Legitimacy and Limits of Theological Pluralism

Author: Battista Mondin


Battista Mondin

For some time now the question of pluralism has become a burning one in Italy. This is confirmed, among other things, by the volume Pluralismo-Appunti. RAI Press Office, Rome 1976, owing to the serious prospect that in the near future political power may pass into the hands of the Communists who have always been the relentless adversaries of pluralism.

Democracy is an essentially pluralistic political system: a system that authorizes and promotes the free expression and circulation of ideas, plurality of parties and multiplicity of proposals and choices. Democracy recognizes and encourages the constitution of a pluralistic society.

Marxism, on the other hand, has an essentially absolutist and totalitarian character. It wants the conquest of power by one class under the guidance of one party. It admits the public teaching of one ideology. It has also clearly imperialistic aims, since it sets out to give workers all over the world political unity. Marx's proclamation: "Workers of the whole world, unite!" remains the permanent goal of Communism.

Since the end of the second world war, however, Marxist orthodoxy has been harshly attacked and many movements and many interpretations have gradually developed within Marxism (From Gramsci to Lukacs, from Bloch to Garaudy, etc.). The "national ways to Socialism" have also become established. In this way a pluralism both ideological and political has found expression also in Marxism.

But in Italy, today, the Communists claim and promise to do more. They affirm that if they come into power they will respect the fundamental canon of democracy: respect for the ideas, the programmes, the free initiative of the other parties. But are they credible? Some time ago, on a visit to Italy the secretary of the German Christian Democrats warned: the Communists must not be judged by their words which are those of the humble lamb, but by their actions which have always been those of the rapacious wolf.

On the present occasion the pluralism that interests us is not the political one but the theological one. Let us go on, therefore, to examine this type of pluralism.

Theological pluralism concerns the multiplicity of the interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith, of the history of salvation, the figure and message of Christ, the duties of the Christian.

It is unnecessary to recall that a certain pluralism in the Church has always existed, but in preceding ages it had never reached such conspicuous proportions as in ours, as regards both quality and quantity. Today the number of interpretations of the faith has become enormous and they are, furthermore, very divergent interpretations, sometimes even conflicting with one another and with regard to tradition: there are existentialist interpretations, eschatological interpretations, personalistic interpretations, political interpretations, praxiological interpretations, and so on.

The main causes that have led to the multiplication of theologies also within the Catholic church are the following four:

1) Contestation by the "new theologians" of Thomistic theology, which has been the official theology of the Church for a good century. As is known, Thomistic (and Neo-thomistic) theology avails itself mainly of metaphysical categories to express the Christian message. But the language of metaphysics is considered incomprehensible and outdated by the "new theologians". For this reason they think it is necessary to have recourse to a new language to preserve the intelligibility of the Christian message also for the men of our time.

2) The atmosphere of freedom of research that was established even in Catholic theological schools after the Second Vatican Council. Formerly it seemed that freedom of research was a privilege of Protestant theologians. Today this view, which was substantially a prejudice, has been abundantly disproved. Vatican II declares that "the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others" (Declaration on Religious Liberty, n. 2).

In this affirmation of religious liberty, also that of theological research is obviously implicit. And this is indispensable, not only to understand more deeply the meaning of the Christian message but also to bring about that meeting between Christ's message and the specific culture of the people to which it is proclaimed, as the Council itself testified: "The Church has existed through the centuries in varying circumstances and has utilized the resources of different cultures in its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ, to examine and understand it more deeply, and to express it more perfectly in the liturgy and in various aspects of the life of the faithful... Culture, since it flows from man's rational and social nature, has continual need of rightful freedom of development and a legitimate possibility of autonomy according to its own principles. Quite rightly it demands respect and enjoys a certain inviolability, provided, of course, that the rights of the individual and the community, both particular and universal, are safeguarded within the limits of the common good" (Gaudium et Spes, nn. 58-59). In this text the Council testifies explicitly to the legitimacy of the assumption of different cultures (and therefore of different philosophies, since philosophy is the soul and the highest expression of culture) to give expression to the Word of God.

3) A new "understanding" of theology which has gained ground in the Catholic world, in proportion as the monopoly of Thomistic theology began to decline. Previously theology was understood as a dogmatic discipline: dogmatic not only with regard to the content (as the study of the dogmas) but dogmatic in its very form: dogmatic and infallible itself. The long duration of philosophia perennis and its repeated official consecration by the Church had led to this misunderstanding. But theology is not at all a dogmatic science in itself: on the contrary it is, like all human sciences,open to question. It is not surprising, therefore, if it, too, shows multiplicity of hypotheses, diversity in the handling of data, divergences between its scholars, developments, crises, etc.

