The path beyond pluralism

This is the final part of a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

Increasingly, a task for western Christians is to sort out how to regard other world religions. The thesis of these articles is that there may be different paths to salvation, and that different religious traditions may represent salvations in and of themselves, different from the Christian way, but still welcomed by a loving God. This does not require Christians to give up anything of their basic beliefs, but to be more open to the love of God, expressed in the core New Testament concept of the Reign of God, offered by Jesus to a progression of outsiders, Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and frail outcasts at society’s gates. Nothing is easy or comfortable about such a process. The dots do not all connect, nor are all questions answered. “The religions of man may fit together, but they do not do so easily,” Houston Smith once observed. The theology of such encounters will be awkward, incomplete, and messy, for it is exploratory and breaking new ground, not offering final resolution of the topic of interfaith encounters.

The thoughts of a parish outreach group in such a setting will have as much merit as those of church leaders. Raimon Panikkar, a Roman Catholic priest and student of world religious spirituality, once wrote, “I ‘left’ as a Christian, ‘found’ myself as a Hindu, and ‘return’ a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” At its core this provocative statement invites Western Christians to explore the spiritual depths of other religions. A “more of the same” frontal attack on the worth other faiths will not be productive. “We have marched around the alien Jerichos the requisite number of times. We have sounded the trumpets. And the walls have not collapsed,” Max Warren, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1942 to 1963,once wrote.

Convergent Spirituality, the Asian Example

A common structure of faith exists at the heart of many religious traditions, suggested by the image of a tree with various faith traditions having common roots but different branches. Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University (retired), calls this “convergent spirituality” where members of one faith learn from the complementary revelations and beliefs of other traditions. Convergence does not mean the movement of all traditions to a single place, but the affirmation of a shared quest for unity and the hope that they may articulate a common set of core beliefs, and also a clearly definable set of differences, as participants move ahead in a shared life of dialogue, with the sorting out of common ground and differences that implies.

No new global religion will emerge from such contact, but it may open new possibilities for cooperation through worship and acts of mercy and justice presently unexplored at local and regional levels. Attempts to enforce authority from a central set of Western assumptions will understandably lose their force, as different religious groups explore new ways of witness to their faith in local settings, reinforced by the vision of God that the historic church has found in Jesus. In this sense, the energy currently being focused into fashioning the Anglican Communion into a top down administrative and juridical regulatory body is totally misspent.

It is from Asia that the most exciting theological possibilities have emerged in recent decades. Modern Asian Christians draw heavily on Asia’s ancient religious traditions that predate both Christianity and Islam in classical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and Discourses of Buddha. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a longtime student of Asian religions, wrote in the 1960s, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”

Kwok Pui-lan and the Comparability of Sacred Texts

Kwok Pui-lan, who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., writes of the need for biblical scholarship to move beyond traditional western exegetical models. She urges that the Bible be read from an interfaith perspective, drawing on Asian sacred texts as well. This includes comparing the content of the Bible with Asian sources and finding the depths of other religious traditions, moving beyond a perspective where, if two texts are considered, the Bible will be the normative document. Such differences can now “be used to amplify certain dimensions of the biblical text or bring to the surface divergences in the religious worldviews shaping the texts. The tensions between the two texts call for more in-depth dialogue and reexamination of Christian doctrines,” she wrote in Discovering the Bible in a Non-Biblical World. She urged Christians to move beyond western claims that the Bible is the sole revelation of God, claims that unwittingly reinforce Western ethnocentrism and cultural hegemony.

Interfaith Cooperation at Work: the United Religions Initiative

Although theological exploration of interfaith contact is relatively new in contemporary Anglican discourse, there are several long-established examples of such cooperation successfully at work, including the United Religions Initiative, founded a decade ago by William E. Swing, then Episcopal Bishop of California. The San Francisco based program engages thousands of participants in over 70 countries representing more than a hundred religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions. Its goals are distilled in a single sentence, “The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

From its inception, URI was careful not to represent itself as another religion, religious hierarchy, or organization competing with other interfaith efforts. From its collaborative encounters, a charter emerged to guide the organization. URI would be a bridge-builder among religions, not a competing religion. “We respect the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition (and) the differences among religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions (and) encourage our members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.” Another goal was “healing and reconciliation to resolve conflict without resorting to violence (and) sound ecological practices to protect and preserve the Earth.” Finally, “Members of the URI shall not be coerced to participate in any ritual or be proselytized.”

Summary, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”

Sometimes I am asked about my own viewpoint on the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Much of my belief is contained in the old hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” especially the words, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind” and the welcoming sentiment it suggests. Personally, I have found my own Christian faith deepened and strengthened by probing contact with the faiths of others. My perspective is that of a spiritual journeyer whose grounding is as a mainstream Episcopalian who is content to leave the final ranking of world religions to God, and who respects each for their deeply spiritual and salvific content. There may be several paths to the same or different mountain peaks, different ways to different religious ends. Here the language of the mystics is more relevant than that of theologians and historians, and more reflective of the wider concept of the Reign of God articulated by Jesus. This is not some bland universalism or relativism. I make a distinction between the uniqueness of the message and person of Jesus and church claims to exclusivity. God can do something unique in Jesus that does not exclude other religions. For me, it is quite clear that Jesus is the Christ, but this does not mean that the truth I know is the end of the story, or the only truth. My search, like that of others, is at once a quest for clarification and awareness that any such search is also grounded in divine mystery. We experience the pull of the future as we pour over the issues and personalities of this ancient quest, aware that the flow is never a neat one.

The Anglican via media represents both a broad middle way in religious encounters and its historic grounding across several centuries of contact with other religions. At times, this contact represented an exploitive extension of colonialism, but at a deeper, more enduring level it reflects a sensitive and sympathetic response to other religious traditions and their teachings.

I have come to see an abiding contemporary relevance in several anchoring biblical passages, those about the Reign of God, and those affirming the welcoming presence of outsiders like the Good Samaritan, and those passage in the Prophet Isaiah and the Book of Revelation that describe the Holy City as a stable, welcoming, place, a haven for all people:

The nations will come to your light,

And kings to your dawning brightness.

Your gates will lie open continually,

Shut neither by day nor by night.

The sound of violence shall be heard no longer in your land,

Or ruin and devastation within your borders.

You will call your walls, Salvation,

And your gates, Praise.

No more will the sun give you daylight,

Nor moonlight shine upon you.

But the lord will be your everlasting light,

Your God will be your splendor.

For you shall be called the city of God,

The dwelling of the Holy One of Israel.

(Isaiah 60. 1-3, 11a, 18, 19, 14b.)

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

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