In North America, and increasingly in Europe, it has become a truism to say that the present situation is marked by pluralism, or multiculturalism. Some truisms happen to be true; this one certainly is. Nor is there any great mystery as to how this situation has come about. It is the result of massive migration in the post-World War II period, which in turn has had a variety of causes: economic and political pressures in the countries from which the migrants came, labor shortages and an easing of immigration barriers in the countries to which they moved, and in the latter countries probably also an easing of the prejudices that had in the past resulted in high barriers (though arguably this new tolerance could turn out to be a temporary phenomenon). In any case, most of the large cities in the North Atlantic region, and increasingly many smaller communities as well, now contain large numbers of residents who only a generation ago would have seemed to the natives exotic and rare apparitions. There is every reason to think that this situation will be a permanent one. In other words, North American and European pluralism today most likely foreshadows an even more intense pluralism tomorrow.
It is hardly surprising that this new situation should have led to unsettling developments both in the population at large and in more rarefied intellectual milieus. The old liberal assumption that getting to know people will make for more positive attitudes toward them has proven to be empirically shaky at best. Proximity is no guarantee of tolerance and may often enough be the catalyst for violent antagonism. But the new pluralism has also led to some serious reflection about national identity, about the relationship of citizenship and values, and about the social status of particular cultural traditions. This is not the place to review these social, cultural, and political developments- some of them very silly indeed, some morally offensive, others posing serious questions to which there are no easy answers. The point that needs stressing here is that most of these developments have an important religious component.
Arguably, the religious component of the tensions generated by pluralism is more consequential in Europe than in North America. One reason for this is the simple fact that the United States and Canada, unlike Europe, have a long history of successfully absorbing immigrants. Another important fact is the preponderance of Muslims among the immigrants to Europe. Of all the major world religions today, Islam is undoubtedly the most muscular not only in its religious stance but in its resistance to cultural concessions. By contrast, most immigrants to North America have been Christian (from Latin America but also among many immigrants from East Asia), Jewish (immigrants from the former Soviet Union), and the variety of religions of South and East Asia, all of them marked by a general absence of militancy and a long-standing ability to make cultural concessions. Put simply, it is much more difficult for Christians and Jews to have amicable interreligious relations with Muslims than with Hindus, Buddhists, or people in the Confucian tradition. Now it would be a great mistake to attribute this difficulty solely or even primarily to so-called Muslim "fundamentalism" (which is probably a pejorative misnomer in any case); in a more basic sense, the difficulty is due to the intense integration of religion with every aspect of culture and society in the Islamic view of the world. Given all this, it is probably fair to say that the prospects for fruitful interreligious conversation are better in North America than in Europe.
While it is important to recognize the religious component in the contemporary pluralistic situation, we must not at the same time imagine that the difficulties of this situation could be resolved if only religious people came to a better understanding of each other. Intergroup tensions and conflicts are based on hard vested interests, on ancient and newly invented hatreds, and on emotional and ideological needs, none of which is easily influenced by religious sermonizing, let alone by theological argumentation. Still, there is a certain pragmatic purpose to interreligious dialogue-pragmatic, that is, in helping to reduce tensions through mutual understanding and empathy. While it is to be doubted that this kind of activity has much effect with the more determined bigots, such dialogue is probably useful in reinforcing tolerant attitudes among those already disposed to have them. To that extent, what might be called the "anti-defamation" type of interreligious dialogue is justified. And as for dialogue that has the purpose of extending and deepening scholarly knowledge, no justification is needed; scholarship is a good in itself. Currently it is also very fashionable to engage in interreligious dialogue for the purpose of facilitating cooperation on this or that socio-political agenda; if one approves of the agenda-a very large if-then this motive for dialogue is quite acceptable, too.
