Journal for the Study of Religion 31,1 (2018) 70 – 85 70
On-line ISSN 2413-3027; DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2413-3027/2018/v31n1a4
Thinking God in a
Global Multi-religious Context:
Trends, Challenges and Possibilities
Contemporary religious and theological scholarship is acutely aware that
different contexts result in different ways of thinking and speaking about God.
This article situates God-talk intentionally in the present global and post-
secular horizon and asks about the implications of this hermeneutical move.
Mapping scholarly trends in this regard is a specific aim of the article, which
is written from the perspective of Systematic Theology in conversation with
the Study of Religion. The development of reflection on God in inter-religious
theologies and in the so-called Trinitarian rediscovery is discussed. Two
academic challenges are identified as part of a constructive proposal – a re-
envisioning of the relationship between the Study of Religion on the one hand
and Christian Theology and Systematic Theology respectively on the other at
public universities. Possible future constructive avenues are suggested and the
article proposes a minimalist way forward to engage the global and post-
secular context, and highlighting an inter-subjective ethos, attention to
discursive performances and the African context.
Keywords: globalised world, post-secular world, God, Trinity, Systematic
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
The return of God in scholarly reflection in the late twentieth century has come
as a surprise to those awaiting the triumph of secularisation. Even more
astonishing have been the innovative re-imaginings of the divine which
crystallised in theologies of those who have been marginalised from dominant
discourse – women, Black people, those who suffer, those who are from non-
Western cultures, or even those who take science and new philosophies
seriously. What has transpired is that the context of experience and of thinking
about the divine eventually determines the grammar of such speech. One such
context which is becoming increasingly important and which this article will
address is the horizon of the world as globalised and post-secular. A great deal
of energy has been consumed to come to terms with the processes of
globalisation and the so-called de-secularisation of the world, but hardly any
energy on what this might imply for God-talk as such.
In this reflection, the context of a globalised and post-secular world
will be explicitly raised as a generative horizon for speech about the Ultimate.
As an exploration, it will focus on what could be considered meta-questions,
those issues that should be addressed first – the trends, the challenges and the
future possibilities. It is important, as will become clear in the discussion, to
be explicit about one’s own theoretical orientation. I write from a Christian
perspective and as a systematic theologian, and not as a scholar of religion.
The article is a modest attempt to honour the contribution Prof. Martin
Prozesky has made to the world of academic reflection. The specific choice of
theme will underline, in a small way, the intuitions which guided his quest: a
search for intellectual openness, a sense of transcendence, an expression of the
religious experience of mankind in the widest possible manner, and an acute
awareness of the moral nature of the universe.
Two Descriptive Labels
The task of naming the present, discerning social and cultural changes with
corresponding shifts in human consciousness remains a perennial intellectual
responsibility of the theologian and scholar of religion. That our time has
witnessed seismic transformations has become general knowledge, and
numerous observers in various academic fields have employed different labels
to capture the nature of these changes. ‘Postmodern’ and ‘post-colonial’ are
some of the well-known ones that endeavour to signal the reaction to the
particular kind of (modernist) rationality and the myriad abuses of power. In
this article, the interest lies in two other attempts at ‘naming the present’ –
those which highlight the globalised and the post-secular character of our
world. Both have been treated exhaustively in many publications, and the
implications for religions, in general, have been intimated. Whether the
ramifications for approaching God, the Divine, the Ultimate have been
addressed satisfactorily is an open question. This could be identified as the
‘knowledge gap’ in existing scholarship.
A Globalised World
It is widely accepted that ‘globalisation’ is a contested concept; the nature,
causes and implications are not uniformly viewed. Minimally, it could be
understood as a set of social processes; it is about shifting forms of human
contact and the reconfiguration of social space, according to Steger (2003:8f).
His definition is worth quoting in full:
Globalization refers to a multidimensional set of social processes that
create, multiply, stretch, and intensify worldwide social interdepend-
dence and exchanges while at the same time fostering in people a
growing awareness of deepening connections between the local and
It is obvious that religion cannot escape from this and that the basic dynamics
which crystallises is an increased awareness of religious plurality. It has
become a truism to refer to the religiously ‘other’ in neighbourhoods.
