Dilatato Corde 8:1
January – June, 2018


Perry Schmidt-Leukel

Waxmann 2017

In 2011, the first year it was published, Dilatato Corde carried an article by a Belgian nun who wrote about her experience as a practitioner and teacher of zazen—or, as she judiciously put it, “une meditation silencieuse dans la ligne du zazen.”[1] The author, Sister Christine Daine, a Poor Clare, had been the coordinator of the French-speaking Belgian commission of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue from 2005-2010. In her article she described how much her life as a Catholic contemplative nun had benefitted from her involvement with Buddhist teaching and practice. She then went on to say, “I believe in Jesus, the Son of God and universal Savior, but I can no longer accept that there is one religion (mine, of course) that is superior to and eradicates all the rest. Theologians will have to do their best to resolve this apparent contradiction. It's their job!”[2]
Sister Christine would undoubtedly have been delighted to know that a theologian had already responded to that assignment, and done so brilliantly. In 2005, Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel, a German theologian who at that time was Professor of Religious Studies and Systematic Theology and Director of the Center for Inter-Faith Studies at the University of Glasgow, published Gott ohne Grenzen. Eine christliche und pluralistische Theologie der Religionen (Güterloher Verlagshaus, Gutersloh). His work has now been published in English as God Beyond Boundaries: A Christian and Pluralist Theology of Religions. Even though the translation involved a great deal of time and effort, the book is by no means outdated. In a sense, it provides the Christian theological background to what the author did in his Gifford Lectures in 2015 and in lectures he gave at Zhejiang University in China in 2014, which were published as Religious Pluralism and Interreligious Theology: The Gifford Lectures – An Extended Edition (Orbis, 2017) and reviewed in Dilatato Corde (7:2 [2017]).
As the subtitle indicates, God beyond Boundaries “aims at a delineation of the fundamental characteristics and advantages of a theology of religions which would be both pluralist and at the same time Christian” (p. 26). A quick glance at the table of contents reveals that the author leaves virtually no stone unturned in accomplishing his objective.
In Part I, “The Need for a Christian and Pluralist Theology of Religions” (pp. 31-174), Schmidt-Leukel sets out the categories that are used by those who engage in the theology of religions. These are traditionally referred to as
  • Exclusivist: Christianity [or my religion] is the only truly valid religion, the only effective “way”;
  • Inclusivist: There is a universal possibility of salvation, and there are the parallels between Christianity and non-Christian religions as an expression of the universality of revelation and grace. However, non-Christian religions are not equally valid paths of salvation;
  • Pluralist: There is a genuine equality between Christianity and other religious traditions regarding the mediation of salvific knowledge of transcendence.
After presenting what he finds to be the limitations and logical inconsistencies of both Christian exclusivism and Christian inclusivism, the author concludes that a pluralist theology of religions is the superior hypothesis. That hypothesis, in turn, involves several important requirements:
  • It must be formulated in a philosophically consistent manner;
  • It must show that it is theologically consistent with Christian faith;
  • It must be in alignment with the pluralist approach of other religions.
In Part II, Schmidt-Leukel delves into the presuppositions of a Christian and pluralist theology of religions, namely:
  • Belief in a transcendent reality; revelation and experience;
  • Religious language and experience; revelation, salvation, and religion;
  • Revelation, incarnation, and the mediation of salvation.
Part III is devoted to testing a Christian and pluralist theology of religions in interreligious encounter, specifically with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I found this overview of the the relationship between Christianity and each of these major religious traditions to be both informative and enlightening.
In a final section entitled “Steps to the Future,” the author explains that the intention for proposing a Christian and pluralist theology of religions is
not mixing a true religion with a false one, a good with a bad, and a holy with a demonic one. The question is rather whether we can accept that at the level of concrete human existence in all its cultural and individual diversity there can be true knowledge, good life, and the veneration of the holy in a genuine variety of equally valid forms (p. 423).
In a second step, he tackles the vexing question of how mission is to be practiced by a church that recognizes genuine salvific value in other religions. The short answer: by working for the well-being and healing of the world in dialogue and cooperation with other religions.
The final two steps deal with the implications of a pluralist position for a world theology and for spirituality.
What especially impresses me about this book is that the author grounds his rigorous philosophical and theological examination of the theology of religions in his own experience of another religious tradition. Schmidt-Leukel promotes the pluralist hypothesis not only because he has come to the conclusion, after much study, that it is logically consistent and theologically validated, but because his experience, like that of Sister Christine, brought him to the point where he could no longer accept that there is one religion (his, of course) that is superior to and eradicates all the rest. As he testifies, “It was the prolonged, detailed, sometimes painful, but deeply rewarding interaction with Buddhism that finally convinced me of the superiority of the pluralist option, and which further strengthens that conviction” (p. 87, ftn. 119).
