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Beyond `Pluralism'

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This essay was one of two lectures given at Bangor Theological Seminary, January 26-27,2004. The second essay is entitled "Buddhism and Christianity."


To speak of religious pluralism is often simply to state the obvious. There is a plurality of religious traditions. Usually it means something more, that is, that we should be appreciative and respectful toward all of them instead of supposing that one is true and good and the others false and evil. In this sense, I am strongly committed to religious pluralism.

But some of those who have defined "pluralism" have given to it a further definition. For them, to be a religious pluralist is to assert that the various religious traditions are more or less equally effective means of arriving at a common end or meeting a common need. It is religious pluralism in this sense that I oppose. In fact, I believe, this form of pluralism is not sufficiently pluralistic. I disagree with some of its assumptions.

Probably the most basic assumption underlying this form of pluralism is that there is an essence of religion. This essence is thought to be both a common characteristic of all `religions' and their central or normative feature. Hence, once it is decided that Buddhism, Confucianism, or Christianity is a religion, one knows what it is all about and how it is to be evaluated.

I disagree with this essentialist approach. I do believe there is a family of traits or characteristics that guides the use of the term `religion' for most people. But the term is used even when only some, not all, the traits are present. For example, most people in the sphere of dominance of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, think of worship of a Supreme Being or deity as a religious trait. Yet when they find this absent in most Buddhist traditions, they do not automatically deny that Buddhism is `a religion.' They notice that it is permeated by a spirit of deep reverence or piety, that it aims to transform the quality and character of experience in a direction that appears saintly, that it manifests itself in such institutions as temples and monasteries in which there are ritual observances, and so forth. The overlap of characteristics suffices for most people, so that Buddhism is almost always included among the world's religions.

If one turns to Confucianism one finds a different set of overlaps with Abrahamic assumptions about religion and a different set of discrepancies. By a certain stretch of terms one can find in it a worship of a Supreme Being, but the function this plays is far less central than in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is great concern for the right ordering of human behavior, but much less interest in transforming the quality and character of experience. So is Confucianism a religion? This question divided Jesuits and their opponents in the seventeenth century, and the vacillation by Rome prevented what might otherwise have been the conversion of the Chinese court to Catholicism.

In the twentieth century, the more acute issue is whether Communism is a religion. Theists notice at once the denial of God, but such denial does not exclude Buddhism. They notice also the evangelistic fervor, the selfless devotion evoked, the totalistic claims, the interest in the transformation of the human being, the confidence that a new age is coming. And in all this they see religious characteristics. One might judge that Communism actually resembles Christianity, at least in its Protestant form, more closely than does Buddhism, yet the features it omits or rejects seem to be the most `religious' aspects of Christianity. A popular solution is to call Communism a `quasi-religion,' whatever that may mean.

It would be possible to draw up a long list of characteristics that one person or another associates with the word `religion.' A list drawn up by a Buddhist would be likely to overlap with, but differ from, a list drawn up by a Muslim. Does that mean that one list would be more accurate than the other? That would imply that there is some objective reality with which the lists more or less correspond. But there is no Platonic idea `Religion' to which the use of the term ought to conform. The term means what it has come to mean through use in varied contexts. Users should be at some pains to clarify their meaning. But arguments as to what `religion' truly is are pointless. There is no such thing as `religion.' There are only traditions, movements, communities, people, beliefs, and practices that have features that are associated by many people with what they mean by `religion.'

One meaning of `religion' derived from its Latin root deserves special attention here. `Religion' can mean a binding together; it can be thought of as a way of ordering the whole of life. All the great traditions are, or can be, religions in this sense. So is Communism. All are, or can be, ways of being in the world. In most instances they designate themselves, or are readily designated, as Ways. If this were all that were meant by calling them religions, I would have no objection to designating them as such. But we would need to recognize that this use does not capture all the meanings of `religion' that are important to people. In fact we do not cease thinking of these traditions as religious when they fail to function as the overarching ways of life for people who identify themselves with them. In the case of Buddhism in China, most people who identified themselves as Buddhists also identified themselves as Confucianists. Neither constituted an inclusive way of being in the world. For many people, being Chinese provided the comprehensive unity of meaning, the basic way of being. In this context they could adopt Buddhism for certain purposes and Confucianism for others. When `religion' is taken to mean the most foundational way of being in the world, then being Chinese is the religion of most of the Chinese people. This meaning of `religion' needs to be kept in mind along with others, but in most discourse it functions more as one of the characteristics that may or may not be present than as the decisive basis of use of the term.

