Jeannine Hill Fletcher tackles the sticky problem of religious plurality with an intriguing and potentially fruitful method. She first points out that along with the particular affirmations regarding salvation in Jesus Christ, Christians have always affirmed the incomprehensibility of God. God is more than any human mind can describe, so it may be possible that God has revealed something of God’s own self to the peoples of other religions. Then she reviews the records of encounters between Christians and those of other religions, noting that inter-religious dialogue has been part of the Christian heritage from the beginning, even if the particular Christian affirmations have more often than not blinded the Christian to any value in the other’s insights regarding God’s nature may have. She also points out a correlative problem in the contemporary attempt to deal with religious plurality. Each of the familiar excluvist, inclusivist and pluralist categories used to describe one’s attitude toward other religions relies on the assumption that every adherent of a particular religion, whether Christian or otherwise, is shaped in exactly the same way as every other adherent. Furthermore, there seems to be an implicit assumption that one can separate a person’s religious identity from the other aspects that shape identity such as culture, family, gender, economic situation, and education.
The feminist notion of identity as multifaceted, constructed at the confluence of many intertwined influences, and as dynamic, changing in response to new situations, is a way to put theory around the observable reality that religious identity is not homogenous across a particular religion and that one’s religious identity cannot be isolated from the other aspects of one’s identity. The notion of identity as multifaceted provides a way to initiate meaningful conversation across religious boundaries. Because every person’s identity involves many aspects, there are bound to be commonalities with persons of different religions where conversation could start. These common elements may be cultural or familial or professional; at any rate, the common concern for human well-being and for establishing justice provides a foundation for conversation. Yet because all these touch on religious identity as well, the conversation can be extended to include religious insights regarding the nature of God and the divine/human relationship. Such conversations have always been part of the Christian tradition, but the affirmation of God’s incomprehensibility can enable Christians to enter the conversation in a way that truly hears the other and truly respects the other’s other-ness, something the standard categories of theology of religions do not really accomplish.
From these foundations for a Christian theology of religions – God’s incomprehensibility and superabundance that means that God may reveal something of Godself in other religions, the multilayered and dynamic nature of personal identity that makes conversation across boundaries possible, and the tradition of Christian interaction with other religions – Fletcher turns to a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth that points to the ways that one can affirm the specifically Christian teachings about God and Christ and still find truths about God in other religions. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan shows that Jesus’ command to love the other includes loving the religious other.
Fletcher’s book is a good beginning at answering the sticky questions that arise when one both believes in the truth of one’s own religious tradition and wants to respect the other’s belief in the truth her own tradition. If one recognizes that God’s salvation history includes more than the Israelite-Christian story, Fletcher’s theory is a good beginning at reconciling that insight with Christian affirmations about God. There is, however, one question that will, I hope, provide the impetus for future work. Fletcher ends her book with the observation that “ever-new perspectives on the mystery of God might constitute the ultimate human experience of salvation” (136). One must wonder about the implicit question of what to do with the new truth found in encounter with other religions. If it really is truth, it seems that one should attempt to assimilate that other truth into one’s own belief system rather than just say “that is your truth and this is mine.” Will the distinctive identity of Christianity be lost as we acknowledge (and perhaps incorporate?) the truths of the others? Will it end up in a syncretistic mish-mash, or at the other extreme, in a myriad of individual configurations?
How the solidarity that respects and maintains distinctive identities works is a question that feminists have not really answered, and so Fletcher’s application of that theory of identity leaves some questions unanswered as well. Still, Monopoly on Salvation? proposes some intriguing ideas that I think have promise of bearing much fruit in inter-religious dialogue and in Christian theology of religions. One would hope that there will be future work on the questions left unanswered.