There have traditionally been three ways that theologians have attempted to deal with differences between religions, which I will try to briefly summarize.
1. Exclusivists, or more accurately called particularists, believe all other world religions but their own are wrong. (Most particularists would not exclude other denominations within their own religion. This is perhaps self-intuitive, but many Roman Catholics I have talked with refer to other Christian churches such as Baptists or Presbyterians as different religions.)
2. Inclusivists believe their own religion is ultimately true, but other world religions contain elements of truth that are ultimately compatible with their own. Examples would include the Roman Catholic conception of “anonymous Christians” among other religions, or Hindus who accept Christians as constituting another caste within Hinduism.
3. Pluralists believe that all religions are equally true. The main proponent of religious pluralism is John Hick, who argues that The Real (which is more-or-less synonymous with “God”) is ineffable, or unable to be described. As each world religion attempts to describe the Real, they inevitably describe It/Him in culturally relative terms. Therefore no religion (or at least no “nice” religion) can make a claim to exclusive truth; they are all equally true.
The more I think about these categories, the more I think they are not really getting at the heart of the issues I think are important. Though I am aware that some argue that any truth claim is oppressive, most people I have talked with seem to have no problems with truth claims in themselves. It seems obvious to me that truth claims made by proponents of various religions are at least theoretically testable, even if we don’t have any ways to test them in real life. The real issue, as far as I see it, is soteriology: who will be “saved?” I suggest making a distinction between theological exclusivism and soteriological exclusivism. Then the categories would be redefined as such:
1A. Theological exclusivists claim that their own theology is correct and contradictory claims are false. In other words, they believe Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction must extend into the realm of religious beliefs. (I include anyone making a religious truth claim in this category, not just those who affirm the existence of God. I’m not sure what word to use that would mean what I mean by theology and still encompass atheistic Eastern religions.)
2A. Theological pluralists claim that all theologies are equally correct. At the popular level, this is the belief that “what’s true for you may not be true for me.” But when I talk to people who claim to hold this view, they typically retreat to a position of theological agnostic pragmatism: since we can’t really know what is true about God, what is important is what helps you in your personal life.
1B. Soteriological exclusivists claim that there is no salvation outside of their own religion. For many, the obvious and loathsome conclusion of this position is that large swaths of humanity will be damned eternally to hell.
2B. Soteriological pluralists claim that salvation can be found in a plurality of religions.
This is where I disagree with the position of my M.Div. advisor, Harold Netland. In Encountering Religious Pluralism, he singles out two forms “pseudopluralism”: the Hinduism of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama (213-218). Both systems appear to be pluraslistic, he argues, but on closer inspection they are really just forms of inclusivism. Now I will freely admit that I am not terribly familiar with either of these systems so I may well be misrepresenting them. But it seems that the attractiveness of them lies precisely in their soteriological pluralism, not in any form of theological pluralism. They are not claiming you will go to hell if you disagree with them.
The problem many of my friends have with Evangelical Christianity, I would suggest, is not its claim to theological exclusivism. It is rather in the fact that traditional evangelical theology includes a harsh pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism. I am not convinced that our faith has a strong enough epistemic foundation to make such bold exclusivist claims. I think what people find offensive is not when we claim “Jesus is Lord,” but when we claim “if you don’t believe the gospel you will go to hell.” To conflate the two forms of exlusivism and then defend theological exclusivism seems to me a rhetorical sleight-of-hand which does not really address the issues my non-Christian friends typically have.
I don’t know that all this really makes sense like I want it to, but I think it’s good enough for blogging. I would appreciate any feedback you would like to give. Thanks!