1997-1-12 Beyond Inclusivism

Beyond Inclusivism in Interreligious Dialogue

Paper for a course on The Theology of Paul Tillich

January 12, 1997

Eric P. Lemonholm

We live in a multi-religious world.  This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.  How can a believer live in the tension between commitment to her particular faith and openness to radical otherness?  How can a Christian have faith in Jesus as the Christ, and be open to faiths that (seem to) refute her faith in Christ?  In short, What are the dynamics of faith in the context of interreligious dialogue?  What does true faith look like in our pluralistic world? 

In the Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich describes non-Christians as potential members of the “latent spiritual community.”[1]  Other religions may have “elements of faith” and “elements of love,” but because they lack “the ultimate criterion, the faith and love of the Christ,” they “are unable to actualize a radical self-negation and self-transformation as it is present as reality and symbol in the Cross of Christ.”[2]  Given this understanding, the “evangelistic activity” of the church is not aimed at “converting people in an absolute sense but rather of converting them in the relative sense of transferring them from a latent to a manifest participation in the Spiritual Community.”[3]  Tillich even states that members of other religions “are unconsciously driven toward the Christ,”[4] a strong claim which those others would surely (and correctly) dispute.  Most non-Christians are not Christians in denial, repressed Christians, or unconscious Christians. 

Tillich in the Systematic Theology advocates a perspective vis-à-vis other faiths which Ninian Smart calls “hegemonistic inclusivism.”[5]  Tillich is open to and tolerant of different faiths, but he nonetheless “asserts the priority” of Christianity.[6]  There is no question that “absolute exclusivism” (the view that only my religion is true, all others are “false—possibly… demonic”), and what exclusivism leads to in our diverse world—“absolute relativism,” (religions are incommensurable traditions) are inappropriate responses to the existence of religions other than one’s own.[7]  The weakness of inclusivism is similar to the weakness of exclusivism: if Tillich is justified in seeing a Buddhist (for example) as a latent Christian, then a Buddhist is justified in seeing Tillich as a latent Buddhist.  In interreligious dialogue, there is no privileged position.  The question is, Is inclusivism sustainable, or must we move to(ward) a more pluralistic perspective?   Can Tillich offer us insight into this question?

Paul Tillich analyzed the relationship between the Christian religion and other religions in Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions,[8] in which the author explicates a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Christian faith and other faiths than that revealed in volume three of his Systematic Theology.  This short book is worth examining in detail. 

Tillich begins with his standard definition of religion: “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life.”[9]  One’s ultimate concern can be either personal (“a god or gods”) or impersonal (“such as the Brahma or the One”); furthermore, one’s ultimate concern can be “directed towards objects like nation, science, a particular for or stage of society, or a highest ideal of humanity, which are then considered divine.”[10] 

A key aspect of Tillich’s analysis of the plurality of religions in the world is his insight into the importance for all religions of “their encounter with the quasi-religions of our time,” especially secularism.  This insight can shift the tone of the debate.  After all, at least in terms of the post-axial religions, no one religion is threatening to engulf or replace the others.  But all religions must face the modern secular world; they cannot afford to ignore it.  This is especially true because of the religious elements within secularity itself, which include “the desire for liberation from authoritarian bondage, passion for justice, scientific honesty, striving for a more fully developed humanity, and hope in a progressive transformation of society in a positive direction.”[11]  But the religions must also face the demonic distortion of secular elements, such as “nationalism with its Fascist radicalization, and socialism with its Communist radicalization.”[12]  Tillich also mentions “liberal humanism and its democratic expression” as another quasi-religion, but he does not specify its demonic distortion, which is perhaps unfettered, global capitalism.  Today, the fight against this demonic force is surely a stronger basis for solidarity between religions than the fight against Stalinist or Maoist Communism, important as that is.  Nationalism is still a force to reckoned with as well.

Tillich states that “the fundamental assertion of Christianity” is that “Jesus is the Christ;” thus, in any interreligious dialogue, a Christian cannot give up belief in Jesus as the Christ and remain a Christian.[13]  Jesus as the Christ is “a symbol which stands for the decisive self-manifestation in human history of the source and aim of all being,” and being a Christian means to participate “in the continuing spiritual power” of the Christ symbol.[14]  Nevertheless, Tillich argues that the proper Christian attitude toward other religions is, and has always been, “a dialectical union of acceptance and rejection, with all the tensions, uncertainties, and changes which such dialectics implies.”[15]  In encountering another religion or quasi-religion, the Christian does not reject it completely, for all religions and quasi-religions (including Christianity) are finite, ambiguous mixtures of good and evil, the sacred and the demonic, truth and falsehood.  Christianity is always situated in a particular culture, in a particular time and place.  Thus embodied in social, cultural, linguistic people, Christianity cannot avoid the dialectic of acceptance and rejection.[16] 

