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The following paper was delivered at a conference titled "The Response to Pluralism in Our Faith Communities," held at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts from March 9-10, 2001.
in a Pluralism of Faiths:
In addressing this subject, I would from the outset like to put in several caveats. One is that I will have to generalize. Our faith communities are not monolithic and there is a plurality of responses to pluralism. Whatever I say could probably be contested with the opposite opinion.
Secondly, it might have been better if we had the possibility of allowing a representative of each faith community define his or her response to pluralism. This would be in accordance with the World Council of Churches (WCC) Guidelines on Dialogue (1979), where it says: "One of the functions of dialogue is to allow participants to describe and witness to their faith in their own terms. This is of primary importance since self-serving descriptions of other peoples' faith are one of the roots of prejudice, stereotyping, and condescension. Listening carefully to the neighbors' self-understanding enables Christians better to obey the commandment not to bear false witness against their neighbors, whether those neighbors be of long established religious, cultural or ideological traditions or members of new religious groups. It should be recognized by partners in dialogue that any religion or ideology claiming universality, apart from having an understanding of itself, will also have its own interpretations of other religions and ideologies as part of its own self-understanding. Dialogue gives an opportunity for a mutual questioning of the understanding partners have about themselves and others. It is out of a reciprocal willingness to listen and learn that significant dialogue grows."
Thirdly, we need to decide whether we talk about pluralism or plurality. We often use the terms interchangeably. Plurality is a fact. Pluralism is a theory about plurality. Pluralism denotes any metaphysical theory, which claims that reality consists of a multiplicity of distinct, fundamental entities. The term was first used by Christian Wolff (1679-1754), and later popularized by William James in "The Will to Believe". Pluralism is distinguished from related isms: monism, the view that one kind of thing exists, and dualism, the view that two kinds of things exist. In the following I will use the world plurality to denote that I am talking about how we (using mainly Christian resources) relate to the reality of religious plurality.
Given these preliminary caveats, let us nevertheless enter into the subject matter, knowing that my contribution here is provisional and based mainly upon my own experiences in interreligious encounters and dialogues.
The question is thus our response to one of the crucial issues of our time: how are we to live together in a world, which, in spite of globalization, is becoming increasingly aware of its religious diversity? It is not only a matter for scholarly musings. Religious plurality is a reality in the historical and contemporary experience of the human community. While religious plurality can be a source of spiritual and social renewal for human communities in the struggle for justice, peace, and a sustainable environment, it can also disrupt the way we have so far understood and looked upon religion and culture.
Let me take a couple of examples. My first example is from Sweden. Here a Sikh bus-driver is fired because he refuses to take off his turban, replacing it with the bus company cap. His plea that it is part of his religious tradition to wear a turban is not understood in Sweden, where religion means going to church on Sunday. One is, in Sweden, not used to any outward manifestations of being religious. The bus company as well as the trade union were of the same opinion. Religion is private and is done in homes and in churches.
The other example is from France, which is known for a very distinct separation between church and state. French discourse has a word for it, "la laïcité." The closest we could get in English would be to say "the secular." La laïcité is a relatively new concept, in its present form since 1905, and not easily understood outside France. Even the word is often used in its French version, as in many languages no literal translation is possible. The separation of the church from the state is the cornerstone of social laïcité. Its totality is the condition for its existence. It is the only way to allow everyone to believe or not to believe. If the churches want to exist, let the churchgoers fund them, religion is a matter of personal conviction. La laïcité advocates the independence of the state and all public services from any religious institution or influence. Immigration from former French colonies in North Africa has contributed to a significant Muslim presence in France. In the last decades, French schools find themselves with both observant Muslim women teachers and pupils. They are dressed in their chador, a headscarf according to Islamic dress code, and the question of whether religion is allowed to have a public face in institutions of the state bursts open and is vehemently discussed.
A third example is ominous and has to do with the relationship between religious/ cultural plurality and human rights and concerns the question of female excision. The beliefs in the necessity of this practice are similar among many African and Arab societies. Female virginity and chastity are important values and are seen to be reflected in the moral quality of a woman's entire family. Excision is thought to serve this end by attenuating or eliminating sexual desire. Defenders of the practice insist that excision is necessary to keep the young girl pure and the married woman faithful. Although the issue of female excision has now become a contentious issue also in African and Arab societies practicing it, it has in Western countries raised the question of the limits to religious and cultural plurality. As this practice through immigration has been brought to and continued in Europe, it has clashed with the understanding of human rights and the perception of what constitutes violence against women.
Religion plays a role in exacerbating quite a number of conflicts throughout the world. The other is different from me. He is other. We are aware of how religion is in various parts of the world used as a tool, which fuels conflict and is then taken to explain ethnic or social conflicts: Northern Ireland, Balkans, Israel-Palestine, Indonesia, etc. In many of these situations, issues of religion and culture are contributing factors. It is also dangerous how bigotry and fanaticism in one part of the world can have immediate repercussions in another country or region. Although some parts of the world have always known religious diversity, in the same areas we are today tragically experiencing bitter interreligious conflicts.
There are yet other dimensions of religious plurality. We also live in a world where one is increasingly likely to find young people marrying across the old religious lines, children being educated alongside their fellows who come from quite different religious backgrounds; students, workers and refugees moving from their homeland to other parts of the world.
Religious plurality has also become part of Christian life in the sense that essentials of other religious traditions seem to enable some Christians to a fuller spiritual life: the practice of Zen-meditation is maybe the best known. Attending a Buddhist-Christian dialogue some years ago, a significant part of the Christian participants defined themselves as Catholic Zen, Buddhist Christian, Zen Catholic and so on, as if to say that it was not enough being only Christian. Zen added something substantial to being a Christian.
In his preface to the revised edition of "The Faith of Other Men," Wilfred Cantwell Smith, not only explains why there are no longer "men" in the new title "Patterns of Faith Around the World", the reason being obvious, but highlights yet another issue than the gender issue: the other. The other is and can no longer be described as the other. "We all now live, and know that we live in a pluralist context... They are," says Smith, "instances of 'us'. They are parts of the human community that is 'we'." It is a striking way of describing the changes and transition of the world. Most articles or books dealing with religious plurality will often begin by saying how present religious plurality is or has become in every part of the world. I used to work in Uppsala, Sweden. The most common post-card in Uppsala portrayed the Cathedral in all its majesty. Today I receive post-cards from Uppsala, where the photographer has found an angle, where both the cathedral and the newly built minaret of the mosque seem to stretch themselves towards the sky. The silhouette of Uppsala is changed.
Religious plurality may have been an issue for hundreds of years in some countries, in other countries it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the U.S., you have the opportunity to learn much more about this through the Pluralism Project. This project, developed by Diana L. Eck at Harvard University, documents the growing religious diversity of the United States, with a special view to new immigrant religious communities. In the past thirty years, the religious landscape of the U.S. has changed radically. There are Islamic centers and mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and meditation centers in virtually every major American city.
The world may be changed to the effect that a mosque is contending with a cathedral as to the skyline, but does it influence us as religious people? How do we make sense of the religious plurality? Does religious plurality inform our Christian faith or for that matter any faith or religious tradition? Religious plurality is a worldwide reality and all religious traditions have eventually to come to terms with this.
Religious plurality is not only a Christian problem. It seems to be a problem within each religion in relation to the diversity within its own ranks, and more especially if it has to take place in the context of interreligious dialogue. Everyone seems to think of him/herself as the pet of God. Hindu scholar Anant Rambachan points to this fact as something that is also disturbing in the Hindu tradition, that there would be a hierarchical outlook of higher truths and a "lower truth or standpoint." "Other traditions and viewpoints are accepted, but only within the general framework that they grow towards and will arrive at one's own position... Lower truths are partial and incomplete."
