Over the holiday weekend I read Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Though it only clocks in at about 120 pages, it’s one of the better books I’ve read on the subject.
Suchocki, professor emerita of the Claremont School of Theology and a noted process and feminist theologian, takes an different approach than many pluralists by arguing that we find support for religious pluralism in certain core Christian convictions. These include God as creator, God as incarnate, humanity as created in the image of God, and the reign of God as the goal of earthly community.
Using a process-relational model of creation, Suchocki argues that God creates the world by evoking a freely given response from creatures, not by unilaterally determining what happens. Because of this element of free play, creation displays great diversity. The diversity of religion–humanity’s response to the sacred–is one aspect of this. This same creator God is “radically incarnate” in creation: by presenting possibilities for creatures to realize, God allows them to incarnate an aspect of the divine, if only in a limited and partial way. The great religious traditions are instances of this kind of culturally conditioned response to an experience of God. While they may seem to conflict, or even to be incommensurable, at the level of conceptualizations, these concepts are abstractions from an experience of the God who is deeply present in the world.
In contrast to much of the Christian tradition, Suchocki argues that the imago dei should be understood as a collective characteristic of the entire human race, as opposed to a more individualistic understanding. She bases this on the trinitarian nature of God as a community of irreducibly different persons. It is only by creating a community of diverse communities, not by erasing difference, that humanity fully images the divine. Similarly, the reign of God is the state of affairs characterized by transcending the preference for “our kind” and fostering the well-being for all, including the stranger. The stranger is welcomed as a stranger, not by being assimilated and required to sacrifice that which makes her different.
All of these considerations, Suchocki maintains, point toward religious diversity as good and as part of God’s will for humanity. The great religions are free responses to the experience of the sacred, which are rooted in genuine experience of God. To live up to our calling to reflect the image of God, we should welcome and celebrate difference, including the religious “stranger,” rather than require everyone to profess the same faith.
Suchocki considers the implications of affirming religious pluralism for two key issues: salvation and mission. Regarding the former, she contends that Jesus truly mediates saving grace, but that doesn’t mean that only Jesus does so. The divine presence manifests itself within and adapts itself to locally prevailing conditions. The questions that other people ask may not even necessarily be the ones that Christianity answers (she points out that some Eastern traditions are more concerned with eliminating suffering than sin, for instance). Jesus reveals God’s love and the life of humanity truly united to God, and the power of this grace-full event is amplified by the texts, traditions, and stories that have emerged in its wake. But this doesn’t mean that no other stories or traditions have the power to save.
The implication for mission is that Christians should not seek to convert others (though conversions may still happen, of course). Instead, they should aim to form friendships with those of other faiths and to share what is most valuable in their tradition, as well as being prepared to learn from the religious other. This creates a very real possibility of mutual transformation. At the very least it should lead to deepened understanding and a willingness to work together for the common good.
What I like about Suchocki’s position is that, unlike some pluralists, she doesn’t try to assume a “view from nowhere”, outside of any particular tradition. Too often, this results in a kind of lowest-common-denominator theology or a covert attempt to impose the standards of one tradition on others without acknowledging it. Instead, Suchocki is contending for religious pluralism on explicitly Christian grounds. More traditional Christians will take issue with some of her conclusions, particularly her apparent relativizing of the salvific importance of Jesus. And I think it’s fair to ask how we’re supposed to maintain that the Christian tradition is normative for us once we’ve made such relativizing moves. However, I think she makes a strong argument that the diversity of religions may be God’s will and that Christians should stop thinking that the ideal would be for all other faiths to vanish because everyone converted to Christianity.