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Gavin D'Costa, BA, PhD is a Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Bristol, Great Britain. He was Head of the Theology & Religious Studies Department (2002 - 2006), and has lectured at Bristol since 1993.
He was born in Kenya but came to Great Britain in 1968 where he read English & Theology at the University of Birmingham under the esteemed theologian, John Hick. After graduating, he studied at the University of Cambridge before teaching at West London Institute and then at Bristol University. His research interests include systematic Theology; Theology of inter-religious dialogue & Roman Catholic modern Theology, gender and psychoanalysis.
In 1998 he was visiting professor at Rome's Gregorian University. He has also worked on the Church of England and Roman Catholic Committee's on Other Faiths, advising these communities on theological issues. He also advises the Pontifical Council for Other Faiths, Vatican City.
D’Costa’s first book, Theology and Religious Pluralism (1986) followed Alan Race and developed the threefold typology of pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism in regard to the Christian theological approach to other religions. He critically examined the work of key representatives of each of these positions: John Hick as a pluralist, Karl Rahner, as an inclusivist, and Hendrik Kraemer as an exclusivist. D’Costa defended Rahner’s inclusivism that held to the universal love of God for all people as well as the necessity of Christ’s grace for salvation. The combination of these two axioms allowed that other religions could be, in principle, mediations of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Their fulfillment would be found in Christianity, even if historically this did not happen. This fulfillment was a result of the causality of grace: all grace comes from and ends in Jesus Christ, and the Church is the sacramental form of Christ in the world today. Pluralism, D’Costa argued only emphasised the universal love of God and exclusivism, only the necessity of belief in Christ for salvation. Rahner’s position combined the two and provided the best model for inter-religious dialogue.
D’Costa has been a persistent critic of the approach of John Hick’s pluralism. In his second book, his doctoral work, John Hick’s Theology of Religions (1987), he tried to show that Hick’s claim that all religions lead to the same divine reality was problematic on three counts. First, it went against the orthodox claims of Christian theology, and in that sense could not be acceptable to Christian faith. Second, Hick’s claim could only be sustained if all religions were re-interpreted, so that his claim amounted to requiring that all religions conform to his demand that they abandon ultimate ontological convictions. Third, D’Costa tried to show that pluralism was internally incoherent, in so much as it made a privileged claim for its own position as the greatest truth, indeed, more true than any of the religions. In 1990, in response to a collection of essays by pluralist scholars edited by John Hick and Paul Knitter (The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions), D'Costa edited an alternative collection, Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: the Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions.
In his next work, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (2000), D'Costa seems to have shifted more towards exclusivism. He argues in this book, that there is no such position as pluralism as pluralism is technically a disguised form of exclusivism, either religious (as in the case of the Dalia Lama, in his study of modern Tibetan Buddhism; or in the case of Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan, the modern proponent of Advaita neo-Hinduism), or a form of modernity (in the case of Hick and the Roman Catholic theologian Paul F. Knitter, and the Jewish theologian, Dan Cohen Sherbok). Hence, these positions advocate that all religions are equal, but actually have an explicitly religious exclusivism (hence, for the Dalia Lama, there is no liberation until one has become a De Lug Buddhist monk, but one has endless lifetimes to achieve this; likewise for Radhakrishnan, but in this case a non-dual Advaitin experience of moksha is required for final release from the cycle of birth and death), or a secular modern exclusivism (an ethical rule, that derives from Kant and stands in judgment upon all religions). D’Costa defends a trinitarian approach to other religions, that refuses to see them as equal or provisional/imperfect forms of revelation or salvific means, but nevertheless acknowledges the grace of God operative within these traditions in a fragmentary and inchoate manner. D’Costa offers a close analysis of modern Roman Catholic magisterial documents to support his view. He argues that this position, best serves the goals of toleration, equality and respect, not pluralism or indeed, inclusivism. He relies heavily on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank.
He develops this position in his Theology in the Public Square (2005) in relation to the importance of Christian theology taking a decisive public stance and developing a public voice, the latter mainly through the idea of a Christian university. This is so that theology returns to an appropriate ecclesial accountability, and begins to engage in all the intellectual disciplines to develop a Catholic culture. In so doing, D’Costa examines the way the discipline of religious studies is called into question. There is a study of the relationship between Hindu sati and the self-sacrifice of the Catholic saint, Edith Stein. D’Costa tries to show how there are analogies between religions and moves away from the question of whether there is salvation in other religions.
In Christianity and the World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (2009) D'Costa addresses four disputed questions in the field of theology of religions. First, he survey the entire field and looks at the various options offered in the last half of the twentieth century and takes us into the modern debate. He argues for a form of 'exclusivism' although he criticises the categories of pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. Second, he calls into question the prevailing definition of 'religion' and argues that it is part of modernity's narrative and serves a certain rhetorical strategy (related to the privatizing of religion, and its reduction to cultic ritual acts robbed of their social and political significance). Third, he develops this point to show how Islam and Catholic Christianity might better contribute to the religious public voice and strengthen real debate in the public square. He claims that they might better preserve religious plurality than secular liberalism. Finally, he explores the doctrine of hell (and the circles within it: the hell of damnation and von Balthasar, limbo of the just, limbo of infants, and purgatory.
D’Costa looks at the question of the relationship to non-Christian cultural artefacts in a wider sense in his Sexing the Trinity (2000). Here he engages with the thought of Luce Irigaray, the French feminist philosopher to show how she both illuminates questions regarding the nature of the trinity while at the same time being called into question by Christian theology. D’Costa is critical of aspects of patriarchal theology and its social consequences, while also being critical of elements of feminist theology. He offers a close reading of Islam, at least as presented through Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and finally turns to artistic representations of the trinity in Hindu and Christian culture. This work anticipates D’Costa’s wider cultural interests developed in Theology in the Public Square.
D’Costa has been criticised by pluralists, inclusivists and exclusivists in various ways. The strongest criticisms have come from pluralists. John Hick, for example, argues that D’Costa’s claim that pluralism is just a disguised exclusivism is a form of word play and fails to deal with the substantitive difference involved in the pluralist position. He also claims that D’Costa fails to recognize the hypothetical nature of the pluralist position, and mistakes it for a religion.
- Theology and Religious Pluralism, 1986
- John Hick’s Theology of Religions 1987
- (ed.) Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: the Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, 1990
- Sexing the Trinity. Gender, Culture and the Divine, London: SCM, 2000
- The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000
- Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation, Oxford: Blackwell, 2005
- Christianity and the World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009
- Is a Common Global Ethic Possible or Desirable?, in Graham Ward, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology
- Other Faiths and Christian Ethics, in Robin Gill, ed.
- The Church and Sacraments, in Gareth Jones, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology
- On Theologising theology within the secular university, Transformation 2005 (Vol. 22, No. 3, page 148)
- "Revelation, Scripture and Tradition: Some Comments on John Webster’s Conception of 'Holy Scripture'." International Journal of Systematic Theology 6, no. 4 (2004): 337-350
- "The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory." International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 2 (2009): 146-171.
- "Traditions and Reception: Interpreting Vatican II's 'Declaration on the Church's Relation to Non-Christian Religions'." New Blackfriars, Early View (2010): 1-20.
- Webpage at the University of Bristol
- John Hick, Reply to Gavin D’Costa’s criticism of the impossibility of pluralism
- Mark. S. Heim, Book review of The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity
- Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Review of The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity
- Roundtable review of The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity
- K Tanner, Book review of Sexing the Trinity
- Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Trinity and Religious Pluralism: The Doctrine of the Trinity in Christian, Chapter 4, on D’Costa’s current theology of religions
- George Newlands, Review of Theology in the Public Square
- Pim Valkenberg, Sharing Lights on the Way to God
- Paul Knitter, review of ‘Theology and Religious Pluralism’
- Sarah Coakley, Review of Sexing the Trinity
- Stanley Hauerwas on D’Costa
- Doctoral thesis on Gavin D’Costa [here http://theo.kuleuven.ac.be/page/doctoraltheses/292/] and [here https://repository.libis.kuleuven.be/dspace/handle/1979/895]