Wisdom or Folly: Thoughts of Religious Superiority.
Initially published in Mission Focus Annual Review vol. 14, 2006, 211-30; appears here with permission.
How will religions move toward greater good-will? Due to discontent between living faiths, our world is less secure. To value a particular religious tradition is in itself worthy, a basic human right. Free to express and live out loyalty to that choice, adherents also have a duty and opportunity to respect those who claim a different religion as their favored channel for finding meaning in life. When religious people undermine what is sacred for others, they not only lessen the integrity of their own expression of faith, they cause ill-will. Such misunderstanding can cause more serious conflict.
Calling people of faith to honor traditions that differ does not endorse a universal religion that overlooks distinct conviction. Nor does it bless a relativism that sees all religions as true. It admits that all expressions have limits of knowing, even as they strive for depth and breadth. Each religious group will learn from others; each will teach from its store of insight. Each expects others to enrich its own wisdom which in turn it integrates before sharing further. For example, a Christian learns about Jesus’ stillness with God when tempted or in deep agony through Buddhist discipline of meditation.
A recent resource contributes to multifaith wisdom. Readers provide diverse convictions en route to a theology of religions that enables greater global understanding. I commend the voices that Paul Knitter brings together in The Myth of Religious Superiority. Knitter explains the term myth as “religious people using religious language to express experiences or insights that are beyond language.”1 This multifaith exploration builds on previous, life-giving insight from a mentor of mine deeply concerned with Christian encounters with other living faiths.2 What commends this 2005 book is that Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim adherents engage issues of plurality beyond foundational ones of dialogue and the tripolar typology (exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism).
Being a lifelong Mennonite and writing for a Mennonite journal, I both credit that heritage and alert its peacebuilding endeavor to honor multiple faiths. The need to learn from those who differ from us persists, along with being faithful Christians. My call to Mennonites avoids further insulation; it also cautions dependence on typologies. It welcomes improved views toward our closer religious ‘cousins’—Jews—and our first mission converts—Hindus. It invites comrades to confess the danger of presuming to ‘have a corner’ on peacemaking and invites those with more lived experience as near neighbors among diverse living faiths to be our teachers.
Talking about religions, we do well to address the term. It may set apart outer from inner responses to a divine being, the One who is beyond comprehension. It may include historical or social institutions. Religions may lead in different directions, respect diverse scripture, or express meaning through rituals distinctly practiced or understood. Believers make religious claims; more can always be learned about one’s own or another’s. Even an absolute claim about revelation turns relative when new insight into its fullness or being final appears, Knitter gently reminds readers.3
Adherents may be puzzled by another’s acts of faith or see continuity with their own. As with language, something is lost in translation. Being a Buddhist and Quaker, Sallie King sees Buddhism as a means that transported her from a present condition to enlightenment. So, too, George Fox taught that an experience of the Inner Light guides; scripture expresses such Light. Rather than be attached to words, how the adherent understands and responds to reality matters. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master and poet, all religions try to be a form to reveal Nothingness.4
Michael Kogan explains that for Jews, religion reflects Yahweh’s reaching out toward them. That revelation both affirms and transcends the individual, as the person moves toward the message. Each disclosure expresses part of the infinite, hidden One. So too, God reaches out to diverse traditions. To imply that one divine word might be ‘truest’ fails to comprehend that each reflects a partial segment. Each religion accepts the distinct truth or theology received especially for it, which in turn it uniquely proclaims.5
For the great Muslim Sufi named Rumi, religion is indeed a message. But common to all traditions is faith, an inner power. This inner quality stands in contrast to the external differences—those variables that may cause conflict. In that distinction, Rumi reminds writer Mahmut Aydin of Wilfred Cantwell Smith who avoids the term religion, using faith and cumulative tradition instead. During the seventh century, the abstract concept religion began to be formed into an object with a presumed existence. But the inner or transcendent aspect of being, called faith, might better be distinguished from the objective data: from features like temples, scriptures, institutions, myths, or dance patterns that can be passed between people or generations.6 Despite these distinctions, this paper will continue to use the term religion.
Christian Theology of Religions
Earlier, in a review of Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions, Roger Haight looks for a mid-point between two questions to ponder how Christians today might relate Jesus Christ to other religions: “Are all religions equal? Does Christianity supersede all other religions?”7 Until now, a theology of religions has named a possible typology or range of positions, often called models, for how Christianity relates with other religious ways. The classic terms for interpreting religious diversity have been exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Knitter’s 2002 resource renamed these three, retaining the distinct content for each, and added a fourth: “replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, and acceptance.”