If one views the situation in this way, as I do, the question can still arise as to whether all the great traditions are of roughly equal value and validity. But the requisite approach to an answer to this question is then much more complex than it is for those who assume that all these traditions have a common essence or purpose just because they are religions. The issue, in my view, is not whether they all accomplish the same goal equally well -- however the goal may be defined. It is first of all whether their diverse goals are equally well realized.

Consider the case of Buddhism and Confucianism in China. How can we judge their relative value and validity? They coexisted there through many centuries, not primarily as alternate routes to the same goal, but as complementary. In crude oversimplification, Confucianism took care of public affairs, while Buddhism dealt with the inner life. Perhaps one might go on to say that they were about equally successful in fulfilling their respective roles, but that statement would be hard to support and does not seem especially important.

Questions about the relative value of the great religious traditions can all be asked, and asked with less confusion, if the category `religion' is dropped. Both Buddhism and Confucianism are traditions that are correctly characterized in a variety of ways. By most, but not all definitions of `religious,' both can be characterized as religious. But to move from the fact that they are, among other things, `religious,' to calling them `religions' is misleading and has in fact misdirected most of the discussion.

I oppose this `pluralism' for the sake of affirming a much more fundamental pluralism. Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, among others, are religious traditions, but they are also many other things. Further, of the family of characteristics suggested by `religious,' they do not all embody the same ones.

What strikes the observer of this discussion is that, among those who assume that religion has an essence, there is no consensus as to what the essence may be. Even individual scholars often change their mind. The variation is still greater when the scholars represent diverse religious traditions. Yet among many of them the assumption that there is an essence continues unshaken in the midst of uncertainty as to what that essence is.

I see no a priori reason to assume that `religion' has an essence or that the great religious traditions are well understood as `religions,' that is, as traditions for which being religious is the central goal. I certainly see no empirical evidence in favor of this view. I see only scholarly habit and the power of language to mislead. I call for a pluralism that allows each religious tradition to define its own nature and purposes and the role of religious elements within it.

II

If we give up the notion of an essence of religion, there remain two modes of evaluation of individual religious traditions: internal and external. We will consider first the internal norms.

A religious tradition may claim to provide a way of life that leads to a just, peaceable, and stable social order. In that case, we can ask whether, when its precepts have been most faithfully followed, the result has been a just, peaceable, and stable social order. Or a religious tradition may claim to provide a way to attain personal serenity and compassion toward all. In that case, we can ask whether, when its precepts are most fully followed, the result has been personal serenity and compassion toward all.

These evaluations are not easy, but they can be made with some reasonable plausibility. On the other hand, when goals are stated in less factual ways, the evaluation becomes more difficult or even impossible. For example, if it is claimed that dramatic historical changes would occur if for one day all members of a community perfectly observed all the precepts, and if such perfect observance has never occurred and is highly unlikely ever to occur, evaluation cannot be empirical. Even more clearly, when the results of following the precepts are located in another world and another life, no evaluation is possible. Nevertheless, most religious traditions make some claims that are realistically examinable.

My own judgment is that no religious tradition would long survive if it failed to accomplish in the course of history and personal lives some measure of its goal. Hence, on the whole, religious traditions fare relatively well based on the norms to which they themselves are committed. Generally, by its own norms, each succeeds better than do any of the others. No doubt, some do better than others even measured by their own norms, and within all of them there are massive failures as well as successes

The second form of evaluation is external. These external judgments can be based on the norms of other religious traditions or of secular communities. Here, of course, chaos ensues. Each does well by some norms and badly by others. The more important question is whether any of these norms have validity outside the communities that are committed to them. Is there any way in which one or another norm can claim validity of a universal sort?