Tillich stresses the “all-inclusive” nature of Christianity: “All that is true anywhere in the world belongs to us, the Christians.”[17]  While this sounds imperialistic, what Tillich seems to mean by it is that, like any living tradition, Christianity can and must recognize truth wherever it is found and incorporate it into itself, even if that means changing cherished beliefs.  But this, according to the author, does not lead to syncretism, because everything is subjected to “an ultimate criterion,” which is “the image of Jesus as the Christ.”[18]  This critical growth of a tradition is a slow, never ending process.  To avoid being imperialistic, however, Tillich would have to accept that living traditions other than Christianity can (as living traditions) say, “All that is true anywhere in the world belongs to us.”  That is, they can be inclusivistic vis-à-vis (elements of) Christianity.

Paul Tillich identifies four presuppositions for interreligious dialogue.  These prerequisites to any successful dialogue are insightful and worth examining.  First, for the dialogue to be considered “worthwhile,” both sides must “acknowledge the value of the other’s religious conviction (as based ultimately on a revelatory experience).”[19]  It is important to make this presupposition explicit, because if I think I possess the only revelation, then true dialogue cannot begin.  If I have the only truth, then I can learn nothing from my neighbor; therefore in dialogue I am merely trying to proselytize.  In order to care about dialogue, and to enter it without the ulterior motive of proselytization, one must recognize that one’s neighbor also possesses (at least some) truth.  David Tracy helps us clarify this presupposition with two Christian commitments: “a faith commitment to love of God and neighbor,” and “an ethical commitment” to “the value of truth wherever it may lead.”[20]  These commitments demand that we treat our neighbors as fellow children of God, and that we remain open to them as fellow bearers of truth. 

This first presupposition seems to lead us a step beyond hegemonistic inclusivism.  If another religion is based on a revelatory experience, then it has its own integrity, and is not merely a latent Spiritual Community of unconscious Christians.  One does not abandon one’s own faith to relativism, but one also does not come to dialogue with a condescending, hegemonistic attitude, thinking, “Their religion is nothing but a latent, limited, distorted form of mine.”  True dialogue cannot begin from an imperialistic perspective.

Tillich’s second presupposition is that each believer “is able to represent his [sic] own religious basis with conviction.”[21]  The dialogue participants must really believe in their faiths, and be able to describe and defend them in a meaningful way.  Otherwise, the dialogue is not “a serious confrontation.” 

This second presupposition rules out a thoughtless, empty, disengaged pluralism.  That is to say, if I do not really believe in anything, or if I thoughtlessly assent to any and every religious belief, then I cannot enter into dialogue seriously.  Meaningful dialogue occurs when two or more come together, each of whom care about the truth, care about what they believe, and are willing to defend it.  Given this presupposition, a critical pluralist like John Hick (with whom I often agree) must be recognized as advocating another distinctive perspective.  A critically pluralistic Christian does not avoid dialogue by her pluralism, but rather must also engage in interreligious dialogue, with her fellow Christians as well as members of other religions.  Pluralism is not a substitute for dialogue, but a distinctive (and important) dialogical partner alongside more exclusivistic or inclusivistic believers.  As perspectives embodied in human existence which seek to avoid absolute relativism, pluralisms are necessarily religious traditions which make truth claims that conflict with other traditions.  Thus, dialogue is a necessity.

Third, dialogue “presupposes a common ground which makes both dialogue and conflicts possible.”[22]  This is a problematic point, and Tillich does not spell out exactly what the common ground between religions might be.  There are vast differences, for example, between Christianity and Buddhism.  Where is common ground to be found?  One thing that can be said is that all the world religions share to some extent a common “world situation,” and they all must face “the quasi-religions and their secular background.”[23] 

An important source of common ground lies in Tillich’s notion of “a dynamic typology of… the typical elements which, in many variations, are the determining factors in every concrete religion.”[24]  Each religion, argues Tillich, is “a living religion, in which special polar elements are predominant, and which therefore stands in polar tension to other religions in which other elements are predominant.”[25]  Different religious types “are not necessarily static,” but rather consist of  “interdependent” and “contrasting poles within one structure.”[26]  Such polarities often exist within a religion.  Two religions, moreover, can possess opposite poles of a polarity.  Zen Buddhism and Christianity are very different, but Tillich does not see this difference as static unrelatedness, but rather that the two faiths, precisely because of their deep differences, are connected by their elements in tensive balance.  This connection makes dialogue possible. 

