Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christianity and World Religions: The Contributions of Barth and Tillich

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Christianity and World Religions: The Contributions of Barth and Tillich

Article excerpt

One of the regularly recurring issues for Christian theology is to work out the self-understanding of Christianity vis-à-vis other major religious traditions, which involves coming to terms with the relation of any religion to the ultimate reality that is taken to be the ground and end of all existence.

When it has not simply ignored the other religious traditions Christianity has most typically either rejected them outright as wrong and without any possibility of salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus), has attempted to convert them, or has regarded them patronizingly as somehow pre-Christian, but not fully revelational. Increasingly in the last few centuries, however, contact with different cultures and religions has brought with it the demand to take the major religions seriously as genuine expressions of divine-human encounter and as paths to salvation. Ironically, it has often been as a result of vigorous missionary activity that enlightened and sensitive Christians have been put in touch with lives that, by any relevant criteria, would be regarded as redeemed, so that it becomes apparent that the religious outlook that sustains them is the expression of a power whose source lies far beyond the historical accidents of their particular culture. Thus it has occurred to many observers that, although the religious traditions are irreducibly many and different, they all in various ways point beyond themselves to a transcendent reality that may be said to be "the true light, which enlightens everyone" (John 1:9).

With increasing force, therefore, the point of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing s fable of the three rings-namely, that "the father wished to tolerate no longer in his house the tyranny of just one ring"1-is being driven home. That is to say, the assumption voiced by Saladin in Nathan the Wise, that of the three religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-"only one can be the true one,"2 is regarded as both false and pernicious. Two centuries later this insight is understood to apply, not only to the three major theistic religions, but to the major nontheistic religions as well. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists to the contrary notwithstanding, any religious claim to be the one true religion to the exclusion of all others, or even the true revelation in the light of which all others must be judged inadequate, risks the charge of bigotry or even idolatry. Indeed the major consequence of such claims seems to be to mobilize weak and mindless individuals into a powerful political and military force bent upon bringing down civilization. Although the claim increasingly is found to have little intellectual credibility, it remains a potent psychological and political weapon, and as such demands a careful response. This is all the more so because for most of its history the Christian conviction has been that Christianity itself was called into being by the claim to uniqueness and supremacy that is thought to have been expressed in John 14:6: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

The question is: Is there a way beyond such an apparently arrogant exclusivism that does not fall prey to the all-leveling relativism that itself seems incapable of making critical evaluations of itself and of others?

I believe there is, and I believe that elements in the theologies of two giants of a previous generation, namely, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, can be focused to shed considerable light on this issue. Having made this claim I am fully aware of the common charge that Barth, at least, is no more a friend of religions other than Christianity than he is of philosophy or secular humanism. His Christomonism is seemingly so radical as to demand that everything be sacrificed to the Word of God revealed in Christ. In fact, Barth is the one theologian cited by John Hick as representing the view that Christianity has "a uniqueness and finality which makes it superior to all others. …

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