Monday, March 21, 2011

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (Contents & Sources)

Table of Contents:

Part 1 - Introduction: Context and Method

Part 2 - Comparative Religion: Stephen Prothero

Part 3 - Theology of Religions: S. Mark Heim

Part 4 - Theology of Religions: S. Mark Heim (continued)

Part 5 - Interreligious Dialogue: Catherine Cornille

Part 6 - Interreligious Dialogue: Catherine Cornille (continued)

Part 7 - Conclusion: Comparative Theology


Bracken, Joseph A. God: Three Who Are One. Engaging theology. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2008.

Clooney, Francis X. Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Cobb, John B, and Ward McAfee, eds. The Dialogue Comes of Age: Christian Encounters with Other Traditions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Cornille, Catherine. The Im-Possibility of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Crossroad Pub. Co, 2008.

Heim, S. Mark. The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends. Sacra doctrina. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001.

Knitter, Paul F. Introducing Theologies of Religions. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2002.

Prothero, Stephen R. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. 1st ed. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 7)

V) Conclusion: Comparative Theology

Having now outlined a view of comparative religion, theology of religions, and interreligious dialogue that I believe can function together as a coherent, positive approach to the current challenges of religious pluralism, I conclude with a brief reflection on the new field of comparative theology. The basic idea of comparative theology is already present in Cornille’s fourth condition of empathy for interreligious dialogue. As a comparative theologian herself, Cornille is well aware of the need for religious persons to go beyond surface-level discussions about religion and intentionally engage the religious other from within their own tradition. If one were to agree with her approach to dialogue, they would be forced into comparative theological work – even if it never reaches the depths of professionals like Cornille, Francis Clooney, and Keith Ward. Comparative theology is certainly academic in its orientation since it requires extended engagement with sacred texts and communities, but it also seems to be necessary for all religious persons today on some level.

As a college student, I dipped into comparative theology by spending extended periods of time immersed in two Buddhist communities, a Jewish community, and a Sufi group. Without ceasing to be a Christian, I committed myself to their religion for a period of time, co-inhabiting two traditions. I eventually returned to my own tradition and attempted to discern how my faith was illuminated by these encounters. I found this experience to be quite challenging, but also theologically rewarding. As Clooney explains, “Comparative theology is not primarily about which religion is the true one, but about learning across religious boarders in a way that discloses the truth of my faith, in the light of their faith.”

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 6)

The third condition of interconnection prompts religious persons to discern some level of relevance in another religion for their own tradition. What is needed for dialogue to be truly transformative is a common meeting point, be it externally (social justice issues, responses to secularism), internally (mystical experiences), or a uniting vision of ultimate reality between the religions. Cornille finds the latter approach more realistic and helpful for the task at hand. After surveying John Hick’s attempt to develop a “Neutral Ultimate Reality”, she argues against his position: “believers are not on the whole inclined to subordinate their own criteria to a common religious denominator. Not only would this contradict religious self-understanding, but it would almost certainly impoverish dialogue, which ideally includes the creative and constructive engagement of one’s own highest criteria of truth with those of the other.” Cornille thus affirms, with Heim, the need for a confessional approach to ultimate reality and an affirmation that all theologies of religion are at best inclusivist. Although she critiques some of Heim’s approach, she sees it as one of the better models for the condition of religious interconnection since it preserves the particularities of the tradition while simultaneously opening up a lot of space for other religious truth claims.

The fourth condition of empathy refers to the need for religious persons to go beyond the collection of data about other religions and to really open themselves up to understand from within the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another religion. These are at the root of religious practices and beliefs, so to really know the religious other and facilitate the necessary growth and change, one must make every effort to resonate with the spiritual meaning of other traditions. This requires an intentional immersion into the religious life of the other, a “passing over” and subsequent return to one’s own religious community. Importantly, Cornille argues that perfect empathy is impossible. There will certainly be experiences, practices, and beliefs of other traditions that find no resonance in a religious outsider. Even so, an experience of strong contrast may still somehow lead to interreligious enrichment.

