Reflections on Christian and Religious Plurality

As a new century begins, the framework for my interest in and commitment to plurality builds on foundations like the following. I have a poster that states in eighteen languages, “There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions.” Diana L. Eck, director of the Pluralism Project: World Religions in America, invites people of faith to better understand 1) religious communities, 2) religious changes, and 3) implications of increased plurality. Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman sees God’s requirement of reconciliation with those from whom we’re estranged as central to the Christian message.

Multiple decades give perspective. When John and I taught at Woodstock School from 1962-65, in the foothills of the ever-changing Himalayan mountains in India, bookstores constantly drew me to their World Religions section. Friendships with Indian and South Asian students—of Hindu, Sikh, Christian, and Muslim loyalty—have been the greatest gift from over three decades of connection with Goshen College. Feminist thought with its openness to diversity, validation of experience, and connection rather than dualistic opposition has been a godsend. Beyond a Fulbright study tour and five other short-term assignments in varied Indian locations, my 1998 stint of seven months was with the Mission-Ecumenism-Dialogue and Women’s Studies departments of a theological college in the coastal city of Chennai (formerly Madras).

To explain the above paragraph in practical terms seems right. Whether perched in a third-class sleeper train car or between class preparations, I read extensively about India’s living religions. Incidents with religious implications drew my attention: being invited to Muslim, Hindu, or Parsi homes or called on to pray in groups with people loyal to different faiths. I spoke to issues on the GC campus in Goshen: when no Islamic prayers were included in a memorial service for a Muslim student who died, did cross-cultural sensitivity matter? When a few Christians used conversion tactics with Hindu or Muslim students, without learning about their religious strengths, what did “loving the neighbor as oneself” mean? Free to live with the ambiguity of not knowing all channels through which the God of all nations might offer salvation, I trust God’s Wisdom rather than defend a particular absolute. Asian theologians, and North American scholars who learned from them in India, have mentored my interreligious understanding in profound ways. Mentors by the name of Aleaz, Ariarajah, Samartha, Sharma, and Panikkar plus Eck, Knitter, and Scott.

Time periods have distinct foci. The India of my first encounter had moved into its second decade of independence. Indians needed time to release the shackles of centuries of outside control, to determine authentic marks of Indian heritage. Hinduism, with its complexity—its blending of belief systems yet distinctness from other living faiths—strongly influenced the outcome. In my twenties, my worldview took several leaps from my sheltered, small-town, Mennonite heritage. My journey to understand God through Jesus the Christ, alongside other people with unique names or forms for the Ultimate, lay open to the richness of plurality. The further or deeper the journey, the more I am freed to anticipate as the universal God connects with, directs, and ‘saves’ people. For, “every religious tradition promises salvation in some form,” Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman reminds us.

While living and teaching in the Mussoorie hill station of North India, I valued the diversity of religions and denominations among staff and students. Parents of 7th-8th grade girls trusted my leading the dorm group in pre-bedtime devotions based in sacred values, not ‘elitist’ or ‘only’ language. Firmly rooted in Christian strengths, my interest shifted from exotic curiosity to deeper questions about and insight into Hindu and Indian Islamic religions. From the local minaret in the bazaar, Muslim calls to prayer repeatedly echoed across the valley. Hats worn by shopkeepers identified religious loyalty (not totally unlike some Mennonites with prayer coverings), just as Hindu forehead markings distinguished Shaivites from followers drawn to Vishnu. Sikh women became more than those who wore two-pieced Punjabi outfits, their turbaned men more than trusted taxi drivers.

When traveling, I slipped out of shoes to enter temples and mosques. Ambivalent about invading others’ sacred space that I failed to fully discern, I wished to both observe and respect people’s rituals. Their trust in One beyond themselves had integrity. However, when caught in a frenzied crowd at the Jagannath temple festival in Puri, I knew fear for personal safety, not awe. At such times, Christians had best stay near the coastal sea and enjoy fresh shrimp bargained for dinner. At Varanasi, I lacked knowledge or was unprepared for what seemed like “holy chaos.” Though a Muslim guide sensitively explained that holiest of Hindu cities, our outsider status seemed to silently protrude.

Holy ground came to have new meaning. The quiet of near-by Sarnath—its stupas and the panorama depicting Buddha’s sermons—appealed more. It stretched the unfamiliar less. To stand under the bodh tree where Gautama received enlightenment prompted holy awe, something akin to years later when I stood near the presumed site of Jesus’ tomb. To tour the Ajunta Caves further explained an era when Buddhism and the country’s leader, Ashoka, influenced Indian life toward tolerance. Yet, surface encounters always leave an outsider yearning for deeper Truth. Experiencing God, I longed to know what those engaged in rites meant through them.