4) The multiplicity of hermeneutical instruments that the theologian has at his disposal today. The "new theologians", discarding metaphysics which had constituted for over a thousand years the common platform of theological reflection, turn to the human sciences (psychology, psychoanalysis, history, anthropology, politics, sociology etc.) to find concepts and rational schemata capable of making the Christian message intelligible to the man of our time.

The explosion of theological pluralism has therefore very precise motivations, but that does not alter the fact that the situation of uncontrolled pluralism such as we are living now, raises some serious questions for the theologian. In the first place: is pluralism in theology admissible? In the second place, what are the foundations of theological pluralism? And, finally, are there limits to pluralism and what are they?

Legitimacy of theological pluralism

Theological pluralism is not a scandalous, improper, misleading thing, but an intrinsic necessity of theology itself.

Pluralism, in fact, springs from the very nature of this discipline. To understand this truth, it is enough to recallwhat theology is and what it sets out to do.

According to the classic definition of St Anselm, theology "est fides quaerens intellectum": it is, essentially, the faith seeking to understand itself and seeking also to make itself understood by others.

But how does this penetration and explanation of the faith take place? What principle must the theologian make use of to attain this aim?

In my opinion, the theologian's work is based on two supreme principles: the architectonic principle and the hermeneutical principle. I call architectonic principle that fundamental mystery of the Revelation which is chosen by an author as the basis on and around which he organizes all the other mysteries and events of the history of salvation. I call hermeneutical principle that rational perspective in the light of which an author tries to understand and interpret every single aspect of the history of salvation.

As has been said, the architectonic principle is a fundamental mystery and therefore must be taken from the Word of God, from the Revelation, from the History of Salvation. That is absolutely indispensable, because if it, too, were drawn from philosophy or any other rational understanding of reality, then, even if many biblical data were incorporated in the system, the whole thingcould not be anything but a philosophical view and no longer true theology. A classic example of a similar construction is that left by Hegel: all the main mysteries of Christianity are incorporated in his enormous system, but they are deprived of their supernatural force and value because they are subordinated to an essentially philosophical basis and method.

On the other hand, the hermeneutical principle must be of rational origin, because theology sets out to clarify the faith to reason and to cause reason to acquire a better understanding of the faith. But this, obviously, cannot be done by adding some other mystery to those already recognized. In fact faith plus faith can give as its result nothing but faith. On the contrary it is by looking at the faith by means of some rational light that a certain understanding of the faith is acquired.

According to many authors, mainly Protestant, the two principles, architectonic and hermeneutical, are not materially but only formally distinct. It is the same mystery, they say, that acts as the basis or centre of the whole structuring of the word of God and also as the principle of interpretation of the latter. But as has been said, this is impossible, and it is incompatible with the very nature of theology, which sets out to furnish a rational understanding of the faith. Against Karl Barth, who categorically rejected any utilization of philosophy (and of human reason in general) in interpretation of the Word of God, Paul Tillich has shown irrefutably that the theologian can carry out his work only by using philosophy as the hermeneutical principle, because "theology presupposes in all its propositions the structure of being, its categories, its laws, its concepts'' (P. Tillich, SystematicTheology I,Chicago University Press, Chicago 1951, p. 21).

Also Jürgen Moltmann, who remains substantially a Barthian on the question of the relations between philosophy and revelation, has to admit that it is not possible to carry out a structuring of Revelation on an eschatological basis, as it is his intention to do, without making use of philosophy. In fact "hope has a possibility of significant existence only if reality itself is historically in movement and if the historical reality has a free space for possible things. Christian hope has a meaning only if the world is open to those things that this hope hopes for; that is, if it is full of things that are possible (to God) and is open to the resurrection of the dead. If the world were a causal system rigorously enclosed in itself, hope could mistake it for the fulfilment, or transcend itself and be reflected gnostically in an ultraearthly reality. But in this case it would renounce itself" (J. Moltmann, Teologiadella speranza,Queriniana, Brescia 1970).

