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Report on meeting 21st January 2014

Led by the Reverend Ros Murphy

Where Next?

A reflection based on Making Sense of Religious Pluralism by Alan Race

‘In this aeon, diversity of religions is the will of God’. These words from Jewish sage Abraham Joshua Heschel, in 1966 were ahead of their time, but today, some theologians are beginning to take this concept seriously.

Affirming religious plurality can be unnerving, especially for faiths which are monotheistic.

All traditions which are ordered in terms of ‘transcendent vision and human transformation’ have a tendency to want to encourage others into their ‘sacred space’. Even where ‘other faiths’ have been encountered, they are often considered ‘at best, pale reflections’.

The Islamic poet, Rumi wrote that ‘The lamps are many, but the light is one; it comes from Beyond’. It is sometimes said, that the religions are ‘all the same really’ – but can we really claim this, or is there something deeper?

In 1983 Alan Race explored three concepts from the standpoint of Christianity.

Exclusivism – Christ is the only source of transcendental transformation. A logical conclusion of this standpoint is that words from ‘other’ religions ‘must necessarily originate from a source other than God’ and therefore be repudiated.

Inclusivism – Christ is the most complete of the religious choices on offer regarding transcendental transformation – but there is a willingness to tolerate others, even while regarding one’s own position as superior. Karl Rahner believed that ’God’s spirit is always and everywhere and in every person as the innermost centre of his existence accessible by virtue of the historical means available to a person’. Rahner coined the term ‘anonymous Christian’ to describe someone who is ‘in a saving relationship with God without Jesus’. The term anonymous Christian has not proved popular, but the concept of a positive role for various religions’ has been firmly welcomed, at least by some believers.

Pluralism – Christ is one of a number of sources of transcendental transformation, of ‘streams of authentic religious belief and practice, valid and equally salvific paths in relation both to ultimate transcendent reality and to the journey of mutual critical acceptance of one another’. Although in 1901 Ernst Troeltch published The Absoluteness of Christianity, by 1923, he considered that this view was no longer sustainable because ‘there are profound spiritual and humane values in other religions too’ so that ‘Christianity is one manifestation of divine life alive through one culture’. ‘Each of the faiths may experience its contact with the divine life’. Needless to say, pluralism encounters a good deal of opposition!

More recently, John Hick wrote that, ‘ the best religious account we can give of the global situation is that of a single ineffable Ultimate Reality whose universal presence is being differently conceived and experienced and responded to within the different human religious traditions. This is NOT a claim that the differences are ‘merely language and symbolic screens, each suggesting different names for essentially the same transcendent reality.
That which is ineffable, by definition must be ‘non-reducible to human categories’ and ‘at least potentially capable of being contemplated in a variety of forms’.

In 1893 The World Parliament of Religions was convened in Chicago. A Hindu reformist, Swami Vivekananda, spoke of the horrendous outcomes of sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism, preventing human society developing its full potential. He did not consider that the ideal was one religion but rather that, ‘the integrity of religions should be preserved’ and growth in religious identity must necessarily involve interaction with and through the ‘spirit of the others’.

In order for such interaction to occur, there needs to be a re-thinking of the nature of mission which originally comprised converting others to one’s own understanding in order to ‘save their souls’. In 1991, theologians affirmed that, ‘other religions represent both a searching and a finding’. In 1993, the World Council of Churches considered that ‘a reconciled and renewed creation is the goal of the churches’ mission’. Thus mission would become sharing insights from one’s own faith with the motivation of contributing to the pool of human understanding of the ultimate transcendent, rather than gaining converts.
This definition of mission has enabled a reinterpretation of the purpose of dialogue, as being far more than conflict resolution. There is an expectation that participants learn from one another, deepening the impact of critical thinking, assuming that ‘no one tradition can possibly have the whole grasp of what is ultimate’. ‘Dialogue is not just learning about, or with, but also through one another’, sometimes enabling the understanding of one’s own faith from new and enriching perspectives’.

Pluralists often claim that ‘Each religion has a view of the whole of reality through the window of a particular glimpsing, but it is a partial viewing’.

Where next?

Alan Race considers that ‘The experience of dialogue and engagement across worlds of religious difference represents a threshold phenomenon in our time’. ‘A powerful momentum is capable of being harnessed as new opportunities for shared thinking and hopeful action across barriers of ignorance, suspicion and enmity is being explored’. ‘The time is ripe for a re-orientation of the religious outlook on a world scale’. ‘Where we differ profoundly, we shall need to learn respect’. ‘Not everything labelled spiritual or moral is acceptable’.’Religions are vehicles that enable humanity’s search for those deeper truths and realities that motivate us and point us towards a fulfilling vision for the future’.

Race explores further, the idea of Particularism – the various religious pathways are considered to be so different in their orientations that it is not even possible to approach the issue of whether or not other religions bear salvific potency for there is simply no way of knowing what an answer might look like. Does this imply that we should each continue to go our own way, that there is no point in trying to understand one another???
He concludes though that ‘the attitude of intolerance has not brought and cannot bring peace and happiness to any society or nation or to humanity at large’. ‘Religious leaders must make a commitment to talk together, walk together and work together for the welfare of humanity’.

Race labels his current thinking as ‘The Inter-religious Paradigm: An Invitation’, offering it as ‘a new means for understanding the religious complexity that is emerging in our times’ – ‘a threshold of a different way of being religious’. He does not consider this to be the complete answer. ‘The scope for further change is endless’.

A review by Philip Lewis in The Church Times on January 10th, is quite critical of Race’s thinking, partly because he doesn’t address the issue of ‘supersessionism’. There are Christians who consider that the church has now replaced God’s relationship with Israel, and Muslims who teach that Christianity cannot remain a fully valid ‘way of salvation’ after the coming of Muhammad.
Neither is there any reference to ‘the troubling phenomenon of conversion’. Muslim –Christian dialogue is aimed to ‘explore patiently the origins, meaning, history and significance of differences’ rather than ‘to speculate that such differences can be encompassed within an ‘unknowable’ transcendent reality behind all religions’. Lewis considers that insights won through improved relationships of one faith do not necessarily transfer to relationships with other faiths. ‘The hard work of encounter and questioning must continue. There may be provisional conclusions that contribute to Race’s ambition for a theology of religions – but not yet’.

The following is an extract from the book:

‘The time is ripe for a reorientation of the religious outlook on a world scale. We have to relinquish inherited prejudices so that we can live with open hearts and minds. In the interests of forging peaceful interreligious relations, we offer a Code of Practice which includes the following recommendations.

  1. Respect the noble teachings and values of others’ religions.
  2. Acknowledge the rights of others to follow their own paths.
  3. Respect the civil and political rights of religious minorities.
  4. Promote constructive steps towards interreligious harmony.
  5. Take positive steps to heal the religious antagonisms of the past.
  6. Refrain from abusing others’ religious beliefs and practices.
  7. While commending one’s own religion, avoid condemning one’s neighbours.
  8. Forbid violence against innocent persons, men, women or children in the name of religion.
  9. Prevent gender, racial and ethnic discrimination in the name of religion.
  10. Relinquish religious biases and prejudices, inherited or acquired.
  11. Work together for the sake of establishing spiritual and humane values at the heart of life.
  12. Be open to the best influences that stem from modern knowledge and serious investigation of both the natural world by the sciences and the human world by the humanities and social sciences.
  13. Adopt a critical attitude towards your own perspectives before criticising others.'


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