Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A Theology of Religions 

Or: How to Pray for Arafat, part 2.

A couple of posts ago, Micah and I got into an interesting discussion of how best to pray for the repose of the soul of Yasser Arafat, and what the broader implications of the formulations of such prayers might be. I want to continue this discussion because I find it to be extremely interesting and I want to start off this post by saying a few words about a theology of religions and where I stand in those. (This was intended to be a short posting folks, but already I feel a long-ish one coming on. Bear with me.)

Within Christianity there are several ways to think about other religions. The classic categories for these realms of theological thought are exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Exclusivism has as its central tenet that there is no salvation (the work of Christ) outside of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Unless you profess his name and confess the orthodox Christian faith you will not be saved. Period. This has been the belief of the majority of denominations throughout the ages and has strong ties to the missiology components of colonialism. Inclusivism also believes that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, but maintains that there may be other ways to obtain that salvation through Christ than the direct confession of the faith. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner ascribes to persons who have been saved but did not believe in Christ as "anonymous Christians". I think in that title is the danger Micah mentioned when he spoke about the tendency of dominant culture Christians to say other peoples are really Christians, but they just don't know it. So, if one is to be inclusivist, one must tread very carefully through the rhetoric. Pluralism proclaims that there is more than one way to achieve eternal salvation through God. From there it can get very diverse. Some Christian pluralists believe that there are different ways to obtain salvation as Christians define it than through Christ. Others might say that salvation for a Christian is very different from salvation for a Zoroastrian; that is to say, there are different salvations. 1920's Lebenese poet Kahlil Gibran has one of the best quotes that, to me, defines pluralism: "I love you my brother whoever you are whether you worship in your church, kneel in your temple, or pray in your mosque.You and I are all children of one faith, for the diverse paths of religion are fingers of the loving hand of one Supreme Being, a hand extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, eager to receive all."

So, that is a little bit about a theology of religions. Now, where do I stand in that? I define myself as an inclusivist. (Naturally, I pick the shiftiest ground on which to stand, right?) As a convicted Christian, I cannot believe that there are other ways to be saved than through the work of Christ. But, as a citizen of the world, a scholar of the Abrahamic faiths, and a firm believer in both Romans 8:38-39 and John 10:14-16 I cannot believe in a God who would condemn so many people to eternal torment who follow God in a different way than we who have received the Christian revelation do. Therefore, I say that those who are not confessing Christians can be and are still able to be saved through the great mercy and work of the second person of the Trinity. I live in the hope of the apocatastasis (Definition from CCEL: By Apocatastasis ("restoration") is meant the ultimate restitution of all things, including the doctrine that eventually all [persons] will be saved. The term comes from the Greek of Acts iii. 21, but is given a wider meaning than it has in that passage. The doctrine first appears in Clement of Alexandria (flourished 200) in the declaration that the punishments of God are "saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion" (Strom ., vi. 6).).

This, of course, opens me up to all sorts of questions, and good ones they are, too. Why be a Christian? Micah's question: If it isn't Jesus who saves Arafat, then who is it? How do we talk about this with our brothers and sisters of other faiths without being patronizing? How do we stay committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and still be open to interfaith dialogue? What do we have to give up, if anything? I don't have any good answers to those right now, but when I do, I think I'll get a book contract. Now, if you've stuck it out with me through all that, well done and thank you! Please, offer up your comments; I want to know what you think.




I'm assuming you're aware that the fifth ecumenical council condemned apocatastasis (Origen and Gregory of Nyssa) or the universal salvation of all persons "eventually." In light of that condemnation how is it possible to claim that the belief in the final salvation of all persons is a Christian one?

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 6:31 AM  

Two points, one short, one probably a bit longer...

First and quickly, a question for the guy who posted above (I can't see your name b/c my browser's acting funny): Without some grounds for this condemnation, how are inclusive folks like Ryan and I supposed to respond? I realize that, as a full time student at Jesus school, Ryan might have more background knowledge, but sadly the teachings of Origen are a gap in my education. Can you offer some background for the rest of us?

Second and perhaps longer: Ryan, as a future priest, what balance are you supposed to strike between following your conscience and following the church? This to me seems an enormous difficulty for any serious seminarian, as you are exposed to all sorts of wonderful ideas (like apocatastasis) and then told that a great deal of them are heterodox, condemned and just plain wrong. Personally, as a parishoner, I would much rather have a priest who follows his conscience and takes his faith wherever he feels led instead of a pseudo-robotic extension of Canterbury who does everything by the book but ultimately doesn't do anything that a well annotated copy of "the book" couldn't. If a priest is not allowed to be honest with himself and speak his mind from the pulpit, then I believe he's doing his congregation a great disservice by depriving them of his greatest qualification for ministry - introspective spiritual insight. There's probably a fancy Greek word for folks like myself (and something tells me it's not hoi polloi) and that fancy Greek word has probably been condemned by Tertullian, Origen, Ignatius or some other theologian, but for hetero-or-orthodox, those are my thoughts.