Haight finds that some evangelicals support the first model; they believe that Christianity supersedes all religions. Holding biblical witness to be important, Christ is central for salvation. For the more Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant inclusivist or fulfillment type, Christ perfects whatever power of salvation exists in other religions. How proponents assume both openness to others and an absolutist claim regarding Christ puzzles many observers. Supporters of the third model take the revelation and truth of all religions seriously. Alongside Christianity and Christ stand “distinct versions of truth in a mutually critical way.” Critics fault this approach for wiping out key, traditional claims about Christ. The fourth model, acceptance, validates deep religious differences as bases for absolute claims. With argument impossible, Christian supremacy follows.8
Diverse responses to this scheme had appeared by the time The Myth of Religious Superiority came into print. Perry Schmidt-Leukel identifies eight major objections to the classic typology, the three terms that he credits to Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa during the 1980s. Discontent questions inconsistent structure, misleading issues, narrowness, abstraction, wrong assumptions, offense, and purpose. Intent to address earlier faults, he reinterprets the categories and adds a prior option—atheism/naturalism before exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.9 With this scheme, “salvific knowledge of a transcendent reality is mediated by” no (religion), one, more but really only one, or more than one with none being superior. Although not justly treated here, this scheme renews my caution about both the complex nature and binding weakness of typologies.
Issues of theology of religion (or the plural of each noun) are foundational for this book. Rita Gross observes that while the exclusivist model names only its own religion as true or valued, the inclusivist type finds partial value in the other’s which, in the end, must be replaced by its own. And the pluralist model values all religions and learns from them without trying to convert them. With the 4th/acceptance model, she sees value judgments suspended while learning what each religion claims at deep levels.10 That Gross does not ‘peg’ certain individuals or groups with a label is refreshing. As a Buddhist, she also moves beyond thinking that ‘right’ words achieve salvation or “take [a person] to the experience of Reality.” For her, a pluralistic theology of religions cares about how effectively teachings or methods move adherents from “ignorance to enlightenment,” not about how religions teach different truths.
K. P. Aleaz seminary professor from India traces the roots of a theology of religions in India back to the first century when Thomas Christians (descendents of those who likely engaged with Jesus’ disciple Thomas) knew mutual acceptance with Hindu communities. Other non-Indians noted for being “religious interreligiously” include R. deNobili (1609), B. Ziegenbalg (1706), and H. Martyn (1806-12). With Aleaz’ strong call for Pluralistic Inclusivism [discussed with Pluralism below], he finds the theology of religion that emerges from both Vatican II and the World Council of Churches to be inadequate. For instance, misconceptions fail to acknowledge how integral religion and culture are in Asia.
Another Asian Christian with decades of experience living next to people of diverse living faiths is Wesley Ariarajah. For him, “having a ‘theology’ and a ‘theology of religions,’ explicit or implicit, is part of being a religious person or community.”11 But those constructs can also be detrimental when allied with political powers that bless absolutes and faulty scripture interpretation. Ariarajah observed missionary activity from the west influenced by a “conquer the world for Christ” mentality plus a sense of superiority that accompanied it. He believes that the ecumenical movement still struggles to counter Christian efforts to preserve power. It needs freedom from typologies that lack experience with people of diverse religious traditions.12
For our religiously plural world, Christian theology needs to address new issues, issues like how the universal and particular relate. How cautious or convinced we are about God’s involvement with people of diverse faiths or thought. How best to engage with religious people who start from resources other than the Bible. How the Spirit works beyond the church.13 The classical typology ignores such vital matters, with its being limited to more narrow understandings of salvation.
Ariarajah also raises W. C. Smith’s challenge to the concept of religion [noted above]. Besides owning the limits of doctrines, creeds, and theological traditions, he finds John Hick’s thesis foundational for a theology of religions: “all religious traditions must be treated seriously as responses to the ‘Real.’” And he reminds readers of the nature of religious language. Rather than read texts that are confessions as if they were official decrees with only one literal meaning, scripture deserves better than political ‘baggage.’ Rather than pose for power and privilege, Christianity could radically re-vision a humble, plural, truly compassionate stance toward other living faiths.14
Mahmut Aydin’s chapter about the noted Muslim mystic Rumi, from the thirteenth century, reveals three profound conclusions for a Muslim theology of religions. 1. Knowledge about God cannot be limited to Qur’an insight, so Muslims cannot presume that they have either the fullness or totality of divine revelation. 2. Nor may Muslims suggest that what others know of God, Islam already contains—what Islam knows of God is not absolute or definitive. 3. With many paths through which people experience God’s acceptance—being transformed from ego-centrism to Other/Reality-centrism—Muslims cannot claim unsurpassable revelation.15 If only this mystic’s wisdom had been valued and shared during the centuries, across religious groups.
Writers included in this book are pluralist theologians; their understanding of pluralism follows. Although pluralists view all great religions as valid paths of salvation, tensions and questions arise. Will their stance always remain at the margins, they wonder? Should they move radically ahead or ‘wait’ for the majority of believers in diverse religions to ‘catch up’ to their view? Should they promote dialogue with those who will reject their stance—like those who are intent to conserve exclusive views or those fearful of a relative result? Or might they aggressively convert others? Further, can a doctrine be true for all but not be the only truth? Will Christians be more inclined to receive a doctrine about Christ or about the Holy Spirit in order to look anew at tradition? Does having a three-part Trinity enable Christian acceptance of diverse religions? When will feminists become more welcome and active with interfaith dialogue? And how might believers become more convinced to shift from thinking the/only to a/one among: does the fact that God chose the Jews guarantee that God makes no other such choice?16
Writers of chapters in The Myth of Religious Superiority are seventeen of forty theologians who gathered in Birmingham, England for a few days in September 2003. A summary of pluralist consensus from the meeting states:
Paul Knitter, a key organizer for the pluralism gathering, responds to whether westerners have imposed a pluralist stance with a firm no. Rather, as followers from different religions cooperate to relieve suffering and promote peace, each honors how the others contribute. As believers, teachers, mystics, philosophers, or religious friends discover the common or universal among them, they also credit their distinctions. They respect and learn from the otherness of each, as they together work to lessen the potential for discord that religions can prompt. Called from within their separate religions, they move toward compassion, charity and interconnection. They affirm plural sources of motivation, religion-based or not.
Further positive understandings of pluralism appear. Truth claims that are universal, plural, and diverse do not counter each other. Such claims come together to shape mutual endeavor. They remain distinct in separate religions without being absolute, without forming boundaries that limit. Knitter challenges the traditional believer to continue to proclaim what s/he “knows to be true and good” without insisting that such is the only or last word.18
For Rita Gross, religious diversity is a fact. Two key points to discover follow: how best to live with difference—toward kindness and compassion—and how to genuinely value and learn from the other. Not intent to compare religious truth, the focus becomes how do people treat each other? Does religion prompt less aggression and more empathy or justice? Do followers of different religions stress cooperation over arrogance? Do they truly appreciate what others teach them out of their distinct insight?19
Michael Kogan and Dan Cohn-Sherbok approach pluralism from a Jewish perspective. Not to be either subsumed within or excluded from Christian concepts, Jews hold onto their eternal covenant with God. Like others, they anticipate power through multi-revelation. What each receives neither supplants nor annuls earlier insight. Known as God for all nations, Israel’s concept of God is both received and partial. Language, time, and place restrict theories about the divine. Jews know that God speaks to non-Jews, that those religious others are “of God.”20 The Godhead behind all religious expression and beyond all comprehension inspires all faiths. A pluralistic framework enables understanding of differences between them, with each holding unique importance for adherents. Convictions (not absolutist claims) for each then become the subjective lens through which members form a concept of Divine Reality. Sure, ever-developing pluralist Jews extend openness toward others without insisting on an absolute—only we are right—stance. Since all have more to know, a “cloud of unknowing” characterizes people’s view of the Infinite.21
Aleaz (India) and Ariarajah (Sri Lanka) use distinct themes to credit multiple religions as paths to salvation. The former believes that pluralism calls for pluralistic inclusivism and the latter calls Christians to own the issue of power. Aleaz expects religions to fulfill each other’s basic theology and spirituality. Christians need people of other living faiths to “discover the meaning and message of Jesus.”22 Holding religious resources in common, those who dialogue grow as they relate. Religions relate through general and distinct differences before they converge to enrich their own and another’s experience. A Christian integrates truth about Jesus revealed to a Hindu believer in a way that expands the Christian’s own meaning of the gospel. Rather than presume a fullness of meaning about Jesus that needs primarily to be told to the Hindu, and rather than presume that the Hindu knows only about Hinduism, the Christian, in pluralistic inclusivism, expects to learn from the Hindu’s sacred store. Exchange truly occurs when each seriously studies the other’s religion through the eyes of one’s own faith. For example, Neo-Vedantic thought might prompt the Hindu to insight not yet revealed to the Christian about renunciation, as a follower of Jesus. Aleaz believes that “Jesus transcends Christianity.”23 His model makes pluralism inclusive and inclusivism pluralistic.24
For Christians, Ariarajah believes that the toughest part of dealing with religious pluralism is naming and addressing political features, those threats that emerge when discussing pluralism. People who absorb the church’s traditional theology of religions and then encounter plurality without owning the politics of western belief in Christian ‘best/superior’ absolutes avoid a vital step. For decades, the politics of Hendrik Kraemer’s view of Jesus as God’s decisive and final revelation of God has reigned. The modern ecumenical movement depended on that superiority mode. But Arirajah knows from faith experience that access to God does not endorse such exclusion.25
Focus of Multiple Pluralists
Engineer, the son of a home-town Shi’a priest, learned Arabic and Islamic religious thought—commentary (tafsir), law (fiqh), and the Prophet’s sayings (hadith). While the Qur’an’s central call is to relieve suffering, he observes that interpretation of the Qur’an is partial and contextual. After working as a civil engineer for twenty years, he shifted to social reform in India. Engineer’s progressive tasks for society consistently stress the main values shared by religions—“justice, equality, benevolence, compassion, and freedom.”
