Review: “Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology” by Perry Schmidt-Leukel – And its relevance for the Ethics of War and Peace

This article was initially published on my discontinued blog ‘Just Peace and War’ on 20/04/2018. A few editorial changes were made for republishing it on this website.

Religious diversity is not a new phenomenon but as old as most major religious traditions. This becomes apparent in the fact that at least all of today’s major religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the different Chinese religions are a result of some form of syncretism of different religious forebears. It is also nothing new that religious diversity can lead to religious conflicts because of divergent claims of truth. This potential for conflict was, still is and will be used to fuel conflicts between different groups of people. These conflicts are not confined to regions like the Middle East, where they are undoubtedly more violent, but also become more and more visible in Western societies in Europe or North America. In my opinion, this makes it obvious why the theology of religions and the corresponding part of philosophy of religion as the two branches of those disciplines that deal with the phenomenon of religious diversity are not only important academic fields but also a topic for a blog on the ethics of war and peace. Therefore, by means of a short review of the book Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology. The Gifford Lectures – An Extended Edition (Schmidt-Leukel 2017), this post will explain the new proposal of interreligious theology by Perry Schmidt-Leukel before some thoughts on possible implications for the ethics of war and peace will be discussed.

All religions have always to confront the question, why there is not just their own religion in the world but many others. Mostly, religions or religious people in past and present do this on the basis that they accept their own religion as the only true one and the other ones as false or at least deficient. The different approaches on how to treat the different contradictory claims are in the theology of religion commonly differentiated in three types, which were introduced by Alan Race (Race 1983). The exclusivist option states that only the central religious message of one’s own religion is true and all others are false. This is obviously the option with the highest potential for conflict. The inclusivist option accepts that traces of truth can be found in different religions to different degrees, but that only one’s own religion is true in a full sense and is therefore superior to all other religions. The third option is the pluralist position, which holds that more than one central religious message is true in a full sense and therefore equally valid, and that none of these equal religions is superior to the others. Finally, according to Perry Schmidt-Leukel, a fourth option should be added to this typology: the naturalist or atheist option, which does not accept any religious message as true.

The Review

In Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology Perry Schmidt-Leukel, who stands, among others, in the tradition of the British philosopher and theologian John H. Hick, offers his most recent account on the pluralist approaches in the major world-religions and a development of the pluralist approach towards an interreligious theology. The author is an Anglican theologian, former Professor for Systematic Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow, and since 2009 Professor for Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology and Director of the Institute for Religious Studies and Inter-Faith Theology at the University of Münster, Germany. He is the most important German representative of the pluralist option in the theology of religions.

Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology is based not only on the Gifford Lectures Schmidt-Leukel delivered at the University of Glasgow in 2015, but on two series of lectures. After an introductory chapter on religious pluralism and interreligious theology, the first part of the book (chapters 2-7) is based on a series of lectures he gave at the Zheijiang University in Hangzhou, China, in October 2014. This part of the book gives an overview of the respective approaches to the pluralist option along with its criticism in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese Religions. The second part is the revised version of the Gifford Lectures on interreligious theology. This part starts with chapter 8 outlining his approach towards an interreligious theology, followed by chapter 9 covering the principles and methodology of an interreligious theology. The next three chapters (10-12) are an application of the outlined methodology on the question of the relations between the Son (Jesus Christ), the Prophet (Muhammad), and the Buddha. In chapter 13, Schmidt-Leukel outlines an interreligious theology of creation, which takes into account the very different approaches of the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism to the doctrine of creation. Finally, in his last chapter he introduces a fractal approach to religious diversity and tries to combine this with his draft of an interreligious theology.

For somebody who already read Schmidt-Leukel’s earlier major work on pluralist theology of religion (Schmidt-Leukel 2005), the first part is an updated and shorter version of an overview about the religious relations of Christianity with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism from his earlier book, but this time solely concentrating on the pluralist approaches in these religions and with the addition of a very interesting chapter on Chinese Religions. As Adrienne Nicholson points out in her review, a noteworthy finding of Schmidt-Leukel’s overview is the following point: While Eastern religions are often thought of being more pluralistic then the Abrahamic religions, they still have a rather long way to a truly pluralist option. Then again, the Abrahamic religions point of departure to a truly pluralist position is further removed from the goal of pluralist equality between religions, but in these religions more contemporary theologians have come closer to the pluralist goal in their thinking.

