The Inclusive God:
Or Doctrine Ensures Some Exclusivity

Review of Steven Shakespeare's and Hugh Rayment-Pickard's (2006) The Inclusive God: Reclaiming Theology for an Inclusive Church, London: Canterbury Press Norwich.

In a warring Church the term 'liberal' in theology has come to have a status rather equivalent to 'liberal' in the politics of the United States. After decades of assault (on both), some of its adherents have gone into forms of denial, avoiding the label when they can. In the Church of England, they once used the term 'Broad Church' or, more hopefully, 'central'. Now liberal is being used by opponents to slap the label on the Broad Church head, and Conservative Evangelicals on the various blogs and forums often now refer to liberal Christians as 'religious liberals' in order to deny them even the qualified label of Christian. However, there is another perfectly good reason that Broad Church is falling out of use. It is because those liberal Christians no longer carry out a role of negotiation within the Church and with outside culture; they are not the managerial centre, operating as a balance via compromise and reaching out. Since the virtual disappearance of the Anglo-Catholic traditionalists, and the subsuming of the Evangelical traditionalists into more contemporary expressions, the once triangle of the Church has become a pole. Liberal Christians are towards and at one end, and the centre is occupied by the Open Evangelicals, increasingly targeted by Conservative Evangelicals as closet liberals, as people who want it both ways and generally wet.
Thus The Inclusive God: Reclaiming Theology for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakepeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard does not state that it is both liberal and inclusive in its theology with any consistency.
What it does is deny its liberalism, and then uses it. Giles Fraser at the end of his story-like forword, as reproduced on the front cover, writes that inclusivity:
...has nothing to do with being liberal. It is not a churchy version of political correctness. It is a gospel imperative, fundamental to the nature of God and at the very heart of the mission and ministry of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (x)
It is fighting talk, as is the nature of the Church these days. Inclusivity may indeed be a gospel imperative, and be accompanied by a doctrinal statement about God and Christ, but it is also liberal. Indeed the book then shoots itself in the foot. Page two has it that:
The inclusive Church is heir to the best of the liberal Christan tradition, which it seeks to expand and deepen. (Shakespeare, Rayment-Pickard, 2006, 2)
When a term becomes a label of abuse, the response is not to retreat but to reclaim it. Otherwise a seed of contradiction is sown, as throughout this book. Liberal Christianity is not anti-biblical or anti-tradition, it simply admits its selectivity by demonstrating its methods of using critical tools.
Presumably the inconsistency is because it is trying to appeal to the Open Evangelical reader. It will not appeal to a Conservative Evangelical reader whose rigidity changes presumably from faith crises by some unresolved contradiction (for example how James Barr writes), or people letting them down, or by slipping across the boundary into Open Evangelicalism (as the Baptist minister, media celebrity and Academy schools organiser Steve Chalke did when he denounced Penal Substitutionary Atonement and managed to cause a split between Open Evangelical Spring Harvest and Conservative Evangelical New Wine in 2007).
What Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard do is try not to appear liberal, and oh so reasonable, and lacking conviction. They want to argue and appear macho. They do so regarding Jesus as Messiah:
Just don't expect those defending an 'inclusive messiah' to be lacking in vigour and conviction. We are laying claim to the very heart and soul of the Christian message and intend to argue our case forcefully. (2006, 60)
It is the same with God too, as when concerning mission as listening (with openness and responsiveness):
...does not arise because the inclusive theologian has no ideas of her own, or because she is without convictions, still less because her convictions are not held with passion. (116)
The issue core here is this: would the various arguments presented convince an Open Evangelical? In some cases, does the Open Evangelical already subscribe to some arguments (in other words, against what are these authors arguing). In some cases, are the arguments even satisfying that they demonstrate inclusivity, and are these liberal positions (when they are so) actually particularly liberal at all and convince even a liberal?
As a brief comparison one can mention parts of John Hick's The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm, first published in 1999 and updated in 2004 (to take account of subsequent news events). John Hick wrote this already convinced of two Christianities, and has a theology that follows some of the recommendations of The Inclusive God, including transcendence and lack of dogma, when, in chapter 26, he considers 'Living within a True Myth'. It might just be more consistent, clearer and takes the implications of The Inclusive God to a more logical position.