Finally, however, there is a non-pragmatic motive for engaging in such dialogue that offers by far the most promising challenge to the religious traditions of the West, which is, quite simply, to engage in a renewed search for truth. Obviously, such a statement contains an implicit theological assumption, one that is, broadly speaking, liberal. Which is to say, it will make no sense to any orthodoxy holding to the belief that, short of the eschaton, everything has been revealed that is going to be and therefore there is nothing new to be learned of religiously relevant truth-certainly not from such thoroughly non-accredited sources as those that typically come up in interreligious dialogue. I plead guilty: what is to be said herein derives from a position of theological liberalism, more particularly, a Protestant liberalism traceable at least as far back as Friedrich Schleiermacher (in my case with unapologetically Lutheran overtones). Nevertheless, even without this particular theological slant, one can make the case that the encounter with those world religions whose origin lies outside the biblical orbit, notably those of South and East Asia, constitutes an important and most valuable challenge to those of us, Christians and Jews, whose faith is grounded in the biblical revelation. Indeed, this encounter may turn out to be the most important religious challenge of our era.
Advances in our knowledge of truth frequently come from an encounter with people who hold beliefs radically other than our own. The search for religious truth seems to conform to this pattern. The centuries-long drama of the religious journey of the people of Israel, as it is recorded in the Hebrew Bible, was a gigantic struggle with the immensely powerful "other" of the religious world of the ancient Near East. Rabbinic Judaism developed in the differentiation from the typically hostile "other" of Christianity and later of Islam.
And in the history of Christian thought it could be said that there were four "others," each of them supplying a confrontation that proved to be enormously productive. First, of course, there was the confrontation with the world of Hellenism and late classical antiquity, a confrontation out of which an obscure Jewish sect was transformed into a world religion. In the High Middle Ages came two interrelated encounters-the encounter with Islam, first by means of the sword but later, mercifully, by means of the pen, and the encounter with a rediscovered albeit much abbreviated Hellenism (ironically transmitted to the Christian West by largely Muslim and Jewish intermediaries). And for the last two hundred years or so the most absorbing confrontation has been with modernity and modern thought, a confrontation that has become an obsession with large numbers of Christian and Jewish religious thinkers. Tertullian asked the question: "What is Athens to Jerusalem?" And his answer was: "Not a thing!" He was very wrong; it turned out that Athens had a lot to say to Jerusalem, some of which was well worth hearing. The question that we have heard now for many years has been: "What does modernity have to say to Christianity (or to Judaism)?" Again, I think that it has had a lot to say, including some very important insights about the physical universe, human nature, history, and about our knowledge of all of these. It may be, however, that the dialogue with modernity has now exhausted itself, and that the dialogue with the great religions of Asia may offer the next-if you will, the fifth-great encounter.
In the pluralistic situation, like it or not, everybody must sooner or later talk with everyone else. In addition to the endlessly continuing dialogue between every form of religious thought and modernity, one may distinguish a number of circles in the business of interreligious communication. There is the intra-Christian ecumenical dialogue. In recent years it has been heavily burdened by conflicting political agendas, a circumstance that has contributed little of theological interest. There is the dialogue between Jews and Christians. This, too, has had difficulty engaging broad theological issues, since attention has understandably focused on Christian responses to anti-Semitism and to the state of Israel (though, of course, there are theological dimensions to both these topics). Given the present climate in the Islamic world, as already mentioned, interreligious conversation among Muslims, Christians, and Jews is very difficult to get going.
There is, finally, what I have elsewhere called the dialogue between Jerusalem and Benares, between the faiths that descend from the biblical tradition and the faiths of South and East Asia. This last seems to me the most promising, not only because under present conditions it is relatively easy, but also because it offers the most challenging questions intellectually. The arguments among the various strands of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for all the vehemence with which they are carried on, are after all quarrels among spiritual cousins. The fundamental divide among world religions has always run, and still runs, somewhere between the Iranian plateau and India. Jerusalem and Benares represent what are probably the two sharpest alternatives in the religious history of mankind-the city in which the Ark of the Covenant was set down, in which Jesus ended his earthly ministry, and from which Muhammad ascended to heaven-and that other city, where a thousand gods descend into the river at dawn and near which the Buddha preached his first sermon announcing liberation to all sentient beings. Both for practical and for intellectual reasons, it is this dialogue that presents the greatest challenge to the people, to borrow the Muslim formulation, whose book is the Bible.
Indeed, not surprisingly, in recent years this has been the dialogue in which most of the action has been taking place, the major part of it in Western countries, some of it in Asia (notably in Japan and in India). Even if one limits one's attention to the period since World War II, one confronts a whole library of books and articles devoted to the discussion between West and East, including the output of numerous conferences, colloquia, official and unofficial commissions (such as those of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches). This literature naturally differs widely in degrees of sophistication and scholarly seriousness, not to mention spiritual depth.