With the second part, Schmidt-Leukel offers an intriguing concept for a theological development starting from the pluralist theology of religions towards a truly interreligious theology. Because of the common prejudice against the pluralist option and any further development towards a world/global or interreligious theology, he emphasises that interreligious theology as well as religious pluralism do not take “a position above and beyond the actual religions” (Schmidt-Leukel 2017:128). Schmidt-Leukel has no intention to pave the way to some future super-religion, but he wants the different insights of different religions bear fruits towards an interreligious theology through interreligious dialogue (chapter 8). This is also emphasised by the outline of the principles and the methodology of interreligious theology (chapter 9). At first, he proposes four principles of which the third is Tied to Interreligious Discourse showing the importance of interreligious dialogue for his concept. Then, he states that methodologically interreligious theology should be perspectival, imaginative, comparative and constructive. Here again, Schmidt-Leukel’s dialogical approach becomes apparent. Perspectival means facing the confessional dimension, imaginative is understood as seeing through the eyes of the other, comparative as seeking reciprocal illumination and constructive as mutual transformation (Schmidt-Leukel 2017:136-145) through dialogue, which could lead to the revision, reconstruction or reinterpretation of traditional beliefs. From my understanding, Schmidt-Leukel demonstrates clearly that interreligious theology is not some form of relativism or some global, totalising perspective on religions. Instead, he offers a theological approach to religious diversity, which takes one’s own tradition as seriously as the other religious traditions, recognises that religion is always a time and context bound phenomenon, and accepts our limitation to speak less concrete about the ultimate reality than we would maybe like to. With this last point, Schmidt-Leukel stands in the tradition of John Hick, who uses the term ultimate reality for theistic and nontheistic concepts, and of the apophatic (negative) theology. Finally, he acknowledges that interreligious theology could lead to the necessity to revise, reconstruct or reinterpret traditional theological principles.

Possible implications of interreligious theology

A concept of interreligious theology as proposed by Perry Schmidt-Leukel can lead to several implications on questions around war and peace. The theologian Hans Küng points out that there will be “no peace among nations without peace among religions” (Küng 2017: 13). Following Küng’s assessment, Schmidt-Leukel mentions the fact, that it could undermine the source of religious conflict, as a pragmatic reason for a pluralist or interreligious theology and therefore put an end to the use of religion as a fuel to conflicts (Schmidt-Leukel 2017:11). And without doubt, if a majority of believers of the major religions would accept a pluralist approach in the theology of religions, the potential for conflict out of these religions would be heavily diminished. But as Schmidt-Leukel shows in the first part of the book, this is not to be expected. Even though one can find theologians supporting a pluralist approach in all discussed religions, they are always a minority. The example of Christianity and here the Roman-Catholic Church as its largest dominion shows that convincingly. The inclusivist approach, which can also contribute to diminish the potential for conflict, is widely accepted by the church authorities. But the same authorities strongly oppose the pluralist approach as Schmidt-Leukel’s professional life demonstrates itself. He had to move to Glasgow for his first professorship where he eventually converted to the Scottish Episcopal Church, because he was bared from teaching Catholic theology by Roman-Catholic church authorities in Germany after the first publication of his pluralist views in 1997. In the foreseeable future it seems unrealistic to assume that the pluralist or interreligious approach to theology of religion will become the mainstream position in any of the major religions and therefore the hope to free religions from its potential for conflict will not be fulfilled either.

But there could be other possible implications of interreligious theology for example on religious ethics. As the Anglican moral theologian Nigel Biggar points out, Christian ethics do not always have to be distinctive from secular forms or other religious ethics, but yet theological teachings like the belief in the salvation are never irrelevant to Christian ethics, even when they concur with other forms of ethics (Biggar 2011). But if one follows Schmidt-Leukel’s approach of interreligious theology and accepts the consequence that interreligious theology can lead to the necessity to revise, reconstruct or reinterpret traditional theological principles, this would not necessarily be without consequences for religious ethics. This is clearly a challenge for all religious ethics and for the interreligious dialogue about ethics. But maybe it could also offer an opportunity.