ZAX out,

By Blogger BrotherBeal, at 8:05 AM  

Well, here I am again. This is an important discussion, so I'll happily wade in up to my neck and say my piece. I rarely participate in comment threads like this, but Ryan always comes up with the bait I can't turn down.

Firstly, Cliff, your answer is misleading. (And I apologize in advance to Brother Beal for this paragraph.) The Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) was called to deal with the "Three Chapters" controversy exclusively (note, for the purposes of this discussion the nature of this controversy is not important). Origen and Origenism in general (not only the apocatastasis panton, but also scriptural allegorism, and subordinationism) were in no way discussed. I say this on the evidence that none of the records of the council address anything but the "Three Chapters," and that the final document submitted to and approved by Pope Vigilius deals with nothing but the "Three Chapters." What you may be thinking of is the local council of Constantinople in 543, which did end with a general support of Justinian's "Liber adversus Origenem," but which in no way was an ecumenical council of any kind.

That said, I am I going to continue with the understanding that Universalism (as it is more properly called) has never been officially condemned by Western Christianity (though I will freely admit it is controversial and has never been fully embraced, either). We may, therefore, continue to debate it without anyone claiming that the conversation is already settled. It is not.

Now to the issue that Ryan raises: This may come as a surprise to some, but I am a teacher, and therefore sometimes ask questions that conceal my own opinion in favor of sparking a discussion. My previous post was one of those times. I am speaking now for myself. Using this taxonomy, I consider myself to be an pluralist Christian. I come to this thought from several angles. One of which is an absolute belief (which is also sometimes controversial) that the coming of Jesus to offer the New Covenant didn't abrogate the previous covenant. That fact alone means that there are at least two ways to salvation. And if two, why not more? Here endeth my critique of exclusivism.

My second point is based less on logic than on a feeling. I feel completely inadequate to say with any level of certainty what God can or will (or will not) do. I can have faith in the promises of Christ, and I do. Those promises lead me to live my life in a certain way which the world understands as Christian. Oddly, those promises do require me to believe that there is a Hell reserved for those who finally and ultimately reject God's love. However, Christ's instruction to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, also seem to require that I hope no one goes there.

Thankfully, I am not in charge of this, and as my wife is fond of reminding me, one of God's most persistent messages is, "Eyes on your own paper, Missy." I am responsible for working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, and other people will answer for their own choices.

But that point cannot divide between inclusivism and pluralism. The key question is, I think, who saves? If we are too quick to say, "Christ, of course," then we risk a dangerous modalism. A Trinitarian God is not confined that way. God saves -- in the Person of Christ. But can God save in some other way? I don't know why not.

Now, a word about Rahner. I think that he is mostly misunderstood. His statement about "anonymous Christians" is not to be taken to mean that there are Christians who do not know it. Rather, on my reading, it is to be taken as a way for Christians to understand that there are those who do not hold that "Christ is Lord" who nevertheless are good people and follow many or all of the ethical tenets of Christianity (or at least the Noahide Covenant). This would be like saying a pro-Iraqi war Frenchman were an "Anonymous American" without actually believing that he's an American who doesn't realize it. I find Rahner to be more Pluralist that most others do. That's my reading though, there are many others who would disagree (including, it seems Bill Placher).

And this is my wrap up. As a pluralist Christian, I am not required to hope that God grants Arafat a break at the judgment. I am not required to pray for Arafat as if he were a Christian. I am able to afford his religion and his choices the respect in death that I did in life. I pray that God will judge him fairly, according to the deal that they made together (of which I know nothing certain, but which I can guess about based on his expressed intentions and his behavior). I say that I should not pray for Arafat as if he were a Christian. But I must pray for him as if I were a Christian.

Seeing as you claim inclusivism, Ryan, I see why you chose to word your prayer as you did. Thanks for this discussion. I'm always glad for the opportunity to revisit this material.

Some book advice. I am currently highly suggesting Bp. N.T. Wright's book "For All the Saints?" as a great example of contemporary Anglican thought about some of the issues that this discussion brings up. You should see my review of it on my blog soon.

Micah Jackson

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:55 AM  

First Anonymous, then Micah:


A sketchy background. Origen (third century A.D.) and Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century A.D.) and a few other historical Church figures held the idea that ultimately, all free beings (humans, Satan, demons) would be saved. This, of course, flies in the face of some of the most explicit of Scriptures that we have only this life to repent, and that the only way we can be saved is through the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The Church officially condemned this teaching in the Fifth Council (though the venerable Micah does not think so).

Thus my question to Ryan is, if the Church pronounces a teaching to be false, how can one hold that teaching and still claim the name of Christian?