However, a deeper reality is being negotiated – religious identities cannot
remain immunised and are also in flux (see Schreiter 1997: 73-81). What has
not yet adequately been examined is how this has affected understandings of
A Post-secular World
One of the surprising developments of recent times is the new visibility of
religion and the return of religion to the scholarly agenda (see Gorski et al.
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
2012). That our time can rightly be described as ‘post-secular’ is widely
acknowledged, and renowned thinkers such as Peter Berger and Jürgen
Habermas have registered this in their work. Traditional secularisation theories
had to be re-visited; religion is not in the process of decline and it is not only a
private matter. The interface with globalisation is an obvious avenue to
suggest; most often, the new resurgence is simply a resistance strategy to all
the changes. Basic to this trend is the conviction ‘that it is impossible to make
sense of the world without taking into account religion’ (Gorski et al. 2012: 5).
This new interest takes on diverse forms, and an observer such as Graham
Ward (2009: 135-154) identifies three forms: fundamentalism, a return of
religion to civil society, and a ‘commodification of religion’ in cultural life.
Nowhere is an express attention to God or Ultimacy mentioned. The intention
of this article is to raise the question about a scholarly response to these
developments by referring explicitly to the Divine.
Two Scholarly Trends
An impression should not be created that the many social changes and their
potential impact on religion have not yet been subjected to reflective scrutiny.
Excellent examples of such endeavours are available and should be addressed.
Two of these will be described.
God in Interreligious and Cross-cultural Theologies
Two specific recent projects deserve some attention. The Lund project, with
papers published in the volume The Concepts of God in Global Dialogue (see
Jeanrond & Lande 2005), explores contemporary models and paradigms of
interreligious dialogue, developments in the Christian concept of God, and then
various reflections on the notion of the divine in Japanese Buddhism. Worth
mentioning in this volume are the contributions by Kuschel on the need for a
‘theology of the other’, and by Tracy on the notion of ‘fragment’ and the
hiddenness and incomprehensibility of God. The second project – the so-called
European Intensive Programmes – has been more comprehensive, and resulted
in three volumes of essays, namely Naming and Thinking God in Europe Today
(Hintersteiner 2007), Postcolonial Europe in the Crucible of Ccultures (Haers,
Hintersteiner & Schrijver 2007), and Thinking the Divine in Interreligious
encounter (Hintersteiner 2012). This informative and wide-reaching project by
twenty departments of theology and religion at universities across Europe is an
intentional shift away from a traditional confessional concept of theology
towards one which is open to interreligious encounter and engagement. It is
not possible to summarise the large number of contributions and the rich scope
of ideas generated; only a few references can be made.
Robert Schreiter (2012: 304), who participated in both projects, points
out that the interreligious dialogue is often also an intercultural one. His
proposal of the central place that intercultural hermeneutics should assume in
the interreligious dialogue must be carefully heeded. Culture is a layered reality
and in constant flux, especially with the advent of globalising forces. The
dynamics of the impact of globalisation – homogenisation, hyperdifferen-
tiation, deterritorialisation and hybridisation – form the cultural conditions
under which the discourse on God takes place (Schreiter 2012: 306-314).
Because of these complex processes, concepts of God are mutated; they can be
narrowed as a resistance strategy or even expanded due to external influences.
Interesting in the contribution by Schreiter (2012: 315-318) is the identification
of four kinds of discourses about God in intercultural and interreligious
dialogue: God of the horizon, God of life, God of the ancestors, and God of the
religions. These refer, respectively, to recognition of limitations to
understanding the religiously other, the resistance to resilience in suffering,
senses of belonging, and mediation through tradition. These all come into play
when considering the divine in a new global situation.
