Between inclusivism and pluralism

In a recent Christian Century article, theologian Charles Hefling provides an argument for the salvation of non-Christians that seems to sit somewhere between “inclusivism” and “pluralsim”–at least as those terms are often defined.

Inclusivism, though it admits of many variations, typically means that people are, or can be, saved by Christ without formally being Christians, even without ever hearing the Christian message. Meanwhile, pluralism is usually taken to mean that all religions (or all “major” religions) can act as vehicles for salvation in the broadest sense. Christian inclusivism, though a softer position than exclusivism, still locates salvation in Christianity; pluralism, by contrast, puts all faiths on roughly equal footing.

Hefling’s account leans heavily on the role of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Trinity who directly moves people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. He says that this can–and manifestly does–take place in people who have no knowledge of, much less explicit faith in, the incarnate Word.

Ordinarily, you can’t love someone you know nothing about. But in this case the invitation is anonymous. The Spirit, who unlike the Word has no proper name, arrives incognito. Christians, of course, claim to know something about this arrival; it was one purpose of their Lord’s advent to disclose in human terms how best to respond to the gift that arrives, what the indwelling love of God requires of anyone who does not refuse it, what being drawn by the Father implies for human living and dying. Yet people do find themselves being moved to transcend themselves, drawn beyond themselves, grasped by ultimate concern, even when the Christian way of conceiving what they have found is faint or ill defined. They respond to strangely heart-warming love, without understanding whom they are in love with.

This sounds like standard inclusivism, but Hefling insists that non-Christian religious traditions may also have this experience of the Spirit at their core. “It is because of this lavish bestowal of God’s self-gift that there is such a thing as religion—not only the various Christianities, but also the many more or less stable combinations of ‘creed, code, and cult’ for which ‘world religions’ is the conventional umbrella name.” Both Christian and non-Christian religions may be a response to a common experience of the Spirit.

What about Jesus, though? Doesn’t this theory threaten to pry apart the work of the Spirit and the incarnation of the Word?

Hefling says that we need to understand what it is that God does in Jesus:

[N]othing in this essay contradicts the teaching that anyone who is saved is saved through Christ the Son of God. To repeat, it is he who sends the Spirit, whenever and to whomever the Spirit is sent. Nor, secondly, has the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation been denied in any way. God has spoken “in many and various ways,” but only once by a Son.

At the same time, however, this argument does assert that speaking is not the only thing God does, and it certainly implies that what God spoke by speaking his eternal Word at a particular time and place is not so unique as to be totally at variance with the utterances of holy persons who have responded in love to God’s other self-gift, without themselves being God incarnate. Moreover, this last point goes hand in hand with a certain way of understanding Christ’s role in the “economy” of salvation.

It is a mistake to constrict that role to one isolated event, Christ’s death, construed as a kind of decoy that fooled the devil or a kind of lightning rod that deflected the wrath of God. Better to take the cross, together with the rest of Christ’s life and teaching, as a word, a communication of what loving God and neighbor consists in and calls for in a thoroughly messed-up world. The claim that other religious traditions have no clue that this is how God deals with death-dealing malice and wickedness is simply not believable.

As the incarnate Word, Christ gives us the paradigm of self-giving love. But it is the Spirit who moves us to replicate that love in our own lives, and this can happen even for those who are not acquainted with Jesus. Moreover, the image of self-giving love can be present in varying degrees in the teachings of non-Christian traditions, thus providing material for the Spirit to use in moving people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. So understood, Hefling’s view provides for a more positive assessment of these traditions than the textbook version of inclusivism, which seems to move it closer to (a form of) pluralism.

The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

Papal hot takes are missing the point

Pope Francis’s visit to the Western Hemisphere has occasioned a whole new round of papal #takes. Conservatives are conservasplaining that Francis, with all this talk of economic inequality and environmental doom-and-gloom, doesn’t understand the gospel, or hates science and modernity. Liberals are warning that Francis isn’t really progressive, but a theocrat in progressive clothing. Rinse, repeat.

