Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Theology of religion and interreligious dialogue

This is a continuation of a synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive?

In the first two parts of this article I noted that writers on “theology of religion” tended to concentrate on the question whether “salvation” was to be found in non-Christian religions, and to divide views on this into “inclusive”, “exclusive” and “pluralist”. I have tried to show why I believe that this is the wrong question to ask, because no matter what the answer, it does not lead to a “theology of religion”.

Some years ago I attended a course on evangelism at the Haggai Institute in Singapore. At that time I was Anglican, and one Sunday I went with a fellow South African Anglican on the course to a service at the Anglican cathedral in Singapore. After the service we went to have coffee at Raffles Hotel, one of the most famous hotels in the city, just to be able to say say we had done so. Then we walked up the road from the hotel to look at the Sultan Mosque, another of the famous sights of the city.

On the way our attention was attracted by a lot of noise from a building on the other side of the road — a sound like banging frying pans and blowing hooters. It was a Chinese temple, and we crossed the road to have a look. We asked someone what was happening, and were told that it was the goddess’s birthday. We wandered inside to have a look, in some trepidation, not sure if we were intruding. Two ministers, dressed in orange robes, were chanting something at a table full of fruit, and would occasionally turn round to two women kneeling behind them and wave incense over them. Every now and then a bloke sitting on one side would bang gongs and another would tootle a sort of oboe affair that made a noise like a bicycle hooter.

Further in was another room with two benches, on one of which was a pig with an orange in its mouth, and on the other a shaved goat. Some people were standing around, others walking about with joss sticks, kneeling down at various places, or bowing and prostrating themselves. On the right was a rack of tablets, — I wondered if they were ancestor tablets — and further to the right a kind of altar with a fire. Geoff remarked that the goddess seemed to be doing rather well for her birthday: apart from the pig and the goat there were plucked ducks (with their heads over their backs), fruit, vegetables and more. As we went out again past the chanting ministers a little girl of about nine was coming in, right past the tooter, following her parents, with her hands over her ears and her face all screwed up. I wish I could have taken a photo of her. The place had an oppressive atmosphere of idolatry, and was very ritualistic.

We went on to the Sultan Mosque, a little further up the road. Since it was a Sunday, it was empty, and very quiet, a kind of oasis of peace, with its blue-green carpets, and the noise of the streets seemed far away. We stayed there for a while, enjoying the contrast — the raucous idolatry of the temple, contrasted with the cool iconoclasm of the mosque.

Singapore is a very pluralistic place, where several religions can be found coexisting. A week later at an Anglican service we met a man who had been a spirit medium and fortune teller. He had become a Christian, but said he had been plagued by demons. This had persisted until he had had a tattoo of a goddess surgically removed from his back, and he showed us the dressings on his back where the tattoo had been removed.

In none of these things did the inclusive-exclusive-pluralist model make much sense. Now I am an Orthodox Christian, and I find that the extremes of the raucous idolatry of the Chinese temple and the cool iconoclasm of the mosque are not for me. Orthodoxy is somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. But that may just be a cultural preference.

The man who had switched from being a devotee of the goddess to Christ did, however, have a theology of religion. He believed that having a tattoo of the goddess on his back laid him open to demonic attack (I do not know if his was the same goddess as the one who had had her birthday the previous week). This was not something that Western missionaries had told him to do, in the course of a general attack on Chinese culture. The church be belonged to, an Anglican parish, consisted mainly of people who were the only Christians in their family. The parish priest had been brought up as a Buddhist, but he did not preach against Chinese religion. He simply told people about Jesus Christ. Most members of the congregation had formerly practised Chinese religions, and most of their relations still did. But when they became Christians they developed a theology of religion that interpreted their former beliefs and practices in a new way, from the point of view of their Christian faith. And this theology or religion doesn’t fit very easily into the “inclusive-exclusive-pluralist” model.

As a South African, I tended to look at it differently, as an outsider. I had not encountered Chinese religion before, and there are very few books about it in English, so one can’t even read about it. It’s not taught in most religious studies courses in non-Chinese universities (I don’t know about Chinese ones). Most Religious Studies courses seem to teach that the Chinese religions are Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, but in fact those are schools of philosophy rather than religion, and to them one could add a fourth, the Thought of Chairman Mao.

