The Trinitarian Religious Acceptance Model of S. Mark Heim

At the turn of the 20th Century, it was speculated by some that “non-Christian” religions would eventually die out.  Instead what has been seen is a “powerful resurgence of the so-called world religions: Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.”[1] And now as the world grows consistently flatter[2] because of globalization and the information revolution, a “melting pot” society of religious conglomerates makes the issue all the more pressing.  As a result, Christians are faced most directly with the question of whether or not their faith “is indeed something essentially different, something special.”[3] Hence the burgeoning field of theologies of religious pluralism.  Traditionally, there have primarily been three distinct paradigms through which Christians view the religious other: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.  Paul Knitter calls exclusivism the replacement model, inclusivism the fulfillment model, and pluralism the mutuality model.[4]

In general, exclusivists and inclusivists agree that salvation is obtained solely through the mediation of Jesus Christ.  Exclusivists hold that explicit faith in necessary for this salvation to be realized, whereas inclusivists do not.  Pluralists deny that Jesus Christ is the only means constitutive of achieving salvation.

Despite the multitude of options within and between these three models, many in the postmodern milieu determine these paradigmatic alternatives to leave much wanting.  None herein seem to adequately consider the true breadth of the major world religions.  Exclusivism leaves so many people both now and throughout history closed off to God’s grace that such a view can hardly be considered plausible if one wishes to uphold any sense of God’s goodness.  Inclusivists find Christian “bits and pieces” in the plurality of other religions, thereby rendering them subservient or inferior, and ultimately obsolete.  And lastly, though pluralists attempt to level the playing field as it were by giving every religion the same starting place, they end up undermining the very aspects of these religions that make them necessary and distinct for their adherents.

By either claiming that one religion is absolutely true, even while granting that others might have indirect participation with this one, or by arguing that all will be consummated by The Real or unknown ultimate reality in the eschaton,[5] inclusivists and pluralists effectively “deemphasize both the integral unity of other traditions . . . and the possibility of finding significant separate religious truths there.”[6] The mistaken approach by both groups that “blurs the distinctive features of the religious landscape” has been to assume other religions are seeking salvation.[7] Indeed, “no longer does it suffice to ask whether and what religious traditions have to do with the mystery of salvation of their adherents in Jesus Christ.  More positively and profoundly, the question is what positive meaning the religious traditions themselves have in God’s single overall plan of salvation.”[8]

So what then is the proper way to address this issue?  The first “rule of engagement” proposed by S. Mark Heim is to say that, “such theories stand among and not above religious accounts of the world.”[9] In other words, nobody has a “bird’s eye view.”  Everyone works from a specific context and worldview that has been conditioned by his or her environment, language, culture, upbringing, and so on.  It is impossible for someone to completely step outside of his or her respective point of view and be entirely objective or fair in judgment.  Like everyone, even the pluralists are forced to develop a value orientation, which is usually derived from existing religious traditions ironically enough.  Thus Heim says theirs is not the most generous hypothesis.

Following his own rule mentioned above, S. Mark Heim, though a convinced inclusivist, submits that the “’finality of Christ’ and the ‘independent validity of other ways’ are not mutually exclusive.”[10] It is only necessary that one be given up if only one religious goal can be effectively reached.  Heim suggest that from a Christian perspective, a scenario where other religions actually achieve the fulfillments they seek is permissible.  How he imagines this is a somewhat complicated picture, and admittedly a speculative proposal.  Heim’s hermeneutic strives to grant other traditions the maximum amount of legitimacy without diminishing his own Christian commitment or negating the confessions therein.  So for instance, “Nirvana and Christian communion with God are contradictory only if we assume that one or the other must be the sole fate of all human beings.”[11] Furthermore, while a single person cannot realize both ends simultaneously, there is no reason to think that the two ends could not be realized by different people at different times, or even the same person at different times.

One key advantage to Heim’s view is that other religions can adopt the exact same model from their perspective – that is, a Buddhist could still hold that their faith tradition is the fullest revelation of truth and reality, but permit that Christians might also realize some form of the end experience they seek.  Another important factor in this model for Heim is that while there is an effort on the part of the Christian to optimize the integrity of truth claims in other religions, it remains acceptable and even necessary for the Christian to believe there are some errors in these other religions, and likewise for other religions to believe this about Christians.  In other words, “the more incommensurable religious ends appear, the less the question of supersession seems even strictly applicable.”[12]

At the same time, Heim wants to emphasize the role that diversity within individual faith traditions plays and thereby recognize for instance that an especially devout Advaita Vedanta Hindu might very well be closer to the truth and to experiencing or relating to God than some Christians.  Not only that, but this Hindu would be encountering “the depth of the riches” of the Trinity in Hindu terms.  There is no need then to understand this Hindu’s experience as “anonymously” Christian.  Insofar as it does not directly contradict Christian teaching, the Hindu’s religious quest is an authentic pursuit with a real end.

