift