Recently I did a teaching on three ways of relating the universal Love of God to the particular work of Christ in a pluralistic culture: Exclusivism, Pluralism, and Inclusivism.
For Christians, these three ways of relating Christ to world religions is based on our understanding of what the Incarnation of Christ accomplished, and how we read the Biblical texts that point to this Incarnation event. As we read the Bible, a Key Interpretive Question is this: Which set of texts are given primacy in interpretation? Will we allow texts of limitation to interpret and restrict texts of universal Love and Salvation, or will we allow the universal texts to expand and fulfill the horizon of the texts of exclusion and limitation?
On one side, we have the texts of limitation and exclusion in Scripture. These texts point out the particularity of Christ and our need for explicit faith in him:
THE CENTRALITY AND PARTICULARITY OF SALVATION IN CHRIST
- John 14.6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (cf. Romans 3-5; Ephesians 1-2)
- John 8.24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he. (cf. Mark 1.14-15)
- Acts 4.12 Salvation is found in no one else [other than Christ], for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. (cf. Acts 2.38-39)
- 1 Timothy 2.5–6 For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.
- 1John 5.10–12 Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
THE REALITY OF LOST PERSONS AT THE JUDGMENT OF CHRIST
- Matthew 7.21–23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
- 2 Thessalonians 1.7–9 When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [he will] inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
DIFFERENCES IN WORLD RELIGIONS:
- Religions disagree about the fundamental problem with humanity: Is it Sin? Ignorance? Disobedience? Social Oppression? Infection by evil? Craving/Lust?
- Different religions disagree about the meaning of “salvation”: Is it impersonal merging with the all? Is it reconciliation and justification with God? Is it outward social liberation? Is it inward personal transformation?
- Different religions disagree about the end of human life and the end of the cosmos: Are we reincarnated? Do we cease to exist as individual persons? Do we go to a “heaven”? Are we resurrected? Is time cyclical and the universe is reborn? In time linear and history ends in a cataclysm and new creation?
- Religions differ greatly on specific laws (especially purity and food laws), the specific kinds of rituals used, and how those rituals are interpreted.
- These differences seem to be logical contradictions: They can’t all be true.
- Regardless of how “pluralistic” we claim to be, we all judge religions and worldviews, and arrange them on a spectrum from false and evil (on one side), to true and good (on the other), based on our criteria for truth and goodness. As Christians, we believe that Christ is our criterion of Truth and Goodness.
On the other side are texts which stress the Universality of God’s Love and the cosmic effects of Christ’s Redemption:
THE UNIVERSAL LOVE OF GOD AND REDEMPTIVE PLAN OF GOD
- John 3.16–17  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (cf. John 1.1-18; 1Timothy 4.10)
- 1John 4.8-16 God is Love (cf. the nature of Divine Love in 1Corinthians 13; Matthew 5.38-48)
- 1 Timothy 2.3–4 God our Savior, wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (cf. also 2Peter 3.9; Ezekiel 33.11; Wisdom 11.21-12.2; Romans 8.18-39)
- 1 Corinthians 3.12–15 If [what was built with their life] is burned up, the builder will suffer loss, yet will be saved, but as one escaping through the flames. (cf. Hebrew 12.29; Malachi 3.2)
THE UNIVERSAL WORK OF GOD AMONG ALL PEOPLES
- Amos 9.7 “Are not you Israelites the same to me as Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (cf. Psalm 87)
- John 10.16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (cf. Magi in Matthew 2)
- Acts 17.16-31  From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed God is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ (cf. Acts 14.15-17; John 12.20-26)
THE UNIVERSAL SCOPE OF CHRIST’S REDEMPTION
- John 12.32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
- 1Corinthians 15.21–26  For since death came through a human, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human.  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive…  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (cf. Romans 5.12-19)
- Colossians 1.15–20 The Son is the image of the invisible God… For in him all things were created in heaven and on earth… All things were created through him and for him… God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (cf. Philippians 2.1-11)
SIMILARITIES IN WORLD RELGIONS:
- Our Ultimate Source is seen as a Transpersonal Reality of perfect existence, consciousness, and bliss, expressed in complete power, knowledge, and love, which is Transcendent, Immanent, and Personally experienced in relation to the Universe.
- Ultimate Reality is often seen in Triune Ways: As Trinity in Christianity; As Creator, Theophany, Spirit in Judaism; As the Trimurti in Hinduism, as well as threefold Vedantic conception of Nirguna Brahman, Saguna Brahman, Shakti; Or as the Trikaya (Three Bodies) of Buddhism.
- Enlightened persons are said to embody Ultimate Reality, whether in the Incarnation of Christ, Avatars in Hinduism, Bodhisattvas in Buddhism, or Sufi Sheikhs of Islam.
- Religions use a variety of sacramental rituals (using hands, water, food, fire, etc.) to place people in community, bestow on them identity, and communicate the Divine life to them.
- The Enlightened life is constituted by the “Golden Rule” of reciprocity: Loving neighbor as self, treating others as you want them to treat you, seeing yourself in others in interconnected life.