Perhaps this common ground can be explicated in terms of ultimate concern.  Despite their immense differences, Buddhism and Christianity are not as different, let us say, as pure mathematics and landscape painting.  While dialogue is surely possible between those traditions (they are both human endeavors), they have vastly different concerns, interests, and methods.  Buddhism and Christianity, on the other hand, both belong to the general “family” of those human traditions which aim at ultimate concerns, and thus, they will share some “family resemblances” (John Hick’s Wittgensteinian notion).  At the very least, one may ask, What does each religion identify as our true ultimate concern?  Does this question, however, reveal a pluralistic element in Tillich’s thought?  Is there a question, prior to any religion, for which the various religions offer different answers?  Is there a fundamental answer to this question, of which all particular answers are but an approximation (even if all our answers, including the pluralist answer, are particular approximations to the truth)?

The fourth presupposition of dialogue is “the openness of both sides to criticisms directed against their own religious basis.”[27]  This presupposition relates to the first.  If my dialogue partner is a fellow truth bearer, then she has something to teach me, and I have something to learn.  Both sides of a dialogue must be open  to having their fundamental perspectives challenged.  This is a danger of dialogue, but also one of its benefits.  If one’s perspective is flawed, even fundamentally incorrect, then confronting the truth can only help.  The possibility exists that one might end up abandoning one’s religious tradition and joining another.  It is more likely, however, that the interreligious dialogue will challenge and stretch one’s own understanding of one’s faith tradition, clarify what is essential (and what is superfluous) to one’s faith, and open one’s faith to other “suggestive possibilities.”[28]

Tillich’s comparison of Christianity and Buddhism is an important application of his method of interreligious dialogue.  He starts by asking how they answer “the question of the intrinsic aim of existence… the telos of all existing things.”[29]  This question, states Tillich, is where interreligious dialogue should start.  In the case of Christianity and Buddhism, the question was answered by, respectively, “the telos of everyone and everything united in the Kingdom of God” and “the telos of everything and everyone fulfilled in the Nirvana,” two very different symbols which stand at the heart of the two religions.[30]  The difference between the two can be traced to the different ontological principles in which they are grounded: “One participates, as an individual being, in the Kingdom of God.  One is identical with everything that is in Nirvana.”[31]  In Christianity, the Ultimately Real (Hick’s term) is experienced as personal, and the telos is understood in socio-political terms as participation in the Kingdom of God.  In Buddhism, as Tillich understands it, the Real is impersonal, and the telos is more strongly unitive, so that one becomes identical with what one ultimately is, Nirvana. 

One can say that the Real as personal and as impersonal are polarities in tensive balance.[32]  They are irreducible, but not unrelated.  Indeed, as Tillich noted in “The God above God,” the God “who is personal is also more than personal.”[33]  The Christian God is not confined by any human affirmation, including the personal; and Nirvana is not confined by any negation, including the impersonal.  This understanding does not make the two concepts equivalent, but it does highlight the tensive balance in each: somehow God is more than personal, thus in some sense impersonal (as in some Christian mystics); and Nirvana is more than impersonal, and in some cases (at least with Mahayana Buddhism and its “Buddha-Spirit”[34]), Buddhist faith takes on personal elements.

This tensive balance provides a basis for dialogue, for comparing and contrasting the two very different thought worlds.  The common ground will not necessarily be a sure foundation of shared texts, views of human nature, or shared conceptions of Ultimate Reality, but in explicating where we disagree, we will perhaps also find analogies (as similarities-in-difference: Tracy), as relatively secure footholds upon which to place our shared weight during the long climb to mutual understanding.  For example, Tillich found such an analogy in the Christian notion of (participatory) agape and the Buddhist notion of (identifying) compassion.  They are not the same, nor are they reducible to a lowest common denominator concept.  But they are similar, and that similarity can be a source of solidarity between the faiths, an opportunity for understanding the differences between the faiths (realizing the difference within the similarity), and a chance for each religion to challenge and enrich the other.  The differences which shall remain, moreover, may be understood as polar elements in tensive balance.  This relationship through difference can lead the dialogue participants to search their own traditions for analogues to the polarities they find in the other religion.