That the very idea of ‘God’ in religious traditions is problematic is
discussed in Keith Ward’s (2007) contribution. For him, who has made
significant contributions to the field of global theology in various publications,
this refers to the study of ultimate realities and values, and to the ways of
relating to these realities. The notion of a personal God is just one idea of
ultimate reality, of which he identifies at least four such possible models: an
idealist, dualist, monist or theistic one (Ward 2007: 380f). This approach gives
expression to the relationship between the ultimate and the cosmos, whether it
is identical, quite distinct or includes creation as part of itself, or is even
personal as such. For Ward (2007: 382), the various religions cannot be
reduced to a fundamental sameness, but ‘all religions are concerned with a
supreme spiritual reality’. He is especially concerned with articulating
simultaneously what is common and what is different in the religions. They
share an ascription of wisdom, compassion and bliss to what they consider
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
‘ultimate’, but differ as to what this ultimacy could be and how we come to
know and relate to it. The notion of a ‘God’ is the result of transposing personal
relationship and a sense of otherness to the understanding of the divine. In his
contribution, Robert Neville (2007) highlights similar sentiments as Ward. The
enthusiasm for the category of ‘God’ is a typical Western scholarly reflex. He
also prefers the notion of ‘ultimate’ and at stake for him is the referent of this
or, in other words, in what respect do they interpret reality. He makes the useful
observation that religions could be compared ‘only where they are found to
have concepts interpreting the same object in the same respect’ (Neville 2007:
518). His working hypothesis for the dialogue between religions is formulated
as ‘that in reality in respect of which human life is to be considered as having
ultimate significance’ (Neville 2007: 523). A comparative project will then
proceed by asking about what orients ultimate human significance. Neville is
aware of how complex this task is, and of how radically religions do actually
differ in this regard, especially when one moves beyond monotheistic beliefs,
with, for example, Buddhism as typical point in case.
Trinitarian Approaches to Religious Plurality
The so-called ‘rediscovery’ of the Trinitarian confession is one of the most
significant developments in Christian theology. Not only has the Trinity been
re-affirmed as the distinctive marker of Christian identity, but it has been re-
interpreted with relational categories and been employed as the key to address
a variety of practical problems. Not only has the being of God been appreciated
as communal, but this very identification has been understood, for example, as
‘model’ to solve the dilemmas of unity and diversity in society. One of the
surprising applications of this doctrine has been to religious plurality. Whereas,
in the past, the Trinity was viewed as an obstacle to interreligious dialogue, it
has been re-appreciated as exceptional resource to open new avenues for
approaching this difficult reality. Well-known scholars such as Panikkar,
Dupuis, D’Costa and Heim have suggested creative and extensive Trinitarian
proposals in this regard. Comprehensive and good overviews are available
(see, e.g., Kärkkäinen 2004). These projects are by no means uniform; they are
expressive of creative rhetorical attempts to explore the mystery of a God
whose own being reveals plurality and whose engagement with the world
manifests a corresponding richness.
One example of this significant trend can be described in greater detail,
that by Mark Heim. His innovative work amounts to a corrective to older
pluralist approaches which, according to him, do not recognise adequately the
differences among religions. In two main works – Salvations (1995) and The
depth of the riches (2001) – he argues for different religious ends, hence the
plural form of salvation, and for a Trinitarian basis to this conviction. The
underlying assumption of former pluralist models is a singular final end; a truly
pluralist hypothesis should suggest an alternative, that is, a diversity of
religious ends. The critical question for Heim (1995: 160) is: ‘What accounts
as salvation?’. According to him, this refers to being in communion with the
divine – ‘salvation is a relation of communion with God’ (Heim 2001: 59). The
next move in the argument incorporates the Trinity: the diversity of religions
is rooted in the diversity of the divine life itself – ‘The Trinity is a map that
finds room for, indeed, requires concrete truth in other religions’ (Heim 2005:
198). Basic in his proposal is the notion of Trinitarian ‘plenitude’ as expressing
the fullness of divine love; it refers explicitly to the range of fulfilments
available to creation (Heim 1995: 165). Critical to understanding his proposal
is the emphasis that distinctive religious ends are not based in the separate
persons of the Trinity, ‘but in the various dimensions of the communion (of
oneness) among the persons’ (Heim 2014: 123). The plenitude of relationality
allows for a diversity of religious ends as communion in their distinctiveness.
It is worth noting that, despite this express pluralist orientation, Heim (2014:
132) still maintains some ‘superiority’ for the Christian faith, as faith which
‘more truly’ posits an integrative vision.
