Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Rationality and Religious Traditions: An Epistemological Approach to Theology of Religions

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Rationality and Religious Traditions: An Epistemological Approach to Theology of Religions

Article excerpt


Christian theology of religions deals, broadly, with two tiers of concern. The first-order concern pertains to the question of how to relate the various religious traditions, taking into account at least four interrelated--though not always clearly disambiguated--categories: dialogue, revelation, salvation, and epistemology. In addressing these four dimensions of the discussion, theology of religions seeks to answer such questions as: Is dialogue important among religious traditions, and, if so, how and to what purpose? Is God's revelatory presence available in all, some, or only one religious tradition? To what extent is salvation available in the various religious traditions? To what extent are the various religious traditions true, and is it possible to adjudicate those traditions rationally? The second-order concern in theology of religions is a meta-level issue. It seeks to plot the diverse theological positions regarding the first-order concern. This has resulted in several typologies, of which the oldest and, perhaps, most well-known is Alan Race's exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. (1)

I noted that the first-order concerns--dialogue, revelation, salvation, and epistemology--are not always clearly disambiguated in the literature, and, arguably, this is necessarily so. Questions of salvation cannot be disconnected from questions of revelation, and, when it comes to religious belief, neither can questions of epistemology. Similarly, approaches to dialogue will depend on one's understanding of the other three categories. Nevertheless, I want to argue here that a better way forward in theology of religions is to focus on the epistemological task. At first, this may seem counterintuitive, for it demands that we ask such difficult questions as "Is one religion true?" However, in leaving aside the soteriological question, acknowledging that adherents of other traditions may have authentic spiritual experiences of the ultimate regardless of correct or true belief, discussion of such differences becomes less precarious. Insofar as there is a God independent of all our varied understandings, and insofar as that God has been divinely revealed to the various traditions in one degree or another, then the question is not so much about authentic spiritual experiences of God as it is about epistemology: How well have we described the nature of that experience and, correspondingly, the nature of God and the Ultimate? It then becomes a matter of ascertaining, together, across religious traditions, the truth of the way things are, philosophically and theologically speaking.

The question is how to go about engaging the epistemic claims of the various religious traditions. This is where Alasdair MacIntyre offers a substantial advance in epistemology by providing an account of rationality for large-scale traditions of inquiry and by arguing that one tradition of inquiry may show itself to be superior to its rivals. While MacIntyre has applied his account of rationality strictly to traditions of moral inquiry, I maintain that it applies equally well to religious traditions. In this essay, then, I propose to explore the adequacy of MacIntyre's account of rationality for the task of theology of religions. First, I begin with a biblical account that may shed some further light on why it may be better to focus on questions of epistemology. Second, I explore two current epistemological approaches to theology of religions and attempt to show some of the problems inherent with these proposals. Third, I outline MacIntyre's understanding of tradition-dependentrationality and endeavor to show that it is a better proposal for religious epistemology. Finally, I conclude by providing an example of how one tradition may engage another rationally, by examining two specific traditions: Christianity and Islam.

I. Peter and Cornelius: A Biblical Perspective

I begin by looking at the biblical account of Peter's encounter with Cornelius in the Book of Acts. …

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