What I Am Also Reading: Knitter on "Unitive Pluralism"

Lately I've been ruminating on John E. Sanders' book No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Eeerdmans, 1992) (Check out last week's post to get up to speed).
From the Parliament of World Religions (Sept. 1893).
L-R: Virchland Gahdhi, Hewitarne Dhrmapala,
Swami Vivekananda, Nikola Tesla, and G. Bonet Maury(?).
(Via Wikimedia Commons. PD-US-1923)

Sanders' work, clearly, is in part a rejoinder to Paul F. Knitter's paradigmatic proposal for religious pluralism -- a "theocentric" approach that claims the great world religions represent diverse paths toward one goal, communion with God. How do I know this, apart from reading the footnotes (recommended)? Well the almost identical titles sort of give it away, for starters. Knitter seems, in his own idiom, to have anticipated the grammatical wisdom of the United Church of Christ: Never put a period where God has put a question mark. As one progresses toward the end of the book and Knitter's own constructive proposal, one might suggest he retitle it something like Yes, Other Names!

As for Sanders' work, the period in the title may be implied, but it is soteriologically significant: Yes, he affirms, salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, but we can hope it extends further than many in the history of Christian thought have anticipated. In short, what Sanders supports is not a doctrine of universal salvation, but rather a "wider hope" theory that God's definitive work of salvation will be made universally available to all human beings throughout time as an offer of saving grace. Yes indeed, Frederick Faber, "There's a wideness in God's mercy" -- and you don't know the half of it! A major strength of Sanders' study is to correct the stereotype, propagated (in part) by Knitter and others, that conservative evangelical theologians are of one mind on this question.

No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, by Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985)

But apart from this debate, what is Knitter's larger contribution to the theology of religions and constructive theology as a whole? To be honest, I don't remember when I last looked at this book, but I suspect Bill Clinton was still President. To be honest, I'm finding Knitter to be much better than I had remembered; maybe I'm in a different place than I was back when Nine Inch Nails was cranking out the hits.

At any rate, what first struck me, early in Knitter's text, is an endorsement of full-throated, optimistic, humane internationalism. This seems to be the sort of ethos within which his theological proposal unfolds. Is the human project even going anywhere, presumably a better place than we've been before? Knitter is quite hopeful, and bids us to read the sign of the times aright. Perhaps, he suggests, if we follow the trends of modern science, critical social theory, and globalization (In this case, it's seen as less the problem and more the solution), we might hope and strive for a "unitive pluralism" that would constitute a quantitative leap in human evolution.

Perhaps I'll return to Knitter's optimistic, constitutive vision of "world citizenship" in due course. But for now, suffice it to say, his proposal comes with a warning, which reads as eerily prescient of what's happening now in the world, three decades after the book was first published. Knitter writes:

[T]he greater danger in the world of today seems to be that we will, in fear or pride, so cling to our own identities and our own nation that we will refuse to learn from the stranger. And a world of strangers is a world of enemies. If our divided world is not to go up in smoke, if it is truly to become a global village, then we must become world citizens. We must find our personal identities with others. The greatest threat to that need is nationalism and ethnocentrism (p. 12).

This reactionary trend, concomitant with the expanding and complexifying evolution of a global human destiny, brings with it a parallel trend of parochialism in religious identity, that imperils the possibilities of inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding. Knitter continues:

In face of the new experience of pluralism, especially religious pluralism, many churches are reacting with a kind of religious nationalism. In a world of so many differing opinions and of so many "gray areas," religion is becoming the one refuge of absolute certainty, of black and white, unchangeable truth. Such religious nationalism does provide a warm security blanket, but it does so, frequently, at the cost of fanaticism that impedes any kind of personally appropriated faith and appears as an insult to human intelligence and integrity (ibid.).

How does this vision play in the post-9/11 world? For my part, I'm not yet convinced that Knitter's optimistic vision packs enough firepower to forestall the apocalyptic, dystopian forebodings unleashed by current crises: ethnic cleansing in the Middle East, reactionary xenophobia and racism in the ostensibly enlightened West, rampant militarism stoked by festering imperialisms, and the ecological and economic devastation wrought by late-modern capitalism.

When I read these standard texts from the "axial" age in the theology of religions -- and I haven't even gotten to S. Mark Heim's bombshell yet! -- I find myself a bit on the sidelines, fumbling around for an alternative vision. I wonder:
Might those of us who still read the likes of Augustine, Calvin, Marx, and Barth come to articulate a vision that is both darker yet more radically hopeful (if finally in an eschatological sense) than that of Knitterian or Hickean pluralism? So stay tuned, gentle readers, as our blogging odyssey strives onward, like the interminable Star Wars franchise, with no end in sight.

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Comments

Benjamin Miller said…
I'm excited that you're continuing on with this topic! I just finished a book about a theology of world religions called God's Rivals by Gerald McDermott. Like Sanders he's an evangelical trying to accommodate unavoidable questions about pluralism while maintaining Christian distinctiveness (and avoiding the inclusivity of figures like Knitter and Hick). He charts his path using the Bible and some ante-Nicene fathers. I'm glad I got to read your posts about Sanders before digging into McDermott's book - it aided my understanding of McDermott's arguments.
Benjamin, thanks for reading and commenting, and I'm glad you've found my posts helpful. I'm not familiar with McDermott's book, but as I'm trying to get myself up to date in this field, perhaps I will run across it in the near future.

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