A journal of academic theology

June 2003 editorial

Several years ago, at the suggestion of Francis X. Clooney, I invited a team of scholars in world religions to prepare a special issue forTheological Studies, one that would explore how persons in several of the worlds living faiths understand other religions, especially Christianity and Catholicism in particular, in the light of their own religious traditions. To introduce this theme issue, I have asked the organizer of this project to compose a guest editorial.

Michael A. Fahey, S.J.

Guest Editorial

At the invitation of this journals editor, I encouraged a team of scholars James Fredericks, Loyola Marymount University; Ruben Habito, Southern Methodist University; and–from Boston College–Ruth Langer, Qamar-ul Huda, John Makransky, and myself, Francis Clooney to reflect collaboratively on how theologians in several major religious traditions view and evaluate other religions and the people who practice them. We have pooled our expertise in formulating, writing, and discussing our areas of specialization, particularly considering each tradition in the light of the others. Our goal has been theologically useful description, but we hope also to have contributed to improved understanding the genesis of such judgments, and how they might be formulated in a more nuanced manner. Involved too are specific and more practical issues, such as how traditions connect core insights and privileged founding moments with broader ethnic and cultural identity. To some extent we also take up theoretical issues regarding competing truth claims and, in this context, specifically a range of issues related to the claims to truth and superiority voiced in the modern Catholic tradition. We hope to provide fruitful insights for readers of this journal as to how that Catholic tradition of judging other religions may be freshly assessed in the light of how other religious people have engaged in similar ventures.

It is no longer possible to imagine that only Christians are alert enough to ponder the theological significance of other religious traditions or to seek a middle path between total rejection and bland tolerance of everything. While certain perspectives and concerns may be specifically Christian, the general problem of self-identity and judgments on the identities of others are common to multiple traditions. As authors of these articles, we are by no means bold pioneers in our venture, since major work has already been undertaken regarding how people view pluralism, other religions, and, in the eyes of other perspectives, Christianity in particular. Among such publications are: Christianity in Jewish Terms (ed. David Sanmel, Westview Press); Modern Indian Responses to Religious Pluralism (ed. Harold Coward, SUNY Press); Christianity through Non-Christian Eyes (ed. Paul J. Griffiths, Orbis Books); Buddhists Talk about Jesus and Christians Talk about Buddha (ed. Rita Gross and Terry Muck, Continuum Press); Islamic Interpretations of Christianity (ed. Lloyd Ridgeon, Curzon Press). Monographs include Wilhelm Halbfasss India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (SUNY) in which Christian attitudes toward India are placed within a broader set of attitudes typical of how the West has viewed the East and vice versa, and John B. Hendersons The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy: Neo-Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, and Early Christian Patterns (SUNY). These books reveal the common concerns of religious traditions, their common methodologies, and the differences by which traditions deal with pluralism and their religious others.

Admittedly this issue of Theological Studies leaves many questions unanswered. Although our articles take up important and broad areas related to several important religious traditions, we recognize that much has been omitted, for example, the religious traditions of Africa, the indigenous religions of the Americas, the religions of China, newer religious movements, and multiple other important forms of the traditions we do cover (including the Christian). We have not attempted a comprehensive account of traditions, and certainly we do not imply that our choices are meant to designate the most important traditions. Rather our goal has been to offer an exemplary beginning to a larger conversation, aimed at uncovering the ways in which traditions have gone about making their decisions about other traditions and in this way to shed light on the strategies employed by both the hierarchy and theologians of the Catholic Church.

To clarify this Catholic connection and to highlight the strengths and problems of the Catholic tradition by reviewing contemporary Catholic thinking on other religions, James Fredericks provides the context and starting point for the subsequent articles. He discusses the impact of conciliar texts, the writings of Pope John Paul II, the pluralist and regnocentric theologies of religion represented in the thought of Jean Danilou, Karl Rahner, and others. He highlights the impact of the practice of interreligious dialogue on Roman Catholic views of other religious paths. All of this is brought together against the background of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faiths statement Dominus Iesuswhich consciously or unconsciously highlights numerous positive and negative features of Catholic thinking about other traditions.

The next two articles address Judaism and Islam. Ruth Langer notes that Judaism is specifically the religion of a people, Israel, which shapes its entire discourse regarding the religious other by way of the category of non-Jews as religious and socio-political others. Adhering firmly to but also negotiating the implications of prohibitions against idolatry, Jews have described their religions theological status primarily through halakhic (legal) terms, defining and devising permitted interactions with non-Jews by affording special status to those non-Jews who obeyed the seven Noahide laws that God ordained for all human civilization. For non-Jews, fulfillment of these laws is the prerequisite for salvation; by adherence they can and will be saved.

