The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions

The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions

by George R. Sumner



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802824981
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 07/28/2004
Pages: 219
Product dimensions: 6.18(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.88(d)

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The First and the Last

The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions
By George Sumner

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2498-6

Chapter One

Toward a Postliberal Christian Theology of Religions

A specter hangs over contemporary Christian theology, the specter of pluralism. So might think the defender of traditional Christian claims, for pluralists contend that such claims offend a modern understanding of truth, and stand in the way of harmony between religions and cultures. More specifically, the pluralist claims that the transcendent, the "Real in itself," is expressed by, but is to be strictly distinguished from, the wide array of particular myths, rites, and beliefs of the religious communities of the world. Furthermore, in order to restrain the evil effects of fanaticism, the pluralist advocates that such communities restrict themselves to the moral effects of religious practice, the resulting works of love, and thus evolve away from any exclusive claims for their tradition.

The radical challenge to traditional Christian belief is plain: the primacy of the revelation in Jesus Christ and the uniqueness of his mediating agency in salvation are at stake. Thus traditionalist and pluralist alike can agree on the momentous change acceptance of such a view would represent, indeed a theological "crossing of the Rubicon." Although some might argue that the readers of the works of Knitter, Hick, or Wilfred Cantwell Smith are limited to academes, who can doubt that the effect of such a sea change would ripple widely into the religious populace at large?

This essay offers an alternate, "postpluralist" view of the relationship between Christian belief and the claims of other religious traditions. But precisely because one should take its challenge seriously, a sharper focus on the real significance of the phenomenon of pluralism at the outset is required. Here it is useful to rehearse the chorus of recent retorts to pluralism, all of which may be characterized as attempts to turn the tide by "relativizing the relativizers."

Critics have contended, first of all, that though they seek to widen interreligious horizons, pluralists do not take seriously what practitioners of religious traditions say they believe and think they are doing. When the pluralist claims to see behind particular claims and practices, the mere phenomena of religion, to the universal object of the transcendent, one catches a whiff of paternalism, albeit of a liberal sort. Secondly (and as the converse of the first critique), pluralists fail to see that theirs is one more particular position, emerging from a series of assumptions embedded in a particular tradition, namely that of Western Enlightenment thought. What may appear an objective perspective, a "view from nowhere" from which to judge the truth and falsity of all particular religious traditions, is merely the employment of certain philosophical arguments (prominently those of Kant) to bolster the pluralist position. Pluralism quickly resembles, not a view beyond specific religious traditions, but rather a new religion of reason.

Thirdly, critics have turned the "hermeneutic of suspicion," the questioning of unexamined motives, on the pluralists. The view that religions represent so many choices, suited to the customer, though the specifics of each choice cease to matter much, parallels closely the Western capitalist encroachment on markets and attitudes worldwide. Pluralism is complicit in the commodification of religious traditions. By an insidious genius this process leaves the outward appearances the same, though now the turban, the prayer wheel, and the mantra have been rendered "consumer preferences."

A key distinction here is between the challenge of other religious traditions and the challenge of pluralism itself. While pluralism seems to focus its attention on the plethora of traditions, in fact its main task is the modern, post-Enlightenment questioning of the truth of Christian claims in the light of historical and cultural relativism, of which the non-Christian religions amount to a prime occasion. If one accepts this insight, one can no longer consider pluralism in a vacuum. It must rather be seen as a specific Western cultural and intellectual phenomenon posing its challenge to Christianity. One must then consider pluralism's own historical roots, the particulars of its story, intertwined as they are with Christianity's own intellectual travails in the past three hundred years.

The historical nub of the matter is this: the existence of other religious traditions became a problem for the Christian tradition at the very time that Christianity became a problem to itself. To be sure, Christians have, since the beginning of the church, had contact with, and so formed opinions of, other religious traditions. On this issue one need think only of the attention given to Greek philosophy in the Patristic era, or of the traumatic encounter with Islam in the Middle Ages. The widened horizons of the age of discovery in the seventeenth century also led to intense debate over the status of the "noble pagan" and the value found in other religions. Just the same, the religions came to play a different sort of role in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Then, for the first time, thinkers came to see Christianity and the religions as comparable religious artifacts. Then, for the first time, in a variety of authors like Herder, Rousseau, and Lessing, the example of the religions became the outward occasion for a deeper crisis within the Christian tradition itself.

