The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity

Written by Gavin D’Costa Reviewed By Chris Sinkinson

This recent work from Gavin D’Costa is a delight to read and presents a formidable argument. D’Costa has been a significant theologian in the field of Christian responses to other religions for many years. This book develops original and creative ideas from a Roman Catholic position, which deserve careful consideration by anyone concerned with multiculturalism. In the past the author has been one of the proponents of the threefold typology for cataloguing the Christian response to other religions: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. However, in this book he dispenses with that typology and argues that all significant positions are forms of religious exclusivism. They all maintain the exclusive truth of a normative framework in which other religions are understood. This is as true of John Hick’s pluralism as it is of Karl Barth’s exclusivism. D’Costa extends this analysis beyond the confines of Christian theology to demonstrate how it is also true of the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism and various forms of Hindu thought. This is a liberating insight. Conservative Christian thought has been too easily labelled and dismissed by using the category of exclusivism.

The first part of the book provides a powerful critique of religious pluralism. D’Costa demonstrates that the pluralism of Hick, Knitter and Cohn-Sherbok, far from being neutral, is really a covert form of the modern liberal agenda. For this reason pluralism is not really compatible with any of the major world religions In the case of Hick, ‘Agnosticism is the inevitable outcome of this flight from particularity’ (28). In contrast to western forms of religious pluralism, D’Costa sees greater strength in the kinds of pluralism that have developed among the eastern religions. Though Radhakrishnan and the Dalai Lama seem to offer pluralist interpretations of the world religions, they still privilege their own religious outlook. While this undermines their claim to be treating religions as of equal value, it is, at least, intellectually more respectable than western pluralisms.

In the second part of his book D’Costa develops a fresh response to pluralism by drawing upon the doctrine of the Trinity. He uses the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in order to argue for the global presence of God. This does not mean that all religions are somehow inspired by God but that a Christian can be an optimist regarding what they will find when in the process of dialogue with a member of another religion. Furthermore, this position allows for a frank admission that the central claims of the Christian faith are normative; ‘Trinitarian exclusivism can acknowledge God’s actions within other traditions, without domesticating or obliterating their alterity, such that real conversation and engagement might occur’ (47). D’Costa argues for a position that makes its theological commitments explicit. As a Roman Catholic significant space is given to discussing the relevant church documents including those of the Second Vatican Council in order to claim that his position is true to that tradition. There is also an extended discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John, which provides a Biblical argument for his position. Too often Christian attempts at a theology of religions have only paid lip service to Scripture. This exegesis leads D’Costa to note ‘we must be extremely reticent about any abstract talk of the “spirit in other religions”, for this bears little Johannine rhetorical sense’ (128).

The closing chapter discusses some practical implications of Trinitarian exclusivism for inter-religious prayer. Religions must be seen as different and not subjected to some neutral meta-narrative. Nonetheless, D’Costa argues that the Christian has grounds for great optimism regarding the spirit being at work in inter-religious encounter and co-operation. He seems to be far more optimistic than his exegesis of John would allow. Indeed, John’s negative account of those who do not believe in Jesus demands serious thought in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit. Despite this reservation the argument of the book breaks new ground for Christian responses to other religions and deserves consideration by evangelicals.

Chris Sinkinson

Moorlands College, Christchurch