- The Enlightened person exhibits common Christlike (or Godlike, or Buddha-like) virtues of Love, compassion, peace, contentment, justice, harmony, wisdom, and self-discipline.
Based on how one understands and balances these texts and ideas, three basic ways of relating world religions emerge:
DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which only one path leads to Ultimate Reality. All of the other paths lead to dead ends or destruction. In this view, there is only one absolute Truth, and anyone who diverges from it is living a lie. One God, found on one path, in one system.
ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ saves us by giving us proper knowledge of God, namely that God became one of us, died to take our sins, and rose again to give us victory. But these events do not save us unless we understand, accept, and believe these facts as Truth. Christ saves those who explicitly acknowledge Christ and believe that Christ is saving them. Those who do not explicitly, consciously believe in Christ cannot be saved.
VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Propositional, contained in well-formed, objective truth claims. Christ teaches a system of Truth to be believed. If one collects all true statements, understands and believes them, they know "The Truth". Theological statements form boundaries defining who is in the Truth and outside of it.
KEY ANALOGY: It often uses a chasm analogy to describe religion: With one religion as a safe island across an infinite chasm which divides it from all the false and deceptive religions on the other side.
STRENGTHS: This focuses on the uniqueness of Christ as God's sole instrument of salvation, and our need to explicitly acknowledge this. Facilitates Christian confidence in Christ in the face of competing claims.
WEAKNESSES: This fails to deal adequately with God's universal Love for all creation, and the Scriptures which seem to point to universal restoration through Christ. The view of Truth here focuses not on Christ Himself to save us, but a system of ideology. It’s hard to be consistently exclusivist: It would logically entail spending 100% of time and effort to convert or eliminate competing religious views.
The polar opposite of Exclusivism is:
DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which many paths lead to Ultimate Reality. In this view, there is no absolute Truth, because all truth claims are relative to culture and experience. Thus all religions are equally “true”, with different “Gods” sought through different paths.
ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ is one of many moral and spiritual exemplars who lead us into enlightenment or higher consciousness. Different religions function as different "languages" or "word games". Just as different sports have different rules, exemplars, and goals, so to with Religions. Just as you cannot judge football on the basis of baseball or basketball, so also Christianity and other religions are fundamentally different, and "played" according to the tastes and needs of the "player".
VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Perspectival, constituted by what seems or feels true to my subjective experience. Truth is not found "out there", objectively, in any other person or set of propositions. Thus there is no complete, absolute [T]ruth, but only partial, relative [t]ruths in an unbounded flow of experience. Christianity is true if you accept it as true for you.
KEY ANALOGY: It often uses the analogy of many paths going up a mountain, with each path representing a religion, and the top of the mountain representing experience of, and union with, the Divine.
STRENGTHS: This focuses on the universality of God's Love and hope that all persons will be included and saved. Facilitates inter-religious dialogue as equals.
WEAKNESSES: This does not do justice to the particularity of Christ as God’s only instrument of salvation. The view of Truth here focuses too much on the individual, and not on the common reality we inhabit. It’s hard to be consistently pluralist: It provides no way to judge a religious path as harmful or good, but wipes away all distinctives in a false equivalency.
And trying to mediate and do justice to the positive aspects found in Pluralism and Exclusivism, while negating what is harmful in these systems, we find:
DEFINITION: A view of Religion in which all the great religions reveal facets or aspects of the Truth that is fulfilled in a most complete Path. Lesser or partial truths lead to final and absolute Truth. The same God is known by different communication systems.
ROLE OF CHRIST: Christ fulfills what is good, true, and beautiful in other religions and cultures. He brings to explicit completion that which is partial or implicit. His incarnation, death, and resurrection brings at-one-ment with God. The patterns of truth in the religions are signposts pointing us to his Reality. Christ saves those who co-operate with his grace, even if they do not know or understand who is saving them (cf. CS Lewis' analogy of being nourished by food even if you don't understand nutrition). “Anonymous Christians” in other religions follow Christ without knowing it.
VIEW OF TRUTH: Truth is Personal, found in relationships between persons. Truth is found by conforming the inner reality of one person to the reality of another person through relationship. Theological statements do not exhaustively contain Truth, but rather give us signs that point to the Truth at the Core of reality, which must be personally experienced to “know” the Truth. Thus, Christ is Truth incarnate in a specific human person we can know.
KEY ANALOGY: It often uses a Solar System analogy, in which Divine Truth is the "Sun" at the center, and the great religions are in different orbits around that "Sun", each closer or further in different ways at different times, following different trajectories.
STRENGTHS: This focuses on Christ Himself, not a system of belief, as it tries to do justice to both the universal Love and saving intent of God, while also doing justice to the unique role of Christ as God's instrument of salvation. Facilitates inter-religious dialogue with a clear criterion by which to judge the health or sickness of a religion: The degree to which it conforms to Christlikeness.
WEAKNESSES: This may fail to do justice to the call of the New Testament to explicitly and consciously accept Christ as Lord and Savior in this life, thereby promoting a false hope that there are ways to more fully know Christ post-mortem.
You can download a PDF copy of the chart for this teaching here.