In the final chapter of Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, Paul Tillich identifies an important tensive balance in the Christian faith: “the tension between Christianity as a religion and Christianity as the negation of religion.”[35]  The image of Jesus the Christ (the fundamental Christian affirmation), says Tillich, is not bound to “a particular religion” or to “the religious sphere as such.”[36]  I question the author’s implicit devaluation of Judaism in his presentation.  He states that “the religion to which [Jesus] belonged has thrown him out.”[37]  That is an improper way to characterize the complex historical process which culminated in the separation of the “Church” from “Judaism” around the end of the first century; it is similar to saying “the Jews crucified Jesus,” that is, it is dangerously wrong.  Tillich also seems to divorce the Christian understanding of Jesus the Christ (the biblical “image” of Jesus) from the Jewish thought world within which concepts like Son of God, Messiah, resurrection, and Kingdom of God developed.[38] 

And yet, Tillich is correct in seeing Christianity, paradoxically, both as a negation of religion and as a religion itself.  The universal and prophetic elements in Christianity negate the claims to ultimacy of the dogmatic (theoretical) and the sacramental (practical) elements in Christianity.  And yet, as long as Christianity is embodied in human existence, the dogmatic and sacramental elements will exist.  Tillich explicates this in terms of the perennial Christian “fight against myth and cult.”[39]  In both the Old and New Testaments (thus, in both Jewish and Christian scriptures) and later, one finds both “prophetical” and “theological” negations of myth and cult.[40]  The “mystical” element of Christianity, which is “the immediate participation in the divine Ground by elevation into unity with it, transcending all finite realities and all finite symbols of the divine,” also challenges myth and cult in the religion.[41]  The Reformation “devaluated” the “ritual element,” while, finally, the “Enlightenment brought a radical elimination of myth and cult.”  And yet, the paradox is that all these attacks on religion are religious attacks, that is, “an existential protest against myth and cult is possible only in the power of myth and cult.”[42]  Those who attack religion do so from a religious foundation.  If one is to challenge and even break the sacramental and dogmatic elements in one’s religion, one yet relies on those elements, even if in broken form.  The religious symbols remain, but as broken symbols.  This protects one from an idolatry of treating that which points to and participates in (the power of) one’s ultimate concern as one’s ultimate concern.  Broken symbols may yet symbolize the Ultimate; if they remain unbroken, their function of pointing to that in which they participate is hindered.

What is the purpose of Tillich’s (and our) focus on the tension between religion and the negation of religion?  It helps put interreligious dialogue in proper perspective.  If Christianity judges itself, it can also accept judgment from other religions, and judge those religions in turn.  This “mutual judging” is one way to speak of the nature of the dialogue, which, however, presumes enough common ground or understanding for mutual judgment to be meaningful.  As in one’s own religion, one cannot judge purely as an outsider; rather, one must be engaged in the faith tradition one then judges.  Similarly, one must indwell an other’s religion enough to judge it from within, using its own language (Alasdair MacIntyre).  The possibility of mutual judgment entails, however, that Christianity is not the only religion that includes within itself the negation of itself.  Indeed, one could say that any true religion includes an element of negation.  If that self-negation is repressed, as it all too often is (a fact which Tillich traces in Christianity to “hierarchical” and “polemical factors”[43]), dialogue with the other is reduced to self-righteous proselytizing, because one does not accept either the truth of the other or the other herself. 

The reality of the negation of religion in all religions conflicts with Tillich’s simplistic statement in the Systematic Theology that non-Christians “are unable to actualize a radical self-negation and self-transformation as it is present as reality and symbol in the Cross of Christ.”[44]  To some extent, this is an empirical statement open to refutation by the fact that other religions can and do actualize radical self-negation and self-transformation, although on a different basis than the symbol of the Cross of Christ.  An obvious example is the Hebrew prophets.

Perhaps Tillich’s language of judgment has an unnecessarily legalistic or “judgmental” connotation.  In the context of a conversation, one does not usually speak of judging one’s partner; it is difficult enough to come to mutilate understanding.  And yet, Tillich is correct in that, in bringing to the fore the tensions within an other’s religion and between the other’s religion and one’s own, genuine differences (amidst the analogies) will surface.  Along with difference comes a measure of judgment, implicit in that each thinks that the other is further from the truth; while, at the same time, the difference calls each to accept a measure of the other’s judgment, to accept the other’s truth as a judgment on one’s own religion.

