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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 133-135

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Response to Harry L. Wells

Frances S. Adeney
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Current understandings of how religions may reflect divine truth often use a model developed in England by Alan Race that designates attitudes toward other religions as exclusive, inclusive, or pluralist. John Hick's use of this seemingly simple paradigm, in conversation with scholars in the United States, presupposes the reality of the divine, along with the unknowability of that reality through any human effort or religious tradition. Hick mediates that tension by calling on practitioners of all religions to recognize the relativity of their beliefs and, on that basis, tolerate the religions of others. Both use of and critiques of that model have generated lively discussion among scholars and practitioners of religions.

Consider, for example, two possible ways to move beyond this model. The first is theological. Attempts to describe the divine by speaking of transcendence, immanence, or emptiness stretch human ability to conceptualize and communicate. Enlarging the understanding of God from within a tradition itself to a view that understands God's presence to be active in all traditions, moves us beyond the pluralist category. A second way of going beyond the current model does not attempt to elucidate pan-religious conceptions of the divine but strives to analyze particular traditions themselves. The history of particular traditions and their encounters with one another influence the theologies of the religions themselves and shape theories of religious otherness purported by those traditions. Finding a particular historical set of conditions and beliefs conducive to a positive pluralism that maintains the integrity of each tradition without relativizing all positions would move us beyond Hick's current relativizing pluralist position. These two approaches each struggle with a different side of the tension resulting from presuppositions in the theory of religions put forward in the exclusivist, inclusivist, pluralist model. The first grapples with the ontological issues and the second addresses the epistemological issues of that tension.

Harry Wells chooses to work with the first—the ontological assumption of divine reality. He outlines a Christian Trinitarian relational view of God that not only encompasses but goes beyond the pluralist category as outlined by John Hick. At the same time, he finds the source for that view in a particular historical tradition of Christianity—the early church fathers. [End Page 133]

Wells begins by wondering how he can move beyond Raimon Panikkar's pluralism, which, he claims, already moves beyond Hick's understanding of the pluralist category. Wells then outlines his own pluralist understanding by describing a dynamic and relational understanding of the divine. In so doing, he entertains the notion of knowing something of noumenal reality, no matter how indirectly, through the eyes of a particular tradition. By drawing the circle of divine presence very widely, Wells attempts to express from within the Christian tradition a view of God that allows for a distinctive divine work through other traditions. The practitioner, through experience, encounters a reality that changes perceptions both of the divine and of the religious other.

Here Wells moves beyond the necessity of deconstructing all absolute claims to truth by different religions in order to maintain a pluralist position. Rather than relativize all particular religious traditions, as Hick suggests, Wells utilizes a perspectival approach and projects from it a view of the divine that allows for truth in other traditions. In this way he removes the debilitating necessity of embracing agnosticism by all religious traditions and shows, rather, how pluralist claims may be formed from within a single deeply held tradition.

This broader understanding of the divine, rooted in early Christian mysticism according to Wells, does not rule out tolerance of other religions but embraces tolerance for reasons of faith, rather than through agnosticism. In effect, Wells argues that a theological orientation growing from an encounter with divine mystery influences the articulation of a specific tradition and its stance toward other religions.

While avoiding the dualism inherent in studying religions only phenomenonologically and, at the same time, postulating a noumenal reality, this approach is not without its dangers. One...