In 1993 Hans Küng drafted the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, which was signed at the meeting of the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago by around 200 religious leaders from different faiths. The declaration is an interfaith agreement on major ethical principels to promote the good for all people. In his later work Küng justifies this concept of a global ethic with seven explanations, which include, among others, a philosophical and a Religious Studies perspective. An explanation form a theological perspective is excluded because of the difficulties through the opposing claims to religious truth and different dogmatic teachings (Küng 2017:43-97). Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s proposal for an interreligious theology leads to the question if it could close this gap, at least in the long term.

With interreligious theology to a stronger acceptance of international concepts

But interreligious theology could also offer an opportunity for closing a further gap, which is left open by the proposal for a global ethic by Küng and the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. As Küng explicitly points out, the approach of the declaration offers only a very elementary global ethic, which proclaims, among other things, a commitment to a culture of non-violence but which does not offer any further guidance for cases where a non-violent conflict solution is not possible. According to Küng, a global agreement on a sophisticated global ethic is not even necessary (Küng 2017:36). While this may be true on a global level for ethical questions around abortion or euthanasia, for many questions in the field of war and peace or international relations in general the opposite is true. Highly complex international and national conflicts like the ones in Syria or the DRC, to name just two of many possible examples, lead to complex political, legal, and ethical problems, that need to be answered urgently because in the meantime people are suffering and dying. For these problems there are no easy solutions, but every proposal to solve any of them need the highest possible acceptance among the international community for a chance of success. One example for such a proposal is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), whose acceptance is without doubt in crisis.

As Manuel Fröhlich and others point out, the classical just war doctrine is one of the foundations of the R2P concept (Fröhlich 2016:305). Without intending to disagree with Stephen Neff’s analysis that the just war doctrine should not be characterised as “Christian” or “theological” too lightly (Neff 2008:54-57), it was influenced by theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Hugo Grotius (who was a legal scholar in the first place) and is still part of the Christian teaching and academic discourse in Christian ethics (Biggar 2013). In my perception this, at least in parts, religious ethical foundation of concepts like the R2P is downplayed in the international discussions about such concepts because so many different parties with very different ideological backgrounds have to find an agreement. And without ignoring the equally present influence of realpolitik on these processes, in my opinion, one has to ask if this approach leads to the desirable highest possible acceptance of such concepts. Looking at the situation in Syria as only one example for the failure of the international community to take its responsibility to protect innocent civilians seriously, one must notice that the acceptance of such an obligation and its prioritisation above national interests is obviously not an international consensus.

Without being naive about the obstacles and the extent of the task, one can ask, whether an interreligious theological approach like Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s proposal (including non-religious ideologies) could lead to a strong and lasting acceptance of existing and future international norms and concepts worldwide, if it would be applied in the search for extensive and ideological overarching acceptable justifications for these norms and concepts. Necessarily, such an approach would have to accept the possibility of a revision, reconstruction or reinterpretation of traditional principles and consequential norms and concepts, if it is supposed to be truly open to the fruits of other traditions, whose influences were hitherto very limited in international relations and law. Furthermore, if possible justifications of norms and concepts would be widely discussed on a local level and from different ideological backgrounds and if the process of their creation and implementation is open to the input of these different backgrounds, the result could be truly shared justifications. Hopefully, this could lead to a stronger and broader acceptance of international norms and concepts in different societies worldwide and thus to a stronger motivation for political leaders to put them into action. Of course, such a process cannot be accomplished by politicians, diplomats or international lawyers alone but theologians and philosophers from all major ideological backgrounds would need to get involved into a dialogue to find common ground and justifications for shared values and norms for the one world.


Biggar, Nigel (2011), Behaving in Public. How to Do Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.

Biggar, Nigel (2013), In Defence of War, Oxford.

Fröhlich, Manuel (2016), The responsibility to protect: foundation, transformation, and application of an emerging norm, in: Klose, Fabian, The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention. Ideas and Practice from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, Cambridge, 299-330.

Küng, Hans (2017), Handbuch Weltethos, München.

Neff, Stephen C. (2008), War and the Law of Nations. A General History, Cambridge.

Race, Alan (1983), Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions, London.

Schmidt-Leukel, Perry (2005), Gott ohne Grenzen. Eine christliche und pluralistische Theologie der Religionen, Gütersloh. (English translation in 2017: God Beyond Boundaries. A Christian and Pluralist Theology of Religions, Münster/New York)

Schmidt-Leukel, Perry (2017), Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology. The Gifford Lectures – An Extended Edition, Maryknoll, New York.

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