With regard to the hermeneutic principle, it should be observed that the Christian, to study his own faith more deeply, can have recourse to three different forms of knowledge (or understanding, to use the language of Bernard Lonergan): ordinary, scientific, philosophical, but in particular the first and the last.

By means of ordinary knowledge, which is neither systematic nor rigorous, one arrives at that understanding of the faith which is characteristic of every Christian. It is a question of a kind of non-technical, elementary, "popular" theology of the man in the street, which corresponds to the spontaneous, non-technical philosophy, practical more than speculative, with which he is endowed. As man is naturally a philosopher, so the Christian is naturally a theologian. "The effort to understand the faith and what must be believed, intellectus fidei, isthe problem of man, of his faculty of thinking and understanding. This effort in connection with the faith, which is theology, is not carried out parallel to the faith, but is an intensive way of realizing the act of faith itself, which demands not only the fact of believing, but also understanding of faith. It demands this, because faith comprises the whole man; it involves all his faculties, and so necessarily his spirit, his power of questioning and thinking", H. Fries, La Chiesa: questioni attuali, Città Nuova, Rome 1970, p. 168.

If one has recourse, on the contrary, to specialized philosophical knowledge, which is that orderly, rigorous, scientific, thorough knowledge that aims at acquiring a complete and conclusive explanation of things, one obtains that orderly, critical and thorough understanding of the faith which is characteristic of theology at the scientific level.

Having given these clarifications about the fundamental principles on which the theologian bases his work, we can draw important conclusions as regards theological pluralism. This is possible with regard both to the architectonic principle and to the hermeneutic one.

With regard to the architectonic principle, because there exist many mysteries in the history of salvation which the theologian can choose as central and fundamental points around which to arrange all the others: grace, the covenant, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ's passion, the Resurrection, the Church, the Eucharist, et cetera. And, in fact, if we glance at the history of theology we find that in certain periods (those in which there exists wide philosophical agreement, such as the patristic period and the scholastic period) the differentiation between the great theologians is due mainly to the choice of different architectonic principles.

For example, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius have at their disposal the same hermeneutical principle, which is the philosophy of Plato. Yet each one structures the Word of God in a personal way, owing to the particular mystery that each one takes as the architectonic principle. [Origen takes] Christ as Logos; Clement takes Christ as teacher; Gregory of Nyssa, Christ as the Image of God; Augustine the mystery of sin and grace; Pseudo-Dionysius, the Goodness of God. The same thing can easily be found among the theologians of the scholastic age.

Also with regard to the hermeneutical principle there exists the possibility of pluralism, and this whether we have recourse to "ordinary" philosophy or to specialized philosophy to interpret the word of God. Because not only are there many specialized philosophies (Aristotelianism, Platonism, Idealism, Thomism, Existentialism, etc.) but also many ordinary philosophies. Ordinary philosophy, in fact, is nothing but that general view of reality which characterizes the culture of a people. And logically there are as many general views of reality as there are cultures. The plurality of hermeneutical principles is due, therefore, both to the multiplicity of cultures and to the multiplicity of specialized philosophies.

Contemporary theology offers us the spectacle of a lively pluralism with regard both to the architectonic and to the hermeneutical principle. Generally the present-day theological systems and movements are distinguished from one another both because they take as central point one given mystery of the history of salvation rather than another, and, at the same time, also one philosophy rather than another (that philosophy which is best suited to express to the man of our time the mystery which has been chosen as architectonic principle). For example, the theology of Teilhard de Chardin is clearly distinguished from all others since he uses an architectonic principle of his own, Jesus Christ, the Omega point of everything, and a hermeneutical principle of his own, the scientific theory of, evolution. The theology of Karl Rahner is characterized because it has as architectonic principle sanctifying grace and as hermeneutical principle transcendental Thomism. The theology of Bultmann is distinctive because it has as architectonic principle the Word of God and as hermeneutical principle Heidegger's existentialism. The theology of Paul Tillich is original because it has as architectonic principle the omnipresence of God and as hermeneutical principle ontological existentialism. The theology of Bonhoeffer is new and disconcerting because it takes as architectonic principle God's love for one's neighbour and as hermeneutical principle secularization. Jürgen Moltmann's theology of hope is characteristic because it takes as architectonic principle Christian eschatology and as hermeneutical principle E. Bloch's philosophy of hope. The political theology of Gustavo Gutierrez is new because it has as architectonic principle liberation, and as hermeneutical principle the Marxist analysis of society, et cetera.