Schmidt-Leukel devotes special attention to the two Christian doctrines that are, shall we say, principally “at stake” in a Christian pluralist theology of religions: revelation and incarnation. His way of addressing the question of revelation and how it is described by humans who believe they have been recipients of divine self-revelation brought to mind a comment made by Frère Daniel Pont in the 2015 documentary film “La voie de l’hospitalité/Strangers No More.” Speaking about Monastic Interreligious Dialogue’s emphasis on actually experiencing the cultural, spiritual, and theological world of an unfamiliar religious tradition, Brother Daniel says,
Visiting each other is always a bit disconcerting. It involves not only a physical change of place, but a spiritual change as well. Visiting allows us to expand our conception of God by hearing how God speaks to people other than us Christians, people with other languages, different mental frameworks, different cultural, philosophical, and anthropological a prioris. And yet, it is the same God who has spoken to all people out of love for them.[3]
According to Schmidt-Leukel, if divine self-disclosure is not unequivocally understood as the communication of particular propositions and texts, then it can more easily be seen that the diversity of testimonies to revelation of the transcendent in the various religions points to a multitude and multiplicity of different human responses to the self-communication of the divine, which, being transcendent, is ultimately ineffable.[4] Here especially, the Scholastic dictum holds true: Quidquid recipitur modo recipientis recipitur, which Schmidt-Leukel would say means that the experience of God by human beings “is necessarily shaped by the interpretational tools of their particular time and culture” (pp. 199f). For this reason there is bound to be a diversity of ways in which humans attempt to say something about the ultimately ineffable transcendent reality that has made itself present to their consciousness.
With particular regard to the different ways in which divine self-revelation is attested to in the Qur’an and in Jesus, Schmidt-Leukel argues that they are both products of a quite specific historical situation. What is key, he says, “is that for both Jesus and the Qur’an we are talking about a truly human medium. Just as Jesus as a child of his time became the mediator of saving knowledge of God, so too does the Qur’an convey its revelation as a ‘child’ or a book of its time” (322).
What about Buddhism? Is it possible to speak of the self-communication of the divine in a religious tradition that is fundamentally non-theistic? Here Schmidt-Leukel turns to an essay of Lynn de Silva, who asserts that
Buddhism affirms the existence of a salvific transcendent reality primarily by using impersonal terms . . . [e.g.] the transcendent as the unborn, the unoriginated, the uncreated, and the unconditioned. Christianity by contrast speaks of transcendent reality primarily in personal terms, that is, of a personal Creator God, of an eternal “Thou.” Yet there is no need to interpret these impersonal and personal terms of speech as being mutually exclusive if we understand them as expressing different aspects of the experience of transcendence. De Silva identifies these aspects as “ultimacy” and “intimacy.” If ultimacy is emphasized, then religious language tends to use impersonal terms. If the emphasis is instead on intimacy, then religious language tends to use personal expressions (p. 405).[5]
As Schmidt-Leukel had earlier pointed out, every major religion operates out of the premise that “its infinite transcendent reality cannot adequately grasped and described by any notions, regardless of whether these are personal or impersonal” (p. 185). All testimonies to divine self-revelation are ultimately expressions of the way revelation was experienced at a particular time and in a particular culture. Therefore, we can and should go so far as to understand even the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as “an expression of human experience of God. . . . [A]ll talk about Father, Son, and Spirit always refers to the one God in relationship to humanity, the God whose will preserves everything, whose love redeems, and whose Spirit transforms” (p. 331).
With regard to the incarnation, Schmidt-Leukel acknowledges that belief in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is indeed one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith, and that “most of the theological objections to pluralism stem from the insistence that it is incompatible with Christology” (p. 170). A Christian pluralist theology of religions, he says, does not deny that what Christians have recognized and experienced of God through Jesus Christ is of universal significance. What it does propose is that Christian faith in Jesus does not demand that he be seen as “the only mediator of revelation and salvation, [or] that he is the singular cause of the salvation of all people (p. 244).
In marshaling his arguments to support this position, Schmidt-Leukel insists that the soteriological claims of other religions have to correspond to a Christian understanding of salvation. “It would be absurd,” he says,
to demand that a Christian theology of religions must recognize as valid or indeed equally valid even those salvific claims that blatantly contradict the fundamentals of a Christian understanding of salvation . . . . One cannot reach a pluralist position by departing from the circle of faith of one’s own tradition, but rather only by expanding the circle of faith so that it also applies to other traditions (p. 224).
