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.