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Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously

March 22, 2016

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‘Dualism of Power’ by Baipin via Flickr.com

Do Christians take religious pluralism seriously?

This question has been plaguing me as I plow through the reading list for my first qualifying exam in practical theology, a necessarily Christian discipline. As a Buddhist, I am naturally paying attention to the literature within the field that discusses diversity, globalization, colonialism, and pluralism. How might practical theology relate to Buddhism? This is the question I seek to answer and my research is providing me with interesting hypotheses.

However, the first question, the one about Christians keeps floating into my mind. As an outsider, answers are much more elusive, though hypotheses do present themselves.

The Christian literature on practical theology certainly acknowledges diversity and pluralism. It’s hard not to notice several billion people in the world who are not Christian. Ongoing globalization has brought them into direct, repeated contact with Christians for hundreds of years. They (Christians) know we (non-Christians) are here.

But do Christians take pluralism seriously?

I think of the work of Catholic/Hindu mystic and scholar Raimon Panikkar, in his book The Intrareligious Dialoguewhich introduced me to the idea of ‘the risk of conversion:’

The principle is this: The Religious encounter must be a truly religious one. [sic] Anything short of this simply will not do.

So consequences are the following:

3. One must face the challenge of conversion.

…The religious person enters this arena without prejudice and preconceived solutions, knowing full well he may in fact have to lose a particular belief or particular religion altogether. He trusts in truth. He enters unarmed and ready to be converted himself. He may lose his life – he may also be born again. (p. 26-27, 1978 edition)

As a Buddhist studying in a Christian seminary, attending CPE at a Jewish academy, I wrestle with this risk daily. Perhaps there is a God. Perhaps Jesus redeemed our sins. Perhaps I have violated the covenant he made with me before I was born. Perhaps I will go to hell and perhaps not, but only by His grace. This is all perfectly possible, even as my experience leads me to believe it is unlikely.

Last weekend, I read the most cogent explanation of redemption of humanity through Christ’s crucifixion I had ever encountered. It had always puzzled me how the death of one man so long ago could forgive the sins of all humanity, myself included. As I read, I felt that somehow I understood it, not cognitively or logically, but intuitively, deeply; I could see the beauty of it. I felt the risk.

Do Christians today, do these writers so eager to acknowledge the reality of diversity and religious pluralism, take a similar risk? Do they read the works of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and think “They might be right.” Do they wonder if their desire for, attachment to, and/or fear of God are unwholesome roots based on ignorance keeping them trapped in a cycle of samsaric suffering? Do they ever think maybe Jesus was just a really good guy whose words about his ‘father’ got taken out of context?

Today, I was skimming a volume that purports to be all about ‘globalization and difference‘ only to run across a Christian justification to remain open to other religions on the basis of the “universality of God’s self-disclosure.” Thomas Groome writes “One can readily find awareness within the biblical tradition that all people can come to ‘know’ God, precisely because God is the God of all and actively present everywhere.” (p. 189; 1999) In other words, “God reveals Godself through other religious traditions and other prophets,” (p. 187) so it is acceptable to study and affirm (aspects of) the wisdom of other religious traditions.

This is a perfectly valid Christian stance. I’ve heard it before. Buddhism even has our own versions of it: Other religions aren’t a problem if they help you lead a good life; maybe they’ll help you be reborn Buddhist in your next life.

Both the Christian version and the Buddhist version are deeply patronizing and insulting to the other. Both come from a place of smug superiority deeply entrenched in a hegemonic worldview. Neither takes religious pluralism seriously.

As a Buddhist in a predominantly Christian  culture, I can’t afford not to take Christianity seriously. I can’t give into a hegemonic worldview, as easy as that might feel sometimes. I must risk conversion everyday or I’m never going to understand the material I’m trying to learn or the academic and cultural tradition where I’m making my place.

But can I say the same about Christians? These books I’m reading talk a lot about pluralism, but very few of them seem to take it seriously. They stand within Christianity and talk about the religious other on Christian terms.

They rarely talk to the religious other and almost never from the viewpoint of the religious other (a few do, but they get soundly criticized by their fellows). If they did, they might find that, no, actually, God didn’t disclose Godself to us (Buddhists) at all, and, honestly, we’re not sure we would care if God had.

They may be able to hear us (Buddhists) and reassure themselves (Christians) that, it’s okay, God did disclose, we just didn’t hear/see. But what if, just what if, for a single moment they entertained the possibility that here is an entire 2,500-year-old religious civilization with hundreds of millions of members operating reasonably well sans any divine revelation? A source of genuine wisdom not from God? Now there’s a serious thought. If one entertains that thought seriously, then on what ground (if not universal revelation) can one justify openness to that other religion?

Can any religious tradition justify an open stance towards pluralism without recourse to their own worldview? Is it even possible? If God doesn’t reveal Godself to all people, should I listen to them at all? If Christians don’t have buddha-nature, should I even bother to teach them meditation? If Jews don’t have an atman to reunite with Brahma, should I still be nice to them? If Allah’s mercy doesn’t shine on Zoroastrians, should I have dinner with my neighbor? If we accept that the worldview of the other may be true, there from whence can we justify our acceptance of (and care for) that other and their worldview as possible and valuable when it is in deep, true, open disagreement with our own?

Is openness to pluralism only possible from within a universalizing religious worldview? From within a belief system that claims to apply to all people whether they agree or not? Can we only risk conversion from within security? What risk is that?

I realize I’m making sweeping statements that can’t possibly be representative of all Buddhists or all Christians or all others. I also realize that I’m unilaterally insisting on what qualifies as taking religious pluralism ‘seriously.’ But it’s my question, so I’m allowed. Unfortunately, it’s also a question I can’t answer.

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