While I found Schmid-Leukel’s reflections on the Incarnation very helpful in understanding why it would not contradict traditional Christian faith to regard Jesus as one rather than the only mediator of revelation and salvation or the singular cause of the salvation of all people, I was unconvinced by his arguments that the Incarnation could be understood as a matter of degree rather than a unique occurrence in human history. He writes,
Jesus lived, like all other human beings, under the “supernatural existential” of God’s grace, i.e. God’s self-communication to the human mind. What differentiates Jesus from other people is not a different type or quality of this divine self-communication, but rather the completely different extent to which Jesus allowed his life to be determined by this existential fact (p. 259)
Admittedly, speaking of the completely different extent to which the life of Jesus is determined by God’s self-communication to the human mind may be the author’s way of indicating that Jesus is more than a super avatar, that he is, in fact, something completely different, a difference that the fourth and fifth century Christological councils attempted to "define" by using Greek philosophical terms to say that in Jesus two “natures” were "hypostatically" united in one "person." However, I wish the author had expanded on what he means by his use of the expression “completely different extent.”
I cannot imagine that faith in Jesus as God incarnate—i.e., more than an avatar in whom God is revealed, more than a prophet who mediated the word and presence of God—would have been possible if his followers had not experienced, over a period of time, the powerful presence of Jesus after his death, an experience articulated in Thomas’ confession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” For that reason, I wish Schmidt-Leukel had devoted more attention to the resurrection of Jesus in the section dealing with incarnation. By my count, the word appears only twenty-seven times in the text, mostly in the expression “the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” or in citations from other authors. It should be pointed out, however, that Schmidt-Leukel does call attention in a footnote on page 242 to his extensive discussion of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection within the theology of religions debate in his book Theologie der Religionen, Probleme, Optionen, Argumente (Neuried: Ars Uns, 1997), pp.  542-562. Unfortunately, I did not have access to this text, and I doubt that most readers of God beyond Boundaries would have it ready to hand or be able to read it in German. Given the importance of the resurrection for understanding—or, perhaps better, affirming—the unique relationship of Jesus to God, I would have found it very helpful to have had a more ample treatment of the role it played in the development of the Church’s profession of faith that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”
The translation of the book, which the authors says “involved far more difficulties than originally foreseen [and entailed] several drafts and three translators” (p. 13) is exceptionally well done, especially considering the complexity of the subject. On only one or two occasions did I come across a passage where Homer appears to have nodded. For example, “But now what is a concept? What does it mean if we interpret or experience something as this or that? Hick adopts a pragmatist approach in this as interesting as complicated field of philosophy known as the theory of meaning” (p. 213). Typos are few and far between, though one is especially glaring: “As Matteo Ricco (1552-1610) wrote” (p. 390), where the reference is obviously to Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary to China.
If the price of this book (59,00; currently selling at $78.42 at Amazon.com) puts it out of your reach, be sure to ask your library to order it. God Beyond Boundaries is bound to become one of the classic texts in field that will be in the forefront of theological investigation and development for decades to come.
[1] Christine Daine, “Mon chemin de vie comme chrétienne et moniale clarisse : À la rencontre du dialogue interreligieux monastique,” in Dilatato Corde, vol I, ed. William Skudlarek (Brooklyn: Lantern Books, 2012), p. 181. Also accessible on-line.
[2] Ibid. « Je crois en Jésus Fils de Dieu et Sauveur universel, mais je ne puis plus admettre qu’il y ait une religion qui soit supérieure à toutes les autres et qui les écrase...et que ce soit la mienne - que les théologiens se débrouillent avec cette apparente contradiction, c’est leur métier !... »
[3] « La visite mutuelle—aller les uns chez les autres—est toujours quelque chose de bouleversant, qui nous déplace physiquement, mais spirituellement aussi. La visite nous permet d’élargir, d’amplifier notre vision de Dieu en entendant comment Dieu parle à des autres que nous, à des autres que des chrétiens, qui ont un autre langage, autres schémas mentaux, autres a prioris culturels, philosophiques, anthropologiques. Et pourtant c’est ce même Dieu qui parle à tous les hommes parce qu’il les a aimés et donc il leur a parlé. » A link to the film is given on the DIMMID website. Brother Daniel speaks about seven minutes into the film
[4] “Only a reality that ‘exceeds’ everything, that ‘transcends’ everything, and that is therefore inconceivable and ineffable deserves to be called ‘God.’ Only to such a reality can we direct our adoration. This, according to Nicholas [of Cusa] constitutes the heart of the Christian understanding of reality. In this view, Nicholas follows a long tradition, one which exists not only within Christianity but also within all other major religions (p. 175).
[5] The essay is “Buddhism and Christianity Relativised” in Dialogue, N.S. 9 (1982) 41-72.
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