But whatever the differences of level, there is a certain general typology to be discussed here. Like all such typologies, it is imperfect; individuals will resist being so labeled. Yet this typology is moderately useful in distinguishing major Christian positions in the area of interreligious dialogue. There are, broadly, three such positions: the "exclusivist," the "inclusivist," and the "pluralist." "Exclusivists" (a somewhat pejorative term, to be sure, but one that may stick all the same) are people who insist on the finality and uniqueness of biblical revelation. It should be emphasized that this position does not at all imply a lack of respect for or even theological interest in other religious traditions, but it follows the great majority of historic Christian theologies in denying the possibility of salvific revelations anywhere outside the biblical orbit. The title of Carl Braaten's recent book on Christianity and the world religions, No Other Gospel!, succinctly and robustly represents this view. "Inclusivists," while also stressing the centrality of biblical revelation, are more willing to allow, if not for "other gospels," then for bits of revelatory truth in places far removed from the Judeo- Christian drama. Theologians influenced by Karl Rahner represent this position quite neatly. Finally, the "pluralists" are those who are prepared to give up on the centrality of biblical revelation, even if they admit that their own access to ultimate reality has been inevitably conditioned by their Christian background and experience. John Hick may be the most original and the most interesting spokesman of the "pluralist" position. His call for a "Copernican revolution" in theology elegantly sums up this approach: Christians must accept the fact that they do not occupy the center of the universe, that their "planet" is but one of several circling the "sun" of ultimate reality.
Let me take the liberty of placing myself within this typology. Of course I too don't like being labeled, but the label "inclusivist" would come closest. This position is very much related to my overall understanding of religious existence in the age of pluralism. Put as simply as one can put it, this position tries to reconcile the acute tension between two pivotal insights. The first is what I have called the "heretical imperative," to wit: the pluralistic situation forces us to choose, and every religious affirmation we then make is the result of choice, even if we choose this or that orthodoxy. Put differently, it becomes very difficult to say innocently, "we believe"; even if we use such words, what we are really saying is, "I have chosen to identify with this we." The second insight is that I must remain faithful to my own experience, even though I know this experience to be relativized by my historical and social location. If I have once been overcome by what I clearly experienced and understood as truth, then I will adhere to this truth even as I comprehend its sociohistorical Sitz im Leben. For example, even if I realize that modern physical science has been a by-product of the development of industrial capitalism in the West and that, say, classical China had a view of reality that was just as sophisticated but very different indeed-even then, having "located" both, I will accord cognitive priority to modern science over, say, the worldview of Taoist divination.
The first insight makes it impossible for me to be "exclusivist," the second to be "pluralist." The "exclusivist" position-and in this, of course, it represents every form or orthodoxy or traditionalism-is based on an absolute commitment to one particular set of truth claims. It is impossible not to find such a position appealing, especially in an intellectual milieu characterized by so much wimpishness; who would not wish, at least sometimes, to be the blessed possessor of serene and absolute certitude? Alas, such certitude is unavailable to those of us persuaded by the logic of the heretical imperative.
But the second insight, the one about having to remain faithful to my own adventures with truth, precludes my joining the "pluralists." There is an intellectual seductiveness to the idea of one blazing sun of truth, seen imperfectly from different viewing points in human history, with the perception becoming ever more ample as the different views are correlated and added up. The trouble is that the different views are not only partial but contradictory-or some of them are. They cannot readily be put together into a better picture like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; some of them belong to different pictures. If one piece of a picture is deemed true by me, I can of course try to correlate it with pieces held by other people. But when it becomes clear that my piece belongs to a picture of, say, the Battle of Waterloo while the other's piece belongs in a picture of three little girls playing with a kitten, it would be a senseless project to try to put these pieces together as part of the same jigsaw puzzle. And thus, unable to be either "exclusivist" or "pluralist," I suppose that I am stuck with the middle position-never a very satisfying place to be, but in this matter one to which I have no available alternative.
