Response to Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions

Knitter, Paul. Introducing Theologies of Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002.
A Response by DMin student Dorothy Yoder Nyce, September 2004

A short response does not do justice to the extensive content of this useful resource. Knitter’s depth of engagement with the issues and writers of theologies of religions soon reveals itself. Not immune to controversy, he invites people to explore and potentially change their views regarding theological issues. Regarding the art or gift of relating with people of diverse living faiths, he persists. He listens. He evaluates. He reveals personal views, though in this instance he tries not to disclose his own preferences.

Having earlier read Paul Knitter’s No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (1994), One Earth Many Religions Multifaith Dialogue & Global Responsibility (1995), Jesus and the Other Names Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (1996) and a number of his articles, I expected to resonate positively with Theologies . . .. Relying on my ‘gut’ instincts, I also questioned several details.

I respond with gratitude for a resource that summarizes the “tripartite typology of exclusivism-inclusivism-pluralism.” (Fletcher, 9) Knitter’s intent to bring new life to the typology through alternate names—Replacement, Fulfillment, and Mutuality—does not surprise me. His work with a Correlational Model in Jesus . . . and Global Responsibility in both Jesus . . . and One Earth . . . had alerted me to his yen for terms that fit with change envisioned. That he adds an Acceptance Model to Theologies . . . reveals further effort, both to bridge among models and to press for growing openness to strengths of diverse religions. Knitter provides names of key advocates for each Model. I sense a gentle spirit as he describes people’s views.

We all bring bias to thinking and writing, even as we attempt to be objective. We are who we are because of past experience. Perhaps because a feminist, I wish to stress this fact rather than ignore it (as many men have done). Feminist thought also alerts me to caution toward terms like complementary and mutuality. With inf0luence from decades of not being mutual, can any group that has been dominant in practice or ideology presume to become authentically mutual? Perhaps because a Protestant, I experience Paul’s minimal ‘favoring’ of the Fulfillment Model with its predominant Roman Catholic influence. In my judgment, he need not deny or resist that ‘ownership.’ Perhaps because I have always disliked ‘boxes,’ I react against limiting categories. Being inadequate, they rely on an interpreter’s meaning unless the owner of the designation clarifies her meaning.

Firmly convinced that we all are a blend of different positions, I balk at marking myself or others with terms that limit needed freedom to fluctuate. [This was my stance even before reading Fletcher.] So also, noted missioner Lesslie Newbigin claims both to reflect and reject all of the exclusive-inclusive-pluralist typology (in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 1989, 182-83). And yet, categories, if carefully open-ended, prove to be essential for measures of identity. A related innate reservation that I felt, while first reading Theologies . . ., was to wish not to be ‘boxed in’ as a traditional Evangelical, even though I am a Protestant Mennonite.

One further caution addresses Christian use of the term Spirit to describe Spirit-like activity in diverse religions. Is the term neutral or does it convey a particular Christian meaning? Might Christians be grateful to use a term important to Hindus—shakti (divine energy/power of desire, action, wisdom; epithet of the goddess)—instead of Spirit? And if not, then how can we justify expecting others to value Spirit for a universal concept?

Numerous ideas in Theologies . . . deserve discussion. Primarily agreeing with them, I realize time and space limits for this paper so only mention a few. For example,

Shortly after the publication of Paul Knitter’s Theologies . . ., my article “Faithful and Pluralistic: Engagement among People of Living Faiths” appeared in Crosscurrents. Wishing to bring together varied writers on the traditional typology, I valued working also with Paul’s new alternate Models. The following paragraphs are excerpted from that journal article.

Alternative Models

People have given alternative names to theologies of religion, or offered additional views. Paul F. Knitter’s recent book, titled Introducing Theologies of Religions, suggests four Models. He calls them: Replacement/ “Only One True Religion”; Fulfillment/ “The One Fulfills the Many”; and Mutuality/ “Many True Religions Called to Dialogue.” This terminology takes the place of the three more common terms (exclusivist, inclusivist, pluralist). Knitter adds an Acceptance Model/ “Many True Religions: So Be It.” Following discussion of each Model, for which he identifies specific adherents, he offers insights and questions. Without disclosing his own stance, Knitter reveals “intellectual empathy” in describing the speakers and positions presented.