From the same holy source, Allah, whose prophets teach submission (din) to the one God, religions of all nations reflect Truth in diverse ways. Gathered to dialogue, people faithful to distinct religions then share rules that enable peace. They do not claim superiority, tend to dispute, or feel driven to convert others. Those who dialogue respect their own and the other’s teachings while they together seek multiple strands of Truth. For example, attending to Muslim justice, Buddhist non-violence and Christian love, each gathers deeper insight for ‘turning’ its own religion in new directions.36
Insight from One Pluralist – S. Wesley Ariarajah
I wish now to focus Wesley Ariarajah’s profound, yea prophetic, views about “Power, Politics, and Plurality.” Relevant for readers of Mission Focus who question whether Mennonites should join the World Council of Churches, resistance to learn from ecumenical effort need not be condoned. In order to live faithfully during the twenty-first century, openness to plurality need not weaken loyalty to Jesus the Christ whose attention centered on God, the God of all nations.
Born in Sri Lanka where Buddhism prevails, Ariarajah, a Methodist, was ordained in 1968. Active from 1983-1997 with administrative, ecumenical and interreligious agenda at the WCC, he more recently teaches at Drew University Graduate and Theological Schools in New Jersey. I particularly value his interreligious Wisdom from the Asian context where Christianity has been (and always will be, he suggests elsewhere) a minority religion.
Ariarajah explains the Church’s rejection of Judaism and its inability to extend fully God’s grace to other living faiths. Aware of Constantine’s way to unify his political empire—by tolerating only the Christian faith—Ariarajah faults Christian resistance to receive and cope with plural religions. He also questions its intent to replace (supersede) Israel as the “New Israel.” Both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches assumed an “imperial, exclusivist attitude to plurality—toward each other and other religious traditions.”38 Not yet gracious toward multiple religious expressions, the church (like Constantine) resists division and the Wisdom of difference. It resists another group’s questioning its authority. Therein, it acts like an empire.
I quote at length a judgment of Ariarajah’s, a perspective with which I agree:
. . . the church has not yet adjusted to the possibility of being one among the many. It has not learned the art of being deeply convinced about what it has experienced without having to deny the experience of others. It has not been able to contemplate the possibility that God may have many ways of bringing people to their intended destiny, the Christian way being one of them. Above all, it has fallen into the trap of thinking that if others are true, then it has to be wrong. In other words, a mentality has taken hold of the church that makes it impossible for it to accept plurality. This mentality has come from its long association with a kind of power that is intolerant of any challenge to its authority.39
These statements reflect honest conviction. Their truth might be applied to some institutions, denominations, or leaders. They emerge in part, I presume, from decades of Ariarajah’s heritage of living in an interreligious setting and then interacting with Christians elsewhere who resist God’s openness to multifaiths. A question presents itself: do readers or the church wish for greater readiness toward plurality? Will readers become defensive or welcome the opportunity to examine slogans like “uniqueness of Christ” and “priority of mission.” Will readers name those with whom they disagree “relativists” or write them off as “unchristian,” without admitting their own political power that limits discussion or presumes superior and ‘right’ insight?
Earlier, Arirajah had pointed to the Christian west’s single paradigm for understanding religious experience—its own. Its philosophy of religion became the “Philosophy of Religion.”40 But, convinced that “God has always been savingly present in Asia,” Ariarajah believes that Christians must rid themselves of feeling superior—a posture of mission that often went with colonization. Hindus, for example, experienced imperialism—when Christians posed power over them through exclusive claims to salvation and truth. When they expressed disdain for India’s cultural and religious expressions.41
Granted, mission history cannot be faulted for most primary political colonization. But, it often conveyed selfless service to disadvantaged folk alongside insensitive power over through superior claims. Confident that the gospel expressed God’s love for the world and Christ’s power to liberate from sin or mediate between people and God, some missioners proclaimed their way as God’s only way to relate. That language of exclusive power, if conveyed without informed depth into the experience of other ways, judged others as ‘wrong,’ Ariarajah warns. While political powers moved to “conquer the world,” the church sought to ‘conquer’ the world for Christ. Suggesting that God and people relate in only the church’s way reflects a colonial mindset buttressed by a power approach that declares no other way valid.42 Can Protestants hear this critique from a Christian?
Ariarajah names three Protestant constructs that shape exclusive attitudes. First is the view of ‘salvation history’ wherein the church superseded Jewish ‘chosenness,’ casting it to negate others. Jews had never required all of God’s people to become Jewish based on their specific call to spread God’s shalom worldwide. But, Christians reshaped ‘chosen’—from a universal God of all nations to a particular saving plan, theirs in Christ. That process itself overlooks Jesus’ central call to followers to make God known, I believe.
