The Depths of the Riches: Part 1, Exclusivism or Pluralism?

A few years ago, my good friend Mark gave me, as a gift, S. Mark Heim's book The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends. Mark knew I liked Heim as Mark was the one who pointed me to Heim's wonderful book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (which I did a blog review of). But I think the real reason Mark gave me the book is because he knew that I subscribed to universalism and have a taste for heterodox soteriological/eschatological systems.

In The Depths of the Riches Heim is trying to find a path between two soteriological systems that he finds, for various reasons, unattractive. On the one hand is what is known as exclusivism. This is the notion that salvation can only be found from within the Christian faith (or whatever your "home" faith happens to be). All other world religions, in this view, lead to damnation. In contrast to exclusivism is pluralism. In this view, all world religions, ultimately, lead to God and salvation. Although the paths up the mountain may vary they all, in the end, arrive at the same place.

The problems with these two positions are obvious. Exclusivists have to account for the fact that the mass of humanity (past, present, and future) are going to be damned. Given this claim, how can you assert that God is good? Sure, you can blame human choice for this situation but such a move fails to account for the sociological fact that most people adopt the religion of their family and native land. I grew up in a Christian family and in a Christian nation and, shocker!, I'm a Christian. How lucky of me to have exerted my "free will" to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior!

Given this situation, we might want to swing over to pluralism, But this position also leaves a lot to be desired. First, are all religions really equal? And how do we know they are pointed in the same direction? What if, to pick an extreme example, my God told me to conduct human sacrifice? Who gets to say this religion isn't a true manifestation of God's will?

To get past this problem some theologians have tried to identify the "common core" of "true religion" but, at the end of the day, this common core often winds up looking a lot like liberal humanism. Which is fine, but this conclusion seems to call religion as religion into question.

A second problem with pluralism, as Heim points out in his book, is that there are particularities and distinctives in the world religions that can't be so easily smoothed out. The world religions, if you look closely, really aren't different versions of "the same thing." If so, it's hard to contend that they are all pointed in the same direction. The problem basically boils down to the following. If you look for the common core amongst the world religions you end up finding something bland and banal because you abstract out the rich and thick theology of each faith. If, however, you attend to the peculiarities of each faith you end up noticing that the world religions really do have irreconcilable views of God, the good, and the nature of our eventual destinies.

So what are we to do? I'll walk through Heim's proposal in Part 2.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply