Christianity and Pluralism, by Ron Dart & J. I. Packer. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019. xii + 70 pages, $8.99, paper.
This is a book with an ecclesiastical context, and that context is not that of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Christianity and Pluralism was originally published (under a different title) in 1998. A group of conservative Anglicans in Canada commissioned it as part of a response to Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World, a book by Canadian Bishop Michael Ingham arguing that most of the major world religions share a deep though hidden unity, particularly as expressed in their respective mystical traditions. But although the three main essays comprising this short book have a special eye on the theologically divided Anglican world, the authors do argue that they are defending classical Christian faith and not simply a conservative brand of Anglicanism.
The first two essays are essentially book reviews of Mansions of the Spirit. The first, by Ron Dart, welcomes the publication of this book insofar as it challenges the church to consider more deeply what it believes. In a very irenic vein Dart offers ten short points that affirm some of what Ingham had argued but also critically engage him on other matters, hoping to “nudge” discussion in a better direction (2). The second, by J. I. Packer, also maintains an irenic tone but evaluates Mansions of the Spirit more trenchantly. Although Ingham is a “nice man,” says Packer, he “in effect abolishes what Anglicans generally, indeed Christians generally, understand Christianity to be” (9–10). In suggesting that there must be many routes of access to the Absolute, Ingham pushes his readers toward a “Gnostic occultism” (19). One rather odd feature of both essays is that they insist on referring to their interlocutor by his first name, “Michael.” Perhaps they do so in order to sound as kind and cordial as possible, out of fear that their critics will accuse them of being harsh for defending the view that Jesus Christ is the only true way to God.
The third essay, authored by Dart, is by far the longest. It describes and evaluates “four main models of inter-faith dialogue” (36). The first is “exclusivist,” which Dart hopes to rescue from its reputation for intolerance and fundamentalism. The second is “inclusivist,” which holds that different religions share many things in common but that ultimately one of them is better and incorporates the best aspects of the others. The third, the “pluralist,” supports religious inquiry, yet rejects “theological certainty” while embracing an “ethical pragmatism” (48). It purports to be non-judgmental but tends to be intolerant toward those who make truth claims about God. The final model is the “syncretist.” It believes that most world religions are heading toward the same final destination, while taking different paths, although it ends up ignoring aspects of each religion that are incompatible with this vision. Dart concludes by noting that Christianity came into existence in a pluralistic and syncretistic context but didn’t embrace either model. He defends exclusivism of a sort but also speaks positively of inclusivism and pluralism when understood in a certain way.
To be frank, I do not think Christianity and Pluralism will be of much value to most readers of Ordained Servant. The third chapter may be of some help for understanding various approaches to the relationship of different religions. But while engaging non-“exclusivist” models critically, the authors take them more seriously than they deserve. Does it really require “inspection” to realize that pluralism has “drifted away from … historic Christianity” (22)? And isn’t saying that the liberal Anglicanism of recent generations “runs the risk … of leveling the religious playing field” (35) putting it rather mildly? Whether Scripture and classical Christianity are exclusivist is not a very difficult question. The issue is simply whether one embraces them or not. But engaging inclusivist, pluralist, and syncretistic views as serious options for the church is, I imagine, a price to be paid for choosing to remain in an ecclesiastical body that welcomes such views. Occasional positive references to Karl Barth and liberation theology (by Dart, not Packer) are also reasons to suspect this may not be the go-to book on religious pluralism for most readers of Ordained Servant.
David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, April 2020.