Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 3)

III) Theology of Religions: S. Mark Heim

Although there are other important models of non-reductive theological pluralism that can integrate with Prothero’s comparative religion project, my current interest will be to describe and (tentatively) affirm S. Mark Heim’s unique form of trinitarian pluralism. In agreement with Paul Knitter, one of the primary challenges of developing any Christian theology of religion is balancing the teeter-totter of Christian particularity and universality. Of the many possible models, Heim’s represents one of the most impressive efforts to bring a balance to these two sides of the theological task. A progressive evangelical theologian, Heim remains committed to the Christian faith in a basically orthodox fashion. For his theology of religion, he finds a useful blueprint in the social doctrine of the Trinity since it contains the paradoxical affirmation of an open unity in plurality. For Heim, the Trinity is particularly connected with Jesus in that it derives from his history and faith in him. Unlike other trinitarian pluralists like Raimundo Panikkar, Heim’s Trinity is thus thoroughly christocentric. As we will see, Heim is able to maintain an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity while asserting a unique form of religious pluralism, which Knitter classifies as an ‘acceptance model’ (as opposed to the ‘mutuality models’ of John Hick and Panikkar).

Just as Prothero seeks to recast the religious metaphor of the single mountain into an entire mountain range of options, Heim sees the religions as genuinely distinct, especially evident in their differing “religious ends.” Heim is not interested in reducing the religions to a generic common denominator, offering a sharp critique of that kind of pluralism. He argues that if the many distinctive religious beliefs and practices are understood as expressions of one generic ultimate reality, there is no compelling reason to remain committed to a certain tradition since no tradition actually refers to or facilitates the pursuit of a particular religious end. A mutuality theology of religion like that of Hick’s simply denies all claims of ultimacy that every religion makes for itself. As such, this kind of theology is anything but ‘mutual’ in that it imposes a kind of imperialism that denies the legitimacy of specific religious truth claims for the sake of an abstract philosophical conception of the divine that no historical religion can affirm. Against this kind of vague affirmation of a supposedly neutral ultimate reality, Heim develops his pluralism from a confessional standpoint and encourages other religious thinkers to do the same in their own traditions (a task that has been taken up by the Buddhist theologian John Makransky). His theological model attempts to “save the greatest referential value for the largest number of religious experiences” by making space for “the maximum truth value in the specifics of the traditions.” The key to this task is to affirm the distinctive ends of the religions from within a trinitarian perspective.

In Heim’s acceptance model, the ends or fulfillments of the world’s religions all somehow uniquely represent a particular dimension of the Trinity. If this is so, then their end-points (communion, nirvana, etc) are definitely real, even though they are actually located within the reality of the Trinity. For Heim, there is thus no contradiction in affirming the truth of many religions if their ends are in fact real: “Nirvana and communion with God are contradictory only if we assume that one or the other must be the sole fate for all human beings.” The different ends of the religions do not lead eschatologically to an unhappy state for religions that do not recognize Christ and the fullness of the Trinity, but really lead to the kind of liberation, bliss, union, or satisfaction that is claimed by each tradition. In some sense, Jesus and Buddha are indeed both “saviors”, but they lead to different religious ends.

How does Heim conceive of some of these different religious goals within the Trinity? The first step is to see what Christians affirm in the Trinity: a plurality of relationships in both the divine life itself (the immanent Trinity) and in the way God relates to the world (the economic Trinity). The Trinity affirms unity in difference though “a community of differences in relationship”, with genuine “others” to be in relationship with. Because there are different dimensions of the relational life within the Trinity, it is necessary that there would be a variety of economic relationships as well. The different possibilities for relating to the Trinity thus account for the many different world religions: “The Trinity is a map that finds room for, indeed requires, concrete truth in other religions…the distinctive religious ends of various traditions correspond to relations with God constituted by limitation or intensification within a particular dimension of the trinitarian life.” Still, Heim admits that Christian communion with the trinitarian God is ultimate, while other religious ends are penultimate fulfillments since they are intensifications of a dimension of the triune life. Christians therefore have the ultimate benefit of a panoramic perspective of the triune life, while other religions have the penultimate benefit of intensified concentrations on a dimension of the triune life.

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