The fifth condition of hospitality is perhaps the most important, because without it there is almost no reason to dialogue at all. If religions are to experience change and growth for the good of the world, they must be at least open to the possibility of discovering authentic truth in the religious other. Hospitality thus requires the first condition of doctrinal humility. To discover truth in the religious other is to be transformed in the deepest way, but this requires openness to new truth. Many are comfortable with discovering truth in another religion that mirrors their own, but very little change results from this recognition. Fortunately, the Christian tradition has resources for affirming truth in other religions: the activity of the Spirit, as well as the early church father Eusebius of Caesarea’s concept of the logos spermatikos (“seed of the word”) that other religions have access to. These inclusivist efforts are criticized as being both unable to avoid the domestication of the religious other and to provide space for discovering genuinely new truth. A more “open” inclusivism that remains connected to these trinitarian traditions is possible, however, as the work of Gavin D’Costa, Jacques Dupuis, and S. Mark Heim illustrates. They clearly do not affirm total equality between the religions, with phrases like “asymmetrical complimentarity” and “penultimate ends”, because they recognize the need to remain recognizably Christian and the impossibility of a neutral pluralism. As Cornille writes, “While the Christian concept of God may be purified and chastened by encounter with a notion as profound as the Buddhist notion of emptiness, one can scarcely expect Christian theology to go all the way to abandoning its belief in a personal Creator God.”

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 5)

IV) Interreligious Dialogue: Catherine Cornille

Although these abstract discussions about trinitarian pluralism are absolutely necessary for the overall task of responding to a religiously plural world, I think the famous words of Hans Kung serve to bring us back to the central concern expressed at the outset of this essay: “There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions” and “there can be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.” After necessarily considering comparative religion and theology of religions, the hardest and most urgent work for our current situation begins with actual dialogue. However, with the dual convictions expressed in this essay that religions are irreducibly unique and that, at best, we can be radical inclusivists, one might wonder if interreligious dialogue is really useful – or even possible. Even with Heim’s open theology of religion, there is a need for a more thoughtful approach to dialogue.

If the goal of dialogue is just the exchange of information between different traditions, it is hard to see how any real sense of unity that is required to motivate peaceful coexistence and cooperation is possible. One might as well just read a book on religion if all one is doing in dialogue is gaining facts about the other. But our world needs more than interreligious data-swapping – it needs individual, communal, and social change and growth. Many of us are convinced that we need real encounters with the religious other to facilitate this in a pluralistic world. As such, we must ask how interreligious dialogue can be more effective by going beyond both the exchanging of data in a guarded conservativism and a nice but ultimately inconsequential gathering of liberal religious pluralists who already basically agree with themselves. As Catherine Cornille writes, “If dialogue is to include the possibility of change and growth, not only of the individuals involved, but also of the religions themselves, then certain essential conditions are to be fulfilled.”
Cornille helpfully outlines five conditions for productive and transformative interreligious dialogue that I believe are essential for the Christian response to our current situation today. The conditions include: doctrinal humility, commitment to a particular religious tradition, seeing an interconnection between oneself and the other, exercising empathy towards the other, and hospitality to the authentic truth of the other. Importantly, Cornille does not expect the religions to gain these five commitments from external, “neutral” sources. Like Heim’s work in theology of religion, she advocates for religious persons to discover and develop these conditions from a confessional standpoint so that they are seen as “an internal necessity rather than an external obligation.” In her own work, she remains committed to the central Christian sources of scripture and tradition to articulate the five conditions of humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality.