There are various answers and responses to religious plurality within and between our faith communities. The language and the mode of expression may differ, but some way or other faith traditions are addressing or will have to address the significance of religious plurality. There is in the New Testament: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12). But there is also in the same book "Then Peter began to speak to them: I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:35).
There is in the history of the Church different variations to the "nulla salus extra ecclesiam" (there is no salvation outside the Church), but there is also the realization that we cannot set limits to the saving powers of God (Commission on World Mission and Evangelism Conference CWME in San Antonio, Texas, 1989).
There is in the Old Testament, "For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever" (Amos 4:5), but there is also the dream that one day "ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" (Zechariah 8:23). You do what you want, follow your religion, we have our own way. In the end, people will realize that we know the way.
There is a Hindu response, which is genuinely open to religious plurality but explains the manifold sayings with Swami Vivekananda, that the religions, although different, are but different branches of the same tree. The different streams of religion and unite like rivers in the same ocean. The difference is not real. It is an illusion.
Islam respects people of other religions as carriers of "din al-fitrah", natural religion or the religion of God. Allah is not the God of the Jews or the Christians or the Muslims only, any more than the sun shines or the rain falls for Jews or Christians or Muslims only. If Allah had not wanted there to be different religions, he would have made only one religion. Yet there is in Islam a call for "dawwa", mission and the Qur'an repeatedly claims to be the confirmation of the truth of all religions.
Buddhism in all its tolerance of other religions also has to wrestle with how to give sense to the religion it once left, Hinduism, as well as to relate to religious traditions claiming a Creator God.
In short, religious plurality is a more or less troublesome reality for all religions. Maybe it is in the nature of religion itself. How do we relate to religious plurality? One response is, wait and see, let us ignore it, let us emulate the ostrich. Let us not talk about it. One may try to isolate oneself and one's community from engaging with religious plurality, hoping that it will pass, leaving the community unchanged. Or we live as if in two worlds. In society, we get along reasonably well with people of other faiths. In church, the message is about one truth (our truth) and the need for mission. Does plurality really make a difference? In a way, the Church seems to live in a make-believe world of its own that it is the group that has all the answers to the questions of life; that it has only one primary mandate, namely, to preach the Gospel, and that one day "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
Alternatively, we emulate the ostrich in a more subtle way. We say that religious plurality surely is factor to reckon with and we will do so as soon as we are sufficiently prepared. We cannot enter into any dealings with the religious manifold or religious plurality unless we know ourselves who we are, what we are, etc. Our identity must be clear and our knowledge about our faith must be solid before we enter the world of religious plurality. And so we prepare ourselves endlessly and we end up never sufficiently prepared, never fully ready, never able to go out and test the waters. The French have a good saying and advice: "Il faut se plonger dans l'eau froide" (It is necessary to plunge into cold water). The best way to get to know yourself is in the encounter with the other. The other may actually become the means by which I learn to appreciate my own faith better: We need to know the other to know ourselves. There is an unexpected discovery about oneself waiting in the encounter! French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote to a French student, who was about to leave Paris for one year's studies in London: "Living in London for one year does not automatically imply that you will know England very well. But in comparison, in the light of the many surprises that you will have, you will suddenly have understood some of the deepest and most original features of France, those you did not know before and could not learn in any other way."
It is of course true that we should be able to plead the cause of the other tradition without simultaneously losing our own identity. There is a danger that we become so alienated from our own tradition and community that we lose our credibility as catalysts. But this should not lead to a form of thinking which believes that we can enter the world of religious plurality without risking being changed in and by the encounter. It works of course both ways; the other is risking the same, although there is no immediate symmetry or reciprocity in the encounter.
Of course, we must make sure that we are not so concerned with convergence that we gloss over essential differences. It is of the essence of religious plurality that we allow the other person to be truly other. "If you are saying the same thing as I, I do not have much to learn from you." It is thus of very great importance to allow the other traditions their own self-understandings.