This is where the essentialist view is so handy, and it may be one reason why it is clung to with such persistence. If religion has an essence, and if embodying that essence well is the primary goal of every religious tradition, then it becomes objectively meaningful to evaluate all religions by this normative essence. Since I have rejected the essentialist approach, I have no ready access to any universal norm. It seems that pluralists of my stripe are condemned to a pluralism of norms such that each tradition is best by its own norm and there is no normative critique of norms. This is the doctrine of conceptual relativism. It seems to do justice to each tradition, but in fact it vitiates the claims of all, since all claim at least some elements of universality.

Are we forced to choose between an essentialist view of religion, on the one hand, and conceptual relativism, on the other? I think not. The actual course of dialogue does not support either theory. One enters dialogue both as a believer convinced of the claims of one religious tradition and as a human being open to the possibility that one has something to learn from representatives of another religious tradition.

Furthermore, this duality of attitudes is often united. In many instances, precisely as a believer one is open to learn from others, believing that the fullness of wisdom goes beyond what any tradition already possesses.

The belief that there is more to truth and wisdom than one's own tradition has thus far attained is the basis for overcoming the alternatives of essentialism and conceptual relativism. It entails belief that while one's own tradition has grasped important aspects of reality, reality in its entirety is always more. This means also that the ultimately true norm for life, and therefore also for religious traditions, lies beyond any extant formulation. As dialogue proceeds, glimpses of aspects of reality heretofore unnoticed are vouchsafed the participants. This is felt not as a threat to the religious traditions from which the participants come but as an opportunity for enrichment and even positive transformation.

The problem with conceptual relativism is not that it sees a circularity between beliefs and the norms by which they are judged. This is the human condition. The weakness is that it pictures this as a static, self-enclosed system, whereas the great religious traditions can be open and dynamic. This does not justify someone claiming to stand outside all the relative positions and to be able to establish a neutral, objective norm over all. But it does mean that normative thinking within each tradition can be expanded and extended through openness to the normative thinking of others. For example, in dialogue with Buddhists, Christians can come to appreciate the normative value of the realization of Emptiness, and can expand the way they have thought of the purpose and meaning of life. The norm by which they then judge both Christianity and Buddhism is thereby expanded. Similarly, in dialogue with Christians, Buddhists may come to appreciate the normative value of certain forms of historical consciousness, and the resultant norm by which they judge both Buddhism and Christianity is changed.

Of course, the enlarged norms of the Christians and the Buddhists that result from this dialogue are not universal and objective. When a Buddhist who has gained from dialogue with Christians enters dialogue with Hindus, quite different issues arise. If the dialogue is successful, there will be further expansions in the apprehensions of norms. But again, such expansion, however far it goes, does not detach itself from its historical conditions. It becomes more inclusive and more appropriate to use over a broader range. It does not become ultimate and absolute.

There is one relatively objective norm that can be abstracted from this process. It is relatively objective in that it follows from features that characterize all the traditions to the extent that they acknowledge the pluralistic situation in which all are plunged today. I will summarize the implications of this situation.

First, all the great religious traditions make some claim to the universal value of their particular insights and affirmations. This makes unacceptable a sheer conceptual relativism.

Second, most of the great religious traditions teach a certain humility with regard to human understanding of reality in its depth and fullness. Hence, they discourage the tendency, present in all, to identify ideas that are now possessed and controlled with final expression of all important truths.

Third, as the great religious traditions become more aware of one another, there is a tendency for some mutual appreciation to develop among them. They acknowledge that they learn something from mutual contact. They may claim that what they learn is to value neglected aspects of their own traditions, for in this way they can maintain the tendency to claim the perfection of their own sacred sources. But in fact the understanding that emerges is not the one that obtains when only their own tradition is studied. Some adherents are willing to acknowledge this.

Fourth, as they are in fact transformed by interaction, the norms by which they judge both themselves and others are enlarged. The universal relevance of their own insights is vindicated as other traditions acknowledge their value. The comprehensiveness and human adequacy of their traditions is enlarged as they assimilate the insights of others.

