world council of churches

What Difference does Religious Plurality Make?
S. Wesley Ariarajah

Personal Challenge

I was born in a country where over 90% of the people are either Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims. Of the 7.8% Christians, the Protestant variety of which I am a part, is only 0.4%. This naturally meant that I grew up with neighbors, classmates, friends and colleagues who were of other religious persuasions. I was one with them in the classroom, in the playing field and on many social occasions. The one area where we, as Christians, were not together with our neighbors (except as an exception to the rule) was religion. Most of the time, there was no animosity among us as religious groups. But we were "separated" when it came to religion. We engaged in no common religious activity, made no effort to know, participate or engage in anyway in the religious life of our neighbors.

Christians of Sri Lanka are also taught from their childhood (through the Sunday school, sermons, religious talks and missionary activities) that ours was the only "true" religion that led all people to their "salvation". This meant that other religions were "false", "in error"or at least did not have the capacity to lead people to their desired destiny. There was no active criticism or condemnation of other religions during my student days; it belonged to an earlier period. But we Christians were all made to feel that the Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims are pursuing a path that would not lead them to the truth. At best, sincere as they may be, they were misguided.

This could mean only one thing. It was the responsibility of each and every Christian to help others to find the Christian way; in fact we owe it to our friends, neighbors and colleagues that they come to know the truth and find the true destiny of their lives.

My awareness of religious plurality and journey into the ministry of interfaith dialogue began with the question: Can this be true?

What do we make of the genuineness of the faith of our neighbors, of their experience of having been touched by the grace of God, of their highly ethical and moral lives that would often put us Christians to shame, of the enormously rich religious and devotional literature witnessing to a spiritual journey that is as fascinating as it is moving?

Thus religious plurality challenged my faith as presented within my religious tradition. My religion was not able or was unwilling to take the religious life of my neighbors seriously. At times it trampled on that faith; often it misrepresented it; always it refused to face its challenge. I felt that my faith was too narrow, my God - too small, and my life with my neighbors distorted and diminished by the outright and unjust refusal to take their religious life seriously.

In short, religious plurality made a difference - it challenged me to re-look at some of the assumptions on which my faith was built.

Challenged as a Minister of the Church

When I became a minister of the church, the issue of religious plurality assumed other dimensions. I became aware that religious identity, as it was defined and experienced, contributed much to the divisions in the community. Sri Lanka was already deeply divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. Its inability to handle that plurality has resulted in one of the tragic, violent and senseless internal conflicts of our day which has gone on now for many decades. Religious communities, religious faith, and religious principles have not been able to play any significant role in either addressing the issue or in seeking to resolve it. If anything, the religious divide provides yet another powerful instrument in the hands of those who would see the continuation of the conflict.

Much of the Christian community, even in this context, sees itself primarily as the religion that has the "truth". Its "mission" to the nation is still spelt out predominantly in terms of enabling those of other faiths to embrace the Christian way. While the church excels in humanitarian work, it has done little or nothing to help the Christians have an informed understanding of what their neighbors believe, and why. It has taken no initiatives to help Christians understand how to relate to those who had heard the Gospel, but have chosen to remain Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. Nor has the church taken any steps to encourage the Christians to engage together with persons of other faiths in the struggles for justice, reconciliation and peace.

The problem here for me was that plurality made no difference to the church. It lives in a make-believe world of its own; that it is the group that has all the answers to the questions of life; that it has only one primary mandate, namely, to preach the Gospel, and that one day "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord".

Challenged as a Teacher in the Seminary

It is within this context that I function as a teacher to students who would become ministers and teachers of the church, and who would have to live out their lives in the context of a religiously plural world.

In this context some of the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith keep ringing in my years as I plan my teaching in the seminary. These words bear repetition:

"Doctrinal formulations, theological systems, creeds, and the like, in their historical profusion, variety, consequence, and seriousness, can be understood, and I feel can be understood only, as statements by and for persons - and also, in a primary and immediate sense, about persons....Theology is part of the traditions, is part of this world. Faith lies beyond theology, in the hearts of men (sic). Truth lies beyond faith, in the heart of God".

From this he draws the following conclusion about the task of doing theology in the context of religious plurality:

"The time will soon be with us when a theologian who attempts to work out his (sic) position unaware that he does so as a member of a world community in which other theologians, equally intelligent, equally devout, equally moral, are Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and unaware that his readers are likely perhaps to be Buddhists, or to have Muslim husbands, or Hindu colleagues; such a theologian is as hopelessly out of date as one who attempts to construct an intellectual position unaware that Aristotle has taught, or unaware that the earth is a minor planet in a galaxy that is vast only by terrestrial standards."
He also points out the way this reality has affected our religious consciousness:
"However incipiently, the boundaries segregating off religious communities radically and finally from each other are beginning, just a little, to weaken or to dissolve, so that being a Hindu and being a Buddhist, or being a Christian and not being a Christian, are not so starkly alternatives as once they seemed."
I have quoted these words from Cantwell Smith not so much to make his theology the subject of our discussion or to accept it uncritically, but simply because he says more beautifully and powerfully the reality I now experience as a teacher of theology in the pluralistic context. Smith's sense that our independent religious histories are being forced to become "stands" within the "common religious history" of humankind, I believe, is right on target. What we can do about it in our self -understanding as religious communities, in our explications of our different faiths, in the way we teach, learn and practice our faith, may be the strongest difference religious plurality brings to us.

During this spring semester I teach two courses. The first is entitled "Authority of Scripture". Traditionally, it would have been a discussion of the different ways in which the authority of the Bible had been understood within the Christian tradition. This course, however, as I now teach it, has three phases: The first is indeed about the traditional discussions. In the second phase we move into the study of the understanding of the authority and interpretation of scripture in the context of feminist/womanist criticism, and within the theological traditions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the third phase we look at the living religions of the world and their scriptures, to learn how the authority of scripture is understood by our neighbors. This effort is beginning to teach us not only the diverse understandings of authority but also the many different roles that scriptures play within faith communities.

The second Course is entitled "The Challenge of World Religions" which directly deals with the issue of how to believe in the context of religious plurality. My own conviction, however, is that religious plurality should make even more significant difference to the way we teach and learn theology and other disciplines within the seminary. I am in the process of rethinking the way I teach the outlines of Systematic Theology to the first year students who attempt, through this course, to get the first grasp of the basic tenets of the faith. Can we any longer learn the basic tenets of the faith as if Christians are the only ones who believe and seek to live a religious life? Can any faith be understood and practiced unless it is learnt in the context of religious plurality and is practised in ways that build human community?

Rev. Dr. S. Wesley Ariarajah is Professor of Theology, at Drew University, School of Theology

Go to Contribution by Elliot N. Dorff
Return to Current Dialogue (34), February 2000

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