This cross-ideological freak out seems to me to miss the genuine source of Francis’s appeal. Rev. Amy Butler of New York City’s historic Riverside Church puts her finger on it here, I think, when she writes that many of the “radical” things Francis is doing–reaching out to the poor and marginalized, emphasizing our responsibility to care for creation, trying to live modestly and with humility–are things all Christians are supposed to be doing.

We’re so used to religious leaders who look nothing like this-slick, rich megachurch pastors or angry, apocalyptic cranks–that when someone shows up who’s living what is basically just Christianity 101, it’s startling and refreshing.

That doesn’t mean everything Francis does or says is (ahem) infallible. I for one disagree with the Catholic Church on the usual matters where liberal Protestants tend to disagree with it. And it does seem that the pope may understate some of the virtues of market economics and modern political arrangements. But I can still appreciate the genuinely Christ-like spirit animating his ministry. If more of our leaders (and lay people!) exhibited a similar spirit, Christianity–and the world–might look very different.

Not quite feeling the #Bern

Many of my friends, both online and in “real life,” are enthusiastically supporting Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. His straight-talking critique of economic inequality and his unapologetically left-wing proposals for addressing it have undeniably tapped into frustrations with the political and economic status quo. He presents a sharp contrast with the cautious centrism of Hillary Clinton, and his candidacy provides, perhaps, a shot at redemption for liberals who have been disappointed with President Obama.

I can see, and to some extent I feel, the appeal of the Bern. His critique of economic inequality is important, and I’d support many of his proposed solutions. And when politics is swimming in big money, his grass-roots approach to fundraising is inspiring.

So why aren’t I, as my title suggests, feeling the Bern?

First, I’m less left-wing than Sanders. That is, I’m not as pessimistic about our political and economic system, and I’m a bit more skeptical about the kind of sweeping programs he’s proposing. I’m still firmly on the left, or at least the center-left, but probably closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. (Though I’m persuadable here, and often find value in the critique of those on the further-left.)

Second, I’m not convinced Sanders has the temperament or experience to be president. He often comes across as dogmatic and impatient, and he evinces little interest in the things that actually form the core of the president’s job: running the executive branch and conducting foreign policy. Sanders’ passion is clearly domestic, specifically economic, policy, but in our system of government the president has a very limited ability to enact the kinds of sweeping changes he’s calling for.

Third, and probably most important to my mind, Sanders can’t win. Or at least I’m highly skeptical that he could. Much has been made of his recent surge in the polls: depending on which one you look at, he’s either neck-and-neck with or actually beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa. But his inroads in other states, ones that are more representative of the electorate, remain stubbornly limited. He seems to have trouble appealing beyond his core base of white, relatively affluent progressives, and these folks don’t constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters, not to mention the electorate as a whole.

Hard-core Sandersnistas will insist that he can win, and that his surge in Iowa and New Hampshire can be replicated in other states. And I’ve had friends tell me that, if presented in an unbiased way to the American public, Sanders’ proposals will handily win a majority in the general election.

Color me skeptical. Barack Obama, despite being a pragmatic, center-left liberal, has been routinely pilloried as a “socialist” for his entire presidency. What do people think will happen if someone who actually identifies as a democratic socialist wins the nomination? The red-baiting will be something to behold.

Essentially, I regard a Sanders nomination as a high-risk/low-reward proposition. The risk is losing the election—probably not in a 1972- or 1984-style blow-out, but decisively—and ushering a Republican into the White House, along with Republican control of Congress. (And have you seen the Republican Party lately?) And the potential upside isn’t as big as some people seem to think. Even if President Sanders is sworn into office in January 2017, he will still in all likelihood be dealing with a Congress, or at least a House, that’s overwhelmingly Republican. This would drastically limit his ability to enact his ambitious proposals, if not put the kibosh on them entirely. The constraints on a President Sanders would be essentially the same (barring some major upsets in congressional races) as they would on a President Clinton, or President Biden, or whoever. And so I’m not convinced the results would be that different.