The first condition of doctrinal humility encourages religious persons to admit the imperfection and fallibility of all religious beliefs, even while holding to their basic convictions in the tradition. Real change is only possible if religious persons hold their beliefs in an open-handed fashion, rather than close-fisted. What resources does the tradition offer for this task? Christianity certainly condemns arrogance and pride while encouraging personal humility. Additionally, the tradition has the resources of apophatic theology and eschatological completion that encourage some level of doctrinal humility. However, Cornille admits that the Christian understanding of humility has usually been “adopted toward rather than about the truth of Christian doctrines.” Still, Cornille thinks that the Christian virtue of humility can stimulate epistemic humility. One might also argue that because Christianity is inherently a historical religion, it must necessarily engage with the modern historical consciousness that casts varying levels of doubt on traditional doctrines. One may also reclaim apophatic theology and eschatology in ways that truly encourage spiritual humility.

Even though Christians must be humble about their beliefs in dialogue, Cornille balances this destabilizing notion with a condition of commitment to a particular religious community and tradition in order to avoid total relativism, syncretism, endless religious wandering, and New Age individualism. By always returning from dialogue into a space of accountability within one’s home tradition and community, a religious person can avoid the dangers that Cornille is concerned to guard against. Commitment to the teachings and beliefs of a particular religious community also presents an opportunity to bring real transformation to the largest religions that tend to bring the most division in today’s world. Furthermore, commitment to a tradition requires some kind of interreligious apologetics from both sides if they are to really be in dialogue. Without this activity, the delicate balance of humility and conviction collapses.

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 4)

Heim affirms four basic religious ends and options: Christian salvation as communion with the trinitarian God, religious ends other than communion with God, human destinies that are not religious ends at all (such as a humanistic clinging to material reality instead of God), and an annihilationist version of hell (here I would push back for a hopeful universalist position, but that's not my focus here). The Christian and non-Christian religious ends combined include three different relationships with God, each with two distinct variations. The first dimension is an impersonal relation, which includes an apophatic and pantheistic variation. The apophatic variation connects to the Buddhist notions of nirvana, and is grounded in the kenotic actions of the divine persons to make space for one another in the divine life. This manifests in the economy as a divine contraction or self-limitation in relation to creation (in order to allow creation space and freedom to exist) and is rightly described as emptiness, impersonal, and impermanence. Conversely, the pantheistic variation is grounded in an intensified concentration on God’s real immanence in creation. This resonates with some popular versions of Hinduism. The second dimension is what Heim calls iconographic relation, which includes a non-personal and personal variation. The iconographic relation is grounded in the divine life as each person encounters the other as totally unique. In the economy, this manifests as humans have an intensified encounter with the divine as one wholly other, over and against us. The non-personal variation refers to God as an authoritative law, force, order or structure that connects to Buddhist notions of dharma and the Tao of Taoism. The personal variation conceives of God as externally personal in an I-Thou relation (not quite as personal as the Christian God-in-communion). God’s transcendent otherness is emphasized, and thus law, obedience, and faithfulness as well. Islam is a good example of this personal iconographic relation. Finally, the third dimension of the triune life is grounded in the perichoretic communion of the three divine persons and has a polytheistic and monotheistic variation. In the economy, there is real communion possible between human and divine that unites without dissolving differences. The polytheistic variation takes shape by separating the “frequencies” of this triune relationship as independent, yet parallel absolutes. Traditional forms of polytheism as well as some kinds of postmodernism authentically are related to God in this way. The monotheistic variation is the specific Christian doctrine of the Trinity that unites the inner complexity of the triune life of God through perichoretic communion.

Although Heim avoids saying that there is a hierarchy of religious ends in order to emphasize the truth that all six kinds of religious ends are good, real, and true fulfillments of religious beliefs, it is unavoidable for this theological program to hold the Christian notion of salvation as ultimate. After all, Heim is saying that other religions, though basically true, unknowingly are actually relating their notion of ultimate reality to the Trinity. Put this way, Heim’s theology of multiple religious ends is more inclusivist than pluralist. On the other hand, one can make an argument that all theologies of religion are either exclusivist or inclusivist. There is no such thing as a truly pluralistic theology of religions – only more or less pluralistic, perhaps. I would argue that, compared to the mutuality models of religion, Heim’s acceptance model is more pluralistic since it permits more truth claims to be made from religions that will be basically fulfilled. Heim speculates that in each unique after-death experience, the various religions will simultaneously be able to appreciate the truth of the others while remaining satisfied in their own particular relation to God. For instance, Jews and Muslims will happily continue to relate to God in a unipersonal fashion, while Hindus and Buddhists will still feel drawn toward the mystical dimensions of God beyond personhood. On the other hand, Heim leaves the possibility open for non-Christians to freely choose salvation in a Christian sense of communion with the triune God.