It is important to reemphasize that the points above are drawn from the actual experience of dialogue. They do not characterize those sections of each of the traditions that are unwilling to engage in dialogue. The pluralistic situation can lead to fundamentalist self-isolation in all the traditions. What I am seeking in this paper is a way of thinking about the situation appropriate for those who are committed to dialogue. Fortunately, there are many of these in all the traditions, and it is among them that new ways of understanding the relations among the traditions can arise.

The implication of this summary of what happens in dialogue, then, is that one norm that can be applied with relative objectivity to the great religious traditions has to do with their ability, in faithfulness to their heritage, to expand their understanding of reality and its normative implications. A tradition that cannot do this is torn between several unsatisfactory options in this pluralistic world. One option is to claim that despite all appearances, it already possesses the fullness of truth so that all who disagree or make different points are to that extent simply wrong. A second option is to accept its own relativization after the fashion of conceptual relativism, asserting that its message is truth for its believers but irrelevant to others. A third option is to detach itself from its own heritage in part, acknowledging that this heritage absolutizes itself in a way that is not acceptable in a pluralistic world, and then to operate at two levels -- one, of acceptance of the heritage, the other, of relativizing it. The distaste most persons who engage in dialogue feel for all three of these options is the basis for claiming relative objectivity for the proposed norm.

It may be that judged by this norm, all the great religious traditions are roughly equal. On the other hand, it may be that some are more favorably situated than others to benefit from the radically pluralistic situation in which we are now immersed. Certainly the readiness for dialogue and learning depends in all of the great religious traditions on the sub-traditions in which people stand. All traditions have fundamentalist sub-traditions that reject all new learning, insisting on the total adequacy and accuracy of what has been received from the past. Even participants in those other sub-traditions that are most ready and eager to take advantage of the new pluralistic situation are not equally open to everything. The traditional understanding they bring to bear has a great effect on what they can receive through interaction. There are profound differences in the way the several traditions prepare their participants to hear what others are really saying. Whether they do this equally well is a question to be discussed and examined rather than set aside out of false courtesy.

III

In the first section I expounded my view that there is a radical pluralism of religious traditions. In section II I argued that this view need not lead to relativism, because most traditions are open to being influenced by the truth and wisdom contained in others. In section III I will consider first some ways Chinese and Indian religious traditions open themselves to others. I will then describe how Abrahamic traditions approach this matter and argue for the peculiar capacity of Christianity to become increasingly inclusive in its understanding.

In the previous sections I noted how in China different religious traditions could function in a complementary fashion, in a context that was determined by a more inclusive horizon, that of being Chinese. This is one strategy for dealing with religious pluralism. Being Chinese opens one to learning whatever can be incorporated into that culture and way of being in the world. Confucianism springs out of that culture, and the fit is excellent. Buddhism was imported and adjusted itself so that it too could play a large role, but one subordinate to the Chinese ethos. Of course, its presence also changed that ethos. The Abrahamic faiths have been more difficult to assimilate into a fundamentally Chinese ethos.

The method of the Indian religious traditions is somewhat different. Hinduism means little more than the traditional religions of the Indian people, but it does suggest a way of allowing this multiplicity of faiths and attitudes to coexist. They are all viewed as ways in which people respond to the ultimate reality or Brahman. Hindus in general celebrate the diversity of approaches to Brahman, with some sub-traditions worshipping various deities taken to be manifestations of Brahman and others seeking to realize oneness with Brahman through strenuous spiritual disciplines. The image of many paths up the same mountain expresses the way in which Hindus of many sub-traditions have been able to accept and affirm one another with a remarkable degree of tolerance. As Hindus have met other religious traditions, they have typically been prepared to extend this same accepting attitude toward them. They are willing to listen and learn about other paths up the mountain.

