Harold NETLAND: Encountering Religious Pluralism. The Challenge to ChristianFaith & Mission. Downers, Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001. 366 pages. Paper.
Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, The Catholic University of America, WASHINGTON, DC. 20064

In many ways this volume is a sequel to the author's Dissonant Voice: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (1991). Having experienced religious pluralism first-hand during his many years in Japan, Netland has made it his main academic interest as a professor of philosophy of religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

The book is divided into two equal parts, each made up of five chapters. The first part presents the historical, philosophical, and theological context for religious pluralism, and the second makes the case of an evangelical theology of religions. By religious pluralism is meant not only the fact of religious diversity in the West but the philosophical and theological view that "there is a rough parity among religions concerning truth and soteriological (salvational) effectiveness" (12). In this sense, "religious pluralism is a distinctive way of thinking about religious diversity that affirms such diversity as something inherently good, to be embraced enthusiastically" (12). In Netland's view, religious pluralism understood in this sense is a combined product of two trends of the modern and postmodern world: "first, widespread loss of confidence in the claims of traditional Christianity, brought about in part by the effects of modernization and the enduring legacy of skepticism; and second, the heightened awareness of cultural and religious diversity worldwide induced by the Western `discovery' of the New World and globalization" (16). Netland concludes his historical analysis of the roots of religious pluralism with a discussion of one of the foremost exponents of religious pluralism, namely, John Hick, whose theological journey from an articulate apologist for Christian orthodoxy against positivism through dissatisfaction with central Christian claims to an ardent proponent of religious pluralism - in brief, from exclusivism through inclusivism to pluralism, to use the three well-known categories of the theology of religions - provides an interesting confirmation of Netland's thesis regarding the roots of religious pluralism in modernity. With the historical context of religious pluralism in place, Netland moves on in the second part to meet its challenges from the perspective of his evangelical faith. Netland begins by noting, repeating much of what he has written his previous book, that there are conflicting truth claims among various religions regarding at least three major issues: the nature of the religious ultimate, the nature of the human predicament, and the nature of salvation and that it necessary to determine which of these truth claims are true (truth in the sense of correspondence between proposition and reality). Next he shows how religious pluralism, especially as proposed by Hick, is internally incoherent and does not reflect the data from various religions accurately. Furthermore, he argues for the necessity of not only "negative apologetics" showing the non-absurdity of Christian beliefs but also "positive apologetics" showing that "there is an important sense in which unbelievers are epistemologically obligated to accept Christian faith, or that it is unreasonable or irrational for them not to do so" (260). Such an apologetics demands the use of some context-independent criteria, and Netland proposes such criteria as logical consistency and the moral criterion.

Finally, Netland attempts a theology of religions from his evangelical background. He lists six truths which he believes are central to Christianity and should therefore undergird a Christina theology of religions, i.e., truths concerning the nature of God as holy and righteous, God's creation of the world, God's self-revelation in the Scriptures, the corruption of humans by sins, God's reconciliation of humanity with himself through the atoning work of Jesus, and the church as the community of the redeemed charged with the mission of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who have not yet known him.

Netland writes clearly and gracefully. While firmly holding to what he takes to be the truth, namely, that Christianity is the only true religion, he urges sincere respect for other religions. Ultimately, however, he is convinced that "the fact of religious diversity as we know it is itself an effect of the fall and sin. If it were not for sin, there would not be this radical pluralization of religious responses to the divine; rather, whatever the other differences among human beings in terms of ethnicity and culture, all humankind would be united in proper worship of the one God.... The fact of multiple religions represents a distortion of God's intention for his creation" (345- 46).

One wonders what "religion," in Netland's judgment, would be the one in which "all humanity would be united in proper worship to the one God." Surely, not Christianity, which is also a religion, since, as Netland has eloquently and persuasively argued (334-35), all religions, and hence also Christianity, are infected by sin and Satanic influence, as history has abundantly shown. But if this is the undeniable case, what would happen to Netland's project of positive apologetics for Christianity against other religions? Furthermore, how do we know for certain that "the fact of multiple religions" is a "distortion of God's intention for all creation"? If the Christian God is unity-in- plurality, is not the fact of "one" religion contrary to God's nature? It is not the diversity of religions itself that is contrary to God's intention, rather it is the lack of koinonia among them, and to this lack of harmony and communion Christianity and Christians themselves have contributed their fair share.


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