michael ingham, mansions of the spirit

by Robert Brow   (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

(This is a review of Michael Ingham, Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1997.)

 Mansions of the Spirit is recommended on the back cover by the Dalai Lama and Hans Kung. Madeleine L'Engle calls it "magnificent because I agree with it completely." I am brash enough to disagree with her.

 The first chapter describes Bishop Michael Ingham's "Unexpected Conversion" from bigotry as a result of living for several weeks with a very gracious and devout Hindu family in Bombay. Nobody could deny the very bad and rather occasional good results of the religions he describes in the second chapter. Chapter 3 gives a useful survey of the "Inter-Faith Movement" in the hundred years since the first Parliament of the World's Religions in 1893.

 The next three chapters give a fair-minded account of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism (using Alan Race's threefold classification of Christian attitudes to other religions). Ingham admits that Christian Exclusivism is "the oldest and most established Christian position." It is rooted in "some passages of Scripture and in early Christian traditions" (p. 52).

 The Council of Florence (1438) gave us the catchword of Roman Catholic exclusivism: "no salvation outside the church" (p. 53). The Lausanne Declaration (1974) offered the evangelical exclusivism of "no salvation outside a personal and explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ" (p. 54). This was recently argued by James Packer, Jesus Christ the Only Saviour (1994), and incorporated in the final statement of the Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials (pp. 55-56). But Ingham cannot stomach the idea of a god "who is compassionate only towards Christians" (p. 60). He concludes that Exclusivism is "a morally and spiritually intolerable gospel" (p. 62).

 In chapter 5 on "Christian Inclusivism" he quotes other texts of Scripture to show that salvation is possible for everyone "because of Christ's sacrificial atonement" (p. 65). The position was set out in a lecture by Karl Rahner in 1961, and adopted in the second Vatican Council declaration of 1965 relating to "Non-Christian Religions." This explains how salvation is not limited to Christians, but it is only Christians who "fully know its true dimensions" (p. 67). In The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (1968), Pannikar said that Christ is already in Hinduism, but he still needs to be recognized (p. 69).

 Though Bishop Ingham views Inclusivism as an improvement on Exclusivism, he argues that the position becomes absurd as a means of dialogue when every other religion adopts "the same position with respect to Christianity" (p. 71).

 The chapter on "Religious Pluralism" insists that for a proper dialogue between religions no one should adopt a superior stance. That is why "Pluralists agree that there are diverse paths to God." All religious systems are "limited and fallible, " and God works with a "diversity of spiritual understanding" (p. 74).

 Ingham therefore approves the parable attributed to Buddha of the elephant being defined by a group of blind persons each feeling and describing a different part. But he points out that this parable does not deny that there is an elephant. There is some ultimate spiritual reality, though there can be no final certainty about what it is (p. 77). Jesus must be the only way for us as Christians, but as John Hick argues (Whatever Path Men Choose Is Mine [1980]) other religions can have "different, overlapping concepts or mental images of him."

 At that point Michael Ingham admits that Religious Pluralism becomes so generous that "it fails to establish any norms for judging other religions to be true." It is also "unable to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy" forms of religion. By accepting that "one way may be as good as another" there are no foundations and "it is hard to see how there can be any deep spiritual commitment" (pp. 83-84).

 For these reasons Bishop Ingham rejects the three categories of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism "as a potentially distorting framework" for the needed dialogue between religions (p. 86). He is therefore looking for "new ways of thinking" to move out of "the inadequacy of established theological postures" (p. 100).

 In chapter 8 on "The Mystical Path" he finds what he wants from the writings of Meister Eckhart and Mechtild of Magdeburg, the Hindu Upanishads, Matthew Fox and Thomas Merton (pp. 109-117). In doing this he forgets that he has now moved into the denial of Christian Theism which was espoused by Bishop Robinson in Honest to God (1963). It is a model of religion that goes back to at least the sixth century B.C. in India, called Modified Monism. In the West this kind of spirituality is adopted and named Panentheism by Matthew Fox (Original Blessing [1983] pp. 88-92, and The Coming of the Cosmic Christ [1988], pp. 57, 118).

