The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity

By Johnson, Keith E. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity


Johnson, Keith E., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity. By Gavin D'Costa. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000, xi + 187 pp., $20.00 paper.

In recent years an extensive debate has emerged regarding the relationship of Christianity to other religions. Gavin D'Costa, an Indian Roman Catholic who teaches theology at the University of Bristol (England), has been an active participant in this debate. In addition to several books on religious pluralism, he has written numerous articles addressing the interface between Christianity and other religions. His most recent book, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity, makes several important contributions to this continuing discussion. In part one (chaps. 1-3) he critically engages pluralist interpretations of religion; in part two (chaps. 4-5) he explicates his constructive alternative.

D'Costa argues that pluralists are really covert "exclusivists" whose positions fail to provide the openness, tolerance, and equality they claim. In chap. 1 he develops this thesis through an engagement with John Hick, Paul Knitter, and Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Drawing upon the work of John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre, D'Costa claims that there is no such thing as a "non tradition-specific" approach to religion, and that the pluralism of these authors "represents a tradition-specific approach that bears all the same features as exclusivism-except that it is western liberal modernity's exclusivism" (p. 2). He also maintains that the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist typology, which has dominated recent discussion of the relationship of Christianity to other religions, obscures the exclusivity of these pluralists and should be abandoned. In chaps. 2-3 D'Costa attempts to show that two additional pluralists-Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan and the Dalai Lama-are also covert exclusivists. Radhakrishnan's pluralism is dependent upon the truthfulness of Advaita Hinduism while the Dalai Lama's pluralism is nothing other than a strict form of Tibetan Buddhist exclusivism.

In chap. 4 D'Costa outlines his alternative to pluralism-namely, Roman Catholic trinitarian theology. He begins by discussing the question of whether non-Christian religions, as such, should be viewed as salvific from the standpoint of Catholic orthodoxy. He argues that a proper reading of Vatican II and post-Conciliar documents leads to the conclusions that non-Christian religions, as such, are not vehicles of salvation. Next, he explores, from a trinitarian perspective, the significance of the Spirit's asserted universal presence within the cultures and religions of non-Christians. While he affirms that the Spirit's universal presence ensures the universal availability of salvation to adherents of non-Christian religions, his primary interest centers on the implications of the Spirit's presence in other religions for the Church. On one hand, he claims that we should be extremely reticent about "abstract talk of the `presence of the Spirit' in other religions" (p. 128) and criticizes Catholic thinkers who sever "intrinsic links" between the persons of the Trinity, the Church, and the presence of God. On the other hand, he maintains that the Church must be attentive to the Spirit's presence in other religions. Through engagement with other religions the Church can experience God's presence, observe "Christ-like" behavior in the lives of non-Christians, and be challenged to change its practices. In the final section of chap. 4 D'Costa attempts to argue that Roman Catholic trinitarianism provides a better basis for "tolerance" and "equality." In chap. 5 D'Costa applies his doctrine of the universal presence of the Spirit to the thorny question of inter-religious prayer. He claims that because the Spirit inspires every "authentic prayer," participation in inter-religious prayer may, in certain contexts, be appropriate, and that a refusal to consider God's presence in other religions is tantamount to idolatry.

D'Costa's trenchant critique of pluralism-which plays off an equivocation in the meaning of "exclusivism"-is brilliant in both substance and rhetoric.

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