Heim’s acceptance model also provides a strong motivation for interreligious dialogue, since if other religions are intensified forms of relationship with dimensions of the triune God, they can and will be able to illuminate (and possibly correct) Christian theological ideas to some extent. It is quite possible to have a firm grasp on one dimension of the triune God while lacking a sufficient grasp of another. On the other hand, it is obvious that there will always be a sense of Christian inclusivism and ultimacy in dialogue if the Trinity is the point of reference for ultimate reality. As Joseph Bracken also points out, if the Trinity is true, then Heim’s model places Christians in an advantageous position for dialogue: “Since the notion of ‘communion’ is so important for understanding the reality of God as triune, and since ‘communion’ always implies a unity in diversity of parts or members wherever it is found, then Christians might be better positioned to accept the beliefs about God or Ultimate Reality coming from the members of other world religions than these individuals in turn would be accepting of the Christian belief that God is triune.” This only emphasizes Heim’s basic point: we are all unavoidably inclusivists, so the task for theologies of religions is to be as open as possible to other truth claims, while being fully confessional. If every religion were to develop their own versions of confessional theological pluralism as Heim does from a Christian perspective, there would certainly be strong motivations for unity, cooperation, and dialogue between the religions.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 3)

III) Theology of Religions: S. Mark Heim

Although there are other important models of non-reductive theological pluralism that can integrate with Prothero’s comparative religion project, my current interest will be to describe and (tentatively) affirm S. Mark Heim’s unique form of trinitarian pluralism. In agreement with Paul Knitter, one of the primary challenges of developing any Christian theology of religion is balancing the teeter-totter of Christian particularity and universality. Of the many possible models, Heim’s represents one of the most impressive efforts to bring a balance to these two sides of the theological task. A progressive evangelical theologian, Heim remains committed to the Christian faith in a basically orthodox fashion. For his theology of religion, he finds a useful blueprint in the social doctrine of the Trinity since it contains the paradoxical affirmation of an open unity in plurality. For Heim, the Trinity is particularly connected with Jesus in that it derives from his history and faith in him. Unlike other trinitarian pluralists like Raimundo Panikkar, Heim’s Trinity is thus thoroughly christocentric. As we will see, Heim is able to maintain an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity while asserting a unique form of religious pluralism, which Knitter classifies as an ‘acceptance model’ (as opposed to the ‘mutuality models’ of John Hick and Panikkar).

Just as Prothero seeks to recast the religious metaphor of the single mountain into an entire mountain range of options, Heim sees the religions as genuinely distinct, especially evident in their differing “religious ends.” Heim is not interested in reducing the religions to a generic common denominator, offering a sharp critique of that kind of pluralism. He argues that if the many distinctive religious beliefs and practices are understood as expressions of one generic ultimate reality, there is no compelling reason to remain committed to a certain tradition since no tradition actually refers to or facilitates the pursuit of a particular religious end. A mutuality theology of religion like that of Hick’s simply denies all claims of ultimacy that every religion makes for itself. As such, this kind of theology is anything but ‘mutual’ in that it imposes a kind of imperialism that denies the legitimacy of specific religious truth claims for the sake of an abstract philosophical conception of the divine that no historical religion can affirm. Against this kind of vague affirmation of a supposedly neutral ultimate reality, Heim develops his pluralism from a confessional standpoint and encourages other religious thinkers to do the same in their own traditions (a task that has been taken up by the Buddhist theologian John Makransky). His theological model attempts to “save the greatest referential value for the largest number of religious experiences” by making space for “the maximum truth value in the specifics of the traditions.” The key to this task is to affirm the distinctive ends of the religions from within a trinitarian perspective.

