How certain should we be? The Problem Of Religious Pluralism
The theology that searches for pluralism is very much a theology in the Indian tradition. I was once asked to organise a meeting of people of different faiths to meet Prince Charles when he came to India, and one of those who came was Father Samuel Ryan, a Jesuit from Delhi. He told Prince Charles that it was because of the Indian tradition of pluralism and Indian Christian pluralist theology that the Roman Catholic Church had made it clear it no longer maintained there was no salvation outside the Church. That is evidence of the penetration of pluralism in Indian Christianity, and it’s a reflection I believe of the pluralist nature of Indian culture. I am a firm believer that we need religious variety, and I am very interested to learn that Stanley Samartha rejoiced in variety. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this in the presence of people of the Church of South India which is a great example of oecumenicity, but I personally believe that rather than trying to jam all our Churches together we should rejoice in the variety of the Christian experience and the variety of Church traditions.
To me there are two things about religion which we sometimes forget. One is that to some extent it’s culturally specific. In other words, there is a mix between religion creating a culture, and that culture having a life of its own which impacts on religion. To demonstrate that I love this story about a very orthodox young missionary priest, who went to Africa. When he got there he was shocked because he found in his Church that every day a group of women would come and sit around the statue of the Virgin Mary. They would talk and pray to her, and talk amongst themselves. Of course he was very concerned about this, because, as you know the Roman Catholic Church is very keen not to give the impression that the Virgin Mary is God, or equal to Jesus, or anything like that. So he hid behind the high altar one day and said in a loud voice: “I am Jesus and you should be talking to me and not to Mary.” One of the women shouted back at him: “Shut up, we are talking to your mom!” (Laughter) This is just one little illustration.
The other thing about religion I feel is important in the context of pluralism is that it’s always personal. There are no two Christians, no two Hindus, no two Muslims, who actually believe and behave and do everything in exactly the same way. And this is hugely true, of India. There’s a basic pluralistic culture in this country. Now, I know from experience what I am going to say now will be misinterpreted, but I think it’s justified, although controversial, to say that this Indian culture is deeply influenced by religion in this country. I’d prefer to say influenced by the development of Hinduism, although I know all about the controversies over that word. What has come about in this country is a faith which is highly individualistic, in other words it accommodates the fact I have mentioned, the fact that each person’s religion is in someway personal. But at the same time this faith is part of great historic traditions which have bound people together in common beliefs and forms of worship. Now, there are many arguments about the history of religion in this country, but the fundamental fact still remains that India has been a historic home to all great religions in the world. Of course there has been differences as there have been problems. But if you look at India today, I would ask you to compare it with the West and see the difference. See the muddle which is being created in the West, over religious pluralism, over the presence of Muslims in the West,
and see India where 15 per cent of the population is Muslim. They are perfectly free to worship, no one is going to tell any woman she is not allowed to wear a burqa, or anything like that. And of course, you know, you have a substantial Christian population. This is not a recent phenomenon. It’s a historic fact that India has provided a home, down the centuries for almost every religion in the world. So, I think this pluralism and this ability to recognise the individual element in your religion is culturally specific to India.
So, why is pluralism important today? Well, there are three reasons I’d give you. The first is of course the obvious one that if we don’t have understanding between religions we tend to have fights and differences can, as we see today degenerate into terrorism. But even in disputes that involve religion, it’s almost always wrong to blame religion entirely. There are usually economic, political and often ethnic reasons involved in those disputes. Nevertheless, they are fought in the name of religion.
The second reason of course is when these disputes become ugly, they defame religion. They give religion a bad name. One of the most absurd things said by the secular fundamentalist Richard Dawkins is that if there was no religion, there’d be no wars. The fact that some people are prepared to accept nonsense like that indicates the damage these disputes inflict on religion.
The third reason in my view is that not accepting that there are different ways to God is a hugely-missed opportunity to demonstrate the validity of belief in God. The theologian we are honouring today searched for a way to demonstrate that in different cultures at different times in the history of the world in different languages, human beings have had experiences and held beliefs with a great deal in common. In other words, we should search for the commonality in religions in order, in my view, to demonstrate that the religious urge is a common urge to humanity. That, if you’d like to put it crudely, is a selling point for religion. So, on the one hand you have religion defamed when religious pluralism is not practiced, on the other hand, you have evidence that can make you more secure in your faith and also able to justify it in discussions with others when you are pluralistic.