The Inclusive God is not about a narrow approach to inclusivity. Only vaguely does it tackle the issue of homosexual practice alongside inclusion of the homosexual person (eg. Shakespeare, Rayment-Pickard, 2006, 88 and 94). This is a strength and it is a weakness. Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard might find they are pushing at an open door with Open Evangelicals about the kinds of people to be included in the Church, whilst some Open Evangelicals maintain their view about fidelity of behaviours.
So instead there is a general approach of an overview of Christian topics to underline the basis of inclusivity. Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard tackle 'Creation' (18-35), 'Revelation' (36-47), 'Jesus and the Kingdom' (48-61), 'Jesus and the Cross' (62-75), 'Jesus and the Resurrection' (76-83), 'The Inclusive Church' (84-100), 'The Inclusive God' (101-112) and conclude with 'Listening Theology' (113-117). It is clear that creation is the bedrock of the approach.
The argument for 'Creation' is that it is the foundation of equality. The myth of Adam and Eve stands for all humanity, and all creation being good. Creation impacts as involuntary, and life just happening to one is a living in its questions. This is not abstract, but being lived demands the generating of ethical bonds with other people and all life. It is against dogmatism. (22-24)
It does not help then, surely, to create a cod-history and typology of Gnostic Christians with tasks to protect believers from such as wrong doers, unorthodox theologians, corrupt worshippers, infidel peoples, and, even, an axis of evil (24). This allows the authors to apply a label of New Gnosticism to Conservative and less Conservative Evangelicals - those who erect a security fence between Church and world. This the authors do before the chapter has tackled the issue of the Fall. The Fall, "properly understood" (25) (how is that supported?), is the recognition that human beings are incapable of living virtuous lives.
This appears to be demythologised. Evangelicals would say, properly understood for them, that the Fall means even if human beings lived virtuous lives these would not be sufficient for salvation. Thus, without any New Gnosticism, there would need to be rules of achieving salvation - which, despite everything being good, may well be the basis for discriminating behaviour among the included. The argument against this - a liberal argument - is simply not made. New Gnosticism is a label not an argument.
Including when it involves broken humanity means not just a criticism of current universal values (31-35) or making having extra places at the table; it involves exposing structures of domination and the tables to be overthrown (32-33). After Jesus, the first shall be last.
Most Open Evangelicals would agree with this, as a start. They might also agree with not capitulating to fragmentation and relativism as these serve the interests of competition and will to power (34).
There is a problem here, however. If the world is fallen, and humans are incapable of living a virtuous life, what difference would it make to overthrow the tables? Presumably once overthrown, the impossibility of living the virtuous life is still manifest. Thus the evangelical is not completely impressed by this argument, and it still calls for an external salvation scheme. Alternatively, from some liberal perspectives, it can be argued that fragmentation assists the limitation of power that has been all too obvious during periods of universal explanations, as during the pre-Reformation sacred canopy and Church power.
The chapter also argues there is no adequate intellectual argument for "natural evil", which is better described as tragedy (29-30). Well, liberal Christianity with a still interventionist God might not have come up with an inadequate argument, but natural events have perfectly adequate explanations.
As for the next chapter on 'Revelation', Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard claim that privileged supernatural information leads to an in group: it is arbitrary and makes a "fickle monster of God" (36). Apparently this then turns faith into collecting facts and beliefs, but how is not made clear. Instead they say revelation is an encounter, as apparently according to the Bible (37).
Thus the Creeds are not a list of supernatural facts, nor are the sacraments mere services. Both are mystery and both are inclusive, despite the Church turning the Creeds into ideology and sacraments into priestcraft and magic. The rise of science has added to this fact-building approach. (38)
Instead revelation should be connected to creation, thus drawing from the bedrock position, as in the (created?) humanity of Christ, the Word made flesh (and yet, they say, not exhausted by his humanity) (39). And yet surely this "Word made flesh" is a supernatural category: how natural, created and human is it?
'Revelation', they claim, is a gift in the other that abolishes hierarchy in the embodied community (39), and yet, it is living differently and faithful to the reality of our [existing?] common creation (40). We are told that revelation is a process, via acts of speech and the transcendence of humanity, and is inside a language with no God's eye view (42)
This is all somewhat contradictory. If revelation is in and not above creation and culture, then it is in and not above hierarchy. Hierarchy is everywhere in animals and humans. Revelation involves a universalist source, surely, even if it is specific. Transcendence based on humanity, the humanity of Christ and the Word made flesh are presumably universal categories and not trapped by language. Revelation does make distinctions. There is still to be a first and last!
