The Problem with Theologies of Inclusion

Gary Bouma

Theologies of inclusion tend to be feel good, ‘nice’ theologies and more importantly they promote social cohesion by providing a theological rationale for mutual respect, or at least tolerance of difference. However, there is more, writes Gary Bouma. What of an internal agenda of legitimisation?

Each religion has theologies of exclusion and theologies of inclusion. We, each in our own faith traditions, are probably more familiar with theologies of exclusion – ‘We are right, you are wrong’, there is only one way to    “    ”    (insert preferred soteriology or eschatalogy) and it is ours’, ‘If you do not believe what I believe, do what I do …’ Each religion has within it groups more inclined toward exclusivist theologies and groups within it inclined toward theologies of inclusion. A theology of inclusion is essential to motivating honest participation in interreligious activities and events.

Theologies of inclusion tend to be feel good, ‘nice’ theologies and more importantly they promote social cohesion by providing a theological rationale for mutual respect, or at least tolerance of difference. Theologies of exclusion may make insiders feel good; however, it is the rare outsider who listens to either theologies of inclusion or exclusion. Such theologies are not designed for external consumption, but for internal legitimation of the treatment of others.

Theologies of inclusion include, for Muslims the argument that ‘it is all in the Qur’an’, for Hindus that ‘we are all on he same mountain, just on different paths – if we only would respect each other as children of the divine …’, for some Christians a high Christology of ‘all being swept up to God in Christ’, etc.

Each theology of inclusion may help believers to accept others but such theologies are either embarrassing or insulting when taken outside of the religion in which they originated, for two reasons. First, theologies of inclusion usually deny the reality of religious difference. ‘Our differences would go away if you see things the way I do. Our differences are less than those things we share. If you were truly religiously mature …’. These denials of difference are insulting to the religious other, representing a failure to respect the full reality of the religion of the other since only those elements that are universally accepted are to be retained, the rest discarded.

Secondly, theologies of inclusion do work for those within the religion, but for someone outside the religion accept a theology of inclusion requires the acceptance of the theological presuppositions of the faith from which the theology arises. A Hindu theology of inclusion remains Hindu, it does not somehow become universal. I have to accept the beliefs of Hinduism in order to accept the inclusive theology of Hindu Vedantic teaching. The same is true of every other theology or philosophy of inclusion. Ultimately they require the believer to believe as they do and not as the believer does.

I have my own theology of inclusion, A Christian theology of inclusion that legitimates my involvement in interreligious relations and activities. I might share it with other Christians, but while my Muslim friends might find it heart warming that I can find a foundation for interreligious respect in my faith, I do not expect that they would share my Christian theology of inclusion, any more than I would share theirs.

Gary D Bouma, UNESCO Chair in Interreligious and Intercultural Relations – Asia Pacific, Monash University, 1 February 2012, commencement of World Interfaith Harmony Week.

Biodata: Rev. Dr Gary Bouma: Gary D Bouma is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations – Asia Pacific at Monash University and an Associate Priest in the Anglican Parish of St John’s East Malvern. From 2006-2010 he was Chair, Board of Directors for The Parliament of the World’s Religions 2009. His research in the sociology of religion examines the management of religious diversity in plural multicultural societies, postmodernity as a context for doing theology, religion and terror, religion and public policy. He is the author of over 20 books. His latest book is Being Faithful in Diversity: Religions and Social Policy in Multifaith Societies (Australasian Theological Forum).

Source: Rev. Dr Gary Bouma

Photo Credit: Fatih Communities Council of Victoria