In Heim’s acceptance model, the ends or fulfillments of the world’s religions all somehow uniquely represent a particular dimension of the Trinity. If this is so, then their end-points (communion, nirvana, etc) are definitely real, even though they are actually located within the reality of the Trinity. For Heim, there is thus no contradiction in affirming the truth of many religions if their ends are in fact real: “Nirvana and communion with God are contradictory only if we assume that one or the other must be the sole fate for all human beings.” The different ends of the religions do not lead eschatologically to an unhappy state for religions that do not recognize Christ and the fullness of the Trinity, but really lead to the kind of liberation, bliss, union, or satisfaction that is claimed by each tradition. In some sense, Jesus and Buddha are indeed both “saviors”, but they lead to different religious ends.

How does Heim conceive of some of these different religious goals within the Trinity? The first step is to see what Christians affirm in the Trinity: a plurality of relationships in both the divine life itself (the immanent Trinity) and in the way God relates to the world (the economic Trinity). The Trinity affirms unity in difference though “a community of differences in relationship”, with genuine “others” to be in relationship with. Because there are different dimensions of the relational life within the Trinity, it is necessary that there would be a variety of economic relationships as well. The different possibilities for relating to the Trinity thus account for the many different world religions: “The Trinity is a map that finds room for, indeed requires, concrete truth in other religions…the distinctive religious ends of various traditions correspond to relations with God constituted by limitation or intensification within a particular dimension of the trinitarian life.” Still, Heim admits that Christian communion with the trinitarian God is ultimate, while other religious ends are penultimate fulfillments since they are intensifications of a dimension of the triune life. Christians therefore have the ultimate benefit of a panoramic perspective of the triune life, while other religions have the penultimate benefit of intensified concentrations on a dimension of the triune life.

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 2)

II) Comparative Religion: Stephen Prothero

In his most recent publication, God Is Not One, the religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero attempts to show how eight of the world’s largest religions are irreducibly unique through the lens of comparative religion. In the process, he shows how the claim by some mystics and philosophers that all religions are pointing in the same direction is seriously misguided. The most common metaphor used to illustrate the view of religious pluralism that Prothero argues against is a single mountain (representing God, Ultimate Reality, etc) with multiple paths (representing the many religions) that all eventually lead to the top. As the great scholar and philosopher of religion Huston Smith writes, “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge…At the base in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points…But beyond these differences the same goal beckons.” While recognizing the truly good intentions in this kind of pluralistic sentiment, Prothero argues that the perennial philosophy represented by people like Smith and Karen Armstrong is “dangerous, disrespectful and untrue…[the religions] do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law.” The idea that all religions are going in the same direction is deeply comforting, but is a faith position that contradicts comparative religion studies. Prothero even argues that this faith requires a leap of “the hyperactive imagination” to justify.

Any honest scholar of comparative religion should actually side with ordinary religious persons, who care quite deeply about the particularities of their tradition, over the apologists for reductive forms of pluralism. The only way comparative religion could ever justify seeing religions as leading to the same place, as ultimately being one, is out of sheer ignorance. The facts on the ground from a comparative religion perspective reveal that the religions of the world are truly saying different things. As Prothero points out, the religions do not share a finish line but they do share a starting point: “Where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.” But after this point of contact, the religions diverge sharply when they attempt to diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution. For Christians, sin is the problem while salvation from sin is the solution. For Buddhists, suffering is the problem while liberation from suffering (nirvana) is the goal. For Muslims, self-sufficiency is the problem and the solution is submission and paradise. There are also divergences when it comes to each religion’s techniques for moving from the problem to the solution and who the exemplars are. For Christians, the techniques are a combination of faith and good works and the exemplars can be both Jesus and the saints. For Buddhists, the technique is the Noble Eightfold Path and the exemplars might include arhats, bodhisattvas, and lamas. For Muslims, the technique is the five pillars and the universal exemplar is Muhammad.