The significance of the mediation of language and symbol (see 43) within culture troubles even social anthropology as to whether there are any universal statements that can be made about human organisation. It should trouble theology too, and this is not some add-on perspective as it seems to be in this book. There just seems to be a mess here: of presenting culture as the crucible for realising revelation, and the far too easy use of universal categories (that probably meant something quite differently in time anyway - cultural variation of course happens through time as well as across space). The relativity of culture should alter the whole approach to theology.
The authors finish their chapter on revelation calling their method hybrid (45), and state it is open and plural. Nevertheless, open-ended theology should demand a mopre consistent approach.
For 'Jesus and the Kingdom' we have Marx and alienation and Plato with his idealised world elsewhere for the benefit of our mind conceptualising, and the Hebrew prophets too: all offered as examples of our hope; the Hebrew prophets furthermore bring visions of a messiah and what such might involve as either a King David or a suffering servant who saves the lost (48-52).
When it comes to the Christian Messiah, there are diverse voices and stories: so that Matthew gives a Jesus as teacher "asking for faithful obedience", Mark produces an "edgy, secretive Messiah", Luke offers a social and humanitarian prophet and John lays out a "cosmic Messiah" from the time before time (53). Jesus is someone who "enters time and history" (this 'enters' is a reference to revelation; most people of course are more simply born into time and history) (53-54) so that:
In short, there is no way of understanding Jesus which does not take seriously his rootedness in the time and culture of his day. (54)
But if it is a matter of revelation, is it not also tempting (and there is no argument against) to synthesis and conflate? It is just as valid to argue that revelation into a culture makes aspects of that culture (relevant to the religious events) into an absolute: precisely what is argued by those who claim, for example, male headship. When Jesus chose only male disciples, he was not a prisoner of his culture. Indeed this is how scripture itself is supported as normative! Pope Benedict is quite clear about this: he privileges Greek text and culture as the agent of revelation, forming the foundation of scripture for the Church.
The breaking of an absolute cannot be done simply by appeal to culture being in time and place, which culture is anyway by necessity; it has to be done by an argument for relativity and against absolutes. These authors, however, continue to trade in absolutist categories and then claim the heart of it all is inclusive.
The Gospels open up debate (54), claim Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard, and are the basis to explore for each generation of Christian. The texts demonstrate miracle, parable, healing and eating, after John Crossan (the Jesus Seminar scholar). The physicality of it all means Jesus embodies the Kingdom, and thus he is associated with it in holistic body and not simply teachings, therefore a whole healing and not just saving souls (55). He does not prove his authority; he breaks purity and respectability rules (55-56).
This probably is the area of the strongest argument. The question then becomes about the Church, as the New Testament continues on (as well as the Church putting some statements on to the lips of Jesus; the Gospels are part of the expressions of the early Church).
The Church, though it did try to close down debate, did also keep it open, and creeds about Jesus are not definitions (56) but summaries and guides. Whilst creeds are used as weapons for maintaining orthodoxy, the scriptures are not credal or doctrinal (56-57) and whilst it can be argued that the Church has privileged access to Jesus, it does not have "property rights" (57) to him.
Against this, the argument can be made that the Church is the property of Jesus Christ (this way around), and therefore does have an intimate connection and that this does privilege access. The Book of Acts shows the launching of the Church, as part of the scriptural revelation, and something about the birth and continuity of community. To call this a "field of exploration and enquiry" (56) opens the authors to criticism that they are producing a partial, modernist view, as much as those fundamentalists who do their pseudo-science and create scriptural and doctrinal "facts".
We are told that Jesus himself is more a critic of rules, with a new Kingdom coming. Though he was concerned with just Jews and a Jewish kingdom, he was still inclusive in his reaching out to marginal people, his friendship with women, mixing with the unclean - and al were welcome to eat with him, plus his criticism of employment practices and preaching debt-forgiveness (58). Despite his Jewish focus he is nevertheless anti-tribal and inclusive in the way the Essenes were not, and sharing meals in the way John the Baptist did not, and he feeds Judas personally at the Last Supper (59-60).
