Many Mansions or One Way? The Crisis in Interfaith Dialogue

by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East.

This article is adapted from his forthcoming Many Mansions: A Christian’s Encounter with Other Faiths (Beacon). This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 17-24, 1998, pp. 731-735. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Christians have entered into serious dialogue with people of other faiths only very recently. The question of what Christ means in our encounter with others inevitably raises the even more basic one of what Christ means for us as Christians.

Has the great dialogue among the world religions stalled, the dialogue that so many of us welcomed so warmly and so recently? Why has the "wider ecumenism," which had offered hope of crossing not only denominational but faith lines as well, begun to sputter and stammer and, in many instances, simply to stop? Why have relations among the ancient spiritual traditions of the human family, which many believed were improving a few years back, turned rancorous and even violent as new outbreaks of separatism, xenophobia and hostility erupt?

To make matters worse, these same faith communities are increasingly divided within themselves, and the rifts are often exacerbated by political tensions. Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims declare each other to be worse than infidels. Jews, both pious and secular, who want to find some way to live at peace with Palestinians despair over the zealotry of the Gush Emunim, who believe God has given their people land on which Palestinians have also dwelt for generations. Christians who work for interfaith understanding have been shocked and perplexed by the attacks of fundamentalists who condemn them as traitors to the gospel but who themselves seem willing to cooperate with non-Christians if their politics are acceptable. Indeed, people in any religious tradition who are committed to dialogue often find themselves upbraided as turncoats by their own brothers and sisters.

Admittedly, the picture is not unrelievedly gloomy. Here and there, small circles of Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians continue to meet and talk and even to work together, but they do so despite the currents that seem to be flowing against them. What has gone wrong?

The most nettlesome dilemma hindering interreligious dialogue is the very ancient one of how to balance the universal and the particular. Every world faith has both. Each nourishes in rite and saga its own unique and highly particular vision. Maybe it is the message of the one true God delivered without blemish to the prophet Muhammad. Or it is the fathomless Brahman from whom all that is and all that is not comes and returns. Or the faithful Son of God dying on the cross. Or the supreme moment when enlightenment comes to the patient figure seated under the bo tree. Or the bestowal of the life-giving gift of Torah on a chosen people. Whatever it is, the particular hub defines the center around which each world faith rotates, endowing it season after season and century after century with its characteristic ethos.

At the same time every world faith, if it is truly a world faith and not a local cultus, also generates a universal vision. Brahman embraces all ages, each drop of water and every savior. The Koran names a God who created all people equal and who decrees that a unified human family should mirror his sublime unity. The dying Christ is raised to life by a God who favors the outcasts and the heartbroken and who summons all tribes and tongues into an inclusive community of service and praise. The Bodhisattva compassionately refuses to enter nirvana until every sentient being can enter with him. Thus each world faith has both its axis and its spokes, its sharply etched focus and its ambient circumference. Further, it is the mark of a true world faith that these two dimensions not only hold together but strengthen and reinforce each other.

The crisis in the current state of interfaith dialogue can be stated simply: the universal and the particular poles have come unhinged. Faced with a world in which some form of encounter with other faiths can no longer be avoided, the ancient religious traditions are breaking into increasingly bitter wings. Those who glimpse the universal dimension advocate dialogue and mutuality; they search out what is common and that which unites. Those who emphasize the particular often shun dialogue and excoriate their fellow believers who engage in it more fiercely than they condemn outsiders.

But we need both poles. I count myself as one of the universalists. Yet sometimes as I have sat in genteel – or even mildly acrimonious -- gatherings of urbane representatives of different faith traditions, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches or the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, my mind has strayed from the conference room out to those jagged comers of the world where other confessors of these same faiths are killing or proselytizing -- or just frigidly ignoring -- one another. I have wondered at such moments whether the dialogue has not become a tedious exercise in preaching to the converted, and I have secretly wished to bring in some of those enthusiasts. Deprived of the energy such particularists embody, a dialogue-among-the-urbane can, and sometimes does, deteriorate into a repetitious exchange of vacuities. It could end with a whimper.

But without the large-hearted vision of the universal that the interfaith conversation incarnates, particularism can deteriorate into fanaticism. And in our present overarmed world, zealotry can easily hasten the moment when everything ends with a bang. So we are left with a paradox. Without the universal pole, no dialogue would ensue. But without the particular, the dialogue dissipates its source of primal energy. Without the cross or the Koran or the bo tree, the religions that were called into being by these sacred realities would atrophy, and along with them the inclusive visions they spawned would fade away too. The paradox of the great world faiths is that they both create a dream of a single human family and threaten that dream at the same time. What can be done?  