These considerations lead us to the main methodological problem in the field of interreligious dialogue. Leaving aside the "exclusivists" (who for obvious reasons are a small minority among those engaged in this process), the usual approach is one of searching for agreements. That is, there will be an assertion that element A in tradition X agrees, or can be construed as being eventually agreeable with, element B in tradition Y. Now, there is nothing intrinsically invalid about this procedure. It can lead to interesting insights. Perhaps the classic case of this is Rudolf Otto's comparison of Meister Eckhart with Shankara, in his book Mysticism East and West. Unless one wants to assume that Otto grossly mistranslated or misinterpreted the two sets of texts, one is left with the unavoidable impression that their authors are talking about essentially the same experience. Indeed, at times it seems as if Eckhart had just translated Shankara's Sanskrit into Latin or medieval German, or that Shankara had done the reverse translation. It is no accident that this procedure works best with mystics, or more specifically with those who practiced what William James called the "mysticism of infinity" in which self, world, and divinity merge in ecstasy (which James called, with a sort of Harvard understatement, an "oceanic feeling"). And there is strong empirical evidence that there is indeed a universal human experience of this sort. To be sure, it is reported on and theorized about in a variety of ways that are crucially influenced by the reporter's or theorist's own religious and cultural prejudices. But the contours of the cross-culturally available experience are fairly clear. There is, then, a considerable group of people in the field of interreligious studies whose activities could be summarized in a slogan of "Mystics of all nations unite, you have nothing to lose but your differentiations." But mysticism is only a relatively small area within the vast array of human religion. Unless one wants to take the position that mysticism is the only genuine form of religious experience (a position for which one finds no warrant), this one-sided focus cannot be justified.
In any case, the real methodological issue here is wider. The search for agreements on the part of people who are by the very definition of their enterprise hoping to find such agreements before they start out violates a basic canon of scientific reasoning: the conscientious researcher does not go out to find evidence in support of his hypotheses, but looks for evidence that would falsify them. Now, one could of course say that interreligious studies (or, if you prefer, comparative theology) should not be considered a science, so that this canon does not apply. Perhaps. But more is involved here than some abstract principle of scientific rationality. All of us, whatever we call ourselves, are vulnerable to wishful thinking; intellectual integrity requires that we safeguard ourselves against this danger as best we can. That is the final reason why we should look first for whatever would seem to disappoint our intellectual expectations. Thus I would suggest an opposite focus for the enterprise of comparing religions, namely that the focus should be on the disagreements.
The next important step would then involve the question of what one makes of these disagreements. Taking one's stand with absolute commitment in one tradition and one only the disagreements would then be understood as marking the boundary between truth and error. So much for the "exclusivists." The "pluralists" no doubt tend to avoid such disagreements as much as possible-which is a principal difficulty with them. I would opt for the in-between ("inclusivist," if you must) procedure of taking the disagreements one by one and then, in each instance, trying to make a judgment call.
Three judgment calls are theoretically possible. The first is that there is indeed a disagreement here between what I believe and what "they" believe; I'm firmly committed to my own belief and I will therefore, at least tentatively, assume that "they" are in error. The second is that the disagreement may be one in appearance only; I will try to find ways by which the two beliefs might be reconciled. Number three is that "their" position in this disagreement is so plausible that, albeit reluctantly, I must set about modifying my own position. The third possibility, of course, is the most painful one. Unless one is in principle willing to entertain this possibility, however, one's engagement in the dialogue is less than serious.
In the case of the religious traditions of South and East Asia, they precisely represent challenges to the radical monotheism of the West. While these challenges can be and have been put forward in highly sophisticated theoretical propositions, it is first of all very important to remind ourselves that religion is not primarily a matter of theory. At the heart of every religious tradition lies a specific experience of what is deemed to be reality, indeed ultimate reality; the theories always come later, as people reflect about their own or earlier generations' experiences. That is why comparative theology (to use the term that is now gaining currency) should always be grounded in a comparative phenomenology of religion; otherwise it will be a rather sterile encounter of abstractions.
The first challenge to Western monotheism is the experience of the mythological matrix. One of the striking findings of modern scholarship in religion is the enormous similarity if not identity of the experiences of the world of archaic peoples. Anywhere in the world, if one goes back far enough, one comes upon a worldview that can be described quite adequately as mythological-that is, one comes upon a world that is permeated with sacred, divine forces. The primordial universality of this worldview suggests the term "matrix." Modern interpreters of archaic religion as diverse as Lucien Levy-Bruhl and Eric Voegelin have found this phenomenon, though of course they have differed in their theories about it.