Although this four-fold scheme (problem, solution, technique, exemplars) is somewhat simplistic since religions are so complex, it shows how comparative religion finds real differences between the religions that cannot be reduced without doing real violence to the traditions. Indeed, to modify the metaphor of the perennial philosophers, it seems that comparative religion forces us to admit that there is not one mountain but many mountains representing each major religion. If this is so, it raises some questions: “Should we be trudging toward the end zone of salvation, or trying to reach the finish line of social harmony? Should our goal be reincarnation? Or escape from the vicious cycle of life, death, and rebirth?” Even so, Prothero admits that there are interesting points of contact beyond ethics. Because these are all religions adhered to by humans, questions and answers do sometimes overlap. This is to be expected. But Prothero’s case for the irreducible particularity of the religious traditions is persuasive. My one concern with his thesis is that he gives very little room for actual theologians to make their case in conjunction with comparative religion scholars. The fact is, while comparative religion and theology overlap, they are distinct fields of inquiry and must be treated as such. Prothero’s lack of theological training is highlighted when he unfairly dismisses Karl Rahner’s inclusivism as making na├»ve assumptions similar to the pluralists that he rightly criticizes. Still, I believe that one can take Prothero’s basic thesis very seriously and also develop a robust theology of religion that firmly rejects exclusivism.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Possibility of Being a Christian Pluralist (PART 1)

I) Introduction: Context and Method

As the phenomenon of globalization continues to intensify in the 21st century, the interactions between the world’s religions will only become a greater concern for social, political, and economic stability. Whether they like it or not, the many religions of the world are being forced to learn how to exist side-by-side, particularly in areas such as southern California where deep religious diversity is already quite apparent. Although some are welcoming our multi-religious situation with open arms, strong resistance from a traditionally Christian culture has too often marred the pluralistic integration process that must take place for our society to maintain peace. I believe that progressive Christians in America have a special obligation to sensitively wrestle with the challenges of religious pluralism if we hope to develop a healthy and inclusive society. As John Cobb emphasizes, “Today, the burning issue for Christians in America…is the relation of Christianity to other religious communities.”

In the current context, there are both encouraging and discouraging signs for peaceful religious coexistence. In the information age, many people can easily learn about religions other than their own, which can develop more religiously tolerant or pluralistic attitudes. On the other hand, they can just as easily be influenced by both anti-religious rhetoric and fundamentalism that does nothing to help bring peace between the religions. In a post-9/11 world, we are witnessing a surge in anti-Islamic rhetoric that is rooted in fear, stereotyping, and ignorance about the religious other. In other parts of the world, there are even violent clashes between Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. How should Christians respond to these concerning situations? If interreligious dialogue is indeed part of the solution, how can we best engage in this activity? If rethinking our theology is required, how can we maintain religious particularities without encouraging potentially harmful forms of exclusion of our fellow human beings? Is it even possible to maintain substantial particularities between the religions, or is it necessary to see them as basically equivalent in light of our current context?

These are some of the questions that I will consider in this series of blog posts. I am interested in theologically addressing the challenges of religious pluralism in a way that is both particularly Christian and open to others. This blog series will connect the work of a number of religious scholars and theologians in order to show one possibility for a positive Christian approach to religious pluralism that might help facilitate a more peaceful existence. The methodology for this task will consist in an interaction with some of the most recent and (what I consider to be) persuasive works in four overlapping, yet distinct fields of study (helpfully categorized by Francis Clooney): comparative religion, a more detached form of inquiry that focuses on the historical and social-scientific study of religion; theology of religions, the attempt to discern the level of significance, compatibility, and truth of other religions in relation to one’s own; interreligious dialogue, the formal and academic conversations between persons of different religious traditions with the goals of interreligious learning and transformation; and comparative theology, an intense back-and-forth learning between one’s own religion and another with the goal of gaining fresh theological insights in the process.