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A Pluralist Theology of Religions

Paul O. Ingram

There exists a basic religious conviction that the religious beliefs, practices, and experiences of human beings everywhere at all times and in all places are not illusions because they are grounded in in a Sacred Reality that transcends all times and places. This basic religious conviction carries an additional claim: one’s particular religious Way is the most valid response to the Sacred because it corresponds to the Sacred in ways missing from religious Ways other than one’s own. But can such claims ever be validated. I think not, because the religious experiences of human beings occur within the boundary limits imposed by the pluralism of human cultural and historical experience. After all, Buddhist nuns in meditation do not experience union with “Christ the Bridegroom,” nor do Carmelite nuns practicing contemplative prayer experience union with “the Buddha Nature.” We receive from a religious Way whatever that religious Way trains us to expect experience. So whenever most Christians encounter Muslims, or Muslims Christians, for example, the conversation turns into a monologue.

But entering into a genuine dialogue with our sisters and brothers living in and practicing religious Ways other than or own deepens our own faith while simultaneously making our faith and practices less parochial. But much depends on the meaning of “dialogue.”

First inter-religious dialogue is a conversation between faithful persons of different religious Ways that is without ulterior motives. Dialogue is a mutual sharing between two or more persons dwelling in faith traditions different that one’s own. Ulterior motives of any sort, for example, converting one’s dialogical partner to one’s own religious Way transforms dialogue into monologue.

Second, inter-religious dialogue requires engaging the faith and practices of one’s dialogical partner. Thereby, our own standpoints are stretched, tested and challenged by the faith and practices of one’s dialogical partner.

Third, inter-religious dialogue requires critical and empathetic understanding of one’s own religious Way. It’s a bit like being in love. As we can recognize another person’s experiences of love because of our own experiences of giving and receiving love, so living at the depths of one’s own religious Way enables us to apprehend the depths our dialogical partner’s religious Way. It is impossible to hear the lyrics and music of another person’s religious Way apart from hearing the lyrics and music of one’s own religious Way.

Fourth, inter-religious dialogue presupposes that truth is relational. It might not be quite right to say that truth is relative, but one’s sense of truth is relational. We can only understand from the perspectives we occupy at the moment we claim to understand anything. That is, we can only apprehend whatever truth is from the particular cultural, religious, social, gender-specific standpoint we inhabit.

Finally, the practice of inter-religious dialogues requires taking risks. It is not for the intellectually and spiritual timid. Most Christians, for example, who” pass over” into the faith and practices of non-Christians “return” to their own Christian self-identity, but not quite the self-identity experienced before passing over. At times, Christians leave the Christian Way and commit themselves, for example, to forms of the Buddhist, Confucian, or Islamic Ways. Buddhists sometimes become Christians; some Christians end up wearing to dual religious identities, for example, Buddhist-Catholic, Zen Buddhist-Jewish Rabbi, or in my case, Lutheran Buddhist or “Lu-Bu” as my Buddhist friend, Mark Unno once described me.

All this is so because the experience of the Sacred, which Christians, Jews, and Buddhists name God and Buddhists name the Dharma or often Emptying, and the Daoist and Confucian Ways name the Dao, is pretty much a now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t affair. Insights sometimes flash through a text or conversation or ritual practice and then dissolve into intellectual fog. But I have read Krishna’s instructions to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita about the plurality of incarnations of Brahman into an unimaginable plurality of deities, and this has helped me comprehend the possibilities of God’s incarnation in the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith and, according to the prologue the Gospel of John, in all things and events in creation. I have read Buddhist Pure Land texts and have experienced the “other-powered grace of Amida Buddha’s universal compassion, and this has helped me comprehend the Grace of God that Augustine and Luther discovered in St. Paul’s Epistles. I have read how Elijah hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb met the back side of God in “thundering silence (1 Kings 19:11-12) and this has led me to understand how the One God recited by Mohammed in the Qur’an is closer to person than a jugular-vain. This has clarified for me Christian experience of God’s interdependent transcendence and immanence. Such experiences, and others, have stunned me to silence.

While I do jot think that divinity in history only reveals itself in the historical Jesus, the historical Jesus is the focal point of Christian apprehension of God within the rough-and-tumble of history. So one way of imagining a pluralist Christian dialogue with non-Christian religious Ways is the wave particle complementarity in contemporary physics. In certain experimental situations, light can be observed to have either wave-like properties or particle-like properties, depending on how one is observing light photons. There appears to be no line separating wave-like behavior from particle-like behavior. Something similar, I think is going on in humanity’s religious Ways, all of which exist within the boundary constraints of local historical and cultural contexts. Humanity’s religious Ways are how particular communities “observe” the Sacred.