The nature of true religion as also anti-religion also opens up religion to face the quasi-religions of our day, especially secularism.  Secularism can be “understood in a new sense, namely as the indirect way which historical destiny takes to unite mankind religiously, and this would mean, if we include the quasi-religions, also politically.”[45]  Tillich means, one supposes, that in the context of a modern secular, democratic state (and world), religious diversity is for the most part accepted; people of different faiths in fact accept one another’s religion as valid religions to some degree, and thus, as truth bearing traditions.  The rise of conservative fundamentalist groups in all major religions, especially since Tillich’s time, however, should temper one’s faith in the power of secularism to engender tolerance.[46]

Tillich’s closing remarks are intriguing.  He first states that “Christianity will be a bearer of the religious answer as long as it breaks through its own particularity.”[47]  Any religion, we would say, “breaks through its own particularity” by negating itself as a religion.  But we are left with the tension between the particular and the universal in each religion:

The way to achieve this [breaking through particularity] is not to relinquish one’s religious tradition for the sake of a universal concept which would be nothing but a concept.  The way is to penetrate into the depth of one’s own religion, in devotion, thought, and action.  In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.

This is what Christianity must see in the present encounter of the world religions.[48]

It is only from the depths of one’s own particular religion that one can perceive and appreciate the presence of the Ultimate in other religions.  Tillich’s perspective, however, seems to have transcended a simple hegemonistic inclusivism, and is perhaps better understood as at least approaching “realistic pluralism.”[49]  Tillich does not say here that in the depths of Christianity, one will find that Christianity is the ultimate religion.  Rather, in the depths of Christianity, one moves beyond the particularity of Christianity, towards “spiritual freedom” from the particularity, and towards “a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning” of human existence.  In the end, therefore, Tillich seems to move away from hegemonistic inclusivism and toward a mutual inclusivism or, simply, a pluralism grounded in the particularity of one’s faith tradition. 


James H. Charlesworth.  “Judaism.” In A New Handbook of Christian Theology. Ed. by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price.

John Hick.  An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent.  New Haven: Yale. 1989.

Musser, Donald W., and Joseph L. Price, Eds.  A New Handbook of Christian Theology.  Nashville: Abingdon. 1992.

Ninian Smart.  “Pluralism.” In A New Handbook of Christian Theology. Ed. by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price.

Paul Tillich. Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality. Chicago: U. of Chicago. 1955.

—.  Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions. New York: Columbia University. 1963.

—.  Systematic Theology, vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1963.

—.  “The God above God.” In The Listener, vol. 66, no. 1688. London. 1966.

David Tracy. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Louvain: Peeters Press. 1990. 

—.  Blessed Rage for Order. San Francisco: Harper and Row. 1975.

[1] Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963. p. 154.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 154.

[5] Ninian Smart, “Pluralism,” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, Nashville: Abingdon, 1992, p. 362.

[6] Ibid., p. 363.

[7] Ibid., p. 362.

[8] Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York: Columbia University, 1963.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 5.  Of course, elevating any proximate element to one’s ultimate concern is idolatrous, but a genuine ultimate concern may yet be pursued within the secular realm, as well as within the sacred realm, through proximate concerns.

[11] Ibid., p. 14.

[12] Ibid., p. 9.

[13] Ibid., p. 29.

[14] Ibid., p. 79.

[15] Ibid., p. 30.

[16] For example, Christianity can never do without philosophy in some sense, because the very language one uses to think and talk about one’s faith has been shaped to some extent by philosophy; even if one rejects philosophy, one does so philosophically.  Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1955, chapter 1.

[17] Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 35.

[18] Ibid., p. 37, 36.

[19] Ibid., 62.

[20] David Tracy, Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue, Louvain: Peeters Press, 1990, p. 95; Blessed Rage for Order, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975, p. 135.

[21] Ibid., 62.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 63.

[24] Ibid., p. 58.

[25] Ibid., p. 56.

[26] Ibid., p. 55.

[27] Ibid., 62.

[28] Tracy, Dialogue with the Other, p. 43.

[29] Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 63.

[30] Ibid., p. 64.

[31] Ibid., p. 68.

[32] John Hick speaks of the Real as manifest as personae and impersonae, In An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, New Haven: Yale, 1989.

[33] ”The God above God,” in The Listener, vol. 66, no. 1688, London, 1966, p. 172.  It is somewhat ironic that when Tillich denies that God is “a person” in this article, Tillich uses the masculine pronoun “he.”

[34] Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 67.

[35] Ibid., p. 81.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., p. 82.

[38] James H. Charlesworth, “Judaism,” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology.

[39] Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 89.

[40] Ibid., pp. 90-1.

[41] Ibid., p. 91.

[42] Ibid., p. 93.

[43] Ibid., p. 83.

[44] Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 154.

[45] Ibid., p. 96.

[46] A fundamentalist like Pat Robertson can combine an intolerant absolutist Christianity with the acceptance of much of secularism, such as high technology, efficient capitalistic bureaucracy, and astute political organizing.

[47] Ibid., p. 97.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Term used by Smart, p. 363.

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