Can we talk about responses to pluralism without mentioning the phenomenon of Globalization? The term "globalization" has many elements of meaning in it. It is definitely an in-word. It may refer to the cultural domain. No one can any longer assume that our own culture is the only viable form of existence. Globalization may refer to economic circumstances in which powerful economic forces in the U.S.A., Japan, Europe and the Pacific Rim dominate world markets. We now recognize that no nation governs its own economic sphere. We are all interdependent.
Globalization also refers to worldwide communications. English has become the universal language, imposed on the rest of the world. E-mail, faxes, and the telephone make it possible for everyone to communicate instantaneously across the world. The photograph of the Earth from the moon graphically demonstrated that we are "one global village."
Globalization also refers to a universalization of a value system, whereby a secular world-view is privileged and by many understood not only as Western but also as Christian. The nations that developed secularization have with few exceptions their heritage in Christendom. We must never forget in our assessment of what globalization really is that the world's most effective globalization was in fact the spread of Christianity. The Christian message, "Go ye out in all the world..." is a very powerful illustration of globalization. There is a memory of the "civilizing of the world" of colonial days also in the globalization of today. Today these nations have come to dominate other nations economically and even increasingly culturally. In fact, there are those who readily will define globalization as yet another Christian attempt to conquer the world as in the days of colonization and world mission.
Globalization has the potential for negative consequences, as, for example, the deculturation of the peoples of the world. It makes the economic playing field less level and therefore raises issues of justice and oppression. The reaction to globalization as universalization is connected with our responses to religious plurality. An affirmation of diversity is a counter witness to universalization. At the same time, a threatened response to globalization can become a reinforcement of our own as a protection against the other.
It is obvious that globalization is changing the world and obliging religions to rethink what religion and spirituality might mean in this new world. This could best be done in and through a new understanding of religious plurality. Our time challenges us to incorporate pluralism into the very notion of our religious tradition (intrinsic pluralism), realizing that a new relationship with people of other religious traditions is not simply a sociological necessity, not simply a desirable option but part of the practice of one's own religious conviction.
It was Kenneth Cragg who once said that a Christian should, when reading the Bible, always imagine the Muslim neighbor attentive to what the Christian is reading and how it is understood. A Christian preacher should always imagine a Jew present in church listening to the sermon. There is work to do here. Our theology has mostly been formulated in isolation from the other or over against the other. The question is if these theological constructs can remain the only notions in our being, which are never to be challenged.
Religious plurality knocks today at the doors of the study, where theological claims are formulated and written. What we see with our eyes and feel in our hearts in our encounter with people of other faiths tell us something important. We engage with people of other faiths and are more than once overwhelmed by our encounters.
Our experience tells us that God is as much with them as God is with me. There is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that may be found among Christians.
There is among many a sense of a new possibility, for Christians it may be similar to the discovery, which once prompted the ecumenical movement, of the vision of Christian unity instead of Christian divisions. Some Christians today, through their encounters in our religiously plural world with people of different faiths, are discovering that the ecumenical movement must mean a search for human community. The renewal of the human community must be accomplished through a new kind of ecumenism, the ecumenism of people of different faiths.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith compares the demands on theologians today with the demands that for long time have been put on scientists and philosophers. "The time will soon be with us when theologians who attempt to work out their position unaware that they do so as members of a world community in which other theologians, equally intelligent, equally devout, equally moral, are Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and others; unaware that their readers are likely perhaps to be Buddhists, or to have Muslim husbands, or Hindu colleagues - such theologians will be as out of date as is one who attempts to construct an intellectual position unaware that Aristotle and Kant have thought about the world, or unaware that the earth is a minor planet in a galaxy that is vast only by terrestrial standards".
