The First and the Last: The Claim of Jesus Christ and the Claims of Other Religious Traditions by George R. Sumner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One of the challenges of being a convinced Christian in a pluralistic society is how we engage with people from other religious traditions. Most thoughtful Christians neither want to just say, “Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and you are wrong” nor do they want to say “you have your truth and I have mine and can’t we all get along?” The first statement fails to take the beliefs and truth claims of other religious adherents seriously. The second takes no one’s truth claims seriously. Both in fact are patronizing to the other party.
George R. Sumner’s book proposes a third way that considers the different strategies the church has used throughout history to address other religions and arrives at the standard of the “final primacy” of the person and work of Christ and then explores how other religions in some sense similar to the Old Testament anticipate or have points of connection with the Christian message. This effort seeks to take both the internal system of a particular faith seriously and acknowledge that there may be much of worth in that system while adhering to the person and work and claims of Christ as the final standard against which the claims of other traditions are measured.
Sumner tests this proposal in the theologies of Barth, Rahner, and Pannenberg, three of the twentieth century’s foremost theologians. He then follows this with a consideration of the economy of salvation, that is the working of Father, Son and Spirit in salvation and explores whether there is in fact a detectible Trinitarian logic to reality and to the human condition. He then explores how “final primacy” drives a theology of mission and explores the working out of final primacy in Indian theology and in theories of inculturation.
What I appreciated about Sumner was his nuanced approach to “redemptive analogies” and connections often made between Christianity and other faiths. He is not dismissive of these but he is also careful to distinguish genuine from merely perceived connections. He recognizes how critical appraising these things from within the logic of the other belief system is so that spurious connections are avoided and other faiths are truly understood on their own terms.
Many Christians refrain from inter-religious dialogue precisely because they believe to do so means that they must forfeit what is finally primary in their lives, their allegiance to Christ. Others are concerned to not offend believers of other faiths with Christian truth claims. The recognition of what is finally primary in Christian faith actually allows for the forthright discussion of “final primacy” for other religions that moves our conversations beyond niceties and vague commonalities. It takes the truth claims of each faith seriously rather than relativizing them and respects all the parties in a dialogue without asking any to compromise deeply held beliefs. At the same time, real, non-coercive dialogue has within it the possibility that one may grow in the understanding of another, or even become convinced of the truth claims of another. Sumner’s “essay” (his term) points us toward the substantive dialogue where these kinds of outcomes might be realized.
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