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Placing Christianity in a pluralistic world

by Paul F. Knitter
Orbis Books, 256 pages, $25

Reviewed by ROGER HAIGHT

Christian theology of religion deals with such questions as: Are all religions equal? Does Christianity supercede all other religions? Is there some way to state clearly how one should relate to Jesus Christ in today’s world that strikes a balance between these two extremes?

No set of questions engages Christian theologians today more. No questions have more practical relevance in the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. No American theologian has kept these questions on the theological table over the past three decades with more consistency than Paul Knitter. And none is more expert in his or her knowledge of the field.

Knitter is professor emeritus of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. In introducing this discussion, he aims “to lay out the major theological positions on the relation of Christianity to other religious ways.” This he does in a way that accurately represents a host of thinkers in their wide-ranging pluralism of theologies. He also renders them intelligible in a straightforward language accessible to anyone asking these questions. To accomplish this feat, Knitter first relies on his extensive knowledge of the field, and then creatively draws an updated and detailed map of this complex discussion. The result is the most accurate typology of positions to date. With this listening device, one can distinguish and contrast distinct voices in a theological chorus that otherwise sounds like pure dissonance.

The book is structured by the four models or families of responses to the basic question of how Christianity and implicitly Christ relates to other religions. Three move from right to left; the fourth collects a variety of new paradoxical positions. In each case, Knitter sketches the model in two chapters, and in a third assesses the positive insight and conviction of each, along with the questions pressed by their critics. The book is thus clearly divided into 12 chapters, with an introduction and conclusion, making it an excellent college textbook but not dependent upon a teacher.

Each of the four models houses a collection of theologians who may live on different floors but share the same roof. I shall do little more than name these models, but this will communicate in a schematic way much of what the book is about.

The “replacement model” understands Christianity to supercede all religions. Typical of some evangelical Christians, this view underlines the importance of the biblical witness for theology, the centrality of Christ relative to a real need for salvation. But it appears unrealistic to most mainline Christians today.

The “fulfillment model” represents Vatican II and the mainline Protestant position in holding that Christ recapitulates and brings to perfection the salvific power that exists in other religions. Some versions of this view assert the distinct truth and salvific value of other religions, but its critics ask how one can assert real openness to other religions at the same time as the absoluteness of Jesus Christ.

The “mutuality model” regards other religions on a rough par with Christ and Christianity, so that the revelation and truth of all have to be taken seriously as mutually exercising a claim to respect and understanding and even normalcy. The vision reflects a new situation of a humanity actually interacting, sharing really distinct versions of the truth in a mutually critical way. Some critics believe this wipes out traditional Christological claims.

The “acceptance model” is a study in paradox. It begins with the premise of a new recognition of how deep cultural, linguistic, and religious differences really are: no more commonality among religions; autonomy and difference reign. This fixation on difference then becomes the premise for each religion harboring its own absolute claims unassailed, which leads to a reassertion of premodern and modern claims of Christian supremacy.

In the end, the whole discussion may leave one dizzy. This is an appropriate response in approaching this material for the first time: This book does not intend to decide for the reader, but to survey the options. This it does with remarkable clarity, breadth, depth and erudition disguised in readable prose. The authors represented will recognize their thoughts described in a non-polemical objective way. The book is well indexed, provides current lists for further reading, and represents the state of the question. I’d say it is a perfect book, with the understanding that in a situation of pluralism there can be other perfect books as well.

Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight is professor of systematic and historical theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002