Twenty-First Century Theologies of Religions

Retrospection and Future Prospects

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Elizabeth J. Harris, Paul Hedges, Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi
Currents of Encounter
  • Boston, MA: 
    , September
     396 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Over recent decades, discussion of theologies of religions (ToR) has frequently centered on the typology of exclusivisms-inclusivisms-pluralisms, often now with “particularities” added—note the plurals—that is said to have originated with Alan Race in his Christians and Religious Pluralism (SCM Press,1983). This volume is dedicated to Race and “marks the deep and growing conversation” around the ToR (1); about half of the content centers on discussion of the typology itself.

The book is divided into four parts. The first offers an engaging discussion of disputes about the validity of the typology and possible alternatives or variations, of which an appeal to comparative theology might be seen as the most significant. The second part considers the pluralist dimension of the typology and is mostly written by advocates of pluralism in its prescriptive ideological sense. One exception is Gavin D’Costa who argues that such pluralisms are post-Christian and necessitate abandoning the central affirmations of Christianity. Part 3 offers a further range of reactions—both critical and affirmative—to ToR; its chapters traverse imperialism and colonialism, dual religious belonging, postmodern indeterminacy, the category “religion” itself, the Western tendency to privilege textual paradigms and, especially, comparative theology. The final part provides reactions from Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim contributors; readers may well find Haifaa Jawad’s Islamic response especially helpful, as she points out that Islam has never developed a ToR comparable with the Christian traditions. A fairly lengthy afterword by Race reacts to many of the contributions as he defends the typology, mainly by means of a critique of its critics and a carefully crafted eightfold restatement of his version of pluralism.

In several places the practical, pedagogical, and pastoral implications suggested are helpful (for example, in chapters by Ray Gaston, Elizabeth Harris, and Paul Hedges in the opening part). However, the editors’ hope for a volume that provides a “critical account of the current state of play across the broad theology of religions debate, mainly within the Christian tradition . . . including many new perspectives and approaches” (6) is only partially fulfilled; several possible weaknesses seem apparent. The editors concede that “we speak very much from a Western (European-North American) context” (1).

Indeed, the book’s twenty-two contributors are British (eleven), American (five), Western European or Scandinavian (five), together with one solitary Asian voice. The introduction is also mindful of the disproportionate attention given to pluralism, but “this is not because the pluralist position is privileged in the volume but because it simply reflects the papers offered and received” (3-4). However, even a brief perusal of the two fairly comprehensive indices reveals that the most often cited authors in the volume as a whole are the notable pluralists John Hick and Paul Knitter, and the subject index indicates “pluralisms” as the single most discussed issue; in other words, it seems apparent that the majority of accepted contributions clearly do privilege prescriptive pluralism of some kind. The imbalance is accentuated by the near complete absence of any version of the traditional ToR even though the volume’s Introduction makes it clear that discussion of ToR “began in, and is still dominated by, the Christian tradition” (1).

Instead, the introduction opens with a narcissistic parody of the supposed traditional ToR that merely perpetuates the assumption that the only reasonable alternative to the tolerant and enlightened virtues of inclusivism and pluralism remains the demeaning term “exclusivism/s” with its wholly negative (supposedly exclusionary) dynamic. Put another way, in a volume in which exclusivism is repeatedly criticized, any restatement of the traditional ToR is— intentionally or not—excluded! Perhaps the editors have this large omission in mind as they acknowledge that “some significant areas and important voices are not included” (6). The traditional position (like its parallels in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) can, of course, lead to tensions when captured by proponents of absolutism, intolerance, legalism and oppression.

But there is no logically necessary connection between assertions of the truthfulness or even finality of one’s worldview and intolerance of or even violence towards others. It is strange to read a survey of present and possible future ToRs that seems so unrepresentative of the majority of their actual practitioners who mainly live in the global South, embrace received versions of the Great Tradition of their faith, and yet live in harmony with neighbors of other faiths. More widely, one obstacle to claims about the supposed plausibility of any of the positions advocated in this wide-ranging volume is the temptation to a self-satisfied triumphalism.

However, the volume does provide a splendid corrective to any such smugness in the chapter by Graham Adams, “Shaking the Typology: Being Honest and Hospitable.” He deploys a comprehensive analysis and astringent critique of all three parts of the typology while arguing that practitioners of any 21st-century ToR can and should continue to deploy a christological and christomorphic praxis but only in the light of profoundly honest self-criticism and the logically prior missio Dei (mission of God).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bob Robinson is Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at Laidlaw College, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Date of Review: 
September 5, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth J. Harris is associate professor in religious studies at Liverpool Hope University, UK. She has published widely on Theravāda Buddhism, Buddhist-Christian Studies and inter-religious studies, including Theravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, missionary and colonial experience in nineteenth century Sri Lanka (Routledge, 2006).

Paul Hedges is associate professor in interreligious studies, studies in inter-religious relations in plural societies programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi is director, In Reach Consult (IC), Political Columnist on South Asia, and Visiting Lecturer, Universities of Colombo and Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.


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