Though you addressed the conscience query to Ryan, I would reply respectfully that the body of Christian teaching is clear and delimited. If one wants to claim the name of Christ, and more especially to minister in his name, then it seems to me that one's conscience should fall in line with one's claims.

One may very well follow one's conscience as it leads one away from the clear teachings of the Church, and that is, indeed, one form of integrity, but then integrity would demand that one make clear one is in opposition to what the Church teaches and cannot claim such opposition to be Christian.


With all due respect, though I know you have your scholarly champions (von Balthazar maybe?), your dogmatism about what was and wasn't discussed at the Fifth Council is not backed up by the evidence. At best, and this is a generous assessment on my part, the evidence is equivocal as to whether the fifteen anathemas against Origen were given at the fifth council or at Constantinople in A.D. 543.

But let it be the case that the local synod of Constantinople was the occasion of the anathemas. Nonetheless, when one considers that the doctrine of final salvation for all free beings (including the devil and his messengers) was held by an extreme minority of Church Fathers and that a significant majority of the Church (even a formal if "local" synod) has condemned the doctrine, to affirm it as a legitimate Christian belief is shaky.

Of course, when one adds the unequivocal affirmations of our Lord and St. Peter in the Scriptures about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone, the shaky foundations crumble altogether.

That another minority portion of the Church in the West after the schism affirmed the doctrine doesn't add any strength to the argument.

Either way: condemned at the Fifth Council or at a local council and shunned by most of the Church east and west, the final salvation of all free beings is not a Christian doctrine.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 3:52 PM  

Before any actual anathemas are tossed about...

I think you can perfectly well be a Christian if you disagree with the decisions of a council or synod. You'll recall that are various points, depending on who was Emperor, the Arians were in the right. Athanasius was exiled how many times? Four? So, at various points, he was both a Christian, in disagreement with the "official" church teaching, and in exile for being a "heretic", yet today we hold him up for maintaining the faith. Now, all of that is not to say that apocatastasis is not a controversial claim, or is an orthodox teaching. It certainly is controversial and certainly is not an orthodox teaching. The position that Cliff holds is a perfectly legitimate position that is backed by several pertinent pieces of Scripture and the traditional teaching of the catholic church. My point is that all the ways of thinking about a theology of religions are legitimate. I may not agree with all of them, but I'll never declare someone to be un-Christian for thinking differently about them than I. I believe there is a difference in saying that salvation comes through the work and person of Jesus Christ and in saying that salvation comes through the work of the second person of the Trinity. I also said in my original posting that "I live in the hope of apocatastasis...", not that I believe it to be 100% absolutely true. I think to live with the hope that all persons will eventually be saved is perhaps one of the most Christian beliefs you could espouse. However, I do still think that there are those who manage, one way or another, to find their way into Hell (meaning, by extension, that I also believe in Hell). Pride is a powerful force.

Now, BrotherBeal has raised a very interesting point that also merits some discussion. How do we, clergy or future clergy, strike a balance between following our conscience and following the church? It is an enormous difficulty for serious seminarians as well as clergy. We discussed it in class the other day when our professor said, "I hope you have all realized by now that your days of being just a person in a pew are over. You are no longer just a person in a pew who can say anything and not have it matter. You are a leader of the church and, for better or for worse, people will follow you." This is why the letter of James says that not many should be teachers for teachers will be judged more harshly than others. So, ho do we strike that balance? I do not know, but I will do the best I can. When the whole Gene Robinson thing first broke the surface, my priest stood in the pulpit and said, "When it comes to matters of faith, God help me, but I tend to err of the side of pastoral care and not on the side of theology." So, that, anyway, is one way of doing it.


By Blogger Ryan, at 11:55 AM  


You wrote: "I think you can perfectly well be a Christian if you disagree with the decisions of a council or synod. You'll recall that are various points, depending on who was Emperor, the Arians were in the right. Athanasius was exiled how many times? Four? So, at various points, he was both a Christian, in disagreement with the 'official' church teaching, and in exile for being a 'heretic', yet today we hold him up for maintaining the faith."

In point of fact, this is not correct. Even if you take the period prior Nicea I as "indeterminate", from the standpoint of Nicea I and onward (and retroactively), in point of fact, the Arians were wrong. (Of course, I do not accept the historical reading which sees ante-Nicene Christianity as indeterminate. Too much wishful thinking on the part of otherwise responsible scholars.) Yes, the Nicene Christians were in the minority for much of the next five decades or so, but as it so happens, it wasn't their status as a majority that made the Nicene Christians Christian, but rather their adherence to the judgement given at Nicea, that the Arian doctrine was not consonant with the apostolic deposit.

Majority or minority status does not confer on one the name of Christianity. Adherence to the apostolic Gospel does.

So, no one cannot disagree with the Councils and still claim to be Christian.

I know you disagree with my assertion, so I will leave it at that.

By Blogger Benedict Seraphim, at 12:43 PM  

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