The presence of highly ethical models in the world’s religions has long perplexed Christians. For example, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) won worldwide respect for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance and his advocacy of social justice.
The presence of highly ethical models in the world’s religions has long perplexed Christians.
For example, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) won worldwide respect for his philosophy of nonviolent resistance and his advocacy of social justice. While admiring the ethics of such persons, Christians have pondered how to integrate these figures into their theology of salvation in Christ.
Baptists might ask: “Is Gandhi saved?” A broader way of asking is: “What is Gandhi’s destiny?”
The classical Christian answer is that salvation is exclusively by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:8-10). There is no other way to salvation (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12). Gandhi’s ethics are admirable, but he cannot be saved through either his good works or his Hindu faith. His tragic fate is eternal separation from God.
Throughout Christian history there has been a “minority report” that differs from classical exclusivism. Justin Martyr (100-165) believed that the Logos (Word) appeared fully in Jesus Christ but was also imbedded in the creation (Jn 1:1-5). The seed of the Logos is present in all humankind so that whatever is truly good in human history is “Christian.” Justin regarded Socrates and Heraclitus, among others, as Christians because they lived according to the Logos.
Contemporary theologian Karl Rahner coined the term “anonymous Christian” to express this same belief in the inclusive, although incomplete, work of Christ in other expressions of faith. From this perspective, Gandhi was an anonymous Christian living according to the Logos and thus sharing the same destiny as Christians.
A pluralistic approach rejects both exclusive and inclusive claims of salvation in Christ. Christian philosopher John Hick argues for a “Copernican revolution” in theology. He urges Christians to take a God-centered rather than Christ-centered view of salvation. Each religion is a culturally-conditioned path to the Ultimate, a mixture of good and evil. No one tradition can claim superiority, but each has the potential to lead humans to the Ultimate. Christianity is not the only way to salvation, but one among several. From this perspective, Gandhi followed an authentic Hindu path to the Ultimate while Christians follow a different way.
Some Christian theologians think the above perspectives cast judgment on other people without first engaging in genuine relationship. They advocate dialogue based on Christian love (Mk 12:31). David Lochhead holds that Christian discipleship involves a call to unconditional openness to one’s neighbors that leads to genuine dialogue without hidden agendas.
Rather than quote proof texts, Christians should lovingly encounter people of other faiths and let any judgment spring from actual engagement. Until such dialogue occurs, Christians are to practice “faithful agnosticism” about the salvation of others. Thus the whole question of Gandhi’s destiny should be bracketed in favor of neighbor-love.
Baptist theologian Mark Heim offers an intriguing twist on Christian inclusivism. He proposes that other religious ends may be valid on their own terms. Christians may believe that salvation is only in Christ while affirming the possibility that others may achieve a different goal. He attempts to ground this plurality of religious ends in the “depths of the riches of God” (Rom 11:33) expressed in the Christian understanding of Trinity. From this perspective, Gandhi’s destiny is an authentic end different from salvation in Christ.
The encounter with highly ethical individuals prompts Christians to ponder important questions. How do we interpret the fullness of the biblical witness about God’s universal love? How do we understand the unique Christ-event? How do we remain true to our own beliefs while respecting the beliefs of others? How does our perspective lead us to treat others who differ?
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He is also adjunct professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
For further reading:
Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions by Gavin D’Costa
Toward a New Age in Christian Theology by Richard Henry Drummond
The Depth of Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends by Mark Heim
The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions by John Hick and Paul F. Knitter
The Dialogical Imperative: A Christian Reflection on Interfaith Encounter by David Lochhead
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Leslie Newbigin