At the heart of the Enlightenment was an attack on tradition and its presumed authority, and a new emphasis on universal reason accessible to any thinking person. The thinkers of the Enlightenment employed several strategies of critical reason to release authority's grip on the mind. In the rising movement of biblical criticism they sought to arrive at the truth behind what the texts claimed, to arrive at the historical contexts and sources that actually contributed toward the creation of the text. As a result the intellectuals of the Enlightenment came in time to shake the very foundations of Christology, the church's doctrine of who Jesus Christ is.

A common intellectual movement linked this internal doubt and the new attention paid to the plurality of religions. For at the very time that Jesus became a Middle Eastern religious figure fit for scholarly scrutiny, the fact of the other religions appeared distinctly on the horizon. So it is no accident that a figure like Gotthold Lessing was a pioneer both in the criticism of traditional Christology and in the awareness of the religions. Both the particular claims of the Christian tradition over against other religions, and more specifically the particular figure of Jesus Christ for Christians themselves, are simultaneously rendered problematic by the Enlightenment critic.

The great historical religious traditions fell under the same judgment in Enlightenment quarters as Christianity due to their encrustations of tradition, their own uncritical appeals to authority, and their miraculous worldviews. By most accounts they were even more backward and questionable than Christianity. It was, for example, something of a breakthrough when Hegel envisioned a scheme of evolution that included the other traditions as necessary and valuable stages, albeit at a less evolved level. Though more knowledgeable about other traditions, the contemporary pluralist, taking as a starting-point epistemological problems born of the Enlightenment, anticipates a certain predictable evolution and revision in non-Christian traditions. The changes will conform to their insights about "religion," the category associated with a foundation identifiable and definable in all human beings and its priority over all the particulars of tradition.

In sum, the genesis of the "challenge of the religions" was inextricably tied up with the challenge to the Christian faith in the modern West. In order to understand this encompassing intellectual condition several insights of the contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre are helpful. Of particular relevance is first of all, his concept of an "epistemological crisis," a historical moment in which a tradition finds its very existence as an ongoing coherent enterprise called into question by external rivals offering more compelling accounts of the reasons for the extant crisis itself. For MacIntyre, the prime example of such a crisis is precisely modernity's pursuit of a foundation for knowledge independent of the particularity of the Christian tradition.

According to such a diagnosis pluralism is the presenting symptom for a wider epistemological illness in Western Christianity. MacIntyre emphasizes, secondly, the importance of narrative as the underlying form of philosophical argumentation, and thus the mode in which traditions strive to respond to such rivals. Accordingly, traditions prevail in the face of epistemological crises when they manage to tell a more convincing story, one that may comprise retrospectively both rebuttals of its rivals and, when necessary, internal reformulation of its own beliefs. Such narratives prove powerful in part to the extent that they open themselves to the critique of their rivals and acknowledge their own debatability within the narrative itself. Only in this way can the narrative offered by the tradition in question successfully assimilate the alien beliefs and challenges into the terms of its own intellectual world. In such a process traditions may need to reformulate their beliefs even as they appeal to precedents in their own stream of reflection. Thus MacIntyre distinguishes emphatically between such a dynamic view of tradition as the arena of intellectual contestation and adaptation and what is often thought of as "traditionalism."

There is of course no guarantee that a tradition will succeed in the face of such an epistemological crisis. It could be that it will eventually prove incredible, and gradually wither. It is also possible that (to paraphrase the helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War) in order to save the tradition, it will prove necessary to destroy it. The revisions proposed may be so extensive as to render the tradition unrecognizable. Like so many Trojan horses, criteria unfriendly to the major tenets of the tradition may be imported in such a way that the enterprise as a whole is undone from within. Obviously in many cases it will require a prudential judgment to distinguish between reasonable and excessive revision.