Hindus such as Radhakrishnan, who have given thought to the world religions, are convinced that Hinduism already has the embracing vision that is needed for all the religions to live with one another and to learn from one another. Unfortunately, this approach has not worked well in relation to the Abrahamic faiths. Hindus are prepared to accept these if they will understand themselves as paths up the mountain already well known to Hindus. But on the whole, representatives of the Abrahamic faiths cannot understand themselves in this way. They often express their refusal in exclusivistic terms, arguing that they alone have the way of salvation, so that Hinduism is a false guide. But even those representatives of Islam and Christianity who are not so arrogantly exclusivist resist being viewed as offering only another way to the goal already fully realized by the profoundest Hindu saints and mystics. This seems to entail viewing the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as only one among many manifestations of that one absolute reality known so much more fully and adequately by Hindus.

Buddhists can also think of many paths up the same mountain, but another image may be more illuminating for them. Buddhism has only one commitment, namely, to enlightenment. Enlightenment may occur in various traditions in various ways. One need not be a Buddhist in order to be enlightened. Indeed, enlightenment liberates one from all identification with historical or cultural movements. These are all superficial. Masao Abe characterizes the enlightened perspective as the "positionless position."(1) From this perspective one can be open to whatever truth and wisdom is discoverable in any tradition. Thus there is complete openness to learning through dialogue with others. At every level except the ultimate level there is willingness to change or be transformed through the dialogue. But all of this must be for the sake of an enlightenment that relativizes everything else.

It is because the positionless position relativizes Buddhism itself that the Buddhist can be so free. The question is whether others can accept that relativization of their insights and wisdom. In the case of the Abrahamic faiths, this does not seem to be possible. They can accept relativization of every specific formulation. But their faith in God cannot be subordinated to something else without abandoning the heritage.

My point in the above is simply to note a limitation in the forms of openness that characterize the Indian religious traditions. They can be open to a great deal, but it does not seem they can be open to the ultimate claims of the Abrahamic traditions about faith in God. The question is now whether the openness that is possible from the side of the Abrahamic faiths can deal any better with the wisdom of India.

If we quickly scan the history of these faiths, the answer seems to be that their record is much worse than that of the Indian traditions. Belief in one God and in that God's unique revelation has led these traditions to exclusivism and intolerance. Of the three, Judaism has been most willing to live and let live, but its core teaching is not inherently so tolerant. The tolerance comes from its preoccupation with the people of Israel, such that the destiny of others is of less concern. When, as in both Christianity and Islam, the core teaching about a God who is revealed in specific historical ways and calls for obedience to that revelation is separated from the ethnocentric features of Judaism, the zeal to bring the message to all has led both to heroic self-sacrifice and to brutal intolerance.

Yet there are features of this belief in God that have also led to openness to learning from others. It is generally believed that the God who is revealed in quite specific ways has also been present and active in the world always and everywhere. The believer can expect to see some signs of that activity throughout creation and especially among human beings. When members of the Abrahamic faiths have encountered what seemed good and true in other traditions, they have typically held that this, too, was the work of God. For example, all three traditions borrowed extensively from Greek philosophy. Especially in the case of Christianity and Islam, this borrowing involved, for good and ill, a profound transformation. In the case of Christianity, it can be argued that its ultimate victory over Neoplatonism for the commitment of the intelligentsia of the late Roman Empire was due to its ability to assimilate the wisdom of Neoplatonism, while the Neoplatonic philosophers were not equally able to assimilate the wisdom of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

One way of viewing the Christian advantage in this case is that Christians believed in a God who acted in history. For this reason they could believe that new developments expressed God's intention and purpose. It is more difficult to give religious meaning to current events when the ultimate is conceived as related in one and the same unchanging way with all events in the world. Then the truth is static and the way of coming to that truth is not through the changing course of events but through pure thought or religious experience.

The openness to being led into new truth in the course of events is accentuated in the Abrahamic traditions, and especially in Christianity, by the focus on the future. Christians know that they now see dimly, that the fullness of light is yet to come. The truth is what will be known, not what is already grasped. Of course, even in Christianity this future-orientation is always in tension with affirmations about the fullness of the revelation that is already given in Jesus Christ. Centering on Jesus or on Christ often functions as a form of closure, as an insistence that nothing more needs to be learned. Christians at times have wanted to purify the church from everything that was assimilated from the Greeks and Romans so as to be more purely Biblical. The deeper question is whether centering ourselves on Jesus or on Christ truly has this effect of closure, or whether this is itself a misunderstanding of the meaning of Christocentrism.