The second of Ariarajah’s points faults Karl Barth’s separation of Divine self-revelation in the gospel from all other religions and cultures. Barth determined that the gospel did not continue other traditions in expressing rebellion toward, or mere human effort to access, God. That influential stance prompted the ‘right’ to devalue other living faiths. Will Mennonite theologians excuse this ‘right to devalue’? I hear that “Barth is the elephant in the room” when they meet.
A third Protestant tool, according to Ariarajah, has been a “missiological” reading of the Bible. Select texts taken out of their context have been “used to ‘prove’ that Jesus was the only way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can know God except through him.”43 A text often cast as dogma and used to ‘bless’ exclusion is John 14:6. Responding to Thomas’ question, “How can we know the way?” (that Jesus will take to reach God), Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Whether he said “No one comes to the Father except through me” is not certain. Some Christians use ‘No one comes / except’ language to sanction exclusion. That approach has Christians presume that they are “in” while pointing to others to say, “You’re out.” Toward that stance, pluralists rightly wince, I believe.
During the Last Supper, a close meal with the Twelve, John’s text records Jesus actions: he washes their feet, predicts his betrayal, warns that the world will hate them, and tries to comfort their emotions. Thomas, often a figure to represent common views, later declares “My Lord & my God.” Here he admits lack of know-how for reaching God. Not boasting, Jesus claims to be the way to God, for those who follow him. For humble Christians, he shows and lives the way of suffering love. For those committed to self-sacrifice, he sets an example. Having lived intimately with God, he shares the truth learned in that bond. God’s being impartial means that no one is favored over others. For, the Way which is open to Ways lets God decide who to include. Even Thomas would see the idolatry of trying to decide about others in God’s stead.
The three human constructs named by Ariarajah led to three basic tenets—the uniqueness and finality of Christ, the mission imperative, and Biblical faith. That faith insists on upholding the first two or being faulted for betraying the Bible. This three-pronged creed, protected by classic fears of mission effort—syncretism, relativism, and universalism—has played to a ‘need’ to assert a Christian ‘hold’ on “the truth.” Ariarajah illustrates the interplay of these human constructs and fears from during the 1975 World Council of Churches debate, held at Nairobi, over a report titled “Seeking Community.”44 A Preamble laden with traditional ideas had to be added to it. With an earlier debate, others could be credited with seeking, but not with finding, God. The ‘need’ to judge seems to persist.
Alert to deep psychological ‘needs’ within churches or to patterns of self-protecting silence that leaders may exercise when feeling ‘at risk,’ a consultation took place two years later in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, crucial issues and questions, for churches to face if they expect to be involved in multifaith endeavor, were processed. Not only God as Creator, Christ’s importance, scriptural authority, and Spirit were discussed. To discover God’s universal and particular activity, within and beyond the church, matters. People called to dialogue start from different resources and traditions; how do they together shape criteria? As multifaith people cooperate to overcome basic human needs, how are God and Spirit recognized? Deeply committed to a religion, individuals will remain open to absorb difference. How political will might mesh with theology to shape plurality is of concern?45
Ariarajah concludes his chapter with a challenge to reshape a theology of religion. Rather than fit religious plurality into existing theological convictions, the process will look at religious experience. Looking at paths and traditions of diverse religions, it asks, “What does it say to issues that matter most?” Not dependent on typologies or Trinity-centered terms, radical change for a theology of religion entails a process. That process accepts plurality. It honors the nature of religious traditions and language while resisting whatever intimidates. Not driven to ‘only’ or ‘superior’ comparisons, the new frontier considers how best to respond, together and distinctly, to “the Real.”46 (John Hick had earlier raised the ‘neutral,’ nontraditional notion of “the Real” in order for both those with personal (theistic) and nonpersonal views or experience of the Ultimate to feel accepted and involved.)47
Another area for radical, new thought raised repeatedly by Wesley Ariarajah is theology of mission. He speaks to this theme as faithfulness in a society that will continue to be religiously plural.48 For some time he has welcomed four shifts in missionary thought: 1. from “exclusive” to “inclusive”—seeing God’s work (Missio Dei) of bringing all things to God through multiple places and religious traditions; 2. from the church as ‘majority’—often tempted more with power than faithfulness to the gospel—to ease with being ‘minority’; 3. from linking mission with ‘conversion’ to applying it to ‘healing’ of people and world; and 4. from teaming mission with belief in certain doctrine to framing it within spiritual discipleship.49 Both bold and faithful, future missioning will cooperate with other religious groups to promote God’s care for all, not compete to expand only one account of it. It will join forces toward wholeness, opposing all violence and injustice. Seeds of peace, rather than conflict, then have potential.
Religious Conflict and Religious Peacebuilding: Multiple Strands
Writers in The Myth of Religious Superiority and other resources differ about the extent to which religion might be labeled a frequent cause of conflict. Clearly, some individuals or groups persecute others, seek to destroy an enemy’s human will and property, or wage war in the name of a specific religion. Not a new reality, this pattern transpired during the Crusades and before. While both Christians and Muslims then inspired warriors with the promise of eternal reward for killing, the pattern continues, in part, through suicide bombers. That both Christianity and Islam acquired empire ‘status’ fairly early prompted in each a zeal and a confidence that what they presumed to be important was understood as true more broadly.