"We need to incorporate pluralism into our very notion of a religious tradition." This quotation is taken from the experience of a Muslim in interreligious work in post-apartheid South Africa but it could as well be the experience of anyone who has realized the challenge of religious plurality to our theological thinking. Rashied Omar would like the interreligious movement to transcend the "extrinsic motivations on which interfaith solidarity is sought. It appears always to be external factors, for example, the need to fight crime or lead the moral reconstruction program of our country or do damage control after provocative attacks on members of another faith community by one or other radical faction, which provide the impetus for interfaith cooperation. In order for the interreligious movement to become self-propelling and mature, we need to find intrinsic reasons from within our own faith commitments for promoting good relations with people of other religions."
We need to put our heads together because we know that there is an increasing complexity of religious diversity in the world which highlights also the destructive nature of religions and which shapes the contexts. In the midst of conflict, it may be too late to resort to dialogue. Interreligious relations must be cultivated and nurtured. Dialogue is not a quick fix. Interreligious dialogue is not an ambulance but a tool in prophylactic health education, a toothbrush to avoid dental caries or cavities. We need to begin to find space for plurality in our own tradition and we need to see that the ecumenical principle of Lund, Sweden, becomes an interreligious principle: that which we can do together we should not do separately. There is a need for a deeper understanding of religion as a dynamic of human experiences of transcendence. We often tend do go it alone.
I think people, who have been involved in interfaith relations, who have come close to people of other religious traditions, have learned something. We have seen the experience of true religion in people religiously different from us. We realize that the dividing line does not necessarily go between religions but within religion. Sometimes you feel closer to people of other faiths or people of no faith. Sometimes you feel more estranged from your own people. The philosopher Ernst Simon expresses this dilemma, with which I think many of us can identify: "The people I can pray with, I can't talk to, and the people I can talk to, I can't pray with." We are many who have the same experience as Anant Rambachan, when he says: "It is only ignorance of other traditions or the refusal to be challenged by their claims which enables one to explain away religious pluralism by the naïve conclusion that one's own tradition is true to the nature of God and that all others are false. Such an answer is too simplistic for those of us who have cultivated meaningful relationships with people of other faiths."
We should not be romantic and naïve about religious plurality. Religious plurality becomes problematic, when the religious manifold is turned into a facile and simplistic unity. This happens in many interreligious gatherings: 'We are all the same. Beyond everything, all is harmony and bliss'. The meaning is well intended but is it true? Religious plurality should not be viewed from a perspective above all religions. Such an acceptance of religious plurality could in fact spark off counter-reactions in confessionalism and religious fundamentalism as a bulwark against perceived relativism.
There is, however, a need to express respect and, where possible, to affirm the religious experience of the other and to recognize that God can and does act in saving ways other than the one we know. The document "Religious Plurality, Theological Perspectives and Affirmations" of Baar (1990) dealt with religious plurality and Christological thinking from a pneumatological perspective, thereby emphasizing the Canberra Assembly Theme: "Come Holy Spirit, Renew the Whole Creation!"
Looking forward, I hope that a recent initiative of some of us, involved in interfaith dialogue for some years, could become a modus operandi. It is a multifaith process, which we began last November at the Serra Retreat Centre in Malibu, CA. It is a program of my desk. I have been able to gather some theologians and scholars, Christians and people of other faiths for a process, which we call "Thinking Together." Usually, our theologies have been conceived in the absence of the other. The Hindu, Jew or Muslim was not there as we formulated what mission is all about. What would we be able to say about mission, if the Hindu, Jew or Muslim not only was present but also invited to participate in our theologizing and what kind of mission would they be able to accept? And vice versa: a Christian is present as Jews, Hindus or Muslims try to make sense of the presence of other faiths in general and Christianity in particular. There are other theological claims that would benefit from being expressed in the presence of the other: authority of scripture, the question of truth, the relation between our core commitments and the proposition of faith we are accustomed to, and finally: how we can be committed to our faith and deal with the theological claims in a world of religious plurality? I believe that "Thinking Together" is a way ahead towards a constructive response to religious plurality today.
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