Books Theology of religions

Conversation about Knitter’s pluralist approach

In chapters 4 and 6 of  Only One Way? Three Christian Responses to the Uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralistic World, Gavin D’ Costa and Daniel Strange respond to Paul Knitter, and then Knitter replies to their concerns, in chapter 8.

Gavin D’ Costa’s response to Knitter’s proposal

D’ Costa commends Knitter for: his commitment to the poor, suffering and marginalized; his respect for other religions; and his rethinking of the Christian tradition in light of his experience with other religions, especially Buddhism. But D’ Costa has a major concern, that Knitter has revised and changed the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith “to make them compatible with his notion of interreligious dialogue” (139). To reach the goal of a universal social justice order, Knitter relatives doctrinal truth claims, except for those which make a social or political claim. Hereby, Knitter “dangerously moves outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity because his master discourse is located in the Enlightenment tradition of modernity” (140). D’ Costa finds this ironic, because he is convinced that the desired goal can best be achieved within orthodox Catholicism.

Knitter’s reasons for rejecting the exclusive truth claims of Christianity are that they are inimical to interreligious dialogue, and that they project arrogance and superiority (140-41). But D’ Costa argues that ontological truth claims only threaten dialogue if they employ social power with that intent. Instead, he posits, dialogue is only meaningful if we are in pursuit of truth and are ready to defend what we consider to be truth, until we discover otherwise (142). Other religions, including Buddhism, also make exclusive truth claims, which Knitter is relativizing, as much as he is Christian claims, and thus it is actually Knitter who undermines dialogue. Knitter puts forward a degree Christology and an exemplary atonement but, in so doing, he does not identify the authorities Christians can evoke in debate, and he misrepresents orthodox Christology in his rejection of it.

Ironically, in laying out this critique of his fellow-Catholic theologian’s proposal, D’ Costa finds himself closer to Strange, his Protestant conversation partner, than he is to Knitter (145).

Daniel Strange’s response to Knitter’s proposal

From the perspective of historic orthodox Christianity, Strange echoes D’ Costa’s concerns about the Christological paradigm shift Knitter makes “from an incarnational and constitutive Christology to a degree Christology and an exemplary model of atonement” (168), in both cases expressing a reaction to a “gross caricature.”  Strange lists criticisms which others have brought against Knitter’s Christology

  • Knitter’s evolutionary Christology is disputed by many NT scholars
  • Knitter’s “theory of language is  extremely counter-intuitive” (169)
  • Knitter falsely dichotomizes between the language of devotion and metaphysical claims that entail exclusivity
  • the biblical writers were aware of their religiously plural context and of the counter-cultural nature of their exclusive claims, but they never took the route of syncretistic accommodation that Knitter has modeled (169)

Strange considers his dialogue with Knitter to be inter-religious, rather than intra-Christian, because Knitter’s deconstruction and reconstruction has formed “another ‘religion’ and worldview with its own exclusive claims, its own god, authority, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, pseudo-gospel (in terms of creation-fall-redemption) and mission” (170). Knitter’s idolatrous alternative to Christian orthodoxy is judged a “cracked cistern” that will not hold water (Jer 2:13), for these reasons:

  • “given the metaphysical ultimacy of the non-duality and impersonality of Inter-Being,” Knitter’s final authority is neither the personal God of scripture, nor of a magisterium, but he establishes the ground rules into which God must fit (171)
  • Knitter’s eschatological optimism does not fit well with his panentheistic worldview, because his god is finite and dependent, rather than a se and sovereign (171)
  • Knitter’s position is rife with ethical problems
  • though he opposes selfishness and violence he sacralizes it with his strong endorsement of Darwinian evolution
  • “evil has to be necessary to Inter-Being as it is an aspect of the universe.” Knitter’s call for self-realization, rather than salvation from sin, is a more Buddhist than Christian position, and his presuppositions provide no foundation for the universal ethical norms that he espouses (173)

In a tragic irony, Knitter’s “move beyond the transcendentally unique God of the Bible and the plot-line of redemptive history,” has taken him away “from the only source where humanity will find justice, forgiveness, hope and lasting peace,” the resurrected Lord.

Paul Knitter’s response to D’ Costa and Strange

Paul Knitter grasps the depth of the common concern enunciated by D’ Costa and Strange, to whom he replies together, as “Davin.” He does not attempt to argue for the rightness of his Christian belief as superior to their error, but hopes to make clear why his position is a following of Jesus and a praxis of Christian discipleship, such that all three of three of them “can have our very different seats in the same Christian stadium” (200).

Without apology, Knitter pleads guilty to Strange’s charge that he denies the aseity and sovereignty of God, because God, the world and humanity, in Knitter’s understanding, are not co-equal but they are co-dependent (207-08). He also pleads guilty of having abandoned an incarnational Christology in favor of a degree Christology, but he considers the uniqueness of Jesus to be a pastoral, rather than a theological, problem. He proposes that the early Christians were opposed to other gods, “not because they were other gods, but because they were Roman gods” (211). So Knitter remains convinced that he his authentically Christian, in that he accepts Jesus to be a Savior, and his Savior, even though there other saviors, whom the adherents of other religions follow with equal validity.

 My own reflections

I was encouraged by the strong responses to Knitter’s unitive pluralism which were offered  by D’ Costa and Strange, who, despite their significant differences from one another, see the problems with Knitter’s position very similarly. On the other hand, as I read Knitter’s “re-response,” I was struck by the consistency of his pluralist position. In essence, he sets out to demonstrate that pluralism is right because it provides a theology of religions which includes both the “total negativism” of Strange and the “fulfilment” approach of D’ Costa (points 1 and 3 in my typology). In that attempt, however, I think that Knitter simply demonstrated conclusively the incommensurability of his unitive pluralism and Christian orthodoxy. As Strange asserted, these really are two different religions.

Thankfully, Knitter does not dismiss the “serious concerns and accusations” expressed by the other two (201). But his methodology, which reminds me strongly of Tillich’s correlation between revelation and human experience, so severely conditions the Christian interpretation of revelation historically and culturally, that a constructive Christian conversation aiming to ascertain objectively what God has actually revealed is made impossible. It really would be easier to dialogue with orthodox believers who assert the opposing truth claims of other religions, than with the relativization that Knitter offers.

As a case in point, Knitter states that “if the Bible didn’t ‘make sense’ to Dan’s experience—if, in our example, it called him to affirm infanticide—he would reject it” (204). Knitter has the last word, so Strange does not have opportunity to respond to this charge, but it looks to me to be patently unfounded. Knitter appears to assume that he and Strange share the subjectivization of authority that Strange rejects. He presumes that, like Knitter himself, Strange has a criterion external to Scripture by which he can judge which of the Bible’s teachings “makes sense.” But Strange (and D’ Costa, for that matter) believes in the supreme authority of divine revelation, such that the Bible must make sense of his experience, not vice versa. What this illustrates, I think, is how fundamentally incommensurable Knitter’s elevation of the interpreter’s subjective judgment is with the objective authority of divine revelation, even when that is read with critical realist eyes.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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