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.

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