Both total and partial features of the Replacement model are discussed. Key insights named for this model are Centrality of Scripture in the Christian Life, Reality of Evil and Need for Help, and Jesus as the One and Only. In essence, those who do not know Jesus cannot “know and experience God’s embracing, saving love.” [73. All page numbers in this section refer to Knitter’s book Introducing Theologies of Religions.] Identified primarily as Evangelical Protestant, the Replacement model is presented through spokesman Karl Barth.

Several points of caution also appear. Miroslav Volf suggests a stance of “provisional certitude.” Because people are not God, we cannot presume to possess the final truth or to assert having absolute knowledge regarding Jesus Christ as “the way, truth, and life.” Since all Christian beliefs are personal human beliefs, they are provisional. And to declare that our beliefs are provisional means that we also “understand the views of others as possibly true.” [54] Further, for Christians to declare “Jesus as the only Savior” would mean that we know and have experience with other religions enough to know that in fact those others do not have figures who affect people’s lives similarly to the way Jesus transforms life for Christians. [58]

Knitter’s Fulfillment model presumes more Roman Catholic representation; Karl Rahner and Jacques Dupuis are key voices. A central idea is that those who do not know Jesus can still experience the saving love of God, though for them it will be less full or clear. Significant change came with Vatican II. Prior to the 1960s, most Christians presumed that God could not utilize religions other than Christianity. Nor did Roman Catholic Church members believe until then that Protestant churches were authentic, or “really Christian.” [Knowing how this seemingly arrogant view disturbs me, a Protestant, gives insight into how offensive some “only” Christian truth claims can be for people loyal to other living faiths.]

Protestants, perhaps notably Evangelicals, have resisted the movement toward interreligious dialogue and openness that followed Vatican II action. A personal experience prodded my interest in it. Mennonite Board of Missions board members meeting in the mid-‘80s looked toward the next five-year program block, global and local. On seeing statistics, I said: “In light of centers of population growth, that Christianity continues to be the chosen faith of thirty-to-thirty-three percent of the world is remarkable. Further, God is likely vital to and interactive with people of faiths other than Christian.” That last sentence prompted the chairman to call an executive session of the board “to assess whether Dorothy’s theology is compatible with being an MBM board member.” Surprised to have my sincere faith in God questioned, I nevertheless stayed on the board, silently vowing to explore God’s limits to or breadth of salvation. Conviction to value and engage in interreligious dialogue increased. This article continues the journey.

Rahner’s Fulfillment view did indeed stun others at the time. He said that non-Christian religions can be “a positive means of gaining the right relationship to God and thus for the attaining of salvation, a means which is therefore positively included in God’s plan of salvation.” [71] Then in 1996, the Vatican International Theological Commission also affirmed that: “other traditions have a ‘saving function’ and therefore can be ‘a means [that] helps for the salvation of their adherents.’” That people in other living faiths feel the presence of God suggests their being saved. However, the Fulfillment model believes that Christ is the fulfillment of the yearning active in all religions of the world. Knitter also notes related themes of Pope John Paul II: 1) The religions can be considered “ways of salvation”; 2) The church must be dialogical; and 3) The church is in the service of God’s Reign or Kingdom. [81-84]

Asian Catholics have endorsed a “Kingdom-centered” understanding of the church for decades. Following Jesus’ pattern, the church’s purpose is to enable God’s Reign. Because talk about “Jesus as the one and only Savior” creates hostility, Asians prefer to speak about Jesus as the “Teacher of wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, or Compassionate Friend of the Poor.” These titles commend what was special about Jesus without denying that other religious figures are also special. Such efforts move toward creating harmony rather than comparing negatively, even though religious differences will always exist. The goal for Christians is to have strong conviction that God truly calls us in Christ but not to presume that our call is the only one that God offers to all of humanity. [105]

Knitter’s ecumenical Mutuality model stresses both God’s universal love and God’s presence in religions. It expands the above ideas of truly and God’s Reign. While Christians say that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” we stop short of saying that he does so solely or fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God. Other religious figures might also be wholly God. [122-23] For mutual dialogue, participants value the fact that more than a single figure or religion can convey God’s love and grace.

