From Exclusivism to Convergence Part 1

By James M. Somerville

John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

The Situation Today

Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed.

Realizing how dependent on circumstances one's religious commitment is, many well-informed Christians today are inclined to be relativists. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why mainline churches are suffering a loss of membership or at least a diminution of active participation. University-trained churchgoers tend to be less enthusiastic about their faith than were their predecessors. They distrust the ancient scriptures, created by men with little knowledge of science and cosmology or the size and age of the universe, reflecting an archaic worldview that does not speak to our contemporary concerns and understanding. What we are witnessing, then, is a shift in the composition of church membership. The evangelical and fundamentalist communities are growing while the mainline churches are losing members.

Where have the dropouts gone? Some, nowhere at all. They have simply given up on religion. Others have taken up Eastern meditative practices, which they find more rewarding than the verbal prayer they were accustomed to in their mother churches although they may still regard themselves as Christians or Jews. Some in the Jewish community call themselves a "Ju-Bu." They are Jews by birth and upbringing who have studied Buddhism and find it a useful supplement to their own Jewish faith and practice. It is also not uncommon today to find a Hindu ashram headed by a swami or guru who is not an Indian but an American or a European.

The invasion of the East represents a reversal of what Christian missionaries had in mind in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they went to Asia and Africa to convert the infidel, though with no great success in Asia. Now purveyors of the Asian religions have come to the West and are enjoying a notable success, not so much in making converts as in convincing Americans and Europeans that Western religions are not the only spiritual paths of worth.

Proselytism and Responses to Diversity

When people in one part of the world want to make their faith palatable to those elsewhere, they often make an attempt at acculturation. Nonessential elements of the faith that would be distinctly foreign to others are suppressed, and the religion is made to look more like what the natives are accustomed to. So recently Christian missionaries in Asia and Africa have adapted their practice to the expectations and preferences of the people they have chosen to live with. In the same way, practitioners of Eastern religions try to modify their systems so they will not seem too bizarre to Westerners.

With or without adaptation, however, the aim of the zealous missionary is to make converts. As might be expected, that aim does not sit well with the natives. India does not welcome Catholic and Evangelical missionaries who have come to India with the intention of winning souls away from Hinduism or any of the other Indian religions. Russia has recently limited the stay of European and American missionaries to three months. The Russian Orthodox Church, which is gradually recovering from seventy-five years of persecution under an atheistic regime, is not at all pleased with the arrival of foreigners bent on luring Russians away from Orthodoxy to embrace some other form of Christianity. People are very sensitive about their traditional religion. Intruders are not welcome.

Churches are instinctively conservative. Catholics used to hold that a person who abandons his childhood faith, even to join another Christian denomination, has committed a grave sin. Orthodox Jews often deal severely with those who marry non-Jews, especially Christians. One response is to hold a symbolic funeral service for "the departed" and exclude the offenders from all contact with their family until they return to the fold. Author Salmon Rushdie has learned to his sorrow that any criticism of things dear to Moslems can result in a death sentence with a reward for his execution. Some Hindus maintain that those who leave India for the West to make their fortune and never return are disloyal to the Vedic tradition. Thus religions have a way of exerting moral pressure and imposing penalties on those who fail to conform.

Given the fact that the largest religions have gone their separate ways and are not likely to merge, it is clear that there is never likely to be a single world religion. Consequently the adherents of every religion are faced with the necessity of deciding how to think about other faiths. Scholars in religious studies, such as John Hick, Paul Knitter, John E. Cobb, Jr., and Raimon Panikkar, have distinguished three differing approaches to the existence of many religions in the world. These approaches are often called “exclusivism,” “inclusivism,” and “pluralism.” To them I would add a fourth---“convergence.”


In the face of the diversity of religions, those in the exclusivist camp maintain that there is only one true religion, their own, and that all the others are in error to a greater or lesser degree. Many feel an obligation to work diligently to convert those in error for their own good and bring them to a knowledge of the truth. Hence, making converts is often a major concern of religious fundamentalists. After all, St. Peter declared, when he was arraigned before the Temple authorities some days after Pentecost: "There is salvation in no one else [other than Jesus], for there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12). Those who hold this view are not likely to devote much time and effort to learning about the many false religions. Since they are all false, why should anyone want to cram their heads with a knowledge of things that are not true? Doing so might even lead to a temptation to abandon one's own true faith or to the weakening of faith by an exposure to error.

