July 2018 Feature
For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.
However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.
In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith. Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.
The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.
As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.
The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:
- The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
- The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
- A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect
These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.
If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.
The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.
While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.
Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.
It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.
Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.