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Religion, religions and salvation

26 June 2008

In a comment on my contribution to the missional synchroblog, Tim Victor said:

Though it appears that Buddhists and other Eastern views are more accepting I experience them as slowly attaining the same goal, i.e. in Krishna or in Buddha is real salvation but persist in your practice if you must in this life and you’ll come round at some point in the future. In that sense I feel that they’re evangelising albeitly through different methodology.

I feel that a discussion around ’salvation’ (in the broad sense of the word) through one path versus many paths requires much sensitivity and a discussion around the concrete rather than the abstract but also that it is worth pursuing at some point.

To avoid much repetition, I’d also like to refer to things I wrote in an earlier series of postings on theology of religions which provide the background to what I say here:

  1. Notes from underground: Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog)
  2. Notes from underground: Theology of religions
  3. Notes from underground: Theology of religion and interreligious dialogue
  4. Notes from underground: Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog)
  5. Notes from underground: Towards a theology of religions

Christian “theologians of teligion” have often divided Christians into three or four groups, Exclusivist, Inclusivist and Pluralist based on whether or not they believe that “salvation” is to be found in “other religions”. I have pointed out that this is not so much a “theology of religions” as a Christianity-centric theology of interreligious dialogue.

The main problem I have with it is that none of the books that have been written about the topic deal with the question of what “salvation” actually is. They fail to take into account that the other religions they refer to (but rarely examine) may have entirely different notions of salvation to Christian ideas of salvation, and may not even have any idea of “salvation” at all. The idea that religions are about “salvation” is primarily a Christian one, and the ideas of “religion” and “religions” arose in the milieu of Western modernity which was also Christianity-centric (the book to read is Peter Harrison, 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-38530-X. Dewey: 291.0942).

Now as a Christian I have no objection to looking at things from a Christian point of view; and indeed I think that being Christian-centric or preferably Christ-centric is a good thing to try to be. But the problem with modernity is that it encourages people to overlook their own prejudices and distorted judgements and to present them as objective and as the Voice of Science.

In contrast to the Enlightenment point of view of religion (which was shaped by the historical experience of disputes between Catholics and Protestants in the aftermath of the 16th-century Reformation in Western Europe) my friend and mentor John Davies said (in a paper “Religion versus God” read to the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa in 1961)

The purpose of this paper is to suggest:

  1. that religion is in itself a highly dangerous thing
  2. that the faith of the Bible and the Church is not religious
  3. that insofar as religious characteristics enter the faith and life of the Church they are hostile to its true nature and must be eradicated.

It is stupid to use the word `religion’ to mean Christianity. It is a misuse of words even in Europe and the UK. In this country it is highly discourteous to the non-Christian religious people. Here we see clearly that either Christianity is just one religion among many or it isn’t a religion at all.Let us make a tentative definition of `religion’. Religion is an attempt by man to escape from his circumscription by making and maintaining an association with a presupposed superhuman or transcendent reality. I avoid the word `God’ in the last phrase so that the definition will include not only theistic religions and animisms but also the yearnings of the Buddhist and the ethical humanist, and the group loyalty implied in African ancestor worship, and the pseudo-Christian nationalism that is so strong in the peoples of Western Europe and their offshoots (e.g. Land of hope and glory). The great thing about this religion is that it starts with man. It is due to man’s initiative, man’s searching, man’s desire to find something greater than himself that he can stick to like a barnacle.

Now with all due respect to the good non-Christians, and to those great men like Toynbee who are offended by our `scandal of particularity’, we say that Christianity is unique, it has a different start. The Bible all through speaks of God’s initiative, not man’s: not man’s ideas, but God’s action; not man’s attempts, but God’s success.

I say `religion is…’; it can be a thing, definable. Christianity isn’t such an entity at all. I can’t define it. It is not, it only speaks; and when it speaks, it speaks of God.

So we come to the other half of the title. We have attempted a definition of religion – how about defining God? I cannot. The two terms are not comparable at all. I can really no more talk about `Religion versus God’ than I can about `Beetles versus Calvinism’ or `The breast-stroke versus polarized light’. What can I say about God? That he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Yes, but this is no definition – it gives no account of God as a thing or even a concept, but only in terms of relationship. This is all he has shown us about himself. All heresies were, and are, religious attempts to say about God what he himself has refused to say, to soften the paradox, to make attractive fiction out of intractable truth. Truth, as Chesterton said, is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind and therefore congenial to it. The Catholic Church has said, in effect: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; what that means, we can’t say. It’s all we know and we’ll have to make do with it. We cannot understand God, he stands over us.