We would be gravely mistaken to understand this phenomenon as somehow obsolete, as a sort of infantile stage in the development of human consciousness. As Voegelin has pointed out, this mythological world has been ruptured in a number of decisive historical events-notably in ancient Israel, Greece, India, and China (probably also in ancient Iran, perhaps in other places). This historical fact, though, by no means implies that the mythological worldview has been finally made impossible, is "finished" or aufgehoben. It has shown remarkable survival power over the ages, it is replicated ever again in the worlds of childhood and of dreams, and it is an object of persistent nostalgia. But more important for our present considerations, it survives with enormous vitality both in the popular religiosity and in the highly sophisticated intellectual traditions of all Asian countries. The root experience here is classically caught in the exclamation of Thales of Miletus: "The world is full of gods!" We come on this same experience in popular Hinduism (the proverbial "three hundred thousand gods of India"), in the folk religious of East Asia, in Taoism and Shinto, and even in what first strikes one as the cool secularity of Confucian philosophy (a first impression that in my opinion is somewhat mistaken).
The mythological matrix is characterized by fluid, permeable boundaries between the realms of men, of nature, and of the gods. In other words, it is characterized by "wholeness." The radical rupture of this world that took place in ancient Israel and is at the root of the biblical tradition almost certainly served to reinforce these boundaries. The first commandment given to Moses on Sinai ratified a radical polarity between God and man, and it purged nature of all its divine mediations. Creator, creation, and creatures became separate, distinct entities-a rupture of truly cosmic import. The tensions brought about by this rupture have been felt, and resisted, from its beginnings-in the recurrent lapses within Israel into the polytheistic orgiastics of the surrounding cultures, in a long catalogue of Christian and Jewish heresies, down to the most recent denunciations of Judaeo-Christian "pathology" by radical feminist and environmentalist theologians, and in the nostalgia for the consolations of the primordial "wholeness" which is a crucial element in the attraction that Asian religions have evoked among some Westerners. To repeat: the mythological matrix is by no means "finished"; it can be regained today, as it was regained many times in the past. What can not be done is to revoke the rupture and still preserve the essence of the biblical revelation. The disagreement, the contradiction, is far too radical for that.
This insight, though, does not preclude some searching questions. Must the experience of the mythological matrix simply be relegated to the categories of error or idolatry in a Christian or Jewish perspective? Must all the radiant gods of Hinduism (and, for that matter, other pantheons) be so relegated? The life-forces of the tao? The institutions of Japanese nature-mysticism? And if one answers these or similar questions negatively, without then concluding that the entire stream of religious experience and thought that originated in Israel's exodus from the world of the gods was one gigantic mistake, then another question obtrudes: How can the experience of the mythological matrix be understood in biblical terms, but in such a way that its claim to truth is not entirely negated?
The second challenge of the religions of South and East Asia is their experience of emptiness. This experience, of course, confronts us in the sharpest and also the most theoretically intriguing way in Buddhism, in the accounts of nirvana, an-atta, shunyata, satori. These accounts are not monolithic, and quite different bodies of theoretical explication have been built from them (as between Theravada and Mahayana schools of thought). But the accounts nevertheless do suggest a common experience, one not dissimilar to the universal experience of the "mysticism of infinity" to which reference was made earlier. Here too the boundaries between self, world, and the sacred are weakened, and in the extreme case obliterated. The final experience is of oneness, and that experience has the character of redemptive bliss-the "inconceivable liberation," in the phrase of Vimalakirti. But the oneness of this experience is significantly different from the wholeness of mythological existence. That is to say, the plenitude of the mythological universe-full of gods, galaxies of beings, pulsating vitality and variety-is totally collapsed into a great silence; plenitude becomes emptiness, indeed is now disclosed as having been emptiness all along.