It is noted by Heim and many others that the New Testament lacks a “definitive statement on the fate of the unevagelized.”[13] Because of this, Heim must “practice a kind of triangulation in which various texts on related issues are coordinated.”[14] In doing so, Heim aims to “tread with humility.”[15] To be sure, Heim is not postulating yet another pluralistic approach that acknowledges a more fundamental reality behind both the Christian understanding of ultimate truth and those of other religions.  Rather, Heim means to envision a Christian eschatological structure that is much akin to that of Dante’s Divine Comedy in principle and the Thomistic theology that influenced Dante’s “prose skeleton” within the allegory.[16]

Fully aware that the Bible typically lacks reference to gradations with respect to eschatology (though there are exceptions, i.e. Luke 12:47-48) and that when discussed it is primarily done so in dualistic terms, Heim does not say that this is in fact how the afterlife will be; but he does want to draw heavily from Dante’s schema.  First of all, by doing so Heim is convinced he taps into what had already been a developing and accepted part of the Christian tradition for centuries – namely, the concept of purgatory.  Citing the Church Fathers and other ancient Christian writings, Heim notices that Christians very early on began to recognize the logical inconsistency of a simple, two-fold division between heaven and hell.  It just didn’t make sense that all who fell short of being spiritually “reborn” would endure everlasting torment, nor that the most mildly committed Christian would be transported immediately into eternal communion with God.  So then we find traces unfolding of a third or “middle way” for purification and purging that would prepare people for fuller exposure to God’s presence.  The purpose is to make God’s creatures strong enough for the joy they cannot yet bear.  “It is about getting used to glory.”[17] Consistent throughout all levels in The Divine Comedy is the absence of suffering as brute or meaningless pain.

The operative criteria for Dante’s literary analogy of the afterlife is one centered on upholding human freedom at any cost.  God does not force Himself on anyone, and while there is recognition of sin before entry, the choices made by individuals largely determine their fate.  In this sense, nothing about hell is so much punitive as it is experienced as loss.  What is more, mobility exists between levels of hell, paradise, purgatory, and heaven.  This component is crucial to the overall concept and is all the more important within the discussion of various religious ends.  Somehow it is imagined that almost any place on the Heim’s eschatological map is potentially only penultimate.  If a state is deemed final, it has become so only because of a creature’s autonomous decision.  While Heim does not defend universalism, he sees it as still compatible with this model.  This feature of Heim’s eschatology is what allows him to believe that “honest mistakes” and “place of birth” will not ultimately privilege any one religion.  He wants desperately to preserve equal opportunity to salvation for all.  Whether or not and how he can maintain this is not entirely clear.

Each prospective end for Heim has its own internal coherence, and governing this logic in many ways is the extent to which the individual chooses to maintain relationship with God and others.  The degree to which relationship is retained depends on the pursuit by the individual of justice, truth, and love and the remnants discovered of theological virtues like faith, hope, and charity.  Faith for example is characterized by “acknowledgement of the need and gratitude for divine grace.”[18] This is one way in which Heim is able to account for how sin and judgment fit into Dante’s illustration.

A final trait of significance for Dante’s allegory is that “from heaven there is no delight at pain.”[19] It is not as if those in “higher” levels are unaware of the loss in lower levels, but it is the “knowledge of the consonance of God’s will the wills of all creatures that gives them peace.”[20] So like God, saints in heaven honor the freedom of all creatures and the perfect fulfillment of their desires.

At the heart of Heim’s post-mortem arrangement is also a thoroughly Trinitarian understanding of religions in this life.  He states, “The Trinity represents the Christian context for interpreting religious pluralism.”[21] Likened to the nature of the salvation, according to Heim the Trinity is understood most clearly and simply as communion-in-difference.  He follows Gavin D’Costa by crediting the Trinity with providing the “grammar” for relating the particularity of Christ and God’s universality activity and presence in the world through the Holy Spirit.[22] This also effectively sets the parameters for safeguarding against equating exclusive identity with God in Jesus Christ, as well as against creating other saviors.  The question of “What counts as salvation?” becomes more crucial though than “Which one saves?”, because the world religions are not all after the same thing.[23] How comprehensively a Christian theology of religions can acquiesce the widest possible range of data and elements distinct to other religions in Christian terms is a good indicator of its own universal validity.  The plenitude and diversity of the Trinity enables Christianity to do this in a very all-encompassing way.

In the case of Islam, adherents seek “a profound relation with God, characterized by obedience, devotion, love, and awe.”[24] They would interpret the Christian view of God as incarnational and the sought after process by Christ followers of deification or divinization to be extremely misguided at best and outright apostasy at worst.  Stressing the unity and oneness of God, it is also clear why they would reject any notion of the Trinity.  All the while both traditions recognize God as personal and wholly other, so a Christian could see how a Muslim view of God is true in its concentrated but limited sense, and because of this intensified obedience to the law and external conformity, a Christian can also learn from the Muslim.

