Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2001, pp. xi + 312. $35.
This is probably the most philosophically accomplished of the current wave of Christian attempts to solve the problem of religious plurality by appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity. Building upon his earlier Salvations (1995), Heim wants to move the inclusivist discussion (‘I am a convinced inclusivist’, 8) beyond the familiar question whether the other world religions are or are not, without knowing it, leading people towards an eventual enjoyment of salvation, which he defines as ‘communion with God and God’s creatures through Christ Jesus’ (19). Instead, he asks whether, in addition to this highest end, ‘there are different, real religious ends that are not Christian salvation at all’ (3), but which are nevertheless valid on their own level as responses to limited aspects of the full trinitarian divine reality that is known only to Christians.
What does Heim mean by a religious end? His answer is phenomenological. ‘A religious end or aim is defined by a set of practices, images, stories, and concepts’ which ‘provides material for a thorough pattern of life’, is ‘understood to be constitutive of final human fulfilment and/or to be the sole means of achieving that fulfillment’, and ‘is in practice exclusive of at least some alternative options’ (21). In this sense there undoubtedly are a variety of religious ends and Heim’s description of the religious situation in our present earthly life is not controversial. For his ‘hypothesis requires only that the nature of reality be such as to allow humans to phenomenally realize varied religious ends’ (24), i.e. the different this-worldly states indicated in his phenomenological analysis.
On this Heim bases a new form of religious inclusivism in which each religion can regard its own end as the only ultimate one whilst recognising that the others are pursuing genuine but only penultimate ends. And as his proposed Christian theology of religions he proposes that specifically Christian salvation is the only truly ultimate end, all the others being inferior. For ‘To realise something other than communion with the triune God and with other creatures through Christ is to achieve a lesser good’ (44). Heim seems to think that this recognition of other religious ends gives a greater respect and status to the non-Christian religions that the older inclusivism of Vatican II etc., which extended the full benefit of Christian salvation eventually, though in most cases beyond this life, to all humanity – always subject to the possibility of an ultimate self-damning refusal. But Heim’s proposal is in fact considerably less favourable to the people of other faiths, for it leaves them all finally at a lower level, arriving at lesser ends and forfeiting the supreme good. Indeed Heim says that, ‘Insofar as alternative ends lack or rule out real dimensions of communion with the triune God, they embody some measure of what Christian tradition regards as loss or damnation’ (182). For him, a non-Christian’s only hope of attaining the highest good is eventually, probably after death, to come to accept Christ as lord and saviour, with his or her this-life religion having served as a partial preparation for this. On this latter scenario Heim’s proposal is indistinguishable from the older form of inclusivism. But in so far as he wants it to be different it offers a bleaker future for most of humanity than traditional inclusivism.
Heim is aware of the glaring question that his view provokes, How can it be an expression of the universal divine love to restrict the possibility of the highest good to that minority of the human race who have had access to the Christian gospel? His answer is novel but at the same time – to me at least - highly unattractive. He proposes a theological ‘principle of plenitude’. Just as there is a rich variety among the (Christian) saved, so also there is also a rich variety of higher and lower other religious ends, and this very variety contributes to the value of the whole. God has endowed the creation with its own freedom, and values the ‘plenitude that results when creation’s freedom is worked out in the realization of a variety of religious ends’ (254-5). Thus the existing situation, in which the contingencies of human history have produced a plurality of different religious traditions seeking different religious ends, constitutes a rich and valuable spiritual tapestry.
This ‘plenitude’ theory would perhaps be viable if, as Heim also asserts, there is a ‘universal accessibility of salvation’ (255). He says that ‘religious diversity honors the freedom of persons to relate to God as they choose, to value the dimensions of divinity on their own terms, and to select the human end they wish’ (255). For ‘God’s saving will offers all the opportunity for communion in the triune life through Christ. But that same saving will also brings to perfection each true relation with God that a person may freely choose as a final end. And beyond this, God brings the ensemble of such ends and choices to its own pluralistic perfection, integrating the chosen relations and goods so as to create the richest satisfaction of each and all under the terms of their desired fulfillments’ (263-4). But is there not something disturbingly unrealistic here? In the great majority of cases people have not freely chosen their religion. They have nearly always inherited it, grown up within it, and been formed by it, so that it fits them and they fit it. The opportunity to study the full range of religious options and make a free choice among them is a recent western development that is open to very few. Can a Tibetan, Thai, or Burmese Buddhist, or most of the hundreds of millions of Muslims, or of Hindus, or most Jews or Jains or Taoists, be said to have deliberately chosen the religious end available to them in deliberate preference to the Christian religious end? How then can the highest good of Christian salvation realistically be said to be accessible to that large majority of the human race who have lived in all the centuries (including those before Christ) either in complete ignorance of the Christian message and/or within other religious traditions which have formed their relationship to the Ultimate in other ways? Heim’s assumption that everyone has freely chosen either the Christian or some other religious (or secular) end ignores in an astonishing way the realities of human life and history.
His theory of multiple religious ends becomes even harder to sustain when he takes account of the eschatological element within the religions. For his ‘hypothesis presumes an open set of varied religious ends available for realization both within the historical horizon of human life and beyond it’ (29). This is elaborated in his last chapter as a range of options from eternal hell, through annihilation, through the inferior ends of the other religions, to the full, true and glorious heaven of Christianity. For, he says, the religions should ‘be taken with full seriousness as alternatives, both here and now and eschatologically’ (291). According to this theology of religions, all will find what they seek, and so all will be finally satisfied; and so ‘The diversity of religious ends provides an extraordinary picture of the mercy and providential richness of God’! (264).
But this assignment to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists etc of lesser eternal fulfilments is much less favourable to them than the older inclusivist theology which (e.g., in DiNoia and others), saw them as destined eventually to heaven through an encounter with Christ in or after death – unless, of course, like irredeemably sinful Christians also, they condemn themselves to hell.
Can appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity, whether by Heim or others, help? Only in a very limited way. It can help by prompting Christians to see that there may be more to God’s activity in this world than takes place in the figure of Jesus and his historical influence. But very many people, both within and beyond Christianity, need no such prompting. They have concluded for themselves that, in the words of the 13th century Jalaluldin Rumi, ‘The lamps are different but the Light is the same: it comes from Beyond’. It is, then, only Christians who can be helped by the doctrine of the Trinity. But for some this can indeed be useful, and Heim’s proposal is certainly a great advance on the exclusivism which some of his fellow evangelicals find it so hard to abandon. But (as Heim himself recognises) religious inclusivism can equally well be formulated from within each of the world faiths and thus does not require a trinitarian basis.
Heim is throughout trying to find a better way than has hitherto been available of avoiding the alternative of religious pluralism, which he criticises repeatedly. He offers what he regards as a richer and more generous inclusivism. And his elegantly presented proposal is indeed richer and more interesting than traditional inclusivism, and deserves to be widely read. And yet, paradoxically, it is in the end less generous and less inclusive than the traditional version! And so the challenge of religious pluralism becomes even more acute.
Copyright by Blackwell Publisher 2001, and reprinted with permission from Reviews in Religion and Theology, Vol. 8, No. 4 (September 2001).