Now for Christianity, there are of course, difficulties in pluralism. One of the obvious difficulties in pluralism is of course is Christianity’s exclusiveness. Jesus’ reported statement in St John’s gospel that he is “the way the truth and life” has traditionally been taken to mean that he is the only way. It’s very interesting that perhaps one of the most outstanding Christian books on religious pluralism was written by a Belgian Jesuit, who spent many years in India and was deeply influenced by the culture and religions of India, Father Jacques Dupuis. His book is called Toward A Christian Theology of religious Pluralism. Dupuis said that until recently theology often seemed in Christian circles to belong to Christianity as its exclusive property. And, in Western Christianity, first world theology, seemed to have the monopoly. Certainly when I did my theology in Cambridge, we didn’t learn about any other religion. So Christianity not only made this exclusive claim to truth but also tended in its theology to be narrowly confined to the tradition of one part of the world. Even within that tradition because we couldn’t accept pluralism we have this long history of fighting each other. I am thankful to say things have changed. When I went to university I had many Roman Catholic friends, but they would not come to an Anglican service with me. In fact some of them were even reluctant to go into an Anglican Church. Now that has changed totally. I was in Britain for the very recent visit by the Pope and one of the most touching aspects of this was the obvious friendship, despite their theological differences, between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Pope not only celebrated Mass in the Roman Catholic Westminster cathedral, he also took part in a special service in the Anglican Westminster Abbey.
So Christians are making what I would argue is progress. But still we do have this problem of a theology which traditionally says Christianity is the way to God. A few years ago, I had the privilege of taking the Bishop of Kingston in South London to meet a friend of mine, Maulana Wahiduddin, who is a great Islamic scholar. The bishop said to the Maulana that in his view the need for a Christian theology of pluralism was the major problem facing twenty-first century theologians. The Maulana said, “I have an answer to that. I believe Islam is the true way but I respect other religions.” And he certainly expresses his respect in all he writes and all he says.
But without wanting to show disrespect to the Maulana, I think the Mahatma was more profound, because he went one step further. He not only respected all religions, but also believed all religions can and should learn from each other. The Mahatma said: “All faiths constitute a revelation of truth but all are imperfect and liable to error. Reverence to other faiths need not blind us to their thoughts; we must be keenly alive to the defects of our own faiths also. Yet we must try to overcome these defects.” And then the Mahatma went on to say, “Looking at all religions with an equal eye, we should not only hesitate but it’s our duty to blend into our faiths every acceptable feature of other faiths.” That I think is a more profound way of looking at religious pluralism.
Jacque Depuis said that Hindu Vedanta might help Christians purify and deepen their faith in the divine mystery. And mystery is in some ways, is the key to this problem. Because what does mystery say? Mystery means we are talking about something mysterious. We are talking about something that we cannot write up on a blackboard and say this is who God is and this is what religion is etc etc. As Christians, those of you who are Christians, you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But I bet, if you put five of you together all of you will have different interpretations of what Son of God means.
In the same way, with all other religions, if we remember that word mystery, then we will realise that all our beliefs are to some extent open to questioning. We do not fully understand. That great metaphysical poet George Herbert wrote a wonderful poem called Prayer, which ended with the words, “something understood”. In other words our prayers, our religious beliefs can never be absolute certainties; we will always only grasp part of the full mystery of God.
Here I would like to talk about the uncertainty of certainty, and this again is very Indian. If we believe in the uncertainty of certainty we will not take our certainties too far, and they will not get out of balance. We will realise that we will have to be open minded, look at our certainties and make sure we are maintaining our balance. You can put it very crudely that people can be too religious, people can be too certain about their faiths. And this suspicion of certainties is something which is fundamental to Indian philosophy, as I understand it. It was very well put by a great scholar RC Zaehner, who held the same chair at Oxford as Radhakrishnan did. Zaehner said: “Hindus do not think of religious truths in dogmatic terms.” In other words, they don’t believe in certainties that can’t be questioned. According to Zaehner Hindus say, “Dogmas can’t be eternal, only the transitory-distorting images of truth that transcends not only them but all verbal definitions.” This is the mystery, something that transcends all verbal definitions. And then Zaehner goes on to say, “For the passion for dogmatic certainty that has racked the religions of Semitic origins, from Judaism itself through Christianity and Islam to Marxism, they feel nothing but shocked incomprehension.”
I would put what I call Scientism in the same bracket as Marxism. By scientism I mean, the confident belief that everything can be answered by science and scientific answers are the only answers. It’s a creed, which maintains that rationalism is the sole method of perception. I hasten to add here that I am not therefore saying religion can ignore reason or rationalism. Scientism is a dogmatic certainty, just as much as the belief that Jesus is the one and only one way to God is a dogmatic certainty. It’s very important, I think, to recognise that people like Richard Dawkins, who popularise scientism are fundamentalists, just much as some religious people are.
By believing in Christian certainties, the Church has made classic blunders. It’s all right for the Church to be suspicious about scientism but it has to respect scientific findings, and see how they relate to its beliefs. If it respects the fact that it’s dealing with a mystery the Church will not get involved in arguments with science which lead to blunders like the blunder over Galileo. In my view not being sufficiently open to scientific discoveries is producing problems at least some parts of the Church are facing today. The Roman Catholic Church is deeply concerned about moral relativity, but on the other hand if we do not have an element of moral relativity we get stuck in a rut. That is why is the Christian faith fell behind in its understanding of the place of women in society in my view and fell behind in its understanding of the way we should regard homosexuality as well. This is because Churches held on to outdated certainties instead of being prepared to move with the times.