Again this seems quite solid, and would gain the agreement of most Christians. The next part would not, however.
The big conservative love-to-quote of 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14) is the way of generous non-judgmental love, claim Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard, and it warns those who would adopt any path other than the personal example of Jesus.
Is this though, another dogma, an accusation they reject? My own view is that they ought to tackle the Farewell Sermon as a whole. The sermon is the hardly the unmediated words of Jesus anyway, but a text for the early Church about Jesus no longer being experienced as resurrected: he goes, he is the valid way, and he will send someone else as a guide - the paraclete (says the Church!).
John Hick's approach is so much simpler. In 'Living within the True Myth' (2004, 240-246), Jesus of an intense holy presence (241) is within the apocalyptic expression; the Trinity is unknown to him - John expresses a developed theology 60 years on; Son of God is a common term meaning 'spirit of God' or 'blessed by God'; and Jesus is wholly human (241). The Church is waiting for his return; and as the years pass, and it is disappointed, Jesus is then turned into an agent of inner salvation from which the Risen Lord and Trinity develops and the Christian myth is born (242). Once the imperial approach is shaken by the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the "true myth" of Jesus as the symbol of love, divine grace embodied, and mercy is released (243) - which means the inclusivity. Taken literally, however, the myth becomes dangerous because it is supremacist and this is unchristlike (243).
In other words, Hick clears away the doctrine and the categories from the human Jesus himself. Hick, of course, is not trying to appeal to Open Evangelicals. He is not trying to defend doctrines, whereas the authors of The Inclusive God are. Arguably, this is why they are having difficulties in trying to separate out the exclusivist elements of Christianity from the inclusivist, because both aspects are wrapped up together in the doctrine that is put on to Hick's Jewish holy man.
Furthermore, and this is relevant, Hick can spend three chapters on the inclusivity of Gandhi, especially Gandhi's Truth For Us Today (205-210): his non-violence, his Green ecology and Buddhist economics, his advanced attitude to women for his day, and his religious pluralism. Indeed, this is because when we are dealing with humans, there are no exclusive prophets, just lived lives with intentions.
In 'Jesus and the Cross' we have the same problem raised and unanswered. It is this:
We can find plenty of inspiring people throughout history, and plenty who suffered innocently and died at the hands of violent opponents. Jesus may be interesting, inspiring, even unique - but he remains merely an example of how to lead a good life. (62-63).
The criticism from "the other way", derived from Jurgen Moltmann's "God who shares our pain but does not exactly do anything" (64), is actually an extension of the same criticism, just with the added assumption that Jesus is God on the cross.
The chapter goes on to make solid criticisms of [penal] substitutionary atonement (PSA) being out of character with a loving God if such a God demands violence. There is an answer, of course: that God is so loving for others that he inflicts the violence only upon himself - an answer which is not tackled here. The authors see that PSA is too mechanistic and legalistic and reduces the morality of God below humanity, devaluing the rest of Jesus's ministry) (66).
Well it would be if they made the claim, like Jurgen Moltmann, that Jesus is God on the cross. They do like Rene Girard's view that the cross is the end of sacrifice (69), which is still baffling if Jesus is one person dying innocently, and then people throughout history continue to suffer innocently and die at the hands of violent opponents!
Once again, none of this works because, in the end, doctrinal points are still having to be made about who is on the cross within a cosmic drama.
The authors say the drama bears witness to the fact that Jesus' death is inseparable from the creation of a new sort of human community (71). At this point the book bears witness from confusion into ridiculousness. What does this actually mean? It seems the authors' solution is in the community that has a sort of provisionality about it to point beyond itself (71), where the cross is about a community unlearning violence and fear without proclaiming itself as the goal of salvation (72). Why should this be?
So the finding is that:
Jesus is a good man living out his teaching to the bitter end. But that teaching is not mere information or morals. It is a way of living, in which we can be caught up with others and shaken enough to question and change our destructive patterns of behaviour. It is not just another disciplinary voice telling us to try harder, but a way of grace into which we are invited. (73)
They don't tell readers how this is supposed to work - and it does need a mechanism (as substitutionary atonement does have a mechanism). What is it, then, that justifies trinitarian language rather than some unitarian Christian language? If this book is aiming to be forceful in argument, it might only be the equivalent of shouting without enough argument to convince the Liberal never mind the Open Evangelical. It is making more claims about another kind of existence than its own position can sustain. Provisionality is not an excuse for sloppiness or overreaching.