Let us see how this works out in God’s word. First, we must treat this word as the word of God. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:24). Jesus shows us that he gives us his word only on condition that it holds unconditional power over us. We are not to select, interpret, apply, test or consider this word, nor are we to make it an aim or ideal. We are only to hear and do it. It also is not for us to understand – it stands over us. The Bible does not depend on our opinion for its importance; it is important because it is God’s judgement. Either we decide about the Bible, or in the Bible Christ has decided about us.

What does the Bible say about God? The history of God’s people, the Church, starts with Abraham. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live in the promised land, but all they really possess there is a grave, the cave of Machpelah bought by Abraham (Genesis 23). They have all and they have nothing; they live by faith. God’s servants do not possess him, they are possessed by him. The people of God now, the Church of Christ, is in the same position: we claim all kinds of things for ourselves, but the only thing which is truly ours is a grave, the cross.

Now I am aware that there are some evangelical Christians who have distilled that into an empty ideological slogan, and who parrot “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” without really understanding what it means or being able to explain what it means. Nevertheless the question remains: is Christianity just one religion among many, or is it not a religion at all? And even though we use the terms “religion” and “religions” for convenience, we should bear in mind that they carry a lot of cultural baggage from their origins in Western modernity, which can distort our understanding not only of Christianity, but also of other “religions” as well.

So what about Tim Victor’s idea of a discussion around “salvation” in the broad sense of the word?

A blog is not really the best medium for such a discussion, because it starts with one person’s idea, and elicits responses to that idea. Also, what I’ve said up to this point is little more than clearing the ground for such a discussion. The discussion hasn’t really started.

And if there is to be a discussion on those points, the ideal thing would be for different groups to say what they believe “salvation” means to them, if it means anything at all, and if the main point of their religion is not “salvation”, then what is it?

Even among Christians, there is little agreement on what “salvation” is. I’ve seen great debates in the blogosphere about the “p___ atonement” — I can’t remember what the “p” stands for – in my old age my memory has turned into a forgettory, and so I’ll have to look it up… preemptive? No, that was something else. Preterist? No, not that. But it did begin with a “p”, of that I am certain. Anyway, I must stop here, and I’ll look up the p-word and blog about atonement next time.



I finally remembered what the “p____ word” was — penal substitution — and I blogged about it here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 June 2008 12:31 pm


    I agree that a blog is not the correct medium just as I was suggesting that comments on a blog post dedicated to exploring a particular topic is not the place to explore it either.

    However, I was using ‘salvation’ in a very informal sense rather than projecting a Christian concept onto non-Christian religions in general.

    Every religion, whether inclusivist or exclusivist or universalist, has concerns and methodologies and whatever process is at the heart of the matter the introduction of others to that heart is ‘evangelistic’ or ‘missional’ and the intent is ‘salvation’, however conceived or described.

  2. 28 June 2008 7:58 pm

    Steve, I find the word ‘religion’ is useful even though it is fraught with limitations. I do however agree that a theology of religions that focuses on soteriology is not only way too myopic (for there are many important and interesting things to work through quite apart from the question of how people are saved) but that it can be an adventure in missing the point if we are not even asking what ‘salvation’ means to other religions. I think it is way too broad a brush stroke, for instance, to say when Christians are talking about the kingdom and Buddhists are talking about nirvana they are talking about ‘broadly’ the same thing. Errrr, no. Not even close. Not only is the exclusivist, inclusivist, pluralist discussion way too limited in scope, it even breaks down when pressed too far.

  3. 29 June 2008 4:00 am


    Yes, it can be useful to talk about “religion” and “religions” in the modernistic sense. I’m not necessarily anti-modern; I just think its important to recognise the limitations of modernity, and also to recognise that the permutations of “theology of religion” are enormous, and not general.

    From a Christian point of view, asking whether salvation can be found in “other religions” is pretty meaningless, because I don’t think salvation can even be found in “our own” religion. Salvation is not to be found in religion, but in Christ.

    But there will also be Christian theologies of Buddhism, and Hindu theologies of Islam and so on. There can be no “one size fits all” theology of religion, and that is what I find so limited and limiting in books by Race, Knitter et al.

    Take Christianity and Buddhism, for example. To focus on “salvation” in seeing their similarities and differences is to bark up the wrong tree, or bark in the wrong forsest. What is far more significant is that Christianity is personal, and Buddhism is not. At root Christianity is about an “I and Thou” relationship between a human person and a personal God. Buddhism denies both the “I” and the “Thou”.

    Meanwhile, I’m still trying to remember what the “p” word is. As in “p… atonement”. Preeminent, praeternatural… no, that’s not it.

  4. 30 June 2008 4:03 am

    I don’t know about any ps, but perhaps you’re thinking of substitutionary atonement?

    Perhaps better than talking about ‘salvation,’ we could ask to what degree truth is realized and experienced in other religions. Is someone’s experience of the Divine in, say, Sufi contemplation or Jewish mysticism a ‘true experience’? Can we adequately judge these sorts of things without being ‘inside’ of the traditions themselves and their experiences- or perhaps better, to what degree can we talk about them and evaluate them without actually being inside of the experience?

    Or let’s limit ourselves to Christianity and its hundreds of forms. Are the religious experiences of, say, Jesus’ Name Pentecostals ‘true’ experiences, are they genuinely experiencing the Divine? Can we know this sort of thing? Should we need to/ought we know it? Perhaps it is possible to affirm the truth value of someone else’s experience and language of God within a different tradition, even one outside of Christianity, without thereby declaring the entire system/religion true or salvific.

  5. 30 June 2008 5:48 am


    While your reply didn’t mention it, it triggered the lazy synapses and I remembered the “p” word — “penal” — as in “penal substitution atonement”. Thank you!

  6. 1 July 2008 8:53 am

    penal … penile … something like that 🙂

    More seriously, I remember someone once trying to expand the “theology of religions” conversation by asking, what if we moved beyond wondering whether people in other religions can be “saved” without knowing Jesus, to wondering whether people in other religions can become “disciples” without knowing Jesus? It helps to ground the discussion in the more concrete and highlight some of the problems.

  7. 1 July 2008 10:36 am


    I was not suggesting framing a theology of religions but commenting on how the focus of a religion is what they put out for others too.

    Rather, when one focuses on eternal life, escape from the endless cycle of rebirth or self-realisation (among many concerns) as a concern for oneself and others then you are concerned about ‘salvation’ (or insert whatever word you deem worthy).

    The applicability of a faith for more than just the central community of faith is something to take into account. By doing so one recognises a variety of means of ‘evangelism’ as well as a variety of means of ‘salvation’ and can avoid the trap of ‘critically rejecting’ Christianity ‘because it is evangelistic’ and uncritically embracing something ‘because it is not evangelistic’.

    Perhaps you could suggest a better word than ‘salvation’ to speak of the process I’m commenting on?

  8. 2 July 2008 5:37 am

    Tim, I am wary of using Christian terminology like “salvation” and “evangelism” to explain what is going on in other religions because I find it can suggest things that aren’t really there.

    For instance, some scholars have spoken of the “resurrection” of Osirus and the “baptism” of initiates into Mithraic religion to suggest that Jesus was “nothing more” than the Jewish form of a perennial Pagan myth. Not only has such language (ab)use created the impression that there is stronger evidence for common origins than there actually is, it has also negatively fed back, leading to confusion about what Christians actually mean by “resurrection” and “baptism”.

    Most people lack the depth of understanding to distinguish between “salvation” as Christian shorthand for Kingdom of God, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection of the dead, day of the Lord, coming of Jesus, new heavens and new earth, etc, etc, etc and “salvation” used as a generic for “whatever” a given religion aims for. More than that, while there is a vague resonance between Christian salvation, Buddist nirvana and Hindu moshka, is there anything even remotely equivalent in NeoPaganism for instance? Apart from a desire to live in harmony with nature and some vague talk of the Summerlands there is nothing remotely equivalent. In fact many of them pride themselves in that fact.

    In am think there is probably no shorthand adequate to the task, that inter-religious dialogue is intrinsically suceptible to misunderstanding therefore we must spell out in detail.

  9. 2 July 2008 7:42 am


    Yes, i think that is pretty much it. Christians find it hard enough to agree among themselves about what constitutes salvation, and imposing it as a framework on other religions will simply distort what they are about.

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