We do not know whether this experience is as old in human history as that of the mythological cosmos. Archaeologists of the pre-Aryan Indus civilization have found statuettes of individuals in the lotus position of yoga meditation, which suggests the great antiquity of the phenomenon, at least in India. Be that as it may, the phenomenon, in one form or another, has recurringly erupted within Judaism and Christianity from early times on (probably, if one follows Gershom Scholem, from before the beginning of the Christian era). And, invariably, it has entered into conflict with those who upheld the integrity of biblical faith. Frequently the religious authorities simply condemned those who claimed or propagated this experience. Even Meister Eckhart had some of his writings condemned by the church-luckily for him after his death. There were many others less lucky, such as the great Sufi mystic al- Hallaj, who was executed for blasphemy after running through the streets of Basra shouting "ana'l-haqq"-literally, "I am the truth"-the statement having been interpreted by the authorities, probably correctly, as meaning "I am God." But there were others who tried to reconcile the insights coming out of this experience with the monotheistic affirmations of biblical faith-such as Isaac Luria, the principal theorist of the Safad school of the Kabbalah; or Bonaventure, who sought to retain the speculations of radical Franciscanism within the fold of Catholic orthodoxy; or al-Ghazzali, whose intellectual lifework was the intellectual integration of the Sufi experience with orthodox Islam.
Once again, we have the option of rejecting outright this undercurrent of Judeo-Christian history, and all its Asian analogues, as aberrations, errors, even blasphemy. Alternatively, we can try to seek answers to questions that arise if we concede some validity to this experience. For instance, how can the experience of emptiness be reconciled with the fullness of God and His creation? What is the relation between God's speech and God's silence? Does one precede the other-and if so, in what sequence-or are both only seeming contradictions in the mystery of God's being? Is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, somehow present in the depths of shunyata-and if so, in what way? Can we imagine any of the Hebrew prophets, or Jesus, or Paul, in the lotus position? What, for us today, is the difference between prayer and meditation? Is it possible to do both?
Finally, there is the third challenge: the experience of other particular revelations. The faiths originating in western Asia, in contrast with much that transpired further east, insist on what to, say, a Chinese mind are mind-boggling historical particularities, notably in the particularisms of God's dealings with the people of Israel and of God's incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. As biblical scholars have been able to show, Israel radically historicized every element of Near Eastern religion that it absorbed into its canon; a look at its calendar of feasts shows the thoroughly particularistic and historicized character of Israel's understanding of the "great deeds of the Lord." The same historical particularity of course pertains to the New Testament accounts of Jesus, down to the creedal affirmation that this Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate"-an intersection of divine infinity with the most precisely finite realities of human history. Now, much of South and East Asian religion lacks this kind of particularism, and a number of modern Hindu and Buddhist authors have pointed to this as a mark of superiority over the putatively cruder religions of the West. However, scattered throughout the vast territory of non-biblical religions, especially in Asia, there are accounts of particular revelations-hierophanies or avatars, if you will-that can vie with the particularism of Jewish and Christian faith. The sharpest particularistic challenge, of course, is that posed by Islam. Based on the same monotheistic foundations as its two rival "cousins," Islam makes comparably particularistic claims about the status of Muhammad, of the Quran, and of the sacred law instituted by the Prophet. But there are particularisms in South and East Asia as well-claims of particular revelations, that is-notably in the bhakti versions of Hinduism and in various Mahayana movements. Any attempt to accept these claims, even partially, within a Jewish or Christian frame of reference will very likely be harder than the effort to meet the first two challenges in an affirmative manner.
Still, the questions can be posed: If God chose Israel, could He have chosen any other people-and if so, how are these two elections related to each other? If God was in Christ, could He also have been in other human bearers of revelation-and if so, what would be the status of the latter in a Christian understanding of the Incarnation? Can there be, in the title of one of Raimundo Panikkar's books, an "unknown Christ of Hinduism"? Presumably no Christian will readily understand the historical Jesus as but one of many avatars of God, but is that the end of the argument? Is there any way in which a Jew or a Christian could understand God as speaking in the Quran?
Let me confess that I have posed questions to which I do not know the answers. But I do believe that there are resources within the rich history of Jewish and Christian thought with which we can at least begin to address them. I also believe that no such questions are ever answered conclusively in this world. However, the encounter with the religions of Asia raises them in a newly urgent way. In this sense, Asia can become an enormously promising "other," with which and against which the self- understanding of Christian and Jewish faith can only gain. There is here a formidable, but also an exciting, theological agenda.