Two Academic Challenges
Obviously, a responsible response to the drastic changes being experienced in
our time requires a comprehensive one. An academic engagement, however, is
a necessary, valid and appropriate one. In this instance, two possible responses
will be briefly intimated.
Theology and Religious Studies at a Public University
The changes in the cultural horizon require an institutional response. This
should be clearly appreciated. Idea and form-giving can never be separated;
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
this was persuasively argued by the French philosopher Foucault in his entire
oeuvre. Two specific challenges can be identified, in this instance: how the
study of religion is institutionalised at public universities and how it is
addressed in terms of the various traditional theological disciplines, speci-
fically Systematic Theology. In post-apartheid South Africa, with the
numerous changes to undo the past and its myriad adverse effects, higher
education itself has been in a process of drastic transformation. Often, the
concern is voiced that the changes, for example enrolments statistics, avoid the
deeper challenges of interrogating the nature of knowledge transmitted and
generated. This insistence is usually captured in the notion of ‘epistemological
transformation’. The validity of this critique is obvious from the present
practice of the academic study of religion. Despite the wide range of
approaches at universities, and with some commendable exceptions, several
trends can be discerned
. There is an unquestionable dominance of this study
by Christian theology, and most often by a Reformed confessional orientation.
Where Religious Studies is present, it is usually separated from Theology in
terms of departmental configuration, and there is relatively little mutual
interaction. This situation is particularly fertile ground for new thinking and
A great deal can be learned from practices in the UK and the
emergence of a so-called ‘new paradigm’. Two recent examples can be briefly
conveyed. In the volume of studies contributed in honour of Nicolas Lash –
Fields of faith (Ford, Quash & Soskice 2005) – a general relative new ethos
emerges (see, especially, the conclusion by Adams, Davies & Quash 2005:
207-221). The conversation with other religions is central in thinking about
Christian identity, and a fine antenna exists to avoid hegemonic thinking and
attitudes. The point of departure is the recognition of ‘pluralistic particularity’.
Both Theology and Religious Studies are considered necessary with an own
task, but mutual engagement is advocated. Key notions crystallising in the
discourse are ‘hospitality’ and ‘conviviality’. Openness to one another and a
willingness to enter into conversation and to learn from one another are part of
this new paradigm. Two particular emphases highlighted in the volume of
essays are worth mentioning: an awareness of the ‘sociality of thought’ and the
In South Africa a great diversity is to be found and each academic institution
has its own ‘ecology’. Generally one can claim that there is greater appreciation
for the Study of Religion, and for a closer dialogue with Christian Theology.
importance of values (see Adams, Davies & Quash 2005: 219f). In distinction
of the study of Humanities, in general, Theology and Religious Studies cannot
escape the character of religious communities; these communities are
constituted by values, and both these dynamics – communality and values –
should be reflected in the academic study.
The second example commenting on this ‘new paradigm’ is by the
Cambridge scholar David Ford (2011: 150ff) who played a major role in
delineating a different approach in the UK which he labels ‘New Theology and
Religious Studies’. The ‘newness’ is to be found in the combination of the two
fields of study to form ‘one ecosytem’. There is still a sense of distinction – the
one being descriptive, analytical and explanatory, and the other normative and
practical – but the overwhelming thrust is one of complementarity. Both
Theology and Religious Studies need each other. Ford is convinced that the
new conceptualisation allows not only for better service to the university,
society and religious communities, but also for a much more promising ability
to address questions of meaning, truth, practice and beauty.
A great deal can be learned from this discourse, not only in terms of
institutional arrangement, but also especially about the implications for
thinking about the divine in a globalised world. The insistence on conversation
could only result in stimulation of new thinking on the sacred.
Systematic Theology and Religious Studies
In the traditional theological encyclopaedia, the study of religion has been
assigned to the ministerial disciplines such as Missiology. This was motivated
by pragmatic reasons, and cannot escape the charge of some implicit
imperialistic aim: What must be converted should be known. The question can
be raised as to whether a discipline, which intentionally addresses the truth of
the Christian faith – Systematic Theology – should not engage non-Christian
religions and their expressions of meaning and truth. Conventionally,
Systematic Theology has been marked by a narrow confessional orientation,
but times are changing. Already two decades ago, a scholar such as D’Costa
(see 1992) voiced the opinion that the task of this discipline must be re-
envisioned, emphasising the demographical prominence of people from
various religions. He explicitly advocates that the form and contents of
Systematic Theology need to change; especially the Christian doctrine of God
‘comes under severe questioning in contact with the world religions’ (D’Costa
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
1992: 331). The pioneering work by Smart and Konstantine – Christian
Systematic Theology in a World Context (1991) – should also be mentioned.