Those in honest dialogue also look to basic global needs. Through his core message of the Reign of God, Jesus’ focused on transforming society, not on increased numbers of followers. Not centered on himself or his authority, Jesus cared for how people live with each other, for how victims are released from what binds them. Edward Schillebeeckx sees the Reign or Kingdom of God as the saving presence of God—in active justice, peaceful relationships, and restored life. [145, 143] So, too, Christians committed to dialogue will choose to be faithful to Jesus’ unique way of sharing God’s love with victims. Doing so, they attract rather than repel their conversation partners of other living faiths.

Knitter discusses four key issues that describe the Mutuality model: the Need for New Answers, Jesus as Sacrament of God’s love, a Spirit Christology, and a Christology of Mutuality. [152-57] A comment about each follows. 1) As Christians experience signs of grace in other religions, they see the need to revise the traditional concept that Jesus is the sole source of God’s salvation. To listen first to another’s conviction reshapes (makes more modest) how Christians formulate their own true claims. 2) As the sacrament or symbol of God’s love, Jesus saves. Not intent to stand alone to fix something, he stands with others. He welcomes others to also reveal the One God. 3) The same Spirit who has been present since the world began actively empowered Jesus; [she] continues to enable all people. Totally attuned to the Spirit when human, Jesus was not the only incarnated expression of God. The Spirit’s agenda neither contradicts Jesus nor is confined to him. 4) Jesus the Word of God connects with other Words of God. Or, as John Cobb suggests, “Christ is the Way that is open to other Ways.” So the mutual needs to witness and be witnessed to persist—dialogue prevails. Participants engage from within their own religious experience, directed by God or Truth. They claim both distinct differences and common ground.

Knitter’s Acceptance model moves beyond the traditional three. In an earlier resource he had presented a co-relational focus; whether he will develop a kenotic (self-emptying) approach is yet to be seen. Central to the Acceptance model is acceptance of real diversity among living faiths. A key thinker presented is S. Mark Heim. In a straightforward manner, the reality of diversity is valued. For example, “‘the many’ cannot be boiled down to ‘the one.’ Truth always takes different shapes, assumes different identities.” It is plural not singular. “Diversity doesn’t dominate; it invites and exhilarates. . . . There is nothing that can be truly declared ‘common’ to all religions. . . . adherents of different religions have different experiences.” [175, 178, 181]

Heim explains that plurality invades both religions and God. To be either human or divine is to be in relationship. Each religion sees the world from its own perspective; each thinks that it is in some way superior. A worthy goal is suggested: “Any final prize goes to the religion that can best call the other religions together.” [200] Religions value both integration and distinction. For two reasons, Heim is Christ-centered: because through Christ Christians understand God as triune—“inherently and profoundly relational”—and because Christ makes clear that God relates well to the particular and the diverse. [201] The goal of dialogue for the Acceptance model is to maintain and learn from diversity, whether of salvations or absolutes.

So, truly, all Christian theologies of religions need to work at balance—between the particular and universal, between diversity and unity, between personal spirituality and social engagement. [242] When implemented, such counsel enables “pluralist religious discourse” (theology).

(Nyce, 217-21)

I wish now to highlight several further sources, two reviews of Knitter’s Theologies . . . and the article by Jeannine Hill Fletcher referred to earlier. Leo D. Lefebure’s review uses a title that perhaps skews the reader’s attention: “Jesus: The only way?” He notes Knitter’s engagement with whether Jesus is “universally relevant” or normative and briefly distinguishes the book’s four models. He commends Knitter’s effort to survey the varied voices in the current debate, doing so with accuracy and fairness. He notes the intent to provide “a network of checks and balances,” instead of declaring one true theology of religions position, but questions the coherence of such. He also wonders if Knitter’s approach might obscure important differences between traditions.

