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  • The Holy Spirit and the World Religions:On the Christian Discernment of Spirit(s) "after" Buddhism
  • Amos Yong


Arguably, recent Christian theological reflection on religious pluralism and the world religious traditions has taken what might be called "a pneumatological turn."1 This emerging conversation is itself an outgrowth of focused attention on both pneumatology and trinitarian theology during the last generation. Applied to the world of the religions, the turn to pneumatology has furthered discussion on theology of religious pluralism by introducing new categories and shifting directions of inquiry. So whereas previous thinking about the religions focused on whether or not they were or are salvific, a pneumatological theology of religions asks whether or not and how, if so, the religions are divinely providential instruments designed for various purposes. Further, while earlier debates focused on whether or not the religions were or are the results of common grace or natural revelation, a pneumatological theologiareligionum asks other kinds of questions, such as, what is the relationship of religion and culture, or of religion and language? How does religion function to sustain life and community? What role does religion play via-à-vis the other dimensions and domains of life, whether it be the arts, politics, economics, etc.? Finally, previous theologies of religion bogged down on abstract intra-Christian issues as evident in the dominant categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism; a pneumatological theology of religions, on the other hand, attempts to push beyond these in-house categories by engaging religious others on their own terms.

In explorations of a pneumatological theology of religions, however, one set of problematic questions repeatedly arises. Simply put, it has to do with how Christians can discern the Holy Spirit in the world of the religions and do so nonimperialistically in our postcolonial world. The Christian assumption is that besides the Holy Spirit of God, there are other spirits, perhaps unholy ones—human, institutional, even demonic—that are operative in the world in general and in the religions particularly. The biblical injunction to "test the spirits to see whether they are from [End Page 191] God" (1 John 4:1) is especially crucial for a pneumatological theology of religions. The Johannine account presents a criterion for discerning the Spirit that is christological: "every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist" (1 John 4:3). The immediate goal in the Johannine context is to provide tools to discern Gnostic deformations of Christian faith within the community. In the present situation of encountering religious pluralism, however, the context is interreligious rather than intra-Christian, and the task is complicated by the fact that other religious traditions may well have different definitions of the good, beautiful, true, and holy, and different criteria to discern such.

The dilemma is this: If we discern the Spirit using Christian (e.g., biblical) criteria, we end up either "christianizing" the other insofar as we find the Spirit to be present, or "demonizing" the other insofar as we find the Spirit absent. In the former case, we appear to have allied ourselves with Rahner's idea of "anonymous Christianity," and thus opened ourselves up to all the difficult counterquestions generated by such a position, not the least of which is that we have imposed our own categories on religious others who are distinct from ourselves and have their own self-understandings. In the latter case, not only have we arrived at theologically charged rhetoric liable to be abused socially and politically, but we have also done so by declaring religious others void of certain goods and values as determined by criteria external to them. In fact, even to ask if the Spirit is present and active in other religions is to stand within a Christian framework—the Holy Spirit always being the Spirit of Jesus and the Spirit of Christ, which is not assumed by other faiths. What is the alternative? Can Christians even attempt to discern the Holy Spirit using non-Christian (i.e., non-biblical) criteria or criteria derived from other faiths? Does not to do so result either in relativizing Christian norms alongside those of other faiths or in reverse...