Although the study has been criticised for its a-historical approach to religion,
their intuition that theology be situated in a global context and in the study of
religion should be acknowledged.
One impressive project which is in process deserves careful attention
– that of the Finnish scholar Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen who is teaching in the USA
at Fuller Theological Seminary. His earlier textbook approach to various
doctrines such as God, the Trinity, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church,
which pursued a global approach honouring the diversity of Christian voices
worldwide, has now come to fruition in his five-volume project titled A
constructive Christian theology for the pluralistic world (2013-2017). No
comparable project is currently available with such an openness to traditional
theology, the diverse voices within Christianity and to non-Christian religions.
Epistemologically, the project is placed in a postfoundationalist paradigm,
acknowledging that human knowledge is provisional, historical, limited and
perspectival, but asserting simultaneously that truth transcends one’s own
ghetto (Kärkkäinen 2013: 10f). This ambitious undertaking is marked by four
features – theology should pursue a coherent, inclusive, dialogical and
hospitable vision. A coherent approach to truth implies that Christian doctrine
should also be related to external claims to meaning, that is, the claims of other
religions to truth (Kärkkäinen 2013: 22, 24). The other three orientations are
closely related; at stake is not only the traditionally marginalised voices of
Christians, especially in the global South, but refers explicitly also to non-
Christian religions. This vision is clearly given shape in his study on the Trinity
(2014). In addition to the typical Christian systematic engagement with issues
such as atheism, panentheism, and divine attributes, Kärkkäinen explores the
notion of divine ‘hospitality’ and then proceeds to discuss at length a
Trinitarian theology of religious plurality and enters into detailed conversation
with Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and their understanding of Allah,
Brahman and Sunyata. This project is beyond doubt significant and should be
carefully studied. But most crucial – this should inform the doing of Systematic
Theology in future.
Two Future Possibilities
Against the background of the changing times, the trends in discourses on God,
and the academic institutionalised challenges, one cannot evade the question
about the way forward. In this concluding section, a few remarks will be given
about this. The promising project of Comparative Theology will be introduced
and a personal constructive proposal will be made.
In recent years, the proposal for a Comparative Theology has received
increasing attention, especially as advocated by Francis Clooney, the Harvard
scholar of Hindu-Christian Studies, although one can also mention scholars
such as Keith Ward, Robert Neville and James Fredericks. This should be
appreciated as a response to 21st-century religious diversity (Clooney 2010: 8).
The term itself has been used since the 18th century, but the orientations
expressed in contemporary discourse are of fairly recent origin, rendering the
discipline not yet settled. Clooney (2007: 654) defines it as ‘the practice of
rethinking aspects of one’s own faith tradition through the study of aspects of
another faith tradition’. A number of dimensions characterise this form of
theological exchange: it is interreligious, dialogical and confessional. The
overriding conviction is about the interreligious nature of theologising as such.
Although the notion of ‘theology’ is applicable to religions such as Hinduism,
Buddhism and Islam, there is an acknowledgement that it has a specific
genealogy and connotations which resonate with Christianity. However, this
still does not undo the reality of intellectual practices in religions. Central to
Comparative Theology is a ‘dialogical accountability’ (Clooney 2007: 661) –
mutual learning and attentiveness to particularities of other religious traditions
should take place. Clooney (2010: 58ff) highlights the role of ‘religious
reading’ of texts. In no way is a confessional stance bracketed off, that is, a
neutral stance required. Most often, the encounter results in intensifying
religious commitments. The possibility of new communities emerging should
also not be excluded (Clooney 2010: 160f). Clooney is frank about the
ramifications of such a project: as sophisticated knowledge emerges in the
dialogue, answering the big questions becomes increasingly difficult, leading
to a postponement of the resolutions.