Until quite recently, Catholics were not supposed to read works on the Index of Forbidden Books. Even professional educators were expected to obtain special permission if they felt the need to read them. The Index was meant to warn the unsuspecting that certain ideas were in conflict with the authentic teaching of the Catholic faith, a conflict they might not be fully aware of unless they were alerted to the danger. The effect of the ban on books---the Church had given up burning them---was to situate the Catholic Church squarely on the side of exclusivism.

The mentality of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries was that there is no sustainable religious truth outside the teaching of the Church, and the only reason scholars should bother to study the works of forbidden authors was to refute them. Sometimes, however, such opposition can turn out to be counterproductive. Origen, the third-century theologian and scholar, wrote an entire treatise attacking the writings of Celsus. But Origen was honest enough to report the words of Celsus with reasonable accuracy, thus immortalizing Celsus and his thought for generations to come.

Needless to say, Catholics have not been the only ones to maintain that they alone are right, that all others are wrong, and that error has no rights. Luther is well known for the raw language he used in anathematizing the Pope of Rome, other Protestant reformers, and, in his later years, the Jews. Ask any zealous Moslem and he will assure you that Islam has superseded both Judaism and Christianity as the true religion. Even within Judaism, the ultraorthodox are hard pressed to recognize as true Jews those who espouse the ordination of women and engage in ecumenical efforts which might seem to relativize God's teaching or the Torah.

Doctrinal absolutism and exclusivism are characteristic of the three Abrahamic religions, though they all also have their liberal and moderate wings. Because of that internal diversity, it is inaccurate and quite unfair to propagate a stereotypical view of any of those religions, including Islam. Only a minority of Moslems support terrorism, while the vast majority are peace-loving and prayerful people, more prayerful, in fact, than most Christians on a day-to-day basis.

The more one learns about a second or third faith other than one's own, the greater is one's appreciation of them. And nothing helps one gain a deeper understanding of one's own religion than travel abroad, coupled with the broadening effect of reading about the teaching and practice of other religions, even those that are themselves exclusivist.


Troubled by the fact that, after nearly two thousand years, some 80 percent of the people on earth are not Christian, some Catholic theologians began to feel that they had to deal with the question of the salvation of so many nonbelievers outside the true Church. What of the old axiom, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—Outside the church there is no salvation?

As long ago as the Council of Trent (1545--1563), it was suggested that people who lead moral lives but have no knowledge of the saving grace of Christ can be saved by a “baptism of desire.” This is not the ordinary means of salvation intended by God, but for people ignorant of Christianity yet who have good intentions, a baptism of desire can substitute for the baptism of water and provide access to salvation. Those who are saved by this extraordinary means still owe their good fortune to the mercy of God and the grace of Christ purchased by his death on the cross. Although the concept of baptism of desire thus retains the belief that there can be no salvation without Christ, it goes a step beyond exclusivism in seeking a way to include non-Christians on the path to salvation. A more contemporary version is Karl Rahner's concept of "the anonymous Christian," a righteous non-Christian who, without knowing it, lives a life in accord with the basic moral principles of the Christian faith.

In spite of such efforts, the basic premise of inclusivism may seem condescending, only a disguised form of exclusivism. That is true if inclusivism means that Christians have nothing to learn from non-Christians. If, on the other hand, what is meant is that the Christ principle is everywhere present and active in the world, whether as Logos or as Divine Wisdom, inclusivism is not so condescending. Then, while it would be true to say that the Christ was in Jesus, it would also be true to say that Jesus was in the Christ, implying that the Christ is broader than the Jewish idea of the Messiah, viewed as a particular individual. The Christ would then be seen as everywhere present and active, that is, as the Wisdom of God in which the great teachers of humanity have all participated. Then we might ask with Raimon Panikkar, "Whose Christ is he?"

Christians have a share in the divine revelation, but so too have others. May not these others have certain aspects of revelation not found explicitly and immediately in the Christian deposit of faith? In that case, while it would be true to say that Christianity provides its adherents with adequate means for salvation, that fact should not deny that other religions are "equal opportunity" sharers in leading their members to salvation. Panikkar might agree with this in principle but would probably want to add a cautionary note, "not quite so equal." In other words, this is not yet what is known as pluralism, the recognition that distinctively different religious traditions are paths to God and are worth preserving.

James M. Somerville taught philosophy for many years at Fordham University, where he was chair of the department and co-founder of the journal International Philosophical Quarterly. He is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy from Xavier University in Cincinnati and a Quest Book author (contributing to The Goddess Re-Awakening, 1989). His most recent book is The Mystical Sense of the Gospels (Crossroad, 1997).

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