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I have been contemplating the problem of pluralism for theology of late; I am aware that this issue is the desideratum par excellence of modern theology, but I have two trajectories from which I keep approaching the issue.  The first is Grace; the second is Intentionality (for lack of a better word).

Perhaps I betray my Reformed upbringing here, but the concept of divine Grace appears to be of utmost importance for the concept of salvation.  In the end, salvation is achieved by G-d through his Grace, and not as a result of anything we can do or believe to achieve it.  So far, so orthodox.  The problem then arises as to the role of faith (and the content, and thus the validity of said faith).  If all is predicated on the work of G-d, then in theory all things humans, whether faith or work, is abrogated or at least negated.  This is, of course, the classic Calvinist-Arminian problem, which is not the issue with which I wish to deal directly in this essay.  The pertinent question for the issue of plurality’s challenge is whether or not the content of the faith (e.g., which faith) has any bearing on the salvation of the individual or not.  If not, then theology in essence must self-destruct, as epistemology devolves into a postmodern quicksand of equally in/valid theological constructs which have/not any relation to salvation to begin with.  The best thing such a theology could aspire towards would be pure apophatic theology, and, I suppose, pure ethics ala Camus.

The other trajectory which keeps reappearing is the concept of Intentionality.  Intentionality has long been a center of moral and legal focus—after all, the difference between first and second degree murder is in essence the intention of the accused.  I have been wondering, however, if intentionality could perhaps lead partially out of the epistemological problem created by mutually-exclusive theological systems.  Without reducing incompatible differences to a simple matter of competing perspectives and/or hierarchical ideologies as Marxists are wont to do, I wonder if Intentionality could focus the debate at least partially beyond ourselves and back onto G-d (which is supposed to be the heart of theology, anyway).  To do this, I am thinking (again) along the classically Reformed lines of the freedom of conscience.  I believe the human conscience is the voice of G-d within each human being.  If this is true, then if someone were obeying their conscience (however imperfectly), they are following the voice of G-d.  Such a perspective does not minimize the differences between, say, Presbyterian doctrine and Hinduism, but it does promise a lighthouse in epistemological storm.  It does not do this on a directly doctrinal level, but it does so on the salvific level; if a person is following their conscience, then they are following the voice of G-d, regardless of the faith tradition in which they do so.  Perhaps it is cliché, but faith is a journey, and each one starts and ends at different places.  It is G-d’s responsibility to lead them home.

I think CS Lewis may have made similar intimations in several of his works, fictional and discursive, although I do not have the references to hand.  If I recall properly, he speaks somewhere about G-d judging the individual based on the resources (personal, contextual, etc) given to them, and not necessarily based on a firmer measure.  Even if it may have Kant rolling in his grave, such an idea sounds more just than a purely abstract conception of the standard of heavenly jurisprudence.

As humans, we are not capable of judging whether another is following their conscience, but that is an equally valid observation whether we are observing co-religionists or not.  But it seems that appealing to conscience could provide a way of avoiding complete ontological nihilism.

I would very much like to hear the thoughts of others on these, particularly those raised outside of a Reformed tradition…

 Jason M. Silverman
5 May 2009