But theological pluralism is not only possible; it is also necessary and this for two fundamental reasons: the Incarnation of the Son of God and the universal mission of salvation of the Church.

The Incarnation,as we know, operates an absolutely new union, unforeseeable and incommensurable, between God and man. This union takes place in Jesus Christ, who is at once a human and divine individual. In one way he is theos, pneuma, logos; in another way he is a man, a Judean, a worker. On assuming human nature, Christ took all its essential elements, including culture. The latter, in fact, is not something incidental which can be accepted or thrown away as one likes. As contemporary anthropology has clearly shown, man is separated and distinguished from other animals thanks to culture: he is essentially a cultural being. While other animals are wholly and completely produced by nature, and act during their whole life according to the laws, the instincts, with which nature has endowed them, men are mainly the result, the product, of their culture. See A. Gehlen, Der Mensch, Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt,Bonn 1940. But, as was seen above, culture is essentially multiple. And in fact both existing and extinct, cultures are very numerous indeed.

Therefore the Son of God, on becoming man, naturally assumed a given culture, that of the environment in which he was born, namely Jewish culture. So he ate like the Jews, dressed like the Jews, spoke, thought and wrote like the Jews. But it is obvious that if the incarnation had taken place elsewhere, for example, in China, India, or Japan, the Son of God would have assumed a different culture.

The Incarnation, therefore, constitutes the first foundation of the legitimacy of theological pluralism.

The second foundation is given by the mission of the Church, which is the prolongation of the Incarnation of the Son of God in history. The Church was set up by Jesus Christ to proclaim his message and to communicate his salvation to all men. Now the attainment of this aim is made possible only if the Church expresses Christ's message through the cultural forms characteristic of a given age, and of a specific social group. "Owing to the universal and missionary character of Christian faith, the events and words revealed by God must be, every time, rethought, reformulated and relived again within each human culture, if it is desired that they should give a real answer to the problems rooted in the heart of every human being, and inspire the prayer, the worship and the daily life of the people of God. In this way, the Gospel of Christ leads every culture towards its fullness and at the same time subjects it to a creating criticism" ("L'unità della fede e il pluralismo teologico", Document of the International Theological Commission, in Civiltà Cattolica 1973, vol. II, p. 368).

Throughout the centuries the Church has constantly carried out this task of acculturation of the Christian message. The Second Vatican Council says so explicitly in the text of Gaudiumet Spes: "The Church has existed through the centuries in varying circumstances and has utilized the resources of different cultures in its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ, to examine and understand it more deeply, and to express it more perfectly in the liturgy and in various aspects of the life of the faithful" (n. 58).

We can therefore conclude with certainty that theological pluralism is legitimate and necessary, and the abuses of theologians can never constitute a sufficient argument to eliminate it.

The vicissitudes of recent times, in particular the multiplication of so many new theologies, some of which, assuming very questionable hermeneutical principles, have thrown the deposit of the faith into disorder, ignored tradition and rejected the ecclesiastic magisterium, and have led to lively discussions on the limits of theological pluralism.

The pluralism of interpretations and expressions of the Christian message, as was seen earlier, cannot be suppressed; but neither can it be disorderly: it cannot be exempt from any norm and from all control. Theological pluralism has unquestionable and insuperable limits: some are imposed on it by the very nature of the Christian message; others depend on the position of the theologian in the church, which is not a position of complete, absolute autonomy, but a position of subordination of one organism to another organism, of one charism to another charism.

In the first place there exist limits dictated by the very nature of the Christian message.

The task of the theologian, we have seen, is himself to understand the Word of God, and to make others understand it. This comprehension is made possible in the first place by the extreme readiness that the word of God itself possesses for being received by human minds: it stoops to their capacity, undergoing an incomparable kenosis (emptying), as can be inferred from the adaptation and the kenosis it carried out in the Old and New Testament, especially from the adaptation and kenosis of the Son of God, in Incarnation.

Yet, for comprehension of the word of God to be realized, adaptation cannot be one-sided: it cannot concern only the word of God. It is not only he who speaks who must make every possible effort to make himself understood. A parallel effort of adaptation, which in the specific case, will no longer be of abasement but of elevation, is necessary also on the part of him who listens, that is, man. As Emilio Brunner rightly said, in order that there may be a listening to and an understanding of the word of God, there must be a meeting point, a link between the latter and the human mind (E. Brunner, Natur und Gnade, Berlin 1934).

