In my research for the student textbook on Inter-Religious Dialogue I am writing, I came upon a nice article that included a disagreement between two leaders in the field of IRD in the 1970s— John Hick and Max Warren. (“Evangelicalism without Hyphens: Max Warren, the Tradition and Theology of Mission” by Tim Yates. Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission. Vol 2, No. 3, 1985. p. 231 – 245)
John Hick suggested that IRD should be drawn from a radically new view of the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. He considered the transition as a sort of “Copernican Revolution.” theologically-speaking.
The traditional view could be likened to the Terracentric (Ptolemaic) Model in Astronomy. In this case, instead of the earth being the center, the center is Christianity. One would then see Christianity as the center, and other religions would circle the Christian faith from various distances depending on how closely they aligned with the doctrines of Christianity. In essence, Christinity is “the truth” and other religions are in essence “false,” although with perhaps various degrees of falseness.
The view proposed by Hick could be likened to the Heliocentric (Copernican) Model. Here, however, the center is God. God is the center of faith, and various faith groups revolve around this center. On first glance, this seems quite reasonable. God should be the center not our own religion, correct? But there was a problem. That problem had to do with the issue of religious uniqueness. If God is the center and different religious groups revolve around that center, than Christianity is just one of many— maybe the closest, or maybe the “best” but no more— just one faith construct to know or have access to God. If that is true, than to understand God in our Inter-Religious Dialogue, we should open our minds to other truths about God from other groups, and question our own presumptive beliefs. In essence, one must relativize one’s own beliefs if one is to gain insight from others. And, arguably, to relativize one’s beliefs about one’s own faith, one must also doubt the uniqueness of Christ as revelation of God.
This is quite consistent if one accepts a Theocentric system for IRD. But Warren suggested a different possibility that I am calling the “Unclusive Uniqueness” of Christ. A way I might suggest it is to think of a Christocentric Model. However, perhaps instead of saying that Christ is the center, I may be more specific and say the “Revelatory Christ.” After, all there are many religious views of Christ from the panoply of faiths out there. These views tend to give a discription with an implicit “among many” They may say that Jesus is
- a prophet (among many)
- a god (among many)
- an angel (among many)
- a holy man (among many)
Jesus Christ however, is expressed in Scripture as unique in revealing God. As such, “among many” doesn’t really apply.
Note, however, that placing the revealed Christ at the center, does risk again taking away the uniqueness of Christianity. And to an extent that is a valid concern. Our foundation, however, is in Christ, not the church. To the extent that Christianity aligns itself with the revealed Christ, it is on a unique and firm foundation. To the extent that we drift, we fall more into an orbit around Christ like other faiths.
Consider a bit from Tim Yate’s article:
“<Warren> quoted J. M Creed, the Cambridge theologian of an earlier generation, to the effect that, whereas Christian theology did not need to claim that it contained all truth of religious value, it was committed to the view that ‘in Christ it had found the deepest truth of God’. Not to do so was for the Church to lose itse1f. From this point Max argued that the uniqueness to which he was committed was essentially inclusive. Jesus’ relationship to God as ‘Abba’, father, is distinctive but in this relationship he is Man, inclusive Man, relating to God. Max is prepared to accept the Copernican revolution where this means displacing the religion, Christianity (vide Hick above) from the centre. For such a religion can easily degenerate into idolatry, and so invite God’s judgement, as any other religion, a view familar to readers of Barth or Hendrik Kraemer. Max then made a move which was characteristic but vulnerable to Hick’s response: I want to argue that Christianity being removed from the centre the new centre is not a theological term -God- but an historical person, Jesus, in whom God is to be recognized as uniquely revealed.” (Yates, 239)
Where does this leave us as Christians in terms of IRD. If Christ is the center, and not the Christian faith, one should be open to the reasonable and humble belief that “we don’t know it all.” As such, Christians have the opportunity to learn and grow through dialogue, not just teach others. That being said, that inclusiveness is not to lead to a relativization of faith, since our center is the revelatory Christ. Dialogue tht leads us away from Christ as God’s unique revelation, is has led us astray.