To be religious is to be interreligious:
The significance of Understanding Religious Traditions today
Prof. Dr. M. Amin Abdullah
Edited by Sri Wahyuni
Throughout most of recorded history, humanity has experienced a rich plurality and diversity of religions. From certain theological perspectives, this phenomenon is due to the manifold nature of divine revelation and of its human response in an astonishing variety of different cultures and historical contexts.The contemporary globalizing context of religious pluralism is unlike any of its precursors in that never before have so many different religious communities and individuals existed in such close proximity to—and even interdependence on—one another. The very existence of the fairly recent inter-religious movement is an indication that today the world’s religions are interacting on an unprecedented scale. The increasing curiosity about other religions—sometimes positive, sometimes negative—as the phenomenon of reading each other’s scripture and reading about each other’s religions seems to grow more popular.
Those of us who engage in inter-religious inquiry are variously inspired and perplexed by what we surmise as each other’s insights and practices. Optimally speaking, we find that our various traditions share some of the same fundamental values that each of us cherish in our own religions, albeit expressed in different ways. We also realize that we are being challenged to articulate our own religious identities in an increasingly religiously plural setting where others are, in many ways, listening and asking questions of us as we do so. What this means is that whether we like it or not to be religious today is to be inter-religious.
"He who knows one religion knows none.” Friedrich Max Muller famous dictum above, perhaps largely referring in his own scholarly context to those who aspired to become experts in the study of a particular religious tradition. Yet today, this dictum seems to have significance well beyond the membership of the American Academy of Religion and similar scholarly societies.
In today’s increasingly religiously plural social contexts, these words suggest not only that a failure to engage pluralism, including in this case to engage multiculturalism, is an act of self-marginalization within our own social contexts. They also suggest that, without some understanding of the faith and culture of our neighbor, the religious person (or community) living in a religiously and culturaly plural society cannot even understand oneself (or itself).
Theological explanations of this plurality vary from tradition to tradition, as well as within a single tradition. In the Abrahamic faiths such explanations tend to fall into two distinct, but not always mutually exclusive, categories. There are those explanations that attribute religious plurality either to ignorance of the truth, or perversity in the face of truth. And there are other explanations which suggest that religious plurality is somehow a part of the divine design to bring humanity together as one family before God. Suffice to say that it is this second category of explanations that one most often finds at the theological heart of most efforts at interreligious dialogue.
In Islam, the Qur’an is the single most important source of inspiration for interreligious dialogue. It may be that the Qur'an is unique among the Abrahamic scriptures—and perhaps other scriptural texts as well—in the explicit manner in which it refers not only to dialogue between adherents of different faith-communities, but also to the divine ordainment of religious diversity, and, in consequence, to the spiritual validity of these diverse religious paths. Quranic discourse presents these paths as so many outwardly divergent facets of a single, universal revelation by the unique and indivisible Absolute.
Islam on Plurality Cont; There are at least two quranic verses which are frequently interpreted as the basis for an Islamic theology of religious pluralism which recognizes the degree to which such pluralism can be seen in a positive light. The first (Sūrat al-Mā’ida, verse 48—5:48) speaks of human communal, and perhaps therefore cultural and religious plurality, to be part of the divine design. The reason it offers for this plurality is so that different groups of human beings will “compete with each other in virtue.” The second (Sūrat al-Hujurāt, verse 13—49:13) has a very similar theme. It suggests that God has “appointed” cultural and perhaps even religious diversity for the human race in order that human beings may be faced with the challenge of coming “to know each other” and striving with one another to be the “most honored in God’s sight” by being the most God-conscious (atqâ):
Judaism on Pluralism; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts that part of the creative genius of Rabbinic Judaism was that it pioneered not one, but two ideals of peace. The first is the ultimate “messianic” peace in which all divisions among humankind will be dissolved and all tensions resolved. Perhaps the most well-known biblical text expressing this messianic ideal is Isaiah 11:6-9, beginning with the famous words, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” As beautiful as this vision may seem, for Sacks the genius of the biblical tradition lies not so much in developing the ideal of the messianic peace, as it does in developing the idea of darkhei shalom or “the ways of peace” and eviah or “[the avoidance of] ill-feeling” as an “ideal of peace in an unredeemed world.” For Sacks, the genius of Jewish teachings regarding peace is that it complements the messianic ideal with a practical ideal of a “here-and-now peace which depends on different groups with incompatible ideals living graciously or at least civilly together without attempting to impose its beliefs of others.”
Christianity on Pluralism; From a Christian perspective, there have been many biblical passages attested in support of interreligious dialogue and peaceful coexistence (Gen. 1:27; Isaiah 56:1-7; Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50). In the meeting of religious leaders from all over the world which took place in Assisi in October of 1986, the late Pope John Paul II summarized a basic insight common to many Christian theologies of religious pluralism and dialogue when he said, addressing the assembly: “Religions are many and varied and they reflect the desire of men and women throughout the ages to enter into relationship with the Absolute Being.” In this address, John Paul echoed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and its document Nostra Aetate that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy” in the other religions of the world.
Non Abrahamic Religion on Pluralism; If we leave the realm of specifically Abrahamic discourse on religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue, we encounter those who—in ways which are more consonant with the epistemologies of certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism than they are with traditional Abrahamic epistemologies—articulate a thesis of radical complementarity based on a perception of the contextual limitations and specific of every human tradition.
V. F. Vineeth argues that religions are life expressions of the experience of revelation in a given historical context. They are, therefore, limited by factors of history, culture, language, etc. If we are ever to transcend these limitations, each of us in our own limited traditions must aspire precisely to encounter other religious or cultural traditions. According to this view, no religious expression is complete and thorough. Thus, “one way to advance in the experience of the fullness [of truth] is to become more and more enriched by the contributions of complementary expressions.” With the encounter of a new religion, a concealed jewel of truth is now awakened, and a new potential comes to blossom. For example, Thomas Merton had a new interpretation of Christian religious experience after his encounter with Buddhism.
Thus, the understanding of religions is vital because of the massive power that religions have wielded, something that no one can deny. We can ask to ourselves whether one can understand any culture and history—political or social—without understanding the relevant religions. Therefore we need a language of pluralism. We need a discourse that allows people to talk in different language. We need a more critical discourse that is respectful and attentive and sensitive to differences. Whether one is religious or not, the study or understanding of religions is a key to understanding other cultures; religions have been powerful forces throughout history in any country, some times working for good and sometimes working to destroy. They have inspired some of the greatest and noblest of acts; equally they have inspired some of the most ruthless brutality. They are central to much social and political history.
Racial and religious prejudices are major issues in the contemporary world. One major motive in understanding or study of religions is to encourage knowledge and understanding between religions and cultures, based on assumption that prejudice will be overcome if each knows more about the other. It is hoped that the knowledge of others will result in understanding, and there by better relations between peoples. Above all the study or understanding of other religion is to enable us to ‘see through the spectacles’ of another culture. If some one can develop an empathetic understanding of one other culture, the result will be that they are more ready to empathize with other cultures as well.