How Christians understand Muslims today may depend on what we read. A long-term, retired missionary (not from Asia) invited me to read The Great Divide The Failure of Islam & the Triumph of the West.50 Although the title conveyed serious bias to me, I read it in order to know what some readers ‘buy into.’ Although I did learn some facts from Schmidt, I experience negation of Islam and glorification of Christianity within the book. Any resource that blames one religion while excusing another’s faulty action should raise caution. If it prompts ill will or distortion, or ‘writes off’ as mere apologists those who work to receive what is “of God” in other religions, how will we respond? For me to endorse The Myth of Religious Superiority counters a resource like The Great Divide. Is the conflict between Wisdom and Folly?
How people respond to difference in religious views affects whether conflict occurs. Difference need not divide. Yet, xenophobia, the fear of difference, abounds. Hostility may emerge if one ‘side’ cannot receive difference because the ‘safeness’ of sameness had become routine. Ill-will may smolder when resistance to difference leads some to denounce new perspectives untested. Blame often follows, from both ‘sides.’ Bias or unfairness leaves wounds. Especially when little knowledge of another’s religion exists, fault-finding becomes an easy escape. Max Muller’s dictum then rings true—“To know only one religion is to know none.” If no basis for honest comparison exists or if a person presumes that the familiar must also be universal, seeds of enmity sprout. Ashgar Ali Engineer believes that differences are essential for moving toward unity. Engaging them rather than merely accepting them is vital. “Through the diversity of revelations, Allah guides those who believe to the truth about which they differed.”51
Some writers see a direct connection between conflict and claims of religious superiority or absolute and exclusive judgments. Elsewhere, Paul Knitter writes: “One of the greatest impediments to authentic dialogue is the claim or conviction that one’s own religion is superior to all others and thus destined to be the fulfillment of all others. . . .such claims of superiority are one of the main reasons why ‘religions become evil’ and are used to justify violence.”52 Here Knitter states: “claims of religious superiority all too easily, if not invariably, become calls to religious violence.”53 And John Hick declares, “To insist on unique superiority of your own faith is to be part of the problem.”54 Rita Gross believes that views that create hostility and hatred must be faced.
If saying that only one (my) religion is true deeply hurts a person who sincerely knows ‘Divine grace’ (as Christians call it) through another faith, is my witness false? Dare I excuse the suffering that I cause by quoting Jesus’ prediction that “the world will hate” his followers? South Africa’s Bishop Tutu declared that he would abandon Jesus if he were known to favor apartheid. Paul Knitter testifies: “if I can’t use certain language in the presence of my interreligious friends without offending them, then there’s something wrong with the language, something wrong with the way I am trying to express my Christian convictions.”55
Paul Knitter’s writings and mentoring have given me insight into carefulness of speech. For example, Christians proclaim Jesus as a universal savior, not the world’s only savior. While we confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” we avoid saying that he does so solely or fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God. Other religious figures may also be wholly God.”56 The sacred task continues for Christians—to learn from multifaith encounters while sharing Jesus’ radical justice and his convinced faith in the One God, his Jewish God of all nations.
Consider an ancient, Hebrew prophet. In verse 9:7 Amos’s vision heralds God’s reprimand: “Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me? Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir?” God’s rule over all the nations is evenhanded. As obscure, Cushite, Ethiopian tribes were enslaved and exploited before delivered, so Israel was brought up from the land of Egypt. As God uprooted and gave land to little known Aramaean nations, so God controlled and maintained interest in Philistine’ destiny, alongside Israel’s.
Israel’s problem, in Amos’ mind, was its ignorance and arrogance. It presumed that it alone was Yahweh’s people. The prophet brought the fact of pluralism to their narrow view, their narrow faith. Even those who they hated were part of God’s care. Freed from oppression through Yahweh’s great deeds, they shaped themselves in new ways. Indeed, “salvation history” cannot be limited to one track. Israel was jolted from expecting others to conform to their religion (reductionism). Israel needed to wake up as Christianity today needs to descend from its pedestal that expects God to receive others only through one means of salvation—Jesus. For, we too have no way to measure the breadth of God’s action or acceptance.57
With the One God reigning over the world, the same rules apply: each nation answers for its behavior and attitude. Not a national deity, like implied in “God bless America” lingo, the Divine intervenes with all groups. While each nation is distinct, none is privileged. Each remains duty-bound to care for others rather than oppress. Impartial, God’s relation with Israel does not exclude special relations with others. Amos critiqued prejudice and bigotry.
