F. D. Maurice on Christianity’s Relation to the World’s Religions

I recently finished writing a section of my new book on Anglican approaches to the theology of religion on F. D. Maurice. Maurice’s Boyle Lectures for 1846, later published as The Religions of the World and Their Relations to Christianity, were foundational for the development of fulfillment theologies of religion. Paul Hedges says that Maurice’s work “stands as the first movement in the development of fulfillment theology,” and Kenneth Cracknell says, “Maurice is the great prophetic thinker of the nineteenth century; the first to plead for justice, courtesy and love when Christians contemplated the meaning of other religions.”

Fulfillment theologies were quite influential from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. These days they are considered passee and problematic (for many good reasons). That said, I found Maurice a much more nuanced and interesting thinker than the stereotypical fulfillment theologian. In fact, in some places Maurice seems to be engaged in what we would now call “Comparative Theology,” which is quite au courant, rather than in a formulaic fulfillment theology.

Here’s an excerpt from my section on Maurice. I’d love to know your thoughts.

The fifth principle is that the insights and testimonies of the religions of the world find responses within the Christian revelation. Maurice’s use of this principle is nuanced. Many insights from the world’s religions will be recognized and welcomed by Christians. In this sense there must be some perceived correspondence between the religions. But the differences between Christianity and the religions are also radical. Both correspondence and difference must be kept in proper balance as Christianity engages the insights from the religions.

Maurice’s treatment of sacrifice in Hinduism is illustrative of this principle. On the one hand, Maurice says of sacrifice in Hinduism that “if there be any acts of past or present ages on which we can think with delight, which we can be sure had Christ’s mark upon them, which have wrought mightily, though in general secretly, for the deliverance of men from idols, here has been the root and spring of them.” But, on the other hand, there is a radical difference between Hindu and Christian understandings of sacrifice.  Maurice writes, “Upon the question to whom the sacrifice should be offered, whether by it we propitiate a Siva, or surrender ourselves in love and trust to Him who cares for us and loves us; whether it is to overcome the reluctance of an enemy, or is the offering of our own reluctant wills to a Father in the name of one who has presented and is ever presenting His own filial and complete sacrifice – upon this, let us understand it well, our controversy with Hinduism stands.”

There is both correspondence and difference between Christianity and the religions. The Christian will many insights in the world’s religions that they will recognize and welcome. But they will need to offer a balanced response based upon a proper assessment of similarities and difference.  The key to getting this right is a proper understanding of Christian revelation. There will be much to be found in the world’s religions about the human desire for oneness with the divine that belongs to the same realm of response to the creative purposes of God as we find in Christianity. But, it is for the Christian to note that it is in the fullness of the revelation of Jesus Christ that proper answers to the aspirations and insights of the religions are to be found. The answers found in revelation will show that there is both a correspondence and a radical difference between Christianity and the world’s religions. . .

The seventh principle is that the encounter with other religious systems will help to detect the errors into which ‘Christianity as a System” is also prone to fall. Maurice distinguishes between the Gospel proclaimed by Christ and affirmed in the early church and the historical expressions of Christianity as a system that may distort the Gospel. We have seen that Maurice sees in the deepest aspirations of the religions insights that find answers in Christianity. In a like way, the errors and misapprehensions of the religions may also find counterparts in historic expressions of Christianity that are likewise defective. It is instructive to compare not only the best insights of Christianity and the religions, but also the error into which Christianity and the religions are prone to fall. As Maurice says, “the temptations of Jews and Mahometans are our temptations … we carry their practical confusions and divisions in our own bosoms. At every moment we are liable to fall into them.”

Maurice also points out ways in which Christianity as a system has fallen into distortions which find counterparts in Hinduism and Buddhism. In certain forms of Hinduism a priestly caste became so exalted that it looked down upon all others. Maurice sees in certain expressions of Christianity a similar temptation to elevate a priestly class “as if it were to make the rest of men Sudras.” In Buddhism Maurice points out that the ignorance and tyranny of certain orders of Buddhist monks finds a counterpart in the history of Christian monasticism.  He writes, “the history of Orders rising up to reform society, to rebuke organized priesthoods for their self-indulgence, coldness, exclusiveness, to assert the rights of the poor, to maintain that every member of Christ’s flock has a calling to benefit the rest; beginning thus nobly and then sinking into more intolerable despots than those against whom they protested, self-exalted in their gifts, their knowledge, their ignorance, their poverty; deceiving and being deceived; drawing all reverence to themselves on the score of their humility, holding down the poor in slavery, whom they came to deliver.”

There are serious distortions of the Gospel that historic expressions Christianity has fallen into. The shape of Christianity as a system may need to be changed or pass away. In the study of the world’s religions, contemplating the distortions that are found in non-Christian religions may reveal distortions that are found in Christianity as well. A benefit of the encounter between Christianity and the religions is that they may reveal errors in Christianity as we know it that need to be corrected.

The eighth principle is that the encounter with other religious traditions may offer correctives to Christian theological formulations. This principle is similar to the previous one in that it relies on the distinction between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and later Christian expressions of it. But in this principle Maurice focused less on the shape of Christianity and more on major doctrines or theological themes that have been forgotten or distorted in Christian history.

Here again the encounter with other religions may prove the catalyst for the recovery of important aspects of the Christian Gospel. Indeed, Maurice believes that the encounter with the world’s religions can help overcome Western cultural deformations of the Gospel that are found in much of the Christianity of his day. Hence, Maurice can speak of “Mahomet’s Witness for the Gospel,” “Hindoos preaching to Englishmen,” and “The Buddhist Gospel.”

Islam, for example, challenges the mistaken Christian overemphasis on the transience of the present world and the concomitant idea that salvation takes place in an entirely otherworldly place. There have been times when Christians have believed that the world was incapable of transformation and sought an escape route to an entirely otherworldly salvation. Maurice writes, “Those who decided to live pure and holy lives, left the world that they might do so. The sphere of human action was regarded by saints as an ungodly one, and those who moved in it and ruled it showed by their lives that they adopted the opinion. There was no distinct, audible voice, declaring ‘the kingdoms of this world are the kingdoms of our God and His Christ.’ The belief silently gained ground, that there was no warrant for such an assertion; that the redemption which our Lord had wrought, whatever it might mean, did not mean this.” But Islam’s “witness for the Gospel” contradicted this Christian distortion. Muhammad proclaimed that “this earth is the possession of the One Lord, the God of Abraham, He claimed it as His when he called out Abraham, and promised that he and his seed should possess a portion of it. The earth is still His.” Islam’s rise and its extraordinary spread can be seen as a positive development in that it called on Christians to remember the Gospel proclamation of the kingdom. If Christians denied the sovereignty of God by believing “the notion that though He might have a reign somewhere else, it was not here,” then Christianity risked destroying ordinary morality and trust in the present reign of God. Maurice, therefore, saw the spread of Islam not as “a testimony against the Gospel, but for it; a testimony to one necessary, forgotten portion of it.” In such a manner, Islam and the other religions, may offer correctives to Christian theological formulations that have forgotten or distorted the Gospel.

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