This doesn’t mean that I think the Sanders candidacy has been a bad idea. I think a robust left wing helps keep liberalism honest and prevents it from drifting too far to the right. Sanders has expanded the range of acceptable policy options and is keeping the issue of economic fairness front-and-center in the campaign. I think this leftward pressure will be good for the Democratic Party in the long run, even if I’m not on board with Sanders as president.

This is my current thinking, at least. I could probably be persuaded otherwise. Heck, by the time the Maryland primary rolls around next April my vote may not matter that much anyway. And if Sanders does actually win the nomination, I’ll vote for him and hope for the best.

God loves Homo naledi too

Reading this fascinating account of the recent discovery of Homo naledi–“a baffling new branch to the [human] family tree”–I couldn’t help thinking that Christianity hasn’t really come to terms with the history of human (and proto-human) existence as it’s increasingly being revealed to us.

When evolution first began to be debated in Christian circles it was possible to accept evolutionary theory but still draw a bright line between humans and the rest of creation. Sure we may have developed from “lower” forms of life, but we possessed unique capacities that set us apart. We had a “soul”–perhaps divinely infused at conception or some other point during our prenatal development; we had “free will”; we could reason about abstract concepts; we could respond to God’s will and commune with the divine, etc. Other animals, particularly higher primates, might appear to possess some of these abilities in rudimentary form, but it wasn’t much of  stretch to still see humans as standing on one side of a great divide, with the rest of animal creation on the other.

However, as paleontologists have started to fill in the blanks in the evolutionary record, a murkier–and stranger–picture has emerged. Various kinds of proto-humans existed–most of them for much longer than Homo sapiens has so far. Some of them–Neanderthals and now possibly H. naledi–coexisted (and interbred) with us. Some of them seem to have possessed at least some of the capacities we have traditionally identified as uniquely human. For example, the discovery of the remains of over a dozen H. naledi in a deep cavern in South Africa may indicate a ritualized burial.

The upshot is that modern humans are increasingly shown to be deeply woven into the fabric of nature–more so than most traditional theology has admitted. And in geological time (never mind cosmic time) the duration of our existence and prominence on Earth is less than a blink. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for us not to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and the center of history.

But if, as Christians are supposed to affirm, God loves and cares for all of creation, what role do proto- or other-humans play in God’s economy? Are we so sure that God’s most important dealings with human-like creatures occurred during the handful of millennia covered by the Bible? (As a thought experiment, one can extend this in the other direction: our far-distant descendants may differ radically from us in any number of ways and may, for all we know, be spread out through the galaxy, interbreeding with other species to create previously undreamt of forms of life. Are we sure nothing of equal religious significance will occur during that time and under such radically different circumstances?)

In principle, adjusting to the idea that we aren’t at the center of human (or quasi-human) history isn’t that different from absorbing the notion that the Earth isn’t at the center (spatially or temporally) of the cosmos, or that other creatures have value independent of us. But I don’t know that Christianity (or maybe any of the world’s religions) has really incorporated the implications of this in its theology, not to mention its piety, liturgy, and ethics. Our worldview–at least the one that’s presupposed by much of the church’s teaching and practice–still seems to put all the big events in the past, and it assumes that things will continue in essentially the same manner till the end of time. But given how briefly humanity as we know it has existed, what reason is there to think it represents the “normal” state of affairs?

I certainly don’t know what changes in our thinking and practice (if any) are called for. But it may be that the radical contingency of human existence as we know it has implications we’ve barely begun to consider.

Midsummer update

Gee, things have been quiet around here, haven’t they?

I have no real excuse except that work, family, a little bit of travel, and sundry other activities have pushed blogging down the scale of priorities considerably.

Not that there hasn’t been stuff going on in the world: we had some major Supreme Court cases come down; the horrific shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; the Greece situation; and most recently the nuclear deal with Iran.