When Religion becomes Evil, written by Charles Kimball, is one of numerous, recent books that deals with religious conflict.58 Warning signs explained by Kimball are: 1. absolute Truth claims, 2. blind obedience, 3. establishing the ‘ideal’ time, 4. the end justifies any means, and 5. declaring Holy War. Beliefs made into absolute Truth claims or views turned into rigid doctrine by zealous adherents can dehumanize those loyal to other sacred views. Devoted beyond question to a religious leader who expects unlimited control over the devotee illustrates the second sign. Predicting disasters or life reversals, being adamant about God’s will, or provoking passion for a sacred cause shape perceptions of an ‘ideal.’ Targeting Jews for Christ’s death (deicide), ethnic cleansing, or violating a neighbor for some presumed righteous cause reflect ‘an end justifying a means.’ Not only might war express a central ‘holy’ claim, the 5th sign; fundamentalism, misinterpretation of sacred texts, and absolute Truth claims can also call to ‘battle’ and cause suffering.
Working to relieve suffering becomes a key way for multifaith people to cooperate. They together protest causes for suffering. They ‘take on’ others suffering in order to better understand each other. Using diversity to build accord rather than prompt conflict, they accept distinct religious rituals and sources of motivation. They respect other’s valid relationships with Ultimate Reality as they engage in the common call to repair the world. Better informed about what gives meaning to the other, each discovers ways to improve their own religious being. Such change in religions, rather than replacement between, was central to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision. He desired that particular truths of given faiths become “precious to followers of other faiths.”
K. L. Seshagiri Rao’s chapter focuses on the pluralist prophet Gandhi who urged Hindus to become better Hindus, Christians better Christians. Intent to purify one’s religion and self, each gets cultivated through increased, common tasks of reconciliation. Believing in one God reached through diverse paths, Gandhi felt no obligation to join the Christian creed even while being fully committed to follow the beauty of Jesus’ teachings. For, work toward human justice, practiced by Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, does not require consensus about theology; nor does it sanction uncritical syncretism. The ‘success’ of all religions increases as adherents of each faith move toward greater moral good. Holding firm to distinct principles, none warrants superiority.59
Mahatma Gandhi’s sincere search for truth pervaded his life. Not only being truthful, he pursued eternal being. He embraced the true in knowledge, right conduct, and just relationships. Conviction that God is truth led to his belief that truth is God. His autobiography, subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth, complements the morning prayer from the Uppanishad shared daily at his ashram at Wardha, India: “From untruth lead me to truth, from darkness lead me unto light, from death lead me unto life everlasting.” Believing in the truth within applied in disciplines of “doing without” to purify inner being, he strove through nonviolent means to remove injustice.60 For peace between religions to increase, Gandhi endorsed “friendly readings” of each other. He encouraged adherents to seek and trust truth in other religions, to enhance one’s own limited measure of truth.61
Examples of other efforts to foster peace between religions appear. I commend John Howard Yoder’s insight into why the Jewish-Christian schism “did not have to be.”62 And I value Sallie B. King’s view of Gandhi’s ahimsa (nonviolence) being practiced through Engaged Buddhism. Cambodian monk Maha Ghosananda, VietNamese Thich Nhat Hanh, and the current Dalai Lama illustrate anew the basic values and beliefs of Buddhist social and political engagement. They live out a verse of the Buddha’s teachings:
Hatred is never overcome by hatred;
It is overcome by love.
This is the eternal law.63
A recent article by Wesley Ariarajah describes building communities of peace in the context of plurality.64 He explains that Semitic traditions and western theology find “many-ness” to be a problem. Thinking that one must be better than many leads to or justifies excluding what fails to fully comply with the one. In the process, the richness of diversity gets lost and a ‘theology of plurality’ gets delayed. Ariarajah commends Confucius’ ancient desire to understand the problem of plurality and then notes several current schemes, some effective and others less so. For example, “the rule of the majority” fails in a pluralist context.
Six principles enable peace to prevail in settings of rich difference, as among religions: develop a positive attitude toward plurality from childhood; affirm diverse identities within community; seek common values without depriving the distinct; promote just relations, just uses of power and economic justice; offer ways to overcome conflict; and reject the temptation to violence.65 In other words, nurture a spirituality of plurality.
Spirituality calls for dialogue: within oneself, among neighbors, and as possible with people of diverse living faiths. Being religious interreligiously matters. That gift involves knowing another’s texts, heritage of rituals, and concept of God as surely as one’s own. Spirituality invites Christians to explain what ‘being in Christ’ means and entails personally, while welcoming others to clarify (and in the process teach) distinct features of their faith. True listening suggests the freedom to learn, to the point of changing one’s own view. Spirituality leads multifaith people to the common tasks of overcoming suffering, peacebuilding, and worship. Each respects the depth of who the other is.
Shekshakshen—New Attention to a Universal Spirit: One Strand
Christian writers, including some evangelicals and pluralists, wonder if the universal Spirit might be a means to bridge relationships between living faiths. Might greater accord rather than conflict follow such a focus? Might Old Testament Wisdom/Sophia content offer insight? My own term for an interreligious being, force, or sacred energy—Shekshakshen—attempts to credit diverse religions for the concept, rather than emphasize a Christian term. Shekinah, shakti, and shen reflect a power beyond the human from Jewish, Hindu, and Tao religions. Intent to develop this Spirit concept in another assignment, I now note Amos Yong before writers from The Myth of Religious Superiority.