For MacIntyre the intellectual history of the modern West has, thirdly, consisted of a contest between three major schools or types of thought. In the first case his attention has focused on Thomism, though, as the most coherent and encompassing expression of Christian theology, it may be taken as a metonymy for the Christian tradition as a whole. The Enlightenment challenge represented by liberalism, supposing as it does an independent and objective norm of reason, he calls "the encyclopedic tradition." Liberalism both critiques the inherited tradition and seeks to place the residue of its claims on a solid rational footing. The subsequent attack on liberalism, epitomized by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, based in the reduction of reasons to motives for power, is tagged "the genealogical tradition." Liberalism, by failing to see itself for what it is as one more tradition of thought born of distinctive practices in a particular community, becomes unstable and decomposes into genealogy.

Such an analysis helps to explain several theological efforts to make sense of the claims of the religions in the face of the modern epistemological crisis. Thinkers such as Schleiermacher and Hegel adopt a strategy that begins with a definition of "religion" in general which is followed by a consideration of the history of religions according to which Christianity proves to be the pinnacle, the perfect manifestation of religion's definition, the "absolute religion." Such a strategy is prone to the criticism that the initial definition has imported assumptions from the thought-world of the thinker, thereby biasing the resulting interpretation of the history of religions toward the desired result. Thus by the end of the nineteenth century Ernst Troeltsch, though he continued to think in terms of an "absolute religion," had come to see that such a designation is based on "values" imposed by the thinker, and the force of this awareness caused him, by the end of his career, to reject the argument entirely. He moved instead toward an argument basing the privilege of Christianity simply on the cultural power and sophistication of the West. This is an example of just the sort of slide from the "encyclopedic" to the "genealogical" that MacIntyre would lead us to suspect. One finds something similar in the rising interest that advocates of interreligious pluralism have recently taken in liberation theology as the source of common cause among the religious traditions of the world.

By contrast, MacIntyre advocates a return to the particularities of an intellectual tradition aware of its own assumptions, as one contestant for truth among others. The Christian tradition strives to encompass as many as possible of the claims and conditions of its surrounding world into a coherent narrative, and so show itself to be preferable to its rivals. In recent years new voices have been heard in the debate about the place of Christianity among the religions, voices that offer warrants for just such a postliberal, neotraditional alternative. I will term this loosely affiliated yet complementary group of thinkers "particularists." They all share, in contrast to pluralism, an emphasis on the epistemological distinctiveness of religious traditions. For all of them it is misleading to search for a definitional substratum beneath the particularities of the various traditions.

Developing the metaphor of natural languages, George Lindbeck, for example, understands each religion to have its own "grammar" or internal logic, whose rules are expressed in a community's doctrine, in keeping with which it can express itself in a variety of ways. Likewise Joseph DiNoia has shown a "variety of religious aims" in the different traditions, thus making for a truer plurality than the pluralists themselves acknowledge. He goes on to criticize Christian "inclusivists" who conceive of non-Christians as saved by imagining them to be, in the famous expression of Karl Rahner, "anonymous Christians," for he fears such a strategy overlooks how the adherent of the other tradition actually understands his or her own actions and beliefs.

This does not mean that particularists think that Christians should cease to try to make sense of their neighbors, only that they cannot make sense of their neighbors in a single grand move, or by means of an Archimedean point beyond their own tradition.


Excerpted from The First and the Last by George Sumner Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

1.Toward a Postliberal Christian Theology of Religions1
2.Christian Theology as Tradition39
3.Testing Final Primacy in Modern Theology--Barth, Rahner, and Pannenberg64
4.Final Primacy and the Religions in the Economy of Salvation104
5.Testing Final Primacy in the Theology of Mission128
6.Testing Final Primacy--Indian Christian Theology152
7.Testing Final Primacy among Theologies of Inculturation176

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