From religious diversity to “confessional pluralism”

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.


4 thoughts on “From religious diversity to “confessional pluralism”

  1. As much as this sounds like Suchocki, I’m inclined to say this sounds an awful lot like S. Mark Heim circa 1995 (Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion). Heim, in his turn, is riffing off Nicholas Rescher’s orientational pluralism (The Strife of Systems), which affirms (as you say above):

    First, [confessional pluralism] 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.


    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.

    Both of the above claims are in consonance with Heim’s take on orientational pluralism: commitments are ultimately perspectival, but it is rational, from within those perspectives, to make hegemonic truth-claims. Regarding the impossibility of a god’s-eye view, Heim turns the old blind-men-and-the-elephant example on its head to show why that parable doesn’t really work: who’s in the position of the observer of the blind men, if the blind men in the story supposedly represent all of us human beings? (Personally, I disagree with Heim’s takedown.)

    I have to admit, though, that the moment I saw the phrase “confessional pluralism” in your post I was transported back to Paul Knitter’s mid-1980s work No Other Name?, which argued for a “confessional” approach to the issue of religious diversity. Knitter was talking mainly about how to dialogue, if I remember correctly: he was saying that we need to drop the “this is how it is” approach and adopt a “this is what I/we believe” approach in its stead. Taylor, like Knitter, seems to think the way forward (metaphysically and ethically) is through continued dialogue: “I believe we can confidently leave that in the hands of the future if we will only persevere in the agenda for today.”

    I agree. Baby steps.

  2. Hi Kevin–thanks as always for your insights on this topic. You know way more about this stuff than I do.

    The reason I associated Inbody’s view with Suchocki’s is that they both use Christian beliefs/themes to argue for a positive view of pluralism. I’m not sure he would agree with what (I take to be) Heim’s view of multiple religious ends though.

    1. You’re right about Heim’s multiple religious ends. But I find Heim’s position rather hard to decipher mainly because, now that I’m actually reading Rescher, I don’t see that Heim is using Rescher’s paradigm correctly. Rescher’s paradigm does nothing more than emphasize the rationality of making one’s case from one’s own perspective, but Heim (arguably a religious conservative; he’s a committed evangelical Protestant) seems to take this to mean that one can still make the same old universal truth-claims while at least acknowledging that the interlocutor is doing nothing irrational by making her own truth-claims.

      La question se pose: in what way is this a true pluralism? Heim’s book argues that his Rescherian pluralism is more pluralistic than the “convergent pluralism” of people like Heim, Knitter, and WC Smith (all three of whom Heim critiques in Salvations). But is it really? It seems to me that Heim is merely creating a space in which he’s still free to make the same evangelical claims an exclusivist would make. It sounds as if he’s saying to his dialogue partner, “You’re wrong, but you’re not irrational for thinking the way you do.” Is this any less condescending than the inclusivism and the convergent pluralism that Heim critiques? How seriously does Heim take his own “multiple religious ends” paradigm? Is it possible to accept that metaphysical picture — Hindus go their way, Christians go theirs — while also claiming Jesus is the one true way? How does one pull this off without inviting a deleterious paradox?

      I’m not uncomfortable with paradox and the trans-discursive, but Heim’s book was an attempt at providing a philosophically rigorous perspective, and in the West that means abiding by the Law of Non-contradiction at all costs. I’m looking at Heim’s work on its own terms, and I don’t think it successfully makes its case.

      OK, sorry about the Heim digression. He tends to frustrate me. In the end, from what you’ve said about Inbody, I think you’re right that he’d be uncomfortable with Heim’s paradigm. I wonder, though, whether Heim himself is comfortable with his own paradigm.

      1. Rick Carr

        I just stumbled on your blog and the comments on Inbody’s book. I am just now reading his book The Transforming God. I have read Suchochi et al and am comfortable in the main with process theology although I realize there are many and varied thinkers on particular theological topics within the process camp. I hope to be able to dialog with you both in the days to come as I am always happy to find others who are reading/thinking tangentially to me.

        I hope this will be ok with you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s