But then again, I’m not particularly qualified to comment intelligently on most of these topics and have generally limited myself to the occasional quip on Twitter.

The other major topic of this blog, at least historically, has been theology. But to be honest, I’ve gotten pretty burned out on that. I’ve all but stopped reading theology books, and I’m increasingly uninterested in the debates that rage among Christians on the Internet. I don’t know if I’m in some sort of spiritual-religious funk, but let’s just say theology and I are “on a break.”

I’ve also tried to resist the urge to have “takes” on everything little thing that happens. This, admittedly, is not a recipe for prolific blogging, but it is more conducive, I think, to my mental health.

On the positive side, I’ve been reading more in other areas I’m interested in: among other things, I’ve finished a history of the French Revolution, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, and a fascinating treatise on aesthetics and culture. Right now I’m making my way through Akhil Amar’s big book on the U.S. Constitution and the first volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Mauritian series.

I may pop in now and then as the mood strikes me, but I think it’s safe to say that this (already sporadic) blog will be pretty quiet for the rest of the summer.

How many divisions has the pope?

I believe that climate change is one of the biggest threats to human civilization of our time, if not the biggest. So in that sense I’m glad that Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical will apparently be a strong endorsement of our responsibility to address it.

Still, I find the excitement around this encyclical to be a bit odd. There seems to be an assumption that this will somehow be a game-changer in galvanizing support for climate action. But if there’s one thing we know about American politics at least, it’s that Catholics’ political behavior is, in general, not detectably different from non-Catholics. Catholic voters as a group vote pretty much the same as the general electorate, and there is no cohesive ideological stance shared by Catholics as such. Among politicians, liberal Catholics like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi freely disregard the church’s teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, while conservative Catholics like Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan ignore its views on the environment and economic justice. Everyone’s a cafeteria Catholic, essentially.

Now, people have come up with various ways to nuance this or have deployed subtle arguments about why it’s OK to disagree with the church or the pope on some issues, while others are non-negotiable. Which, as part of an intra-Catholic debate seems totally legitimate. But it also reinforces the point that people will emphasize the parts of the church’s teaching that line up with their preexisting political commitments. Liberals will talk a lot about social justice and the environment, while conservatives will keep emphasizing gay marriage and abortion. What I don’t see a lot of evidence for is that people are going to change their mind on a big issue like climate change based on what the pope says.

Of course I could be wrong, and in this case I hope I am!

More cracks in the evangelical consensus on same-sex relationships

A couple of interesting developments in the world of evangelicalism over the last day or so. Tony Campolo, a well-known evangelical preacher and activist, has come out (so to speak) for the “full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.” Campolo has long argued for more tolerance of gay people but has always stopped short of a full-blown “open and affirming” position.

Perhaps more interesting, David Neff, the former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, has affirmed Campolo’s affirming position. While Campolo has long been associated with left-leaning positions, Neff’s credentials in official evangelicalism are, from what I can tell, impeccable. In fact, Neff was one of the signers of the Manhattan Declaration, a statement by conservative evangelical and Catholic leaders that, among other things, condemned any change to the “traditional” definition of marriage.

Campolo and Neff join other inarguably mainstream evangelical figures such as ethicist David Gushee in moving to an affirming stance. Christianity Today was quick to disassociate itself from Neff’s views (though without condemning Neff himself), while other voices were more strident in their response.

Whether this indicates a “tipping point” in evangelicalism is hard to say, but when veteran leaders are reversing themselves (to say nothing of shifting attitudes among the young) it sure looks to me like the genie’s out of the bottle on this issue.

Does it matter if Jesus never returns?

A friend on Twitter asks:

“Will there be a point at which Christians accept that Jesus won’t return? 5,000 years? 10,000 years? When the sun consumes the earth?”

