Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 130-132
[Access article in PDF]
Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions
Faith Among Faiths: Christian Theology and Non-Christian Religions. By James L. Fredericks. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999. 188 pp.
"The time has come to recognize that the debate between exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists has reached an impasse."This is the starting point and refrain of Faith Among Faiths. While James Fredericks discerns questions and problems relating to all three models for Christian theological attitudes toward religious pluralism, it is predominantly the pluralist approach that he takes to task. In the first part of this slender volume, he offers a summary of some of the main proponents of the pluralist theology of religion. The ideas of John Hick and Paul Knitter are given separate treatment in a chapter on each, with two "other pluralist voices"--Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Stanley Samartha--also discussed at some length. In order to assess the adequacy of these theologies, Fredericks tests them against two important criteria: [End Page 130] responsibility to the Christian tradition as it has articulated itself, and ability to respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities posed by religious plurality today. Regarding the first criterion, most pluralist theologies are shown to fall short of recognizing the full humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ and hence in some measure to break from continuity with Christian faith. In a useful reminder, Fredericks rightly points to the similarities between pluralist Christologies and the nineteenth-century liberal Protestant views of Jesus, and then joins Pannenberg in criticizing this theocentric understanding of Jesus as unbiblical. At the same time, Fredericks attempts to head off the possible charge that he moves toward biblicism or traditionalism by stating that "the traditional teaching about the divinity and the humanity of Jesus is traditional because of the spiritual and ethical implications that flow from it" (p. 124). The evident importance of this assertion makes it regrettable that he does not elaborate or explain it further.
Most of Fredericks's criticism of the pluralist approach is based on his second criterion, i.e., the need to take seriously the manifest similarities and differences between religions and, in turn, promote a genuinely fruitful dialogue. From this perspective, the problem with pluralism would be its "domestication of differences" between the religions. When a pluralist such as John Hick proposes that all religions are reflections of the same ultimate reality and that all religious paths lead to the same ultimate goal, Fredericks thus sees a tendency to undermine the importance of religious differences and of the self-understanding of other religions. While this may indeed be a danger lurking in an abstract conception of the pluralist position, I do not believe that it is a necessary or inherent consequence of it. The basic distinction that most pluralists make between the "ultimate reality" itself, which is absolutely transcendent, and the historical manifestations of this "ultimate reality" does not necessarily reduce the different religions to equally adequate or inadequate manifestations of that ultimate reality. On the plane of phenomenal reality, there is still room for a hierarchy of truths and, inter alia, the possibility of growing in one's understanding of truth through dialogue with other religions. There is, moreover, ample evidence of this in the fact that some of the aforementioned pluralists have also written very detailed works on other religions (e.g., Cantwell Smith on Islam) or on particular aspects of other religions (Hick on conceptions of death and the afterlife in world religions). As we have seen in the case with the Buddhist notion of upaya,he recognition of the relative nature of all conditioned reality does not necessarily lead to a relativism in which all differences become insignificant.
After criticizing the different pluralist approaches to the theology of religions, Fredericks proposes a shift to comparative theology. He seems to see comparative theology not so much as a new paradigm or orientation within the theology of religions but as a radical alternative to the whole enterprise of the theology of religions...