Theology of Religions after Knitter and Hick: Beyond the Paradigm

Article excerpt

Both Paul Knitter and John Hick rely heavily on the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist paradigm. In a world that has become increasingly suspicious of missionary activity, moving beyond this paradigm calls for a bigger theology, wider methodology, and deeper missiology characterized by participant theologizing.

The project in Christian theology known as the theology of religions is new only in the sense that it has occurred within the modernist paradigm, in largely Western civilizations, and in roughly the past fifty years. North American and European theologians, philosophers, and religious studies scholars, so long physically isolated from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have had occasion to re-experience the religious other in a way that, although common to the other great civilizations of the world, felt new. And perhaps it was somewhat new (or the experience heightened and intensified) because it occurred in the context of the Western democratic experiment, an experiment that mandated separation of church and state and freedom of religion in a radical new form.

Two Western scholars, theologian Paul Knitter and philosopher of religion John Hick, serve as exemplars of the modern movement. For many, they have led the charge. Although they were not the first-scholars in the fifties and sixties were already doing "theology of religions"-and their company is growing, Knitter and Hick have seemed to set the agenda for the burgeoning field during this second wave of interest in the eighties and nineties. Both of these scholars are now retired, relatively speaking,1 and it is time to begin assessing their work and at the same time to consider where the field might go from here. In order to discuss where the theology of religions might go after Knitter and Hick, we must begin by summarizing where each of these fine scholars has taken us.


Knitter began his vocation as a Society of the Divine Word (SVD) missionary. He turned to missional theology, receiving the Licentiate in Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and studying under Karl Rahner before earning a Doctorate in Theology from the Department of Protestant Theology at the University of Marburg, West Germany, the first Roman Catholic to do so. His dissertation on Paul Althaus resulted in a book, Toward a Protestant Theology of Religions (1972).2 He dealt in part with Karl Earth's missiology.3 He appreciated Barth's relativizing of the world's religions, Christianity included, calling them all products of human efforts. Knitter wondered, however, about the resultBarth's ignoring of the world's religious traditions in the doing of his theology. And over the years he increasingly questioned Barth's privileging of the Christian articulation of God's revelations through Jesus Christ and Judeo-Christian scriptures-never doubting the value of that revelation, but wondering if God's revelation might not be much wider than that alone.

Thus, Knitter's early training prepared him for his contributions to the theology of religions. He was trained well in the rigorous canons of systematic theology by Rahner and was propelled by the mission questions of his order (SVD). He was loath to follow the modernist impulse to abandon the transcendent principle (the influence of Barth, perhaps), yet was always drawn to the cutting edge issues facing the church, ready to be taught by his teachers, but sure that a theologian's call was to go beyond them. Seminal thinkers do that. With the occasion of Vatican II's reformist urge as his model, he questioned his order's underlying exclusivism, and his teacher's inclusivism, and began to discern the outlines of what seemed to him to be the future, theological pluralism.

When Alan Race first began to write about missional theology using those three termsexclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism-Knitter found the theological rubric that has shaped his writing ever since.4 In 1985 Knitter wrote the book that has defined his career, No Other Name: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Orbis). …