Content in Blossoms in the Dust, by Kusum Nair, resonated with exposure during vacation months to rural, village India, often hosted by missionaries. We walked by mini, animist poles leaned together in fields in Bihar state. We shared in the rite of Christian foot washing, the metal bucket and bare feet feeling balanced with a simple meeting room made of earth and dung. We heard the distinct tones of song, observed sincere friendship between eastern, tribal folk and westerners named Kniss, Beachy, and Vogt. And we helped fill the Burkhalter jeep, crossing rutted terrain to join villagers (Christian and Hindu) for annual “Thanksgiving” or harvest events. A row of plodding ox carts silhouetted against the setting sun added to the sacred peace of agrarian life at end of day.

When I sensed discord between Roman Catholics and Protestants, I wondered about the message conveyed. Although Hindu families or village groups worshiped different forms of the One God, competition seemed not to be a factor. Paying allegiance to or honoring several deities at the same time, they drew from each the divine Essence needed for a given occasion. Perhaps locals were less confused by Christianity’s splintered denominations because Hindus accept the Many as part of Oneness. That stance differs greatly from imposing one over others, for denomination or religion. Grieving how division undermines what is held in common, my ecumenical urge led to restlessness with particular loyalties that unkindly divide. Puzzled by Christian fears of compromise, my affinity with interreligious exchange grew.

In India for the summer of 1967, features of living in a more central city, Jabalpur, revealed their depth only later. Among no Christians in an Institute of math and science teachers, John and I sought out Methodists for Sunday morning worship. In a country pulsing with sacred symbols, dance, and temples, we keenly yet naively absorbed the interplay of culture with religion: Not aware of personal choice in the matter, women pitied me for being childless after six years of marriage. Predictions made weeks before targeted June 15 as the day the monsoon would arrive; it did. Loyal to my religious heritage, I also honored Truth in other living faiths.

During weekly restaurant meals with Institute teaching staff, we often returned to themes of religion. As chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup, we readily exchanged views. One Hindu professor and I tried to perceive how my faith in a personal relationship with God differed from his concept of “seeing and being seen by God”—darshan (or if it mattered). At our final meeting, Mr. Ahmad gave me a gift: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored. Content described a Christian’s shift of loyalty to the Muslim faith. Through that first experience of being gently evangelized by a person convinced of his “better way,” I felt neither defensive nor offended. I trusted the One God to receive and engage both of us on our chosen spiritual journeys.

Nearly two decades later, an experience brought Mr. Ahmad to mind. As Mennonite Board of Missions board members, we were looking toward the next five-year program block, global and local. On seeing statistics, I said: “In light of centers of population growth, that Christianity has continued to be the chosen faith of thirty-to-thirty-three percent of the world is remarkable. Further, God is likely vital to and interactive with people of faiths other than Christian.” That last sentence prompted the chairman to call an executive session of the board “to assess whether Dorothy’s theology is compatible with being an MBM board member.” Surprised to have my sincere faith in God questioned, unlike Mr. Ahmad’s approach, I nevertheless stayed on the board, silently vowing to explore God’s limits to or breadth of salvation.

Little did I know then that crediting God’s work among living faiths had caused discord within meetings of the International Missionary Council, a series begun in 1910. Conflicts persist between western Christians with little direct experience among people of other living faiths and those from India who daily engage across religious lines. From the IMC meeting held at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, India in 1938, I learn: “As to whether non-Christian religions as total Systems of thought and life may in some sense or to some degree manifest God’s revelation, Christians are not agreed.”1 Further, an affirmation proposed in 1983 as: “…we recognize God’s creative work in the religious experience of people of other faiths” had to be compromised as: “…we recognize God’s creative work in the seeking for religious truth among people of other faiths.”2

A further proposal was developed by theologians in 1991:

We affirm that God has been with them [peoples and nations] in their seeking and finding, that where there is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, this, like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that is found among us, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.3

Through effort, the particular and universal journeys of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue continue.

One time, on entering a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth, I paused. On prominent display were large symbols of three major religions. The four arms and multiple legs of a brass, Hindu god form stood posed to ‘offer’ support for varied needs. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat ‘absorbed’ in contemplation. And a wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly; the Jesus figure linked a common meal with personal covenant. En route to choose a table cover—to note color and shape, to touch woven threads, to ponder an artist’s craft—I stopped, there being no choice. Crafts, as with all of life, exude spiritual content and purpose. Germane to selecting a cloth to enjoy with flavored curries, I faced faith. In Hinduism the spiritual and the practical provide context for each other. Not an intrusion, this feature of experience summoned my attention. Not present to cast judgment, the symbols prompted me to affirm that the One God is God of all nations.

