How to Speak of the Spirit among Religions: Trinitarian "Rules" for a Pneumatological Theology of Religions

By Karkkainen, Veli-Matti | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 2006 | Go to article overview

How to Speak of the Spirit among Religions: Trinitarian "Rules" for a Pneumatological Theology of Religions


Karkkainen, Veli-Matti, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


While the theme of the theology of religions--as to how to relate our faith to other faiths--has always appeared on the radar of Christian theology, as a theological discipline the theology of religions is a fairly new enterprise. (1) No wonder its canons are still in the making. (2) What has been characteristic of the recent developments is the emergence of yet another "turn." At the cost of oversimplifying my case, let me simply call these turns a movement from Christocentric to theocentric and then pneumatocentric approaches. As long as Christian theology was based on a more or less exclusivist standpoint, the point of departure for the theology of religions discourse was the finality of Christ. A turn to theocentrism seemed to give more space for opening up to other religions: while Christ is one way to the Father, he is not the only one. God is bigger than any single religion. Soon, among theologians from across the ecumenical spectrum, a turn to the "Spirit" was enthusiastically initiated. (3) The turn to pneumatology seemed to promise a lot. (4) After all, doesn't the Spirit speak for universality, while Christ speaks for particularity? Pneumatology also seemed to connect with the strongly pneumatological and spiritualistic orientations of other religions, especially in the East. It is here that I want to pick up the discussion and offer both critical and constructive thoughts on the question of how to speak of the Spirit among religions.

Does a focus on the Spirit truly help us avoid, on the one hand, the trap of blind exclusivism, which completely ignores the contributions of other religions, and, on the other, the flirtation of pluralism, which seems to downplay all real differences among religions? To address this question, I argue in this presentation that every one of these turns, including the last one, the turn to the Spirit, in itself is inadequate and leads to insurmountable problems. A more coherent framework must therefore be found, which for me means yet another turn--to the Trinity itself. My basic thesis, thus, is simply that the proper framework for speaking of the Spirit among religions is a healthy Trinitarian theology.

I am not saying that the turn to the Spirit was a mistaken move in the Christian theology of religions; indeed, it is a badly needed corrective to one-sided theocentric or Christocentric approaches. Yet the turn to the Spirit--apart from its Trinitarian ramifications--creates as many problems as it solves, the most typical ones being the disconnection between the Spirit and Christ or the Spirit and God. These disconnections, in turn, lead to the separation between the Spirit and the church and between the Spirit and the kingdom. What usually happens is that the Spirit turns out to be a sort of "itinerant preacher" who only occasionally visits the Father's House; most of the time the Spirit is doing his own business in the Far Country, as it were.

A healthy Trinitarian theology is the best safeguard against lacunae such as these. Here I can only touch on some elementary issues; for those interested in a fuller discussion, I refer to my 2004 monograph Trinity and Religious Pluralism. (5)

Here I first give a brief review of existing Trinitarian approaches to religions and highlight their problems and their promises. (6) Second, I suggest five foundational "rules," or guidelines, for speaking of the Spirit among religions in a Trinitarian framework. Third, I conclude with a few comments regarding how to begin to apply these rules to an actual interfaith dialogue.

Trinity and Religions: Crucial Explorations

The pioneer in the field of relating the Trinity to religions was the Catholic Raimundo Panikkar. In his small yet highly significant book The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man (1973), (7) Panikkar argued for the viability of a Trinitarian approach based on the groundbreaking idea that not only do all religions reflect a Trinitarian substructure but there is also a Trinitarian structure to reality. …

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