For what it’s worth, my view is that Christians don’t need to believe in a “literal” second coming. Eschatology, like creation, points to something that lies beyond the boundaries of normal, historical experience and thus escapes precise conceptualization or description. Just as the biblical creation story can (and should) be seen as a symbol pointing to a trans-historical reality, so can the stories of Jesus’ return, the last judgment, etc.

In the case of creation, what the stories point to is the absolute dependence of all created reality on its divine Source. Creation is not something that happened “once upon a time” such that, say, you could hop in the TARDIS and go back and observe it. Similarly, eschatology is not about events that will occur in the historical future. Rather, the eschatological symbols point to the destiny of all created beings and their ultimate consummation in and with God. What this will look like is not something that human beings can describe in any precise, “literal” way, since our language and conceptual apparatus are fitted for mundane, historical realities. But from a Christian point of view, the symbol of the second coming of Jesus provides a powerful assurance that our destiny is with the God who Jesus re-presented to us as a loving Parent, and not an implacable judge.

Obviously there are Christians who would take issue with this interpretation, and many people are able to reconcile the “tarrying of the Lord” with belief in a historical, this-worldly second coming. But I also think a view like that one I outlined has a respectable pedigree in the history of Christianity. Church fathers like Augustine and Origen recognized the highly symbolic nature of the biblical language about ultimate realities and did not insist on literalism. The function of the biblical symbols is to orient us to that inexhaustible fountain of love and creativity that Christian faith maintains is the source and goal of our being.

UPDATE: Here are some relevant posts from the archives:

A better hope

Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”?

Keith Ward at the National Cathedral

Maimonides on the Messiah

I’ve been reading a (heavily abridged) edition of Moses Maimonides’ (1138-1204) systematic digest and commentary on the Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, and found his discussion of the Messiah toward the end of particular interest. The Messiah, he says, is not some kind of supernatural figure, but simply a righteous king in the line of David who will reestablish Israel’s sovereignty and freedom from external domination.

Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so.


If there arise a king from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah.


Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, or any innovation be introduced into creation.


Said the rabbis: “The sole difference between the present and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers.”


The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Law and its wisdom, with no one to oppress or disturb it, and thus be worthy of life in the world to come. (Book fourteen, chapters 11 and 12.)

I think it’s safe to say that this is very different from the prevailing Christian view of the “messianic age,” which is usually portrayed in frankly supernaturalistic terms. It’s also worth noting that Maimonides distinguishes the time of the Messiah and “the life of the world to come.” “The world to come” seems to refer to life beyond death, but this is distinct from the reestablishment of Israel under a just and pious king. The time of the Messiah is an entirely this-worldly affair, achieved through the “natural” means of politics, study, and obedience to the Law.

My (admittedly highly incomplete) understanding is that this is by no means the only way of thinking about the Messiah in Judaism, and that there are other, more overtly supernatural views. But Maimonides’ doctrine, in which the messianic age is not eschatological but arrives as a result of human effort rather than direct divine intervention, provides a striking contrast to the common Christian understanding.

UPDATE: Just a few further thoughts on this. I think this discussion highlights how the disagreement between Christianity and Judaism isn’t (just) about who the Messiah is, but what messiahship consists of. If you accept the criteria laid out by Maimonides, it’s obvious that Jesus was not the Messiah, since he was not a king who reestablished the sovereignty of Israel. In calling Jesus the Messiah, Christianity was taking a particular stance on what it meant to be the Messiah–something about which, as I understand it, there was no uniform consensus at the time. And this understanding was shaped by the particular details of Jesus’ life and death–and particularly the belief in his resurrection.

Christians have often talked as thought Jews’ unwillingness to embrace Christ was due to a kind of willful blindness, since he was “clearly” the fulfillment of their messianic hopes. But this dramatically undersells the extent to which the role of the Messiah as understood by Christianity drew on a particular selection and reshaping of ideas floating around at the time. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are ongoing traditions with their own ways of making sense of and appropriating the biblical material, including the idea of the Messiah.