I talked to you about balance. And obviously, there’s a need for balance here. If we respect the mystery, if we respect what science is saying to us, if we respect what the best of secularism is saying to us, and I firmly believe in secularism provided it’s the secularism, that leaves space for everyone, and has a genuine respect for religious belief as well as genuine respect for those who do not believe, we will be balanced. But, secularism too has to be held in balance. The same is true for relativism. If we do not respect the need for being open to change, for a certain amount of relativism, then we get stuck in the past. On the other hand we have to be very careful that relativism doesn’t result in diluting traditional historic faith, and all that faith has stood for, so much that it loses its meaning. If we become too relativist we will find that faith gradually withers away. There should be some ground on which we stand. And this is a matter therefore as I said of the Indian tradition of balance, the balance between the need to have an open mind, and the need to stand on some firm ground.
There are two other dangers I believe to taking relativism too far in being too open to change. One danger is what I call Pick and Mix Religion. That is when we say, “I don’t like this bit of that, and I do like that bit of that, and anyhow I am very clever and I can make it all up for myself. Therefore I am very happy to take a bit from Hinduism, a bit from Islam, a bit from Christianity and mix it as I feel suits me, or I am very happy to take this from Christianity and drop the rest of it.”
The other danger of relativism is its tendency to undermine all tradition. Then you find yourself saying, “I don’t have any need for any institutional religion at all.” Now I know that institutional religion has problems. The Church is fallible; the Church has made mistakes. The Church does get things wrong. But on the other hand, it seems to me that unless your religious faith is rooted in the past, rooted in tradition, then in some ways it become rootless and over-personalised. Here I would like to come back to Gandhi and his famous saying that he wanted the windows of his house to be open to winds blowing from all quarters of the world, but he didn’t want to be blown off his feet. That is one of the most profound views of religious pluralism that I have ever come across.
Before I sum up, I want to give three health warnings. The first is that whatever I have mentioned does not mean that I am turning the whole western missionary argument on its head and, saying that Hinduism is the only valid religion. There is a common problem in communication—how do you prevent an audience, listeners, viewers, or readers seeing issues in black and white. So if I say something in favour of Hinduism many will take it to mean that I am opposed to every other religion, or at the least that I regard it as superior to any other religion.
There is a strange version of this black and white thinking in India. It is the type of secularism which has no place for Hinduism, and which sees anyone who says anything about that religion as a supporter of the RSS Hindu nationalism. In other words for those secularists either you are wholly white and you totally support their anti-religious point of view or you are wholly black in their eyes and support an organisation they condemn as communal. Only today I was interviewed by a journalist, who said to me you have a reputation of being right-wing. When I asked what she meant by right-wing she replied, “RSS and all that.” So I said to her, “I have written a book called India’s Unending Journey, in which I have tried to express my respect for Hinduism, as well as other religions. At the same time I made the limits of that respect absolutely clear, and criticised the RSS family. It isn’t the first time I have written or spoken like that. But because of the existence of what I’d call blind secularism in this country, and it does not include all secularists of course, expressing my appreciation of Hinduism, has, you tell me, labelled me RSS.” If you in the audience have been listening to what I have said, you will understand my understanding of Hinduism is very different to the dogmatic RSS school of Hinduism. My speech has been an appreciation of an undogmatic religion. So, that’s the second health warning that I wanted to give.
The third health warning I’d like to give is this. I may have trained to become a priest, but I only survived through two terms in the seminary before I was told by the bishop that because I liked drinking beer rather a lot, my place was in the public house rather than in the pulpit. So I hope you do not think that I have preached to you. I didn’t come here to preach. I came here to express in a sense my faith in religious pluralism. And the last thing I came to do was to preach to Hindus, because of course I have no right to do that. I have merely tried to explain to you why I see religious pluralism as so important and how I believe the Indian tradition, the tradition of openness, the undogmatic tradition, can be the tradition that takes us down that road. As I said you already have great Indian theologians, or theologians who have been much influenced by India who are taking us down that road. There’s another person I mentioned to you, Julius Lipner who teaches Sanskrit at Cambridge, and has written a wonderful book on Hinduism. He calls himself a Catholic Hindu or Hindu Catholic depending which way he feels like saying it.
So Christian theology is on the move, and it up to all of us who are Christians to welcome that. It’s also very important that all of those who are Hindus, and who suspect Christianity of being an exclusive religion that wants to convert everyone, should realise there is a big body of Christians who want to have a dialogue. There is Christian theology to support those Christians too. But dialogue after all, is like clapping. It does require two hands. So in a sense, my appeal is to Hindus, Muslims and Christians to dialogue with each other and to learn from each other.
To sum up, the principle of religious pluralism is accepting that in religion we are dealing with a mystery, which means claims to absolute truth are inevitably open to question. If there is a doctrine, it has to develop. For doctrine to develop we shouldn’t just live with other religions but learn from them. As Jacques Dupuis said: “Dialogue is the necessary foundation of a theology of religions.” And that’s also of course what the great theologian we are celebrating today said.
Excerpts of the ninth Rev. Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture delivered by Sir Mark Tully, on October 7, 2010, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Bangalore, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue
By Sir Mark Tully