The cross reminds us, they say, to live with death as a reality. Thanks for the reminder! However, it calls us to real life, related to creation as a gift (presumably destruction too, given what the cross involves), renewed in the ministry of Jesus and in the hospitality of his followers (75).
And yet later in the chapter on 'Jesus and the Resurrection' the argument that this is somehow about grace and inclusion is lost. Readers are told that the cross is now the "ultimate act of exclusion". It:
...cuts savagely across the inclusivist vision Jesus had been teaching in his ideas about the Kingdom. (81)
It further poisons the fellowship of the disciples - those who otherwise have hospitality. This might leave some readers very confused. But Resurrection is to have the faith restored.
The Resurrection, of course, might be that last miracle that gets us on to a secured doctrine - or not. We apparently need "some reassurance of human flourishing beyond tragedy" (76) (do we?) and:
These 'appearances' have the effect of galvinizing the early Church into the task of continuing Jesus' work. The followers feel they have Jesus' spirit within them and they themselves are now Jesus' body. (76-77)
The history is unclear, however, as the facts are a "cul-de-sac" and indeed issues of miracles in general happening became a stand-off (77). Resurrection is rather about what it all means. Whether "historically or fictionally" (77) it is what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about Jesus as a whole life, an episode within a wider narrative (77 and 78). History cannot dominate: and this is "the very opposite of a cop-out" (79) because it is the recovery of scripture as Scripture. Still, history can still be taken seriously, it's just no longer the arbiter.
How history is to be "taken seriously" compared with narrative they do not say. One question often posed is whether a time-shifted video camera in the Resurrection period would see anything at all, though the actual historiographical issue is lack of primary documents and the Resurrection stories being wrapped up in early Church theology.
Questions asked with "passion" arise from the Resurrection narrative, say Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard: its truth, its ethical and religious authority, and its inspiration or illumination for understanding life (78). The wider hermeneutical point is that truth is not coherent, and so, they differ from John Milbank's closed scheme, so that Christianity cannot be reduced to essence, kerygma or abstraction (79) - you just have a commitment to doing hermeneutics to reveal truth in the process of reading (79-80).
So, using narrative, what is involved in the Resurrection? Jesus appears in his former human body with wounds, he has a new greeting of 'Peace be with you' (which means healing their broken communion), and the appearances are predominantly accompanied by sharing meals (81 and 82). So it is not the inauguration of a new era, but the restoration of the old - not new but renewed (81-82). So:
The Resurrection meals are symbolic models of community based upon sharing, forgivenness and non-violence. It is this vision of community that the disciples tried to carry forward as they established the Church. (82)
In this Resurrection Jesus says nothing about excluding anyone and says nothing about suitable leaders, but about being forgiven, included and affirmed - despite everything and the Church's failure around these ethics (82-83).
Interestingly, for a biblical-narrative approach, no biblical references are given, so this inclusion ethic must be assumed. However, it is arguable that the Resurrection is actually more about leadership: legitimacy and authority. Jesus meets the disciples. It is to them that he demonstrates this last miracle, plus Paul, plus a congregation (the 500 or 120). They have been given direct authority to go out and preach; in Matthew most clearly it is the Church being given its authority. The Resurrection, though, is almost private as nothing follows from it: the birthday of the Church is Pentecost, not the Resurrection. One can imagine early Church members asking why Jesus no longer appears: the answer being that, well, he appeared to the founders of the various Churches to give the mission, then he ascended, so that phase was over, then his guide was sent with the beginnig of the Church. So everyone has the guide now, and his body is in the Church.
So even on the narrative approach, the argument is simply not being adequately made towards inclusion. Narrative, of course, is always slippery; reading cannot be directed.
'The Inclusive Church' should avoid the dichotomies and the polar swings resulting from Karl Barth's theological impact, of either baptising the world or identifying it solely in the story it tells of itself (84-85). Bonhoeffer offers a better model, of a dialogical Church, which was tried - only to be overtaken by a conservative pessimism, which is itself as cultural as liberalism because it mimics conservative politics (86).
In the early days admitting Gentiles was a resisted move towards inclusivity. The Church then went backwards, mimicking the authority and hierarchical structures of the world. (87) After the Reformation, pastors kept control over the faithful whilst involved with power and economics. Here, presumably into the modern period, at last comes a reference to sexual inclusion:
No church office should be reserved for men alone, or for heterosexuals alone. Are they somehow made more in God's image than women or queers? (88)
It seems an odd point and manner in which to introduce the subject, but it is a counter-cultural Church witnessing to "God's inclusivity in creation" (88). The authors say the debates are won.
One wonders if they realise why Rowan Williams, on achieving the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, has felt the requirement to reverse his once inclusive view on homosexual involvement in the Church. Clearly this debate has not been won at all. The Archbishop it is who has wanted unity first: processes by which there are real constraints as to who may be included in the Church and who is not. Meanwhile Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard say the grace of God calls the Church into being, and this grace continues to do so even when the Church it is broken and faithless (89). Which means the Church is bound to be conservative. They themselves (unlike the Archbishop) "resist calls for a more centralized, authoritarian and uniform Church" (90). It should live with messiness as did the man it follows.
God's grace continues elsewhere too:
This will cause it to celebrate the truth found in other expressions of faith and human value... (89)
There is difference and pluralism and finding the Spirit in this living, conversing situation. (90)
In the Global North is a desire for more personal spirituality, often outside churches. Some churches respond by exploring alternative worship but another response can be revitalising traditional symbols. Baptism, even when ecumenical, can become exclusive if it is about joining a club; but connected with creation, and with this sense of gift, it can be an immersion into the world with a more inclusive stance. How quite this sacrament should so transform one is unclear, and presumably this relates to infant baptism as well as being about adult baptism. They want the action to be beyond words. (91-93). Then the Eucharist "affirms and nourishes" (93) baptismal faith, but is in a sorry state: that sharing communion instead has become an agreement to a body of doctrine and ethical attitudes, and therefore witheld until people have confessed these (as if baptism is not enough); and this is a stance of perfection and purity (93-94). But Jesus "did not wait for those whom he touched"and they weren't reformed first (94) .
Here we have the only argument made for including, in communion, those in active homosexual relationships, and indeed all others: but the argument is made not on the basis that loving gay relationships are affirmed, but that these people (and other people) are not reformed first. It is an argument to Open Evangelicals for inclusion, but made on their territory, and only made via a dreadful concession. The liberal argument should instead be made: that these relationships are faithful and loving, that they encompass one particular person for another and back again, and the whole-person love expressed images the Christian God loving every one in humankind.
'Hands are clean' means, usually, straight men, and it has all become sanitised (94). Plus, until relatively recently, the eucharist had become a spectator sport, related to developing a priestly class. Protestants turned it into a memorial, rather than a lived experience of Christ's presence and the in-breaking Kingdom, with getting the Bible right first. (95)
Then the authors admit a problem with the Last Supper being for the inner few (as they might have for the Resurrection) (95), but go on to state that if this is connected to the parable of the wedding banquet and other meals of Jesus (96), it has a different setting.
Or it could be argued that the accounts of the Upper Room are consistent with a narrower view of authority and belief in the early Church, the salvation scheme about Christ (starting with Paul in Corinthians), and that the inclusive view is the more Jesucentric approach. In other words, both inclusive and exclusive exist in the Churches when they have a theology about Jesus Christ in the present in-between time before the Kingdom. Therefore Shakespeare's and Rayment-Pickard's argument is simply not sustained, that in their plurality of voices only one voice about inclusion should dominate.
Analysing 'The Inclusive God' through fixed attributes gets a description of God "tied in knots". Theologians headed for an exclusive theological mentality when they argued for what God must be like. (102) An inclusive approach prefers a more dynamic identity instead of attributes, realised through "'practice, 'performance' or 'phronesis' (practical insight)" in "living the Christian life" - or the how not what (103). In the end God is a paradox: not just a contradiction but being against expectations and leading to wonder and surprise (104).
The inclusive God can use negative theology, preventing idolatry (and this is, essentially, what John Hick does, with his must-be-undefined Real); however, the inclusive theologian is interested in the full range of possible discourses about God including the unexpected, and discourses of others (105). In the New Testament God is not reduced to truth statements of authoritative narratives (108), not when there is John's spirit and an anti-type of 'law' spirit in Paul (107).