A review by K. P. Aleaz caught my attention because I have read other materials by him and his theologian wife Bonita(and because I had visited him in his Calcutta, India home). Aleaz provides an orientation to Knitter’s book, observes several difficulties, and strongly critiques the Anglo-American debate. That debate fails to learn adequately from people and situations elsewhere, he contends. With that judgment, I tend to agree. When Americans presume to process interreligious issues without exposure to (therefore more ignorant of) adherents of diverse living faiths, or when we presume little need (convey arrogance) to learn from Christians who daily live with such diversity, such attitudes truly (truly if not only!) offend.

Aleaz notes that “We understand and evaluate others from where we stand.” (36) The center of our own faith shapes our connections with people of diverse faiths. In other words, we need not try to be neutral, if such a possibility exists. Christians can try to enrich our understanding of Christ through what people of other faiths contribute to us from their faith. His alternative to western schemes, from the Indian context, is called Pluralistic Inclusivism.

Four areas of Knitter’s content need discussion, according to Aleaz. First, Knitter’s “almost clear” preference for the Fulfillment Model, it being more Roman Catholic oriented. Aleaz hopes that Knitter’s next book will “show concretely how other religious faiths are correcting and further clarifying his Christian faith.” (39) Second, the book might well be re-titled “Introducing Western Christian Theologies of Religions.” Third, Aleaz experiences the book as presenting non-Roman Catholic writers or efforts as secondary. Since pioneers like Farquhar (Inclusivist, 1913), and Pluralists S. K. George (1920) and S. J. Samartha (1990s) are not identified, Aleaz wishes for a more ecumenical survey. Four, how Knitter classifies his models needs discussion. Names like Acceptance and Mutuality are questioned as is the amount of attention given to Dupuis and D’Costa. Aleaz also notes inattention to several Roman Catholic documents that were less open in spirit to non-Christian religions.

Knitter’s response to Aleaz is gracious; he restates his intent to describe, not prescribe. He explains that the book is primarily for a western, Christian audience, not Indian. My personal response here: I do regret that westerners (whether in early World Council of Churches endeavor or among present-day Mennonites) pay so little attention to Indian Christian insight, insight gained from their near neighbors loyal to diverse religions. Many westerners seem to hold a colonialist attitude toward Indian Christians. Aleaz rightly wonders why even Indians who live in the US are ignored in this survey—specifically writers like Wesley Ariarajah, Thomas Thankaraj, and R. S. Sugirtharajah. To Aleaz’s point about naming Models, Knitter explains his intent not to stop with validating real differences of plurality. He wishes for people of diverse faiths to move toward genuine mutuality, a move that will include openness to mutual correction and critique. Knitter summarize’s Aleaz’s Pluralistic Inclusivism and contends that it sounds a lot like pluralist and his Mutuality Model.

Having recently read Aleaz’s chapter “Pluralistic Inclusivism: A Viable Indian Theology of Religions,” I observe a distinct difference in the thrust of PI [or else I have missed the fully radical dimension of the traditional pluralist or Knitter’s Mutuality positions]. PI “makes Pluralism inclusive and Inclusivism pluralistic” (172). It calls for convincing contributions from people of other faiths to a Christian’s formation of faith content, such as revelation of God in Jesus the Christ. Rather than two axioms—God’s universal salvific will (pluralist) and “salvation comes through God in Christ alone” (inclusivist)—the PI resulting axiom states, “Universal salvation comes through God in universally conceived Jesus.” (172) Further, central figures such as Jesus and Krishna reveal, lead us to, and enable us to see theos or Reality. (190)

Within this PI religious perspective, a person continues in her/his religious experience while considering other faiths as also her/his own—common property, resources to be used in common. The other’s ‘otherness’ no longer exists. For example, both claims regarding Jesus and claims regarding the Qur’an are equally valid and equally enriching; they converge, Aleaz suggests. Relational convergence of religions occurs: that which is considered “supremely important and unique” to each faith mutually interacts and is converted [turns] in terms of the other. (192) Aleaz explains that, “The richness of one’s own religious experience grows by mutual giving and receiving in terms of Pluralistic Inclusivism. . . . [PI] upholds all [affirmations of theology] made in the language of faith as authentic and suggests that these can be further developed through mutual interrelation.” (185, 189)