A person’s approach to living religions depends on freedom to value principles that faiths hold in common alongside what is distinct about each group’s beliefs. Most major religions claim that all human beings are created equal; Hindus differ as they promote caste inequity. In contrast to other religions, Buddhism does not recognize that all human beings possess a “soul” in some form. Except for Taoism, religions struggle with death and judgment. Religions other than Judaism do not claim being distinctly “chosen of God.” Muslims alone believe that God’s words were literally revealed to Mohammad as final scripture. According to Arvind Sharma,4 religions can also be inconsistent. For example, Christians claim to be monotheistic yet hold to a doctrine of the Trinity.

To worship with urban and rural Christians in India enlarges awareness. On a Palm Sunday in 1993, thirty people walked or biked, passing people of other faiths, to a Mennonite service in Ranchi, Bihar. Each child going carried a palm frond shaped into a small cross. We greeted each other with “Jeshu sehai” before and after worship. We sat on back-less planks of wood. And in October 1998, I was privileged to lead multiple sessions of the fifth All-India Mennonite Women’s Conference—MB, MC, GC, and United Missionary. Singing and drama were spirited among the 160 women from five language groups. My talks on peace (shanti) themes were interpreted into Hindi by Rachel Bagh. We shared communion—chapati pieces and juice—made special because blessed and served by women. Short on cups, women washed the used ones in metal buckets just outside the tent, until all were served.

Less than three percent of India’s population, Christians worship. Whether near temples or mosques, they are rarely far removed from those who suffer.

Also, in Chennai, patterns of worship in Church of South India congregations vary. (Fifty years earlier CSI had merged Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalists, and Methodists.) How useful to observe that integration does not require identical views or rituals. At St. Mary’s, blessed with an Anglican heritage since 1680, the priest served weekly communion to worshipers as we kneeled at the altar. At St. Andrews, with Scottish Presbyterian roots, the Bible was carried in to begin and out to end each service. A brigade of lay elders passed the elements through the pews to five hundred believers, once a month. With hymns sung—hymnals included only words, not music—and the Word proclaimed, we left sacred settings to witness to God’s grace.

Holidays further promote ecumenical wisdom. On Reformation Day, we staff and students (seated on the tile floor on braided mats) at a Lutheran seminary were challenged by a Roman Catholic priest to claim the One God. On Mission Sunday in 1998, I, a Mennonite from the U.S., spoke in two CSI churches about the German Lutheran Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to India. He arrived in 1706. A skillful writer and translator loyal to the Good News, he learned the common people’s language. He learned from sermons and grammars written by Roman Catholics de Nobili and Henriques, in India before him. He credited the living piety of those now called Hindu people, learned the complex nature of their Bhakti religion, and credited their efforts to reach God.

A significant theological issue for Christians who live next to people of other living faiths surrounds how to present Jesus. Related to Ziegenbalg’s endeavor of cross-cultural respect, theologically trained Asians today have unique insight into God’s profound Way of inclusion. Trusting and worshiping the Divine who creates and sustains life, they see Jesus as God-centered. His parables describe God. The Way he proclaims points to God’s future, fullness of coming. Jesus invites followers to be God-centered while doing justice on earth. He challenges us to remove suffering and promote life. Despite differences and through vision shared with adherents of other religions, our task is to free victims.

David Scott, who lived and taught in Indian seminaries most of his adult life, explains the John 14:6 text used by some Christians to make exclusive claims.5 The context finds Jesus responding to Thomas’s dilemma “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Not to be used as a triumphal way to boast or feel superior to or favored over others, Jesus tells Thomas to recognize his Way of suffering love that leads to God. Through Jesus’ the Christ, believers can know truth about God. Through faithful living with God, they will see anew what Jesus offered.

Sri Lankan S. Wesley Ariarajah also comments.6 Currently at a crossroad of opportunity with other cultures and religions, Ariarajah encourages Christians to know the biblical God as a Being who chooses all people. A particular, absolute claim for Christ that disregards this biblical, universal Truth can be “the greatest hindrance to genuine witness.” John 14:6, a statement of faith for Christians, was meant to “express and arouse commitment, not to condemn others”; it reflects the theocentrism of Jesus.7 S. J. Samartha, in One Christ—Many Religions, explains that “Christocentrism without theocentrism leads to idolatry.” He confesses that “the only way to be Christ-centred is to be God-centred, but in a religiously plural world to be Christ-centred is not the only way to be God-centred.”8 How I resonate with such Truth.

Called to follow Jesus’ path to the One God of the universe, believers will neither idolize Christology nor endorse universalism. Not declaring that all souls will find salvation in God’s grace, we claim Jesus the Christ as the Christian path to salvation or wholeness. And we leave to God any offer of salvation through channels known uniquely by other religions.