Qamar-ul Huda notes that, for Muslims, the Qurn is God manifest in human speech; by studying the surface and hidden meanings of the Qurn, along with the customs of the Prophet Muhammad and various mystical teachings, Muslims have sought to know Allhs presence more fully and to come closer to God. In addition this same piety has guided Muslims about how to think of outsiders, since the process of knowing God entails tolerance of believers in other religions, especially Christians and Jews, respected as believers of the same God. Huda discusses various dimensions of pluralism and tolerance according to Islam to illustrate the complexities of the religious idea of exclusivity.

The remaining three articles travel eastwards, first to Hindu India, and then to Buddhism as represented first in the classical Indian and Tibetan, and then in Japanese contexts. In my article, I look into several classical and modern Hindu contexts. Classical Hindu thinkers, prizing the articulate perfection of traditional brahmanical ritual and linguistic acts, proposed idealized standards of orthodoxy and orthopraxis in knowledge, education, morality, and human nature in part by presenting and critiquing alternative outsider positions judged defective versions of their own. What did not fit well within the language of brahmanism Sanskrit and its cultured context was inferior. Hindu theists extended this orthodoxy considerably by finding God present and providentially active in the incomplete, misguided beliefs of believers in other gods; other religions were tolerated and even encouraged as contributing to the divine goal of educating the human race. In the latter part of my article, I observe transformation of these perspectives in the writings of three 20th-century Hindu theorists who, resistant to colonialism and missionary polemic, idealized Hindu spiritual practice as superior to externalist, historicist, and doctrine-oriented Western religiosity which missionaries had presented to them.

John Makransky draws on classical Indian Buddhism and on contemporary masters to explore Buddhist perspectives on other religions. He addresses a fundamental question: What is the human problem that necessitates salvation? Buddhist traditions define the problem as the tendency to absolutize representations in any thought and reflection. Concern for this problem shapes Buddhist perspectives on other religions and on the very endeavor to assess traditions. Makransky concludes with a constructive proposal for a Buddhist theology of religions that avoids relativism without privileging any particular representation of the absolute.

With Buddhism we have the luxury of glimpsing dynamic in a second cultural context as well, as Ruben Habito examines three views of the Supreme Way in Japanese Buddhism and draws them into conversation with Catholic perspectives on key religious questions regarding ultimate destiny and norms of human living. Reflecting on the materials he presents, Habito indicates how engagement in comparative theology sheds light on the claims of ones own tradition about the highest religious path in intersection with other, analogous claims about the Supreme Way without necessarily attenuating the supremacy of any of these claims.

Taken together, the articles by Makransky and Habito offer us a way of comparing two versions of the Buddhist synthesis. Perhaps if one were to draw on some strands of brahmanism as described in my own article, one might find the beginning of an extended paradigm parallel to what can be fashioned from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim materials in the other articles. While the individual traditions are complex enough in themselves, and while the articles do not yield any dramatic evidence for a static difference between West and East, we can nonetheless reasonably begin to wonder about family resemblances among groups of religions in the east as well as among traditions with Semitic origins. Otherwise, the real common ground among some traditions (such as those of Semitic origin) might be lost sight of because of a lack of comprehension of the continuities among other traditions (such as those of Indian origins).

Place of origin and development seem in some cases to be more crucial than in others. For Jews and Hindus, ethnic identity is tied in with religious identity more strongly than it is for the other traditions, it seems, and so it is all the more difficult to imagine or desire purely theological judgments even when it is clear that theoretical positions are being argued. But we can certainly ask regarding all these traditions how ethnic identity and race affect religious judgments about the other, even in cases when ethnic identity, race, and geography are downplayed. Since each traditions writers obviously work in particular places be it Rome or Jerusalem or Cairo or Varanasi or Lhasa or Kyoto and really cannot avoid seeing the world from there, we can at least wonder whether even the traditions which present themselves as universal nonetheless carry with them the scents and styles of the particular places in which they were born or in which they flourish.

A range of judgments about religions are reported in these articles: other peoples traditions are incomplete; or, they are natural bases for higher insights that occur in the preferred, home tradition; or, basically good, but in part mistaken; or, harmful; or, suitable, though only for people incapable of more. Such attitudes are predictable and, whether true or false in particular cases, are unlikely to be persuasive of others. In our articles we have tried to observe how such positions are generated and structured in order to understand their power and their limits.