 How does an Anglican Bishop manage to live by a form of Hindu Monism and at the same time say the Nicene Creed on Sunday? In chapter 9 titled "Grounded Openness" the writer approves Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions, (1993). That transcendent unity is obviously Monistic. But Schuon says it can only be attained "through commitment to particular forms" (p. 120.). In a chart by Huston Smith (p. 120) the rituals and forms of the various world religions can be seen as meeting beyond them in a Monistic oneness (Hindus call this the Absolute).

 Armed with this insight Bishop Ingham warns us that "openness to a variety of religious practices is dangerous" (p. 124). Christians should be grounded in their own faith. They must belong "to a faith community" to be open to "the possibility of grace within the unfamiliar" (p. 125). Which being translated means, "Be a good Anglican, but see through the Bible and our liturgical forms to the monistic absolute which is the reality to which they and all other religions point."

 The problem is that if we want to dialogue with the Panentheism of Bishop Robinson, Matthew Fox, and Michael Ingham we cannot make our Evangelical point by quoting the Bible. In chapter 10, "Drawing the Circle Wider," Ingham undercuts the Bible as our authority for religious dialogue by viewing it as an account of "emerging God-consciousness" (p. 128). And he announces that the stage is now set for us to move beyond the New Testament to "a yet wider view of God's self-disclosure" (p. 134). He has already defined that as the form of Modified Monism which he has adopted in chapter 8 on "The Mystical Path."

 If we ask about Christian evangelism, Ingham can say that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life for us (p. 138). We must preach that truth with enthusiasm, but that does not deny that there are other good ways for others. We can therefore engage in the dialogue with all other religions without denying the validity of their forms of religion (pp. 138-139).

 The book ends with a powerful statement: "The true work of Christ is not in correcting other people's theology but in healing their wounds and raising them up in hope of new life." That will certainly appeal to all who are sick and tired of theological discussion.

 Is there any way for Evangelicals to dialogue with this beautifully argued presentation? I suggest that first we need to call a spade a spade, and recognize the ancient model of Monistic religion that Ingham has adopted.

 Secondly we could pick up a thread that stresses the importance of discussion and evaluation. We can agree that before rushing in to argue there is the need to listen from the heart to the other's explanation of his or her way. But having done this, Bishop Ingham admits that there must be a way "to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy beliefs" (p. 50). This can only be done by "using criteria drawn from within one of the religious traditions" (p. 83). By making all religions equally right or equally wrong we leave no "ground for regarding some doctrines as evil and to be opposed" (p. 84).

 In the same vein as Matthew Fox, Bishop Ingham still wants to be able to condemn "poverty, violence, slavery, all forms of human degradation, bigotry, prejudice." He is also passionately concerned about the destruction of ecosystems and corporate evil (p. 138). What he fails to see is that it would be impossible to fault any of these if one was committed to say Pantheism, or to Taoism, or Existentialism. And it is not even clear how he could disapprove of any behaviour that Christians find unacceptable from the point of view of Matthew Fox's Panentheism. Having engaged in a form of monistic meditation, where everything merges, how do we turn round and say that anything that anybody does is wrong? One cannot have Christian love and social justice and a form of Hindu Monism in the same breath.

 That does not give us a proof that Trinitarian Theism is correct and all other religions are wrong. What the Bible gives us is a thousand parables, stories, psalms, images, metaphors, prophetic messages, animal sacrifice, covenants and promises. These all hang together around the life and resurrection of the Son of God. And we can show how this model is Theistic and Trinitarian, as expressed in the Apostles' and Nicene Creed. Having got this model clear we can show from the Bible and the Gospel in particular that all other religions (including Ingham's Panentheism) are certainly different. And no other religion can offer any basis for our good news of the love of God, the forgiveness of sin, the resulting love for our neighbours, the power of the Spirit to change us, and the certainty of resurrection to enjoy the perfection of heaven.

 There is no resurrection of Jesus' body, or our body, no life after death, and no joyful heaven in Modified Monism or the modern Panentheism the Bishop offers us.

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