A Hindu tradition like Advaita Vedanta on the other hand perceives Brahman, the ultimate reality, not to be personal in the way we perceive God, but instead recognize the vast and intricate interconnectedness of everything with the supreme reality that is Brahman, and therefore embrace what many Christians have experienced as “oneness” with God, nature, or universe.  Again, the Trinitarian approach includes this understanding of God but once more would see it as restricted and intensified.

Upon consideration of Buddhism, a heightened awareness of “emptiness” or “nothingness” like much of Hinduism shies away from concepts of knowledge about personal nature of the divine.  Escape from suffering and Nirvana are achieved basically at the point of greatest depersonalization.  It is here that true compassion can be born, and the “other” served, because the relative unimportance of and detachment from “self” has been realized.  Interestingly enough, some correlation can be found here with the Eastern and more apophatic traditions of Christianity, especially in mystical practices like centering prayer and meditation.  In this regard, even the Buddhist narrow concentration on one true aspect of and relationship with the divine can be appreciated by Christians.

This very brief and overly simplistic summary of similarity and difference between Christianity and other world religions serves only to highlight a handful of general themes throughout the faiths that can be accounted for in a Trinitarian vision of God.  It obviously by no means does justice to the complexity and beauty of these great traditions.  It is said in Heim’s work that, “this theory displaces the emphasis religious apologetics has tended to place on superior religious certainty about ultimate norms, and replaces it with an emphasis on the superlative “goodness” which these realities represent for the ideal believer.”[25] In doing so, he successfully shifts the focus from arguments in favor or against specific truth claims to genuine questions about what is best for everyone and what is most lucidly inclusive of other religions.  Heim adds to the conversation a persuasive case for the Christian position’s ability to offer both a more attractive salvation promise as well as a theology that can take seriously the broadest range of unique truth claims and religious ends present in other faith traditions.  At the same time, there is room in Heim’s  analysis for much mutual education and transformation cross-religiously speaking.

Helpful too is Heim’s recognition that while the very different and distinct features of all the world religions should be honored, they cannot be so purely divided so as to not allow any permeation.  The exact lines of differentiation between them are not so easily drawn.  There might even be some room for convergence, syncretism, and coalescence.  But this should only be expected from a Trinitarian standpoint, as it corroborates strong support for the view of God’s immanence and multiplicity.  After all, “discipleship entails working together with all creeds to overcome oppression.  Attentiveness to our neighbor’s faith, in order to learn what the Spirit may be doing there, and praxis for justice are co-essential with Christological devotion in the Christian life.”[26] Quoting the thoughtful comments of George Linbeck about Christians in the first century, Heim feels those today should have an “extraordinary combination of relaxation and urgency in their attitude toward those outside the church.”[27] Theirs was a concern for passionately sharing the gospel while also trusting that God would “do right” by all people.

Some lingering concerns for further inquiry could be the following:  How is this proposal, however elegant and perspicuous, any more inclusive or generous than traditional inclusivism if the end result for so many is something less than Christian salvation?  Perhaps the answer has something to do with continuity between this life and the eschaton in other religions that traditional inclusivism lacks.  Secondly, is salvation best understood as communion?  Forgiveness of sin, liberation, and deification are somewhat neglected in Heim’s description, and are these aspirations only means to the end of communion?  Interaction is needed with a more developed trans-religious atonement theory.

Heim’s work deserves to be challenged and responded to, read by Christians and non-Christians alike.  The issue of Christian witness and mission with regard to religious pluralism is one of the chief obstacles confronting the church of the 21st Century.  Many questions remain unanswered despite Heim’s useful and extensive project, but it seems he has really opened a door to a new kind of dialogue between the religions that should be more fruitful than most ecumenical efforts in the past.


[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), 352.

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Picador, 2007).

[3] Hans Kung, On Being a Christian (NOVALIS PUBLISHING, 2008), 25.

[4] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis Books, 2002).

[5] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition (2nd ed.; Yale University Press, 2005).

[6] S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Orbis Books, 1995), 6.

[7] J. A. Dinoia, The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Catholic University of America Press, 1992), x.

[8] Jacques Dupuis, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue (Orbis Books, 2002), 4.

[9] Heim, Salvations, 9.

[10] Ibid., 3.

[11] Ibid., 149.

[12] Ibid., 162.

[13] S. Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 80.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 81.

[16] Ibid., 277.

[17] Ibid., 115.

[18] Ibid., 118.

[19] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 114.

[20] Ibid., 112.

[21] Ibid., 127.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Heim, Salvations, 160.

[24] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 124.

[25] Michael LaFargue, “Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical : A New Theory of Religions.,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60, no. 4 (1992): 713.

[26] Heim, Salvations, 167.

[27] Heim, The Depth of the Riches, 271.

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