Founding insights and scriptural authority certainly matter. All these traditions look for guidance and certainty to their earliest periods, perceptions of the founding insights and, perhaps, the original revelations given to their founders; much of the wisdom by which traditions define themselves is thought to be embodied in scriptural revelation which, by its content but also the fact of its existence, stands as a measure for sorting out insiders and outsiders. But again we can see differences emerge: the Quran has a more prominent role for Muslims, and the Veda for Indian Brahmins, than has the Bible for Jews or any particular teaching of the Buddha for Buddhists; Catholics are well known for firmly inscribing the New Testament in a teaching tradition which owes allegiance to scripture but also claims the right to interpret and fill out what scripture should be saying.

Despite the differing structures for the discernment and dissemination of authoritative truth in these traditions, we can observe analogous criteria for communally acceptable decisions about self and other. The Catholic tradition is unusual in the extent of its idealized centralization of authority, but not in its efforts to establish and assert definite judgments on theological topics for the sake of the community; it is the vehicles of transmission that vary more widely than do the desire to assert authority.

Some details deserve further reflection. It is instructive, for example, to reflect on how Jews have accounted for Christians and accommodated Christian belief and practice a kind of idolatry within the Noahide dispensation; how the Catholic tradition has woven together simple faith claims, drawn from the Bible, with more elaborate claims about divine and human realities understood philosophically; how Hinduisms classical tradition articulated a linguistic rendering of reality into which other traditions could be translated only in inevitably diminished forms, whereas modern Hindus have tended to accept categories established in the West, but to turn them on their heads; and how Buddhist traditions made judgments based on the efficacy of practice, finding as an alternative to what works best not what is false, but what works, less well.

A most obvious general observation is perhaps the realization that everyone does it: every tradition assesses other traditions by its own sure and authoritative values. Even sharper and more sweeping Catholic claims to uniqueness may now seem rather expected and appropriate, since everyone makes such claims. On the whole, the Catholic Church is not doing something uniquely Catholic, better or worse than what others do. Rather–and this can be said without prejudice to the claimed truth of traditional assertions–such claims are ways in which religious traditions articulate their own identities in the world. That various traditions, Catholic included, make such claims does not however undercut the claims, which remain possibly viable, and subject to the same scrutiny and liable to the same approval or rejection as before. By noting Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist ways of asserting superiority and uniqueness, we are all invited to derive a greater appreciation of how scripture, practice, doctrine, and apologetics cooperate in traditions self-identities.

On one level, these similarities may not matter greatly. For we can see in these traditions the priority of self-definition with respect to later judgments about others. Claims of superiority remain steadfastly internal to communities, meant for and plausible to insiders. Secondarily and more or less incidentally are judgments extended to assess outsiders whose actual beliefs and actual practices are less important than internal typologies invented regarding them. Where there is actual knowledge about other traditions, it seems to have been rarely employed in reshaping long settled judgments.

Traditions tend not to worry about how the other traditions might react to the judgments made about them, but today the matter is becoming less simple and concern should be more pressing. Other traditions are living traditions, and in todays smaller world they react to how others perceive them. Reactive, adjusting, and developing, traditions are not static essences which can be assessed once and for all, then put aside in the box provided for them; in fact they elude efforts to stereotype them or just to say something definitive about how they are to be compared to the true religion and its insiders.

As the modern materials described in these essays testify, people in all the various traditions, Catholic included, are increasingly and more continuously aware of how others think of them. Positions toward other religions, or at least the ways in which they are presented, are now almost necessarily guaranteed to keep on adjusting in relationship to others positions: Catholics know what Jews and Hindus think of them, Hindus are aware of Muslim views, Buddhists are developing opinions about Jews and Christians. Discourses in judgment on religious others seem likely to be much more implicated with one another in the future, in a more comprehensive interreligious discourse in which knowledge of the other is prized, and in which ones opinions about the other interact more subtly than before with corresponding opinions about oneself.

As expectations for interaction rise, those who speak in an ill-informed or merely rote fashion about the other are apt to be increasingly non-persuasive in public and intellectually respectable discourse. Although still there will be no a priori exclusion of a priori judgments, one can now see more clearly the limited value of such judgments, which tend to overlook entirely what other traditions believe and practice, and more particularly how they are today responding to judgments made about them.

In fact, too, few of these traditions judgments on others have even until now actually been established as purely conceptual matters. Even when ignoring one another, traditions have already been interacting in positive and negative ways. Historical memories and interconnections, many of them unpleasant, affect how various groups Jews and Christians, Muslims and Christians and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims relate to one another in general and in theological discourse. In effect, there can be no theology of other religions which escapes history either in its inception or in its reception by others; even the most seemingly universalist and ahistorical positions must have their histories restored to them, if they are to be felt in their specific gravity.

For such reasons as I have outlined, traditions will have to learn to be at least a bit skeptical about their judