Pluralism and the work of Christ: 2

In this post I suggested that there is a connection between one’s view of the work of Christ and one’s view of religious pluralism. My hypothesis was that holding a strongly “objectivist” view of Christ’s work tends to go with either an exclusivist or inclusivist position on other religions, while a more “subjectivist” account fit better with pluralist views.

Thinking about it a little more, though, I think that might’ve been a bit simplistic. This is partly because it’s hard to cleanly categorize Atonement theories as either “objective” or “subjective.” Every account of the work of Christ has a “dipolar” character so to speak. There is the act on God’s part to effect Atonement and there is the response or appropriation of that work by human beings. It’s hard to see how an Atonement to which no one responded would in fact be atonement, or reconciliation at all. But no one denies that the initiative in reconciliation comes from God’s side. As Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes put it in the title of his book on the Atonement, it involves both a past event and a present salvation.

Moreover, so-called subjectivist theories do create a “new situation” at least insofar as they understand the cross as the definitive revelation of God’s love and also of the horrors of human sin. This revelation makes possible reconciliation between God and humanity because the revelation of God’s love and its outpouring are taken to be two aspects of the same event. Part of the difference between objectivist and subjectivist theories is that they differ over who needs to be reconciled to whom. Is the problem that God needs to be reconciled to us, or needs to reconcile his justice with his mercy? Or is the problem that we have made ourselves God’s enemies and need to be reconciled to him? If the former, then Atonement will focus on payment, reparation, substitution and other related concepts. If the latter, then the focus will be on how God wins us back through the pouring out of his love and the revelation of our own self-centeredness. But “subjectivist” theories don’t deny the need for a new situation to be established in order to make reconciliation possible.

However one comes down on this issue, I think both share equally in the view that reconciliation comes from God’s side. It’s not about the human ascent to divine truth by means of our own religious and/or ethical striving. Rather, God descends to us in order to restore the relationship broken by sin.

Certain “hard pluralist” views, by contrast, which see all religions as the fruit of human spiritual experience, have a hard time coming to terms with a special action coming from the divine side in order to set the world to rights. Often the divine is viewed as almost inert, as a kind of ineffable sea of transcendence, which is more or less adequately limmed by the various beliefs and rituals of the world’s religions. Whatever can be said for this view, it seems to be at considerable variance from the living, dynamic God of the Bible, the “hound of heaven” who relentlessly seeks to win his faithless people back. The more important distinction, then, may be between a view which holds that the divine reveals itself to us, versus the view that we acquire saving knowledge of the divine by our own efforts.

Even this distinction probably isn’t as hard and fast as it seems, though. For even our own best efforts to seek enlightenment can be seen as the fruits of prevenient grace. And a pluralist could accomodate the notion that the divine is active in seeking fellowship with us and still hold to a plurality of revelations. God may have many avenues by which he is seeking to reconcile the world to himself.

So, I’m not sure how much ground we’ve really gained here. I’ve reconsidered the idea that a particular account of the Atonement will necessarily push one in a particular direction on the question of other religions. I then proposed a distinction between the idea that salvation is something initiated by God and one that holds salvation to be the fruit of human striving, but it seems that both views can be accomodated by exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists alike.

Another thought, maybe to be taken up in another post: maybe it’s not so much differences over accounts of Christ’s work that are important, but over his person.

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