Among other things, as I noted in part II of this series, a Christian theology of religion should explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. And these things will all look different when seen from different perspectives. The Christians in Singapore have just come from Chinese religion, and in their perspective it looms very large, because they are still close to it, not just geographically but existentially. A Christian theologian in Chicago, brought up in a Christian environment, will have a different and more distant perspective on it. So in any Christian theology of religion there will be different perspectives, depending on how close one stands to the religion concerned, personally, historically and geographically.

There would also be at least as many theologies of religion as there are religions. There might be a Christian theology of Islam, for example. In fact there might be several. I’ve heard some English-speaking Christians, for example, saying “Allah is not God”. I’m still not sure whether that is actually a theology of religion, or simply English-speaking chauvinism, because what it primarily asserts is that those who say it believe that God speaks English and not Arabic, and listens to prayers in English but does not listen to prayers in Arabic. It is but a small step from that to saying that Bog is not God, o Theos is not God, Dieu is not God, uNkulunkulu is not God, Gott is not God, and no doubt God is not God, if God is pronounced with a guttural G, as in Afrikaans and Dutch, instead of the approved English pronunciation, with a hard G. But then what about all those Americans in the soaps who are always saying “Oh my Guard!”? Guard is not God? Or should that be God is not Guard? But if Allah is not God, who do Arabic-speaking Christians worship?

As I also noted in Part 2, C.S. Lewis interpreted the Roman Mars and the Greek Ares as Malacandra. That, in a way is a theology of religion, even though Lewis used it in works of fiction. But the very identification of Ares with Mars is a theology of religions, interpreting the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons in terms of each other. And C.S. Lewis was by no means the first to do this, even from a Christian point of view. A Christian work that was very popular in the Middle Ages, the story of Barlaam and Ioasaph, is a Christianized version of a very ancient “spiritual romance” that was composed in India and first written down in an Indian language by Buddhists.

So, as I see it, a true Christian “theology of religions” would deal with questions such as “Why does the Bhagavad Gita exist? It would seek to explain other religions in Christians terms But in order to do that, we need first of all to understand them in their own terms. So I think “theologians of religion” like Paul Knitter have got it exactly the wrong way round. We don’t need a theology of religions in order to have authentic dialogue. We need authentic dialogue in order to have a theology of religions. Without such authentic dialogue, we will not have a theology of religion, but a theology of a caricature of religions. Those, like the Chinese Christians in Singapore I referred to, had a dialogue of sorts with Chinese religion, in the sense that they knew it from within before they became Christians. The rest of us are not really qualified, until we have made at least some attempt to understand Chinese religion (see book suggestion below).

And just as there might be a Christian theology of Hinduism, the dialogue would enable Hindus to develop a Hindu theology of Christianity, as indeed some have already done.

[ continued in the September synchroblog on Christianity, paganism and literature ]


  • Budge, E.A. Wallis, (ed) 1923. Barlaam and Yewasef: being the Ethiopic version of a Christianized rescension of the Buddhist legend of the Buddha and the
    . Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Chamberlain, Jonathan. 1987. Chinese gods. Selangor, Malaysia:
    Pelanduk. ISBN: 967-978-105-4

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12 thoughts on “Theology of religion and interreligious dialogue

  1. Yvonne on said:

    This is a great series of posts – keep it up! I think CS Lewis developed a theology of Paganism because he was attracted to it before Tolkien converted him to Christianity.

    I particularly liked your statement “We need authentic dialogue in order to have a theology of religions.” This is so true. In a dialogue between Pagans and Christians, Pagans get offended by the word “sin” and “God (masculine)” and the apparent rejection of the Earth; and Christians get offended by the word “magic” and “Goddess” and frequently “ritual” it seems. Unless we listen very carefully to the other’s interpretation of these terms, dialogue won’t get anywhere. It also helps to go back to the connotations of the Greek terms for these concepts. Also it’s fortunate that the works of CS Lewis provide a shared frame of reference.

  2. Steve Hayes on said:

    Hmm, as a Christian I don’t get offendedby terms like, “magic”, “goddess” and “ritual”. Concerning the last, we have lots of rituals of our own. I suppose one of the things I find slightly irritating about some neopagans (paleopagans don’t seem to do it) is when they confidently assert that Christians “stole” certain festivals from them, basing this opinion on vague rumours and urban legends, and with little or no knowledge of history.

    But of course one can as easily find Christians whose arrogance is equally untempered by their ignorance.

  3. Yvonne on said:

    Hi Steve. That’s because you are an open-minded Christian, like many Orthodox 🙂 I should have said “some Christians” (I’ve met Christians who were offended by all three of those words). I was confused when you used the adjective “ritualistic” for the Chinese temple. Could you unpack that a bit?