But then we do move to an apparent truth and authoritative statement, the Trinity, on the basis that:
Firstly, to speak of God as Trinity reminds us that there is never one and only one way of defining the divine. (108)
Surely the whole purpose of the Trinity is that is sets itself up precisely as the one and only way of defining the divine. It is not simply going inside a mystery: it is a doctrine and there is a lack of mystery that it was made by humans wrapping up expressed experience. It might be a useful metaphor for humans not being lonely and not being static, but can it be understood both as a doctrine and as a kind anti-type of 'doctrine' (to paraphrase)? It is, the authors say, in contradiction, not a charter for "anything goes or sloppy abandonment of ethics" (109). Furthermore:
The Trinity teaches mutuality, honesty, commitment, openness, tenderness, justice. (109)
It further teaches that God [the Father] opens "herself" (mainly used - no reason given) to the risk of otherness; in Christ, God "expresses in flesh her solidarity in love" towards a new community; and in the Spirit God motivates people "to move beyond their self-imposed limits" towards new languages in which to express the primacy of love." (110)
Then, after all this teaching and givenness, comes us not being unafraid of "minting new metaphors for God." These can be single words like Mother, Lover, Friend, Disabled God, Black Messiah, Christa, etc (110). Not suggested at all are other deeper metaphors as expressions, like creator Brahman, sustainer Vishnu, and destroyer-recreator Shiva, or Unitarian as a metaphor for breadth and unity. The authors admit metaphors are limited and already within Christianity, and they further add:
More importantly, those who seek a more inclusive Church need to resist the temptation to romanticize being marginal, and have the confidence to reclaim the heart of Christian revleation and theology...

in particular, we should not be tempted to reject talk of the transcendence of God (111)
In other words, in this inclusive Church, the non-realist is also excluded, as indeed are more experimental forms of metaphor with meeting other faiths, and such an approach as John Hick's (2004). He sees the obvious point, that under transcendence the working metaphors are many. It is all beginning to look a rather restrictive and more conservative project than Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard claim. God now looks rather narrow, despite a claim that God is inclusive (2006, 112).
So the Inclusive God book concludes with 'Listening Theology'. Listening is active and a form of speech (116).Theology can liberate and destroy, so the authors renounce certainty to build communities of "question, dialogue and reconciliation" (113-114). The New Testament definition of 'truth' is "unforgetting" which, after Heidegger, is more existential than empirical, and so is in the manner of Jesus speaking of himself as 'the way, the truth and the life' (114). Rather against current anxiety about inclusion, the Church should let go of "false securities" for a "childlike maturity" in the sense of 1 John 4:18 expressing that perfect love casts out fear.
Christianity is inclusive at its heart, state Shakespeare and Rayment-Pickard, but it is "open to other voices, disciplines and realities" (115). All Christians are theologians by living out in the free Spirit: theology is not a rule book for a Christian ghetto (115) but is worked out inside fluid, linguistic constructs where narratives should be retold and theologies rewritten (117). As such, mission is about listening, witnessing to grace following God's presence especially to those ignored by power structures (116). In so acting the Church builds bridges and is not passive: it responds to an inclusive God and a wide-armed Christ, and the authors finish by yet again subverting the Conservative evangelicals' use of the FRarewell Sermon statement about Christ's exclusivity (117). This statement was obviously a nut these authors had to crack.
The book is unconvincing. It will not convince many an Open Evangelical about thoroughgoing inclusion. If the New Testament is privileged, if there are universals operating via revelation into culture, then there are exclusivist elements. However, if these authors had been a little bit more radical, by being liberal, by taking hold of relativity - and finding a way to relate transcendence into it (as John Hick does), then the book might have been more consistent. What went wrong was that the appeal to within the Church as it developed inevitably undermines inclusion. It is a Church book with a narrow constituency, and it loses its nerve. The liberal who is inclusive embaces a culture to do it and wishes to reform culture, and sees the extent of reform and revolution needed in Church categories. Unless the theological tables are overturned, the Church will continue to exclude.


Hick, J. (2004), The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm, Oxford: Oneworld.

Shakespeare, S., Rayment-Pickard, H. (2006), The Inclusive God: Reclaiming Theology for an Inclusive Church, London: Canterbury Press Norwich.

Thanks to Liz for lending me The Inclusive God book.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful