Christianity and Religious Diversity

Clarifying Christian Commitments in a Globalizing Age

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Harold A. Netland
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , May
     2015.
     304 pages.
     $24.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801038570.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this well-researched and highly readable book, Harold Netland does not see himself as developing a theology of religions, which he has done elsewhere (x). Instead, he evaluates Christian exclusivism as a philosopher of religions and in light of an awareness of the complexities attending the notion of religion that have been foregrounded in contemporary religious studies (chapters 1 and 2). More like a religious studies scholar than a theologian, Netland offers a cogent retelling of the now-familiar antiessentialist story—how the modern but inadequate conception of religion as referring to a set of divergent but discrete belief systems arose. This account, indebted to theorists such as Eric Sharpe and Tomoko Masuzawa, dispenses with the idea of a religious genus comprising many species such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions (10). Following theorists such as Phillip C. Almond, Donald Lopez, and Richard King, Netland also extends an anti-Orientalist skepticism to so-called Buddhist modernism (80-102) and cites scholarship that calls into question the authenticity of D. T. Suzuki’s Buddhism (101-102).

However, the burden of this earnest and thoughtful book is its defense of the “idea”— which Netland claims is “not easy to dismiss”—that there is “one true religion for all people” (39, 167); that there is, indeed, “an important sense in which we can speak of one religious tradition being true and normative for all” (39). As a Christian philosopher of religions, Netland notes that exclusivistic forms of argumentation can justify exclusivisms in multiple religious traditions (39), thus showing that exclusivism is not unique to Christianity. Although he does not in this book formally exchange the role of the philosopher of religions and epistemologist for that of the Christian theologian of religions, he does attempt to establish an epistemological basis for the theology-of-religions claim that “Christianity is the true religion” (39, 179, chapter 6). After critically reviewing the views of John Hick and Hans Küng, Netland writes that he sees “no reason to conclude that there cannot be one true religion” (179), and then goes on to “ask what is involved in the claim that Christianity is the true religion?” (179), which he then answers with a critical review of contemporary issues in the philosophy of religions. The line between the philosophy of religions and the theology of religions is fine here, but, later in the book at least, Netland does seem to cross over that line into making, or at least referring confessionally, to theology-of-religions claims (e.g., 235).

Unlike a strong exclusivism that argues for the exclusive truth of its favored religion while negating the value of all other religious expressions, the exclusivism that Netland is trying to ground philosophically is a more moderate variant of exclusivism that charitably clarifies “what is not included in the assertion that Christianity is the one true religion” (179): the claim that there is no truth or goodness in other religions (179); that Christians are necessarily morally superior to adherents of other religions (181); or that this is a warrant for Christian elitism and withdrawal from the world (181). Excluded as well is a narrowing of the scope of salvation to only those who accept the exclusive truth of Christianity, since Netland’s expansive exclusivism recognizes that some Christians have been universalists and that pluralists are not necessarily committed to universalism (182).

Netland’s views are carefully grounded in current controversies within Reformed epistemology, evidentialism, natural theology, theology of religions, and apologetics, and his case for Christian exclusivism is perhaps as strong a case as can be made for such a view. Yet it still seems to run afoul of the impasse that marks all forms of religious exclusivism: Since any religious tradition can adopt an exclusivist stance and back it up with all of the intellectual resources of that tradition, it is impossible to determine in a philosophically or theologically conclusive way which—if any—of the many available exclusivisms is the true exclusivism. The recognition of this inconclusiveness suggests a logical basis for religious pluralism alongside the more familiar ethical and theological grounds for religious pluralism that motivated some of the onetime exclusivists and inclusivists featured in this book, such as John Hick (124-28), Hiromasa Mase (132), and Shusaku Endo (128-4), to set out on spiritual journeys that brought them into harmony with the inclusivist and pluralist views of figures such as Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and led them inexorably away from the views of the exclusivists and inclusivists of their own home traditions (109-24).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kenneth Rose is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Christopher Newport University.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Harold A. Netland (PhD, Claremont Graduate University) is professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he also directs the PhD in intercultural studies program. He is the author or coauthor of several books, includingEncountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions, and Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal. He is also the coeditor of Globalizing Theology andHandbook of Religion.

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