    Well, the “stealing of festivals” allegation depends how you interpret Pope Gregory’s instruction not to suppress the local festivals and temples but to incorporate them into Christian practice. It is this that people base that assertion on – but it could equally well be seen as a way of preserving those festivals, for which Pagans should be grateful. Likewise the monks diligently preserved a lot of Pagan mythology by writing it down – if it wasn’t for them we would not have these stories now, since the oral tradition would very likely have been disrupted. Incidentally there’s an interesting new book called “Wicca: the Christian Heritage” by Jo Pearson; I haven’t read it yet, but it explores the Christian sources of Wicca.

    I think the lack of knowledge of history is gradually being corrected as people read books by Ronald Hutton and others, but it takes time. My blog post “witches in history” which debunks a lot of the nonsense that is put about, is one of my most popular. One of these days I must do one on Christianity and patriarchy…

    I just found an interesting article on polytheism and monotheism which may assist with your quest for a theology of other religions.

  4. Steve Hayes on said:


    Concerning “ritualist”, perhaps the following quote from Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians can give a clue:

    ‘”Paganism” is a Christian coinage, a term that suggests a system of doctrine and an orthodoxy as Christianity knows one. But pagan religion was essentially a matter of cult rather than creed. No group of pagans ever called themselves “the faithful”. There was also no pagan concept of heresy – to pagans the term meant a school of thought rather than a false and pernicious doctrine. Among pagans, the opposite of heterodoxy was not orthodoxy but homodoxy, meaning agreement.’

    Fox was talking about relations between pagans and Christians in antiquity, but he makes what I think is a significant point — that pagan religion had two parts, which were often fairly separate – cult and philosophy. Christianity had a third: creed, and the three were integrated.

    I distinguish between “ritual” and “ritualist”, and that was my response, from a Christian point of view, to an experience of cult apparently divorced from ritual or hpilosophy. Most Western treatments of Chinese religion deal with the philosophical side – Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism — and ignore the cult altogether. The book I mentioned in the bibliography was the first I found (after my visit to Singapore) that dealt with Chinese gods, but it didn’t really give an account of their worship.

  5. Destination Macedonia on said:

    I am curious to learn the Orthodox Church link with the Hellenic culture. So I’ve suggested some readings on my blogsite. Could you help me with your comments?


  6. Anonymous on said:

    Can a person be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time?

    This Priest says YES


  7. Steve Hayes on said:


    See this post: Notes from underground: Syncretism

  8. Yahya Bene Dicere on said:

    Here’s a bit of foolish intolerance. Sad how some people can view things with such a closed mind. perhaps it’s a disease called hatred, or is it insecurity that leads to feeling as though one is under threat? Not sure, but I have started to remain quiet instead of get too involved in sharing my views with this type of crowd (in the link)
    Thanks for a healthy post Steve (as usual). God/Allah bless you.

  9. Fr. John N D'Alton on said:

    Hi Steve,

    You’re touching on a critical issue here. Too many Orthodox seem to imbibe the exclusivist Protestant view and are afraid to have dialogue. Whereas the Bible does seem to have a view that’s neither inclusive nor exclusive, as you wrote. There seems to be a very generous hospitable spirit, which the early church sometimes embraced,mixed in with some very strong claims about the uniqueness of Christ and the dangers of false gods. Like you, I was struck by my experiences in Mosques, and cannot see either position fitting reality very well. Nor Orthodox theology either. This topic needs an orthodox book!

  10. Fr. John N D'Alton on said:

    Hi Steve,

    You’re touching on a critical issue here. Too many Orthodox seem to imbibe the exclusivist Protestant view and are afraid to have dialogue. Whereas the Bible does seem to have a view that’s neither inclusive nor exclusive, as you wrote. There seems to be a very generous hospitable spirit, which the early church sometimes embraced,mixed in with some very strong claims about the uniqueness of Christ and the dangers of false gods. Like you, I was struck by my experiences in Mosques, and cannot see either position fitting reality very well. Nor Orthodox theology either. This topic needs an orthodox book!

  11. Steve Hayes on said:

    Yes, it probably does need an Orthodox book!

    When I was having to teach the course i felt that just about all the books on the topic were asking the wrong questions.

    And the inclusive, exclusive pluralist thing is the wrong question.

    If someone asked me which I was, my answer would be “I am all of them, and none of them.”

    It’s not just barking up the wrong tree — it’s barking in the wrong forest.

  12. Pingback: Theology of religions | Notes from underground

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