Originally from Malaysia, Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong elsewhere wonders if Spirit (pneumatology) might become the key Christian issue for theology of religions. Already well-published, Yong will continue to develop content around three theses. The first declares that God is universally present and active by the Spirit. The second affirms God’s Spirit as the life-breath of God’s image in every person and a precondition of all human relationships. Thirdly, as is true of everything, the world’s religions exist by the Spirit for sacred purposes.66 As the Jewish heritage of Christianity had to adjust at Pentecost to include Parthians, Medes, Elamites and more, Yong also expects caution about his approach.
I personally see promise in it. Jesus the radical Christ is central to Christian thought and experience, and so he will remain. Yet, arrogant or zealous presentations of him from any who lack Wisdom of other living faiths create problems for those whom they exclude. Presenting Jesus as only, absolute salvation for all peoples, some Christians make dialogue with other faithful, religious people nearly impossible. Near-replacement of God with the figure, but not prime message, of Jesus smacks of idolatry. A focus on pneumatology would call for deep soul-searching and humility. Perhaps the more universal, Divine Spirit could enable the Wisdom of multifaith exchange to lessen the Folly of claims to be superior. Perhaps, multifaith folk would then meet pressing, global needs hand-in-hand.
With her loyalties as Quaker and Buddhist, Sallie King sees how comparable the two are regarding Spirit. Buddhism offers the Buddha Nature—compassion and wisdom—a reality present in everyone. This universal, concealed and ‘true’ nature enables all beings to become enlightened. So also, Quaker teaching offers Light Within, a Spirit aspect endowed by God within each person. With all gifted to confront evil or carry out God’s will, God’s presence and truth might be named Inner Light, Light of Truth, or That of God in Everyone. Well-known Thich Nhat Hanh credits both the historical and living quality of Buddha and Jesus; eternal life is present through the Buddha Nature and living Christ (Holy Spirit). Not dogmatic or creedal, religious truth is experiential and ever-recurring. Not possessive of truth, the Spirit holds whom she will. While Quakers wait for the Spirit to ‘blow’ or teach, wherever and through whomever—continued revelation—Buddhists claim emptiness, being fully connected with and compassionate toward all things. So, true religions lead adherents from being ego-centered to reflecting the universal Spirit.67
Discussing “the Spirit and Religious Pluralism,” Peter C. Hodgson names Christ as “God’s concrete, historical presence and the Spirit as God’s indwelling power.”68 He regrets that the Holy Spirit has become a subordinate part of the Christian Trinity. For, it truly is a rich, more universal symbol, found in some form in most faiths. Hodgson finds Spirit qualities of energy, knowledge, love, and freedom—summed up as grace or empowered gifts—recurring among world religions.
So, the time has come to affirm the Spirit’s global, mutually-enriching quality.69 Biblical texts present the Spirit as natural and rational, primal energy and liberating knowledge, and the creative, redemptive power of God at work in the world. Hindu thought finds the unity and diversity of what Christians call Spirit both packed into Brahman and bursting into a wild whirlwind of divinities and practices. Through wisdom, ethics, and meditation, Buddhist Nirvana frees adherents from a binding world of suffering and rebirth into an eternal state beyond description.70 Reinhold Bernhardt suggests, Spirit activity serves as “the field of force that from the beginning of time has been creatively at work in the cosmos.”71
Truly, Paul Knitter offers readers a resource to be ‘chewed and digested.’ His wisdom to provide diverse, pluralist voices reflects his own generosity and vision. Incidentally, he regrets that writer identification missed being printed. As religious pluralism is here to stay, pluralist theologians like those in The Myth of Religious Superiority deserve a hearing. I highly recommend this book, in part for its opposition to a mindset of religious superiority.
Multifaith and international voices give depth to intense discussion. Readers are invited to take seriously adherents of other living faiths. That spiritual move includes repenting for actions or attitudes of the past that may have undermined good will between people faithful to diverse religions. It determines better information about and openness toward our plural religious landscape. It renews personal commitment and enriches one’s choice of faith.
Expecting to write further about how religion might inherently cause conflict and what qualities or conditions religions bring to peacebuilding effort, I will not elaborate further now. Writers appearing in The Myth of Religious Superiority agree about motivation for this book—the vital link between religions of the world and peace in the world. Not referring to a mere absence of conflict, peace reflects both inner being and outer qualities of relationship. Peace shapes friendship with the One God known by diverse names and forms, and with the neighbor—“loving the neighbor as the self” as purported by many religions. Balancing deep respect for many faiths with a profound search for common, sacred expression, pluralists here promote “Greater unity amid abiding diversity.”72 They do so admirably.