Religion scholars distinguish between three different ways of understanding our Christian faith in relation to other religious traditions. I first learned this from Calvin Shenk who taught world religions when I was an undergraduate student at Eastern Mennonite University. I still have fond memories of the field trip he took us on to visit a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque. Some of us were very nervous about whether or how we should participate in such religious observances.
The first position is an exclusivist position that emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness. Jesus alone is the way. Those who do not confess Jesus as Lord cannot know God.
The second is an inclusivist position that builds on John’s Gospel. The same Logos or Word of God, which we have experienced in Christ, is surely also present in other religious traditions. Some Christian theologians even speculate that devout, loving, and righteous people from other religions are anonymous Christians. Interestingly, some Muslims have a similar understanding of devout people from other religions being submitted to God or Muslim. The Arabic word Islam means submission to Allah or God.
The third is a pluralist position that emphasizes the distinctiveness of each religion. It refuses to combine them or flatten them out as basically the same. Most people who hold this position insist that every religion is, in its own way, an expression of God’s grace. They also recognize that each religion, including Christianity, contains elements that are less that good or even evil. Calvin Shenk used to tell us that we should never compare what we consider to be good in our religion with that which we consider to be bad in another religion.
These three positions are often seen as fixed paradigms that exclude each other. I prefer to see them as overlapping models. There are parts of each that I find to be true but I also find that each is inadequate by itself.
For example, I personally confess that Jesus is the way the truth and the life. I understand God and God’s way in the world through him. This is the good news that I freely share with others. In this sense, Jesus is unique. Like Catholic theologian Hans Küng, I confess that I have found salvation here.
Yet, the insight that God’s Spirit is greater than any one religion is also persuasive. If we believe that God is the creator of the whole world, we should expect God’s Spirit to be present and active in all cultures and their religious traditions. We might even understand this as the same Logos or Word of God that we have come to know in Jesus. In this sense, it may include much more than we imagine.
Still, I get uncomfortable when we begin speculating that people from other religious traditions are anonymous Christians. It’s not because I want to insist on an exclusive claim for my Christian faith but rather because I want to respect and understand people of other religious backgrounds on their own terms. I want to honor our religious pluralism.