It seems too formulaic simply to say that the universalists and the particularists need each other, especially since they seldom think they do. Still, I believe they do. There are two salient ways in which Christians who engage in interfaith dialogue have-often quite inadvertently-neglected the hub in their commendable efforts to enlarge the rim. The first way the particular is diminished in dialogue is through the loss of the personal voice. Dialogue often climbs quickly to airy exchanges about "Christianity" and "Buddhism" or one of the other faiths. The dialoguers, who are frequently trained to think in abstract, conceptual terms, are sometimes reluctant to say much about their faith in Jesus Christ, or their devotion to Krishna, or their path toward enlightenment. Even the language of "our" faith or "our" path is often left behind as the talk soars into that realm of discourse (invaluable for its own purposes) one finds in an academic seminar on comparative religions. Soon people are yawning and glancing at their watches.

A certain careful and modest restoration of personal narrative -- call it "testimony," if you will – can help restore some of the life-giving particularity to the dialogue among religions. After all, it is never the religions themselves that converse but individuals who embody those religions. I have seen more than one interfaith colloquium tediously drifting toward death that was restored to life when someone had the courage to speak personally rather than in general terms.

The second way Christian participation in the dialogue has sometimes lost sight of the particularity pole has been by soft-pedaling the figure of Jesus himself. There are many exceptions to this sotto voce treatment of Christ. Still, I have noticed that when reference to Jesus is postponed or downplayed, conversations between Christians and people of other traditions tend to become arid, but when the figure of Jesus is brought to the fore, either by the Christians or --as sometimes happens -- by the others, the dialogue comes alive.

One can of course understand why Christians who believe in the dialogue do not want to push Jesus down other people's throats as soon as the opening gavel has been rapped. After all, Jesus is in some ways the most particularistic element of Christianity, and in an interreligious dialogue one is presumably trying -- at least at first -- to present the less divisive aspects of one's own tradition. The trouble is that not only has this understandable reticence deprived the dialogue of the vigor it needs to survive, but it has also produced another unfortunate consequence: Christians who think of Jesus as a model in other areas of their lives do not look to his example or teaching for direction in the dialogue itself. This twofold neglect of the figure of Jesus-both as a theme and as a source of guidance -- has exacted a heavy toll.

I do not mean to suggest that those Christians who even now are working with great dedication in talks with Buddhists or Muslims or Jews never mention Christology (that branch of Christian theology that deals with the meaning of Jesus Christ).

They do. Often they seek to find some bridge to the other faiths through a "cosmic Christ" such as the one portrayed in the Epistle to the Ephesians, a Christ who is said to be present throughout the universe and who therefore presumably can also be found in the lived worlds of Hindus and Muslims. More frequently, however, the Christian participants have tried to base the dialogue on completely different facets of religious tradition.. Sometimes, for example, they turn to the idea of God the Creator, the mystery out of whom all that is emerges. At other times, they focus on the divine Spirit, present in every person or even in every sentient being. In recent decades they have preferred to explore the experience of faith itself as a universal human experience that exhibits common stages of development through the succeeding phases of human life.

Most recently, they have sought to wrestle -- together with people of other faiths -- with the awful issues everyone must confront today-nuclear war, hunger, disease, the despoiling of the ecosphere -- and to reach into the various traditions as possible sources of values and visions for facing such horrors. These paths to interfaith encounter differ markedly, but they all have one thing in common: they keep the historical Jesus of the Gospels distinctly in the background.

Each of these approaches to the crafting of an adequate Christian grasp of the multiplicity of faiths has its value. Each has advanced the dialogue in some measure. We need to continue to try to work with all of them. Still, I confess that I find these approaches, all of which hold the Jesus-fact in abeyance, not wholly satisfactory. The problem with them is twofold. First, for the vast majority of Christians, including those most energetically engaged in dialogue, Jesus is not merely a background figure. He is central to Christian faith. Not only do the Christian dialoguers recognize this, but so do their Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu and Jewish conversation partners. Wherever one starts, whether with creation, with the omnipresent enlivening Spirit, with the faith experience as such or with something else, any honest dialogue between Christians and others will sooner or later --and in my experience it is usually sooner -- have to deal with the figure of Jesus.

Some might ask, But is it not better to delay so potentially divisive a topic until some more inclusive groundwork has been laid? This may be the case in some instances, but I have never been persuaded by that method. Everyone always knows that the question of who Jesus was and is, and what he means today, will inevitably appear. Until it does, it sometimes feels as though one is -- at least to some degree --engaging in the necessary pleasantries that often precede a genuine conversation but are really not integral to it. When will the other shoe drop?

The second part of my problem with dialogue tactics that play down the Jesus factor is that-surprisingly-it is just this factor that the non-Christian participants often seem most interested in and most eager to discuss. This is not something one is led to expect will happen in interfaith dialogue. But it does. Indeed, it happens so often that it raises serious questions about the other approaches, at least insofar as they try to proceed -- ever so carefully and judiciously, they suppose -- without this central point up front.

Of course, merely suggesting that Jesus be made more central to the dialogue does not solve anything at all. The questions of what role Jesus plays and how he is introduced still persist. This is why I have always been so intrigued by the "many mansions" Jesus speaks of in John 14:2, as well as by John 14:6: "1 am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me," These verses stand only a few lines away from each other in the same chapter of the same Gospel. But they have traditionally supplied both the dialogic universalists and the antidialogic particularists with their favorite proof texts.

Those who look with appreciation on other faiths frequently cite John 14:2 and suggest that the "many mansions" may refer to the heavenly palaces in which Hindus and Buddhists will dwell -- alongside Christians -- in the hereafter. Those who insist that all others must accept Christ or be damned, however, prefer to cite John 14:6 and declare that Jesus alone is the one true way to salvation. What can we say about this curious juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory texts? Could it be telling us about the need to hold the universal and the particular together and about the central place Jesus must have for Christians even in the most expansive interfaith dialogue?

Jesus himself has something vital to teach us about how to participate in interfaith dialogue. At first this may sound quite improbable. Jesus, so far as we know, never met a Buddhist or a Hindu. Islam did not appear until 600 years after his crucifixion. So far as we know, Jesus' interreligious experience was confined to the different sects and movements within the Judaism of his day and to the people, mainly Romans, even he called "heathens. " At first glance, it hardly seems we can learn much from him on this subject.

To be a disciple of Jesus means not to emulate or mimic him but to follow his "way," to live in our era the same way he lived in his -- as a sign and servant of the reign of God. To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or to turn water into wine but to take his life project -- making the coming of God's reign of Shalom real and immediate -- our own. Friendship among the peoples of the world faiths and the nurturing of a sense of "species consciousness" are an indispensable facet of the coming of God's Shalom. There are at least four ways in which the Jesus of the Gospels provides useful guidelines for building such an interfaith consciousness.

The first is that a focus on Jesus moves the encounter from the theoretical level to the practical one. The reign of God is not an abstract ideal; it is a reality actualizing itself in history. Consequently, as soon as this kingdom becomes the focus, we see that religions do not exist apart from their local manifestations. Further, t4ese concrete expressions of a tradition vary markedly from place to place. Except in the minds of textbook writers, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity remain vague abstractions. Genuine interreligious dialogue takes place among persons, and it occurs only when we recognize how a tradition actually works in people's lives.

Such a down-to-earth approach to interreligious conversation is anything but easy. Christians committed to dialogue with the people who live according to other faiths can never be content with the "library" versions of those traditions. Nor will it help to complain that the tangible Buddhist or Islamic movements we encounter today are not the real thing but decadent or politicized corruptions. The example of Jesus' own life demonstrates that any dialogue must take place with actual people. A so-called interreligious dialogue with the Platonic ideals of what this or that religious tradition ought to be in its pure essence leads nowhere.

The second way the Jesus of the Gospels facilitates interfaith dialogue is by reminding us that religion is always a mixed blessing. Jesus, after all, was fiercely opposed by many (not all) of the religious people of his day. His attacks on the misuse of religion remind us that, wherever religion exists, we can be sure that someone is trying to use the gods to dominate, frighten or oppress someone else. Indeed, any honest attempt at interfaith dialogue must face the ugly fact that our century has not only spawned hundreds of new religious movements but that some of those movements are destructive, and some of the most demonic claim to be expressions of Christianity.

Some gentle souls suggest that maybe we should declare a kind of moratorium both on proselytizing and on interreligious discussion. But it is impossible to hope that various cultures and religions could simply leave each other alone. There will always be interaction. Some kind of encounter, even dialogue, is unavoidable. The hard question is how to enter into a genuinely open conversation without losing sight of the need to make judgments and, at times, even to take sides.

This is where the example of Jesus is most pertinent. Jesus was not a model of vacuous tolerance. He did make judgments about the faith of the people he met. In fact, he did so all the time. He argued with some of the Pharisees and excoriated the rulers of the temple. But the key to Jesus' approach to any religious perspective was, "By their fruits ye shall know them. " He, seemed singularly uninterested in the doctrinal content or ritual correctness of the different religions he encountered. He was, however, terribly concerned about the practical outcome of their practitioners' commitments. He once told a pagan Roman that he had not found such a faith as his anywhere in Israel.