Plurality will always exist; it reflects God’s Wisdom, I believe. But openness or resistance to another’s difference, or caution toward features held in common, determine whether the goodness of plurality thrives. Feminist thought has taught me to value a pluralist world. To hold together the plurality of different feminist theories and women’s lived experience suggests a profound unity. To avoid thinking that my particular experience is universal (presuming to speak for women of color when speaking as a white woman) or reducing the universal to a particular privilege (claiming the God of all nations as uniquely available to Christians) definitely needs to be overcome. Feminism can be rich in contradiction yet open to diversity. Its insight values ambiguity. It expects to practice beliefs with a firm lightness, as ancient Israelites held diverse names or descriptors for God.

To value the integrity of another’s religious belief system is a feminist and human issue. Relying on one God-concept or channel of salvation or routine for sacred ritual often reflects human intent to control or limit God. Because the world “belongs to none of us and All of us,” there is no choice but to “respect and learn from people whose faith expressions are radically different from our own,” suggests Mary E. Hunt.9 In a newspaper article, Indian writer Arshia Sattar says: “Feminism is becoming a movement of inclusion rather than one of exclusion. It is this plurality, this blooming of a hundred flowers, that gives it its strength.”10

Feminist thought refuses to stop changing. People who define and promote absolutes might mistake the freedom of change for indecision. Absolute certitude on ethical issues can fail to cope with ambiguity. But people who openly re-examine and re-envision views and texts receive content—seen, heard, or intuited as through sacred symbol—with anticipation. Rosemary Tong concludes: “Apparently, not the truth but the truths are setting women free.”11 Feminist method, also plural, involves participation, the authority of personal experience, plural views alongside interdependence, and connection rather than dualism. And so, writers of the multi-cultural collective God’s Fierce Whimsy describe scripture as God’s building in people an increased capacity for connection.

Local and broader media also reflect plurality, through anecdotes that draw my attention.

U.S. Southern Baptist Convention efforts recently backfired. Jewish leaders confronted a Baptist “prayer guide” intent to convert Jews “Baptists have a right to believe what they believe,” but the attempt to target Jews during the holy season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is offensive.12 Due to major protests among Hindus, the same SBC withdrew a prayer booklet released during the week prior to Diwali. Distributed to forty thousand SB churches, it incites fear of and distrust toward Hindu people as it denounces them: “More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism.”13 A Christian Century editorial comments on the SBC intent to “share the gospel in a loving, non-coercive way.” True love involves listening to the concerns expressed and “caring about how they hear your message.”14

Almost every issue of the Christian Century journal includes ecumenical news. That Catholics and Lutherans recently ended a five-hundred-year debate about justification—whether by faith alone or enhanced by actions—brings hope for a new millennium. A Roman Catholic priest, chosen by a House committee to be chaplain, was passed over for the position because of recurring anti-Catholic sentiments or in order to select a Protestant to satisfy the conservative, evangelical Religious Right?15 The Supreme Court will soon weigh whether the government violates separation of church and state mandates if it provides equipment like computers to religious schools.16 While some Christian lobby groups wish to display the Ten Commandments in schools, the American Civil Liberties Union faults that action for promoting religion, an approach made unconstitutional by the First Amendment.17

Numerous top-ten lists appeared in December 1999. The Christian Century noted (from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly) the top ten religion stories of the millennium. Interreligious or ecumenical stories dominate the list: the Great Schism (Christianity into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches) of 1054; the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries; the spread of Islam; Martin Luther’s 95 Theses posted in 1517; missionary movements of the 16th, 18th, and 19th centuries; the journey to the New World for religious liberty; and the Holocaust. Might we credit the fact that Christian history existed in Asia for one and a half millennium before western Christian missions? Might we welcome listings of key millennial events from Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist perspectives?

My own interest is for North Americans, who hold distinct loyalty as Mennonites, to anticipate and welcome encounters with people of other living faiths or denominations. Most Christians who live in a community long-term become members of one congregation of a particular denomination. That commitment and a church’s program can deprive them of healthy exchange with people loyal to other groups who also follow Jesus the Christ, or who also worship the One God but in diverse ways. Whereas some believers define “being Christian” by the scope of their personal experience, efforts to be ecumenical hold distinct loyalties lightly within the broader framework of global and local religion.

As Christians, we seek God’s Truth for the twenty-first century. Hopefully, we will learn from other living faiths as we engage with them in prayer, study, and conversation. Hopefully, we will together confront causes of suffering endured by people of any or no faith, wherever located. Holding onto the sacred trust in Jesus our Mentor, we take seriously Kaufman’s counsel:

Only as we find ways of stepping back from . . . features of our traditions (both religious and secular) that wall us off from others, can we hope to come into genuine understanding of and community with them. Building such community with others, it seems to me, is the most profound religious necessity of our time.18