It is my conviction that Christocentrism provides the deepest and fullest reason for openness to others. I will give a brief indication of my reasons for believing this. It is hard to see how one can be truly centered on the historical Jesus if one does not share his hope for the coming Realm of God. This does not mean that we ignore everything about Jesus except for his future orientation. In his own ministry the coming Realm is already manifest. Hence we know something of the character of the future for which we hope, and we order our lives now to realize that character as best we can. That character is, above all, love, not only of those like ourselves, but of those we are prone to count as opponents as well. Surely that includes love of adherents of other religious traditions, and surely, also, that love expresses itself both in sharing the good news with which we are entrusted and in sensitive listening to what they have to say.

If we shift our focus to Christ, understood as the divine reality as incarnate, foremost in Jesus, but also in some measure in the church and the world, then the focus on the actual course of historical events and on the presence of Christ in those events, seems necessary. The question is, then, what is Christ doing in the world today? It is not hard to think of that work as reminding us of our finitude and breaking our tendency to think that our own opinions are final and adequate. It is easy to think of that work as calling us to listen to the truth and wisdom of others. Many Christians certainly feel more faithful when they listen in love and respect to what others have to say than when they insist only on restating the ideas that they bring from the past. To learn from others whatever truth they have to offer and to integrate that with the insights and wisdom we have learned from our Christian heritage appears to be faithful to Christ.

The test is whether in fact one can integrate the wisdom of alien traditions into one's Christian vision. This is not easy and there is no simple recipe. St. Augustine's Neoplatonic Christianity was a major intellectual achievement that required personal genius and disciplined work. To do equally well today in relationship to Hindu and Buddhist wisdom will take equal daring and sustained effort. My point is not that it is easy. It is only that it is faithful to Christ and has precedents in our history. I have attempted myself to make some contributions to describing what a Christianity deeply informed by Buddhism may be like. Many others are working on this project. I am convinced that it is a task whose time has come and that Christian faith offers us unique motivation and unique resources for the task.

IV

So am I affirming Christian uniqueness? Certainly and emphatically so! But I am affirming the uniqueness also of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. With the assumption of radical pluralism, nothing else is possible. Further, the uniqueness of each includes a unique superiority, namely, the ability to achieve what, by its own historic norms, is most important.

The question is whether there are any norms that transcend this diversity, norms that are appropriately applied to all. I have argued that the contemporary situation of pluralism does generate one such norm for those who are committed to dialogue --one that in this situation has relative objectivity. This is the ability of a tradition in faithfulness to its past to be enriched and transformed in its interaction with the other traditions.

I have qualified my claim about this norm by saying that it is relevant only to those who are committed to dialogue. But I have implied that interest in dialogue is characteristic of important segments of all the great religious traditions today. Indeed, it is my view that the dynamic sub-traditions in the religious world today are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a stance of indifference toward the presence of other religious traditions or even one of mere opposition. Hence I find it easy to move from a norm relevant to those involved in dialogue to one with broad implications for the religious world today.

I may be claiming too much. Some traditions may understand their primary task to be maintaining the separateness of their people from others or keeping their inherited wisdom intact and unaffected. For them the ability to be enriched and transformed is not a norm at all. It is only insofar as a tradition claims universal relevance that its exclusion of the insights of others is problematic in terms of its own norms. Of course the claim for universal validity can continue to be made while ignoring the similar claims of others. But in this form it remains a mere claim. To demonstrate the validity of the claim requires that the claims of others also be understood and the relation among them explained. The ability, in faithfulness to one's heritage, to display the universal relevance of the wisdom of all traditions in a coherent way has a certain relative advantage once the aim at universal relevance is thought through in a pluralistic context.

The argument of the previous section is that Christianity is well equipped to move forward to the fuller universality I believe to be desirable. I have not said enough to establish that no other tradition is equally well equipped for this task. Negative argumentation of this sort is an ungracious work. I hope that other traditions will compete vigorously with Christianity. Whereas much past competition among the traditions has been mutually destructive, competition in learning from one another and being transformed by what is learned will prove constructive. I hope that the Christian advantage in this competition is less that I have supposed.