Third, Jesus' example reminds us also that the search for human oneness-in-diversity in interreligious dialogue is not only a matter of making judgments; it sometimes requires refraining from judgment. This has its rewarding and even its lighter side. When I was living among Tibetan Buddhists, for example, it took me some time to appreciate the frolicsome way they approach even the deepest tenets of their faith. They sometimes called it the "crazy wisdom." I found that, as a Christian, I eventually had to lay aside the notion that dialogue must always be serious.

The same is true with the so-called primal religions. At a conference in Japan, a pioneer of Christian dialogue with tribal peoples once observed that Western Christians tend to be at ease only with those adherents of other faiths who are as precise and sober as they are. Perhaps we need to place the "theology of play" at the service of interfaith encounter, especially with Buddhists and those who used to be called "primitive" peoples. Jesus often responded to people's serious questions by rattling off a yam, and some of his stories-like the one about the speck in the neighbor's eye and the two-by-four in one's own -- are jocosely hyperbolic. I am sure people laughed when he told them. To insist that dialogue must always be about clear and distinct ideas is to impose a". narrowly Western verbal-doctrinal style. What occurs, then, is nothing but a more subtle form of religious imperialism.

In an interreligious dialogue, this crazy wisdom has an important theological meaning. It implies that the participants realize -- as mystics also do -- that even their best words fall far short of the divine reality, so far short as to be somewhat ridiculous. This insight undercuts distinctions that are very precious to the West: correct/incorrect, secular/sacred, wisdom/folly, purity/pollution. It thus points toward what mystical theology calls the coin - to be opposites.

The fourth way the Jesus of the Gospels helps facilitate interreligious encounter is that he prepares us to expect to find God already present in the "other," including the one with whom we are in dialogue, no matter how strange or unfamiliar that other's ideas or religious practices may seem. Christ meets us in and through the stranger. In fact, if there is one thing that has become self-evident to those who have seriously engaged in sustained and probing conversations with people of another faith, it is that no one remains unaffected. If one does, there is room for doubt whether he or she has entered into dialogue at all.

Dialogue changes those who risk it. It often upsets more than stereotypes and preconceptions about another; it works a sometimes more subtle transformation pf the way I understand and live my own faith. To enter honestly into dialogue is to embark on a perilous personal voyage with no clear destination in view. Unforeseen things can happen. One of the risks is being viewed by one's coreligionists with suspicion or distrust. Another is to find oneself asking questions, perhaps only inwardly, about what one's own faith really means, questions that would never have come up without the provocation of a dialogue. The fearful gatekeepers who have insisted throughout the ages that pure religion can be maintained only in a ghetto or compound have not been entirely wrong. To expose one's tradition to dialogue is willynilly to open it to change, ferment and internal debate. God can and does speak to us through people of other faiths, changing our viewpoint.

Christians have entered into serious dialogue with people of other faiths only very recently. The question of what Christ means in our encounter with others inevitably raises the even more basic one of what Christ means for us as Christians. I invariably return from a conversation with a genuine believer in one of the other faiths with do you say that I am?" But as I listen, I find that I am not putting the question to the other; I am putting it to myself.

Perhaps the most unexpected lesson I have learned in the dialogue with people of other religions is how important it is for me to keep in touch with those of my own faith community who remain suspicious and fearful of that dialogue. This has sometimes proved difficult, and I have often found it easier to converse with universally minded Buddhists or Hindus than with fellow Christians who not only dismiss such people as pagans but also want to dismiss me for not dismissing them as such. Still, I believe the critically important conversation among people of diverse faiths could founder and fail if we -- the dialoguers -- lose touch with our fellow believers who cluster on the particularist side. They remind us that without the radical particularity of the original revelation, we would have no faith to share. We remind them that without the universal dream, they falsify the message and diminish the scope of the original vision.

Multiple specters stalk the human enterprise today. We have reached a point at which strife between nations and religions could lead to the apocalypse. We need more than ever to doxologize the fragile oneness of the whole earth and all its inhabitants. Yet for men and women of faith, the sacred stories by which we hymn the unity of our species and its animal and cosmic neighbors need not be invented. Paradoxically, those stories and symbols are already embedded in the very same traditions that sometimes threaten to tear us asunder. Our task is to claim these reminders of our common destiny from within the disparate sources that first gave them voice.

From Jesus I have learned both that he is the way and that in God's house there are many mansions. I do not believe that these two sayings are contradictory. In fact, I have come to see that only by understanding one can we come to understand the other.