Review of Schubert Ogden’s “Is There Only One True Religion or Are There Many?”

by Schubert Ogeden
by Schubert Ogeden

The issue of pluralism emerged as a central concern within many theological circles in the latter half of the 20th century as thinkers wrestled with the reflexive proximity of cultures and religions in an increasingly globalizing world.  In this book, Schubert Ogden weighs in with a review of the positions emblematic of various thinkers and theologians.  He focuses on the debate between exlusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, offering, in the end, what he calls a relatively more adequate “fourth type.”

 In his insightfully analytical style, Ogden isolates the central features of the theological and philosophical landscape in this debate.  Specifically, he hones in on “culture,” “religion,” formal vs. substantial truth, and monism vs. pluralism.

He defines culture as “the concepts and symbols in terms of which we understand our existence and act to maintain and transform ourselves together with others” (7).  Religion, for Ogden, is one such “primary form” of culture.  More specifically, he understand religion functionally, as a way for human beings to “explicitly ask and answer the question of the meaning of ultimate reality for us” (5).  Theology, as critical reflection on the meaning and truth claims of religions, is an example of what he terms a “secondary form” of culture (see pg. 36 for his distinctions of various kinds of theology).

 Having defined a number of his terms, he proceeds to elaborate on “religious truth” by distinguishing between “formally true” and “substantially true.”  If a religion is formally true, then its “representation of the meaning of human existence is that with which all others must agree in order themselves to be true religions” (12).  If a religion is substantially true, then it is in actual agreement with whatever religion is said to be formally true.

Ogden isolates several types of thinking about religions and their truth claims.  Generally, there is an opposition between religious monism and religious pluralism.   Religious monism takes only one religion to be formally true, and uses that religion to judge and interpret all the others.  Within the monistic camp there are “exclusivists” and “inclusivists.”  Christian monists are that brand of religious monists which take Christianity to be the religion by which all other religions are to be judged.  The Christian exclusivist position excludes all other religions or ways of life from the salvation offered through Christianity.  The truth of Christianity is valid only for Christians.  In other words, not only is the Christian religion the only formally true religion, it is also the only substantially true religion. 

Inclusivists, on the other hand, take the truth of Christianity and include all other religions and ways of life.  Put differently, while the Christian religion is the only formally true religion, other religions can be substantially true (we see this poignantly in the phrase coined by Karl Rahner describing non-Christians as, instead, “anonymous Christians”).

Religions pluralism provides a way, so some thinkers claim, of avoiding the religious monism of inclusivism and exclusivism.  In religious pluralism, more than one religion can be formally true.  Here, Ogden isolates an important distinction in pluralistic ways of thinking.  Many pluralists, Ogden contends, claim more strongly that many religions are, in fact, formally true, not that they only might be formally true.  Not willing to go this far, Ogden presents a fourth alternative as a relatively more adequate position to exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism.

This fourth alternative he considers a kind of “pluralistic inclusivism,” and it can be located along a continuum of positions looking similar to the following:
(Monistic) exclusivism—–(Monistic) inclusivism—(Pluralistic) inclusivism—Pluralism

What Ogden offers is a mediating position between the extremes of exclusivism and pluralism that allows for the possibility that other religions can be (but are not necessarily) formally true.  He arrives at this position through a Christological detour, taking on the difference between representative and constitutive Christology. 

In representative Christology, Christ re-presents what is already constituted as true–namely, salvation. What constitutes this salvation is not the Christ-event, but rather only God’s love for us.  God’s love is necessary and sufficient for salvation.  It is revealed and disclosed in the Christ-event, but it is not constituted there.

In constitutive Christology, the Christ-event establishes or constitutes Salvation.  In other words, representative Christology makes God’s love  alone constitutive of salvation, whereas a constitutive Christology means that such love requires an additional condition for sufficienty; namely, the Christ-event.  God’s love alone is not sufficient for salvation, the Christ-event is required to make it complete. 

In this way (a kind of analogical thought excercise), Ogden’s “fourth type” allows for other religions to be (potentially) formally true. But every religion must, due to the constraints of always speaking from somewhere, formulate this admission of inclusivistic pluralism in their own religious terms (which always includes formal claims to truth of that particular religion).  Put differently, Ogden, as a Christian, can only formulate a Christian way to understand inclusivistic pluralism, even while that particular formulation does not prevent other religions from their own formulations of this same relatively more adequate position.  Ogden puts it Christianly that God’s love alone is needed for the possibility of salvation; and this is present, at least implicitly, in all human existence.  So long as other religions analogically express this basic insight, their truth claims can be verified as formally (and not just substantially) true.

In the end, however, Ogden still allows for critical space, not claiming that in fact all religions are necessarily formally true (thus distinguishing him from most pluralists); only that they might be.  In addition, no religion is necessarily substantially true, and any religion can be critically assessed in regards to how its members interpret and live out its vision of authentic human existence. 

Ogden provides a helpful orientation to this enduring debate, giving us tools to situate ourselves and think through the relation of religious truth claims.  Throughout, Ogden relies on both a pragmatic criterion for meaning (what is an utterance “doing”?) and common human reason and experience.  The words of the bible and the dogmas of the historic faith are not the final arbiters of claims about human existence.  Rather, whatever is claimed must withstand the court of “reasonability” (intelligibility) and what we experience, generally, to be true.  His revisionary liberalism is evident, and his conclusions might be seen as “typical” for this brand of thinking.

Still, his sweeping critique of religious exclusivism is powerful and persuasive, and requires dissenters to engage in the difficult work of making sense of God’s love in light of the Christ-event.  How, Ogden might ask, can we think God to damn all those who are not exposed to the Christian witness of the Christ-event?  How do we make sense of those who came before Christ, and how do we make sense of the many people unable to hear the message that the Christian witness claims to be true?  Ogden suggests that exclusivists cannot provide a persuasive answer. 

Ogden hopes that his “fourth type,” borrowing from a representative Christological way of thinking, is sufficiently persuasive to make sense of God’s love, the Christ-event, and the reality of the many religious traditions that occupy our current cultural landscape.  His work is clear, precise, and helpful for orienting oneself in the dizzying array of argumentation about the relationship of the world’s religions.

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