In 1 Timothy 2:4, God is described as one “who will have men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The assertion that God has a universal salvific will, that he desires the salvation of every person, poses problems for any theological claim that only a certain group of people (e.g. Christians) are eligible for salvation. Augustine, who saw the majority of humanity as a “lump of sin” headed for perdition, resolved the dilemma by re-interpreting the scripture to mean that God wants salvation not for all people, but for all whom he has predestined. In the 20th century, by contrast, many have taken this verse quite seriously and re-thought the exclusive claims of Christianity in its light.
Christian theologians commonly speak of three ways of approaching religious diversity:
1. Exclusivism. Christianity is the one and only way, and without explicit knowledge of and acceptance of Christ, no one can be saved. This of course leaves open the question of what will happen to all those who never had a chance to accept Christ. One proposal (put forth by George Lindbeck) is that everyone will encounter Christ at the time of death and thus have the chance to make a decision. Many in the exclusivist camp simply remain agnostic on the matter, trusting that God’s justice will sort things out.
2. Inclusivism. It is only through the grace of Christ that one is saved, but one can be saved by this grace without labeling it as such. Karl Rahner’s theory of the “anonymous Christian” is the most well-known articulation of this approach. According to Rahner, God’s grace is universally offered and all people have the real opportunity to respond to it in their lives, regardless of their relationship to explicit Christianity. However, whether or not it is recognized as “Christian,” this grace is the grace of Christ.
3. Pluralism. Christ is one of many legitimate ways to salvation. Paul Knitter, one of the major advocates of this approach, views the exclusivist-sounding claims in the New Testament as “love-language.” When lovers say, “you are the only one for me,” they are not making metaphysical assertions but are expressing love and commitment in the context of a relationship, and the comments of the early Christians about Christ should be read in a similar way. It is a mistake, says Knitter, to assume that truly necessarily implies only; an unequivocal statement that Christ is truly saving does not rule out the possibility of others who are also truly saving.
Mormons, I would say, have some hard-core exclusivist elements, asserting that not only explicit faith in Christ is required, but also the ordinances of a particular religious institution. The LDS answer to reconciling this with the universal salvific will of God is, of course, to extend the opportunity for accepting the gospel to the next life and to perform vicarious ordinance work. Nonetheless, I think there are insights from both the inclusivist and pluralist camps which are not incompatible with LDS thought.
An aspect of Rahner’s theology which I find tremendously appealing is his vision of a world in which grace is everywhere. He notes that far too often, the radical gratuity of grace, the sheer wonder and un-earnedness of it, have been interpreted to mean that grace must be scarce, rare, in short supply. But God’s love, he points out, is no less an awe-inspiring free gift for being universally offered. The world therefore isn’t split into God’s favorites who get offered grace, “the elect,” and everyone else. Grace in Rahner’s view is actually constitutive of what it is to be human; in other words, we can only understand who we are in light of God’s love.
In a similar vein, the book of Alma tells us that “God is mindful of all every people, whatsoever land they may be in” (Alma 26:37) and that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own tongue, to teach his word.” (Alma 28:8) According to Moroni, “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” (Moroni 7:16) Clearly God’s communication and activity in the world are by no means limited to the church. I also see some possible continuity between the notion of “anonymous Christianity” and 3 Nephi 9:20, which explains that “the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.”
Rahner’s approach has been critiqued for undermining the importance of missionary work– what’s the use of proclaiming the gospel if people can accept it anonymously? Interestingly, although I’ve rarely heard it mentioned, I think this same concern could well be raised in the context of LDS theology. Why worry about baptizing people in this life when we can always do it after they’re dead? I think the LDS answer would be similar to Rahner’s: if you understand the purpose of Christianity solely in terms of a “get out of hell free” card, you’ve missed the point. You can be saved without it, but explicit knowledge of the gospel in this life nonetheless has real value.
I also think the pluralists are right to remind us that we have much to learn from those of other faiths, that it’s a mistake to go into a conversation assuming that we have all the answers. Although the LDS view of other faiths has gotten more positive over the years (you hear less about “leave your apostate faith and join ours” and more about “let us add to the truth you already possess”), my impression is that the Mormon viewpoint still tends to be that we have the whole truth, and therefore nothing to learn from anyone else. Other religions are at worst misguided, and at best less-developed or incomplete versions of us. Yet given the premise that God is communicating to all people, I wonder if even from the standpoint of LDS theology, any and all dialogue between Mormons and those of other faiths necessarily has to be one-sided. Joseph Smith himself stated that Mormonism “is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 313.)
I personally don’t know where I’d place myself on the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist continuum. I’ve wrestled for years with issues related to pluralism without having come to much of a conclusion. I know so many devoted, spiritual people in other religious traditions who are so clearly following God and enriching the world in the context of their faith that I have a hard time believing that everyone is meant to be Mormon. On the other hand, I’m uneasy with glib assertions that all roads lead to God, or all religions are essentially the same–claims which I don’t think hold up under critical scrutiny. For the moment, although I’m murky about the details of how it all gets worked out, I hold to belief in a God who, as Nephi tells us, invites “all to come unto him and partake of his goodness” (2 Nephi 26:33) and who also speaks to humans “according to their language, unto their understanding.” (2 Nephi 31:3)