A Minimalist Proposal
Before actual interreligious encounter can place (and this was not the focus of
Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
this article), some critical meta-issues should be clarified. It is obvious that
older paradigms cannot merely continue. Changes in terms of attitude have
materialised; but also quite crucial – some new sensibilities have come to the
fore. Situating such conversation in the context of the processes of globali-
sation and post-secularisation, prioritises new perspectives, for example, the
public nature of God or the Ultimate, impacts of such beliefs on the ability to
adjust, and to respect otherness. Precisely this insight – that a new set of
questions confront the researcher – renders the endeavour relatively new.
Intentional thinking takes place from the dynamics of a specific – globalised
and post-secular – context. A minimalist proposal might entail a number of
A deliberate and explicit intersubjective ethos should direct the
conversation. The twin sentiment – appreciation of one’s own tradition with
respect and openness to the other – marks rightly, as Clayton (2014: 25)
comments, ‘a new form of theological reflection’. Farewell has been bid to
older mentalities which still harbour inclinations towards exclusion, supe-
riority and the possible conversion of the other.
Without some form of episteme (in the Foucaultian sense), or some
cognitive map, the journey would be without direction. Central concerns,
especially under the conditions of the present horizon, should be identified.
Doing so heightens the awareness of how one is conditioned by one’s own
cultural, religious and academic background. However, the very interreligious
episteme could be the focus of the conversation. Minimally four avenues, four
questions could form the direction of the engagement: How to identify
intellectual practices and traditions? How to name the Ultimate? How to map
trajectories of change and internal plurality relative to the Ultimate? How to
account for performances, in terms of sense-making of the world, ethical
orientation, and personal transformation? These obviously call for some
explanation. Without some clarity of the intellectual traditions of religions,
serious encounter, especially in an institutional context, is hardly possible.
Meaningful conversation is not possible without some identification of what is
considered Ultimate. In this instance, the role of language, of human ability to
name metaphorically, comes into play. To avoid a static and even a-historical
understanding of the divine without particulars, some description of shifts and
changes is required. This also creates possibilities for mutations in new social
conditions. The crucial question is the final one about performances. Fruitful
interreligious conversation should highlight how religious traditions and their
notions of the Ultimate assist human beings to make sense of the world, how
they motivate them to honour alterity, and how they promise hope amidst a sea
of affliction. How these have been formulated betrays an antenna for the
challenges of a globalised world. In a recent study Volf (2015) discusses
religion in a globalised world and explicitly highlights flourishing as central
category. The element of contestation cannot be avoided. What connotations
of truth, good and beauty do religions assign to their specific faiths in the
Although the focus is on the global context, a preference for context
cannot be ignored. All thinking, also about the divine, display a definite
contextuality, and in this case the reality of Africa should be attended to. Much
has been written on the encounter between missionary Christianity and African
Traditional Religion, and about the ‘threat of Islam’. A new discourse is
needed; a discourse which accounts for the complex reality of religion in Africa
and its multiple faces (see e.g. Bongmba 2012), and for the imperative to
consider decolonisation (see e.g. Adamo 2011). The impact of globalisation on
African religions is underestimated (see the correction by Van Binsbergen
2004:87ff). A new interreligious discourse on God in Africa should consider
precisely the elements mentioned in the previous paragraph on episteme. Much
of reflection on God in Africa is trapped in a missionary mode of thinking, and
is clearly dated in terms of scholarship. A new mode of reflection should be
undertaken in conversation among religions, with a recognition of global
changes and impacts, and with an antenna for human flourishing.
The present historical moment with all its changes, threats and
opportunities calls for discernment. The greater connection between human
beings, with final religious convictions, opens the context for a new moment
to think and speak about God, the Ultimate. Some encouraging projects can
already be found, but academically a great deal of work needs to be done in
reconfiguring how we study religions and do theology. Distilling a productive
set of concerns may guide this conversation. And maybe, in this new context,
new discoveries could be made about life, our life together, in the presence of
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Thinking God in a Global Multi-religious Context
Department of Historical and Constructive Theology
Faculty of Theology and Religion
University of the Free State