Here, then, is the first rule of theological pluralism. When thetheologian sets to work, to interpret and express the word of God according to the categories of a culture or of a philosophical view, be owes it to himself in the first place to guarantee that the culture or the philosophical view that he intends to assume should be suitable for acting as hermeneutical principle of the Revelation. This happens only when it is a question of a view or culture already positively open towards Transcendency or not necessarily closed. For example, an open view such as that of the Pygmies and many other populations of Asia, Africa and America, which puts God at the summit of everything and makes every event of nature and history depend on him, offers the theologian a substantially good hermeneutical instrument, even if not yet perfectly fit for use owing to its logico-metaphysical poverty.

In many other cases, on the contrary, it is a question of philosophical views that are apparently closed or even actually closed, but not by right, that is, not in virtue of their own first principles. For this reason if they are considered according to their appearances or even according to their original utilization, they do not offer any link with the word of God. The philosophy of Aristotle seemed such to the Fathers of the Church and to many Scholastics; and the philosophies of Heidegger and Bloch seem such to most people today. But St Thomas succeeded in showing that the principles of Aristotelian philosophy, as such, do not involve any closing, any reduction of reality; and, therefore, he was able to assume them to a great extent for his interpretation of the Christian message. Today many scholars think that the same can be done with the philosophies of Bloch and Heidegger, freeing them from the meshes imposed on them by their authors.

But there is also another limit that pluralism must respect in addition to that dictated by the very nature of the Christian message: it is the limit due to the relations between the various organisms of the Church; in particular, for the subject that concerns us, between theology and the ecclesiastical Magisterium.

The Church is a "mystical body" the prosperity of which depends on the harmony of the parts that constitute it, each of which must carry out its own functions and realize its own charisms as effectively as possible, but at the same time also taking into account the requirements of the other organisms.

The Magisterium and theology are two of the major organisms of the Church: they carry out two different tasks. The first is responsible for safeguarding the faithful transmission of revealed Truth, the second for studying, interpreting and expressing the same Truth in an intelligible and up-to-date way. These are two correlated tasks, which complete each other because there is not salvific truth if it is deprived of intelligibility and, on the other hand, an interpretation that is not respectful of the truth is of no use for salvation. It is necessary, therefore, that Magisterium and theology should work together in dialogue. "The dialogue constitutes an excellent mutual help: the Magisterium can acquire a greater understanding of the truth of faith and morality to be preached and defended; the theological comprehension of faith and morals, strengthened by the Magisterium, acquires certainty. The dialogue between Magisterium and theologians is limited only by the duty of preserving and explaining the truth of faith. Therefore, on the one hand, the vast field of the truth is opened up to this dialogue. On the other hand this truth must always be investigated, not as something uncertain or completely unknown but as really revealed and entrusted to the faithful custody of the Church. Therefore the dialogue has its frontiers where the frontiers of the truth of faith are touched" ("Tesi circa il mutuo rapporto fra magistero ecclesiastico e teologia" of the Pontifical International Theological Commission: Tesi X-XI, Civiltà Cattolica 1976, vol. III, p. 57).

Previously we showed the legitimacy of the multiplicity of theological interpretations, but we also pointed out the inadmissibility of an indiscriminate, uncontrolled plurality. "Even if the situation of the Church increases pluralism, plurality finds its limit in the fact that the faith creates the communion of men in the truth, become accessible by means of Christ. This makes inadmissible any conception of the faith that reduces it to a purely pragmatic cooperation without communion in truth. This truth is not bound to a theological system, but is expressed in the normative formulations of the faith", "L’unità della fede e il pluralismo teologico", Document of the Pontifical International Theological Commission (Civiltà Cattolica 1973, vol. II, p. 368).

It is up to the ecclesiastical Magisterium to take great care that legitimate plurality is not transformed into a false and harmful pluralism. "Before presentations of the doctrine that are seriously ambiguous, or even incompatible with the faith of the Church, the latter has the power to detect the error and the obligation to remove it, to the extent of formal rejection of heresy as the extreme remedy to safeguard the faith of the people of God", Ibid.,p. 368.

Therefore more than a limit to theological research, the Magisterium represents certain guidance. It gives the theologian a valid guarantee that his interpretation of the Word of God is in conformity with the one revealed truth and that his work is taking place in the sphere of a legitimate and fruitful pluralism.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 April 1978, page 6

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