Monday, March 21, 2011

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 4)

Heim affirms four basic religious ends and options: Christian salvation as communion with the trinitarian God, religious ends other than communion with God, human destinies that are not religious ends at all (such as a humanistic clinging to material reality instead of God), and an annihilationist version of hell (here I would push back for a hopeful universalist position, but that's not my focus here). The Christian and non-Christian religious ends combined include three different relationships with God, each with two distinct variations. The first dimension is an impersonal relation, which includes an apophatic and pantheistic variation. The apophatic variation connects to the Buddhist notions of nirvana, and is grounded in the kenotic actions of the divine persons to make space for one another in the divine life. This manifests in the economy as a divine contraction or self-limitation in relation to creation (in order to allow creation space and freedom to exist) and is rightly described as emptiness, impersonal, and impermanence. Conversely, the pantheistic variation is grounded in an intensified concentration on God’s real immanence in creation. This resonates with some popular versions of Hinduism. The second dimension is what Heim calls iconographic relation, which includes a non-personal and personal variation. The iconographic relation is grounded in the divine life as each person encounters the other as totally unique. In the economy, this manifests as humans have an intensified encounter with the divine as one wholly other, over and against us. The non-personal variation refers to God as an authoritative law, force, order or structure that connects to Buddhist notions of dharma and the Tao of Taoism. The personal variation conceives of God as externally personal in an I-Thou relation (not quite as personal as the Christian God-in-communion). God’s transcendent otherness is emphasized, and thus law, obedience, and faithfulness as well. Islam is a good example of this personal iconographic relation. Finally, the third dimension of the triune life is grounded in the perichoretic communion of the three divine persons and has a polytheistic and monotheistic variation. In the economy, there is real communion possible between human and divine that unites without dissolving differences. The polytheistic variation takes shape by separating the “frequencies” of this triune relationship as independent, yet parallel absolutes. Traditional forms of polytheism as well as some kinds of postmodernism authentically are related to God in this way. The monotheistic variation is the specific Christian doctrine of the Trinity that unites the inner complexity of the triune life of God through perichoretic communion.

Although Heim avoids saying that there is a hierarchy of religious ends in order to emphasize the truth that all six kinds of religious ends are good, real, and true fulfillments of religious beliefs, it is unavoidable for this theological program to hold the Christian notion of salvation as ultimate. After all, Heim is saying that other religions, though basically true, unknowingly are actually relating their notion of ultimate reality to the Trinity. Put this way, Heim’s theology of multiple religious ends is more inclusivist than pluralist. On the other hand, one can make an argument that all theologies of religion are either exclusivist or inclusivist. There is no such thing as a truly pluralistic theology of religions – only more or less pluralistic, perhaps. I would argue that, compared to the mutuality models of religion, Heim’s acceptance model is more pluralistic since it permits more truth claims to be made from religions that will be basically fulfilled. Heim speculates that in each unique after-death experience, the various religions will simultaneously be able to appreciate the truth of the others while remaining satisfied in their own particular relation to God. For instance, Jews and Muslims will happily continue to relate to God in a unipersonal fashion, while Hindus and Buddhists will still feel drawn toward the mystical dimensions of God beyond personhood. On the other hand, Heim leaves the possibility open for non-Christians to freely choose salvation in a Christian sense of communion with the triune God.

Heim’s acceptance model also provides a strong motivation for interreligious dialogue, since if other religions are intensified forms of relationship with dimensions of the triune God, they can and will be able to illuminate (and possibly correct) Christian theological ideas to some extent. It is quite possible to have a firm grasp on one dimension of the triune God while lacking a sufficient grasp of another. On the other hand, it is obvious that there will always be a sense of Christian inclusivism and ultimacy in dialogue if the Trinity is the point of reference for ultimate reality. As Joseph Bracken also points out, if the Trinity is true, then Heim’s model places Christians in an advantageous position for dialogue: “Since the notion of ‘communion’ is so important for understanding the reality of God as triune, and since ‘communion’ always implies a unity in diversity of parts or members wherever it is found, then Christians might be better positioned to accept the beliefs about God or Ultimate Reality coming from the members of other world religions than these individuals in turn would be accepting of the Christian belief that God is triune.” This only emphasizes Heim’s basic point: we are all unavoidably inclusivists, so the task for theologies of religions is to be as open as possible to other truth claims, while being fully confessional. If every religion were to develop their own versions of confessional theological pluralism as Heim does from a Christian perspective, there would certainly be strong motivations for unity, cooperation, and dialogue between the religions.

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