Admittedly, I begin to ponder what distinctly exists/is/remains of one’s own faith, with this view. How does that which is particular to a religion shape that person and not (or distinct from) the other with whom it is held in common? The other who holds another particular concept as primary? I could imagine that validating another’s superiority would diminish any claim to one’s own superior stance; humility could finally emerge. And while I welcome not thinking of another as ‘other’ (which often carries a negating sense), I still value the strength and Wisdom and Divine creativity of difference. We learn from difference; we are drawn to difference; we are enriched by difference. Needless to say, I will continue to process these and related ponderings.

Aleaz’ chapter, written in 1998, explains more than PI. For example, he contends that Knitter’s correlational theology of religions [discussed in Jesus and the Other Names, not Theologies . . . ] does not provide the richness possible in PI. “A correlational model for interfaith dialogues calls for making absolute claims in a relative manner. In it all religions are viewed not as necessarily being equal or the same in their truth-claims but as having equal rights.” (190) Aleaz questions whether Knitter really means equal rights because his understanding of Jesus conflicts with other unique claims. (191) And so the exchange continues. Writers truly honor each other while raising important issues. Such modeling I value.

Finally, with apologies for this lengthy response, I must return briefly to Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s article [that I did not discover until after submitting my Crosscurrents manuscript]. I yearn for more feminist, women colleagues who write about Religious Pluralism. Feminists who value distinctions of both diversity and connection often do not see themselves in collectives, as described. Fletcher calls readers to rethink identity as multiple and hybrid. In each “tripartite typology,” the other is not allowed its distinctive being, she warns. She explains: “positions of sameness and difference both function to distance otherness.” (10) To note another’s sameness actually rejects her otherness; to stress difference often discourages connection. Further, defined by Christians, exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist practice are judged by a Christian ‘norm.’

Religions—“complex wholes of belief, symbol, and practice that shape an adherent’s way of life and experience of reality” (11)—are communal [in a western, not Indian sense]. Noting internal diversity within every religion, Fletcher endorses interreligious solidarities that ever change. As with any category, to say what binds them reveals what they exclude—what is in and what is out. Each religion, constructed through intersections of distinct features, has plural identity. “There is no ‘Christian’ identity, only Christian identities.” (18) What is particular among individuals within the “bounded whole” may get erased. So, validating hybrid identity can make connections across multiple differences without erasing distinctiveness.

[I need to examine this Fletcher content with comments from Aleaz’ PI discussion. And I offer this ‘in process’ response with thanks to Paul Knitter for his rich, informed Theologies . . . .]


Aleaz, K. P. “Pluralistic Inclusivism: A Viable Indian Theology of Religions,” in Theology of Religions Birmingham Papers and other Essays by K. P. Aleaz, Calcutta: Moumita Pub.s & Distributors, 1998, 168-99.

Aleaz, K. P. Review article and reply, Introducing Theology of Religions, by Paul Knitter, Conversations in Religion and Theology, 1/1, May 2003, 33-54. [Note, error in title of book]

Fletcher, Jeannine Hill. “Shifting Identity, The Contribution of Feminist Thought to Theologies of Religious Pluralism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 19/2, Fall 2003, 5-24.

Knitter, Paul. Introducing Theologies of Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

Lefebure, Leo D. “Jesus: The only way?” Review, Introducing Theologies of Religions by Paul F. Knitter, Christian Century, Oct 9-22, 2002, 40-43.

Nyce, Dorothy Yoder. “Faithful and Pluralistic: Engagement among People of Living Faiths,” Crosscurrents, Summer 2003, 214-30.

Dorothy, thanks for a very provocative commentary on my book. I look forward to discussing these, and many other issues, as we work together on your project.