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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 115-121

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Instrumentality, Complexity, and Reason:
A Christian Approach to Religions

Terry C. Muck
Asbury Theological Seminary

I want to call into question The Paradigm, the threefold classification of Christian approaches to other religions as Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism. I call this classification The Paradigm, with a capital T and a capital P, because it is the way we have categorized Christian theological approaches to the other religions ever since 1982, when Alan Race proposed this "broad typological framework within which most of the current Christian theologies of religions can be placed," in his book Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions (Orbis Books). 1

Race's was not the first attempt at such a paradigm. He was preceded by others, most notably Owen Thomas, who classified Christian responses to other religions under the headings of rationalism, romanticism, relativism, exclusivism, dialectic, reconception, tolerance, dialogue, catholicism, and presence. 2 But Thomas's categories have not stuck like Race's, perhaps because of the larger number and perhaps because they seem a mixture of apples and oranges, that is, a conglomeration of logical positions, emotive states, and simple demographics. Although this hodgepodge may be more true to the reality of the complex ways Christians relate to people of other faiths, Race's paradigm, simple and straightforward, has won out in the descriptive derby.

I think it is time to question whether Race's paradigm should continue to be the primary way we classify the many ways Christian theologians and other Christians relate to the world's other religious traditions. I will describe why I think The Paradigm is losing its usefulness, make a proposal for a new way of looking at the other religions, and list both the losses/dangers and benefits of thinking in a new way.

The Problem with the Paradigm

The first sign that The Paradigm is showing its age is that very few people seem to really fit in any one of the three categories. I suspect that few of us here would be willing to say unambiguously, "I am an exclusivist," or "I am an inclusivist," or "I am [End Page 115] a pluralist." 3 And even if we were willing to identify with one or another of the options, then most likely we would in the same breath quickly say something like, "But let me tell you what I mean when I say I am an exclusivist (or inclusivist or pluralist)." That is, we quickly define the words in qualifying ways that address the objections that have been raised in reference to each of the positions:

Exclusivists, for example, struggle to counter the charges of being inhumane, 4 or of making God seem inhumane, 5 or of being narrow, or of being misinformed, 6 or of being unscholarly. 7

Inclusivists, for their part, struggle to counter the charges of being Christian exclusivists in disguise, 8 or of being offensive to non-Christians, 9 or of being pluralists in disguise, 10 or of holding a philosophically unstable position.

Pluralists, in turn, make sure we know they are not relativists, 11 that they are not necessarily universalists, 12 that being a pluralist does not mean they are a-religious or that they consider themselves above the fray of common religious commitment. 13

I don't think that this problem has just to do with the fact that the paradigm is what Max Weber called an ideal-type paradigm, where we set up ideal types as a way of clearly delineating logically possible positions vis-à-vis a presenting issue as a heuristic device. 14 Were that the case, it seems to me that we could still embrace The Paradigm as a way of talking about interreligious interchange and explicitly/implicitly acknowledge to one another that we recognize the ambiguity of the categories when it comes to applying them to complex individual adherents of complex religious traditions. 15

I think dissatisfaction with The Paradigm goes beyond frustration with it as an ideal-type typology. The Paradigm has come to stand for...