I have avoided in the foregoing the issue of conflicting truth claims. This is because I do not find this the most productive approach. Of course, there are such conflicts. There are conflicting views of the natural world, of human nature, and of God. It is not possible that everything that has been said on these topics can correspond with reality, and for this reason many thinkers regard the sorting out of these claims and adjudication among them as crucial for religious thought.

My view is that none of the central claims made by any of the traditions are likely to be literally and exactly correct. Indeed, in many traditions there is an internal emphasis on the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of grasping the truth and expressing it in language. Laying out the conflicting doctrines and developing arguments for and against each is a questionable preoccupation. Instead, it is best to listen to the deep, even ultimate, concerns that are being expressed in these diverse statements. My goal is to transform contradictory statements into different but noncontradictory ones. My assumption is that what is positively intended by those who have lived, thought, and felt deeply is likely to be true, whereas their formulations are likely to exclude other truths that should not be excluded.

I will illustrate what I mean by the clearly contradictory statements: `God exists.' and `No God exists.' If we approach these statements with the assumption that the words `God' and `exists' have clear and exact meanings that are identical in the two statements, we have no choice but to say that one of them is wrong. But surely we are past this point in our reflections about religious discourse. We have to ask who is speaking and what concerns are being expressed. When a Buddhist says that no God exists, the main point is that there is nothing in reality to which one should be attached. When a Christian says that God exists, the meaning may be that there is that in reality that is worthy of trust and worship. If those translations are correct, at least in a particular instance, then it is not impossible that both be correct. Of course, the Buddhist is likely to believe that the Christian is wrong, and the Christian is likely to see no problem with attachment to God. There are then real disagreements between them. But the Buddhist could in principle acknowledge the reality of something worthy of trust and worship without abandoning the central insight that attachment blocks the way to enlightenment. And the Christian could come to see that real trust is not attachment in the Buddhist sense. Both would thereby have learned what is most important to the other without abandoning their central concerns.

Of course, there are many grossly erroneous statements that have been affirmed with great seriousness by adherents of the great religious traditions. It is not true that the world is flat. There is no point in seeking some deeper meaning behind such statements, since we know how they arose from a literalistic reading of certain passages of scripture. There are similar ideas in all the traditions. There are also far more damaging ideas, such as misogynist ones, in most of the religious traditions. These, too, should be condemned as false. But my assumption is that alongside all the errors and distortions that can be found in all our traditions there are insights arising from profound thought and experience that are diverse modes of apprehending diverse aspects of the totality of reality. They are true, and their truth can become more apparent and better formulated as they are positively related to one another.

Whether Christian thinkers as a whole will open themselves to learning from others in this way remains to be seen. Faith in Jesus Christ is often, perhaps usually, expressed in idolatrous forms, such that the relative is absolutized, the partial is treated as a whole. For the sake of Jesus Christ, people make their own beliefs normative for all and close themselves to criticism and new insight. In the name of Jesus Christ people have gone to war with the `infidel', slaughtered Jews, and tortured Christians whose opinions differed. There is no assurance that all this is at an end. Christians know that the power of sin is often peculiarly manifest in the expression of lofty ideals and commitments.

My claim is simply that all this is not truly faithful to Jesus Christ, and that the true meaning of faith has expressed itself, imperfectly but authentically, in other features of our past history. I believe it is expressing itself today in movements of liberation and also in enthusiastic efforts to encounter other religious traditions at a deep level. Roman Catholics have appropriated many of the meditational methods of the East, and the experience generated by these methods cannot but be transforming. Both Catholics and Protestants are struggling with new ideas and ways of thinking. The Christianity that emerges will be different from anything we have known before, but that does not mean that it will be less Christian. On the contrary, it will be one more step toward that fullness that is represented by the coming of the Realm of God.

All traditions are unique. The role of each in history has been unique for good and ill. Each responds uniquely to our pluralistic situation. The potential of each for becoming more inclusive is unique. Let us celebrate the uniqueness of all of our religious traditions.


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