Monday, September 27, 2010

Is advocating religious pluralism ever "fair" to other religions?

Not everyone agrees with even attempting religious pluralism. And even those who do may find it doesn't work the way they intended.

For example, "If everything's the same then why do any differences matter?" is an attitude that can creep in and paralyze a would-be spiritual seeker by keeping them from committing to any view too rooted in any particular tradition.  But we need roots to grow, and even interfaith proponents often say you need to be well-grounded in one religion to really be able to appreciate others.

Yet that inevitably means interpreting other religions and non-religious views from the perspective of your own grounding, which some react to as if it is a horribly unfair and uncharitable thing to do?  Is it?  And is there any way around it?

Take this quote I have been tossing around quite a bit lately, from an obituary for the late Professor Raimon Panikkar, who of himself once wrote, "I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian."  To elaborate:

Panikkar did not confuse or conflate historical contingency with spiritual truth. In Hinduism and Buddhism Panikkar found other languages, in addition to Biblical Hebrew, Greek philosophy, and Latin Christianity, to express the core convictions (the kerygma) of the Christian tradition.

Christ and his teaching are not, so Panikkar argues, the monopoly or exclusive property of Christianity seen as a historical religion. Rather, Christ is the universal symbol of divine-human unity, the human face of God. Christianity approaches Christ in a particular and unique way, informed by its own history and spiritual evolution. But Christ vastly transcends Christianity. Panikkar calls the name "Christ" the "Supername," in line with St. Paul's "name above every name" (Phil 2:9), because it is a name that can and must assume other names, like Rama or Krishna or Ishvara.

In his words, "To the third Christian millennium is reserved the task of overcoming a tribal Christology by a Christophany which allows Christians to see the work of Christ everywhere, without assuming that they have a better grasp or a monopoly of that Mystery, which has been revealed to them in a unique way."
One objection that can be raised here is that Hindus would say Christ is really just an avatar of Brahman, like Rama or Krishna.  So isn't each side just imposing itself on the other.  If I suggest that there are similarities between God and the Tao or the Dharmakaya, aren't I imposing monotheism on Taosim and Buddhism, just as they might be imposing on monotheism by suggesting that God sounds like the Tao or emptiness or that Jesus sounds like a Bodhisattva?

And is that OK?

Well, we all have a basic set of ontological categories and cultural taxonomies that we use axiomatically to understand the world.  That is, we each have our own fundamental assumptions about the world that we need to make sense of and to express what we experience.  This isn't optional.  You can never be "purely" objective nor can you have no axiomatic assumptions.  We can try to prune them and arrange them in tidy forms, but we cannot dispense with them.  Even an agnostic has decided something about the reality and usefulness of religion and whether the stories about God they have heard resonates in their hearts.  There are no neutral observers of religion.

So yes, it is OK that we have such limits and acknowledge them.

But what next?  To return to the quotes concerning Panikkar above, there is this idea of Christ as the Supername. So how might this look to non-Christians?

As mentioned, some Buddhists see Christ as a Bodhisattva, one who has attained a degree of insight into the deep truths of reality and a kind of spiritual stability, yet who forgoes attaining full and perfect enlightenment to find a way to assist all sentient beings to be rescued from their suffering and delusion as well.  It is in fact this act of solidarity which is the final aspect of attaining total enlightenment, as our own fate is bound up with that of all others.  In the Mahayana tradition a Buddha may thereafter assume different bodies and forms to continue teaching and inspiring and even to create a realm where aspirants can be reborn to further their own journeys to enlightenment.

It is easy to see why the Gospels would look very much like the story of a Bodhisattva to many contemporary Buddhists -- his ministry of love, healing and justice (the acts of a Bodhisattva staying to help people), his sacrifice on behalf of all people through his crucifixion (the method by which all people can be saved), and his subsequent resurrection (appearing in forms many former disciples didn't recognize at first) and ascension (transcending our limited grasp of reality).  For Buddhists, Buddhas are even above and revered by the gods.  So in their own way, such Buddhists are giving Christ the highest kind of position of respect and influence in their worldview.

The same is true of many atheists and agnostics, who see Jesus as one of the wisest and most compassionate teachers of all time, which is again the highest kind of honor they can bestow in their view of the world.  The same can be said of those adhering to many other philosophies and religions. But, some will say, it isn't enough for Jesus to be a Bodhisattva or a wise healer, that's not what I believe!  My religion says he was more than that!

Yet here again we must consider that given these people are Hindu, atheist, Wiccanversa.  We see the same color spectrum, but we divide it up and label it differently.  What is the point of complaining that people are experiencing the same spectrum of the divine but dividing it up and labeling it differently?

If St. Paul is correct, these non-Christians are observing an "unknown God" , yet neither they nor we should think of God as being limited to "an image made by man's design and skill." Nor should we judge them as "you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things."  After all, they all have the potential to hear the same divine inspiration in their hearts, even if they use different words, images and stories to understand and express it.

This is where true interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism begin, being open to the insights of your sacred tradition and avoiding self-limitation and not assuming that salvation comes only from your take on theology and the church.  For Christians means deeply pondering what "being Christian" really means.  For other religions and philosophies this applies as well -- what does being a Jew or a Buddhist really mean?

It is in this way that we may find a unity that permits diversity, respecting the differences without having to eliminate them. This is not only fair, nor even just possible, this is essential.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this post. As a sympathetic atheist trying to get along in a mostly theistic world religious pluralism is attractive to me. I think partially it is attractive to me because so much of religious discussion comes down to "my view is right and conflicts with yours so yours is wrong." or "my magic book is better than your magic book" whether the "book" is the Bible or the collective works of science or whatever.


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