In the final chapter of The Many Faces of Christology, Tyron Inbody looks at the issue of religious diversity. He considers the standard responses–exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism–but finds them wanting for familiar reasons. Exclusivism, in addition to resting on a questionable and selective interpretation of the biblical witness, greatly exacerbates the problem of evil by implying that the vast majority of the human race will be denied even the possibility of salvation. Inclusivism, while appearing to be more open-minded, is in the end a kinder, gentler form of Christian exclusivism, implying that the exclusive basis of salvation is still the Christian revelation. Finally, pluralism, in insisting on an essential similarity among religions, tends to smuggle in particularist assumptions. For instance, John Hick’s pluralism makes a number of assumptions that are really theistic in nature and not neutral between the various religious traditions.
Instead of adopting one of the familiar perspectives, Inbody argues for what he calls “confessional pluralism.” This form of pluralism makes two key affirmations. First, it insists that all religious traditions are irreducibly contextual. That is to say, none can claim to have a neutral, “god’s-eye” view of things. It entails “a lack of finality and absoluteness” and an affirmation of “modesty about theological claims” (p. 209). In other words, we can only speak about other religions from the perspective of our own particular viewpoint; we should therefore not claim to possess a “view from nowhere.”
Second, confessional pluralism, in its Christian form, affirms the universal significance of Christ and interprets the plurality of religions from an explicitly Christian point of view. For instance, Inbody suggest that, arguing analogously from the triune nature of God, we can posit plurality as an irreducible fact about the world. The world is characterized by pluralism–including religious pluralism–because unity-in-difference is the character of the divine life itself. God is the Creator of all, the Wisdom that can be manifested in a multiplicity of religious traditions, and the Spirit that is at work in the world and in all cultures to bring creation to fulfillment.
This perspective strikes me as very similar to the one developed by Marjorie Suchocki in her Divinity and Diversity (which I blogged about here and here), as well as the “confessionalism” of H. Richard Niebuhr. Inbody is arguing for an appreciation of pluralism, not from purportedly “universal” premises, but from explicitly Christian ones. Confessionalism as Inbody understands it can be pluralist in affirming that no one tradition possesses the unvarnished and complete truth, but that all the “great ways” embody part of that truth; it can also be particularist in claiming universal significance for the revelation of God in Jesus.
Perhaps a good way to think about it is offered by John V. Taylor, the Anglican bishop and theologian. In his book The Christlike God, Taylor writes the following:
The different ‘faces’ of God which are set forth [in the various world religions] will seem in some respects to be mutually contradictory, and for a long time we may not be ready to guess how, if at all, they will be reconciled. I believe we can confidently leave that in the hands of the future if we will only persevere in the agenda for today. And for us who are Christians this is, quite simply, in reverent appreciation of the beliefs and prayers of others, to affirm that, whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love–and that we have found in that revelation the salvation that all peoples look for. (p. 5)
This seems to strike the kind of balance Inbody is talking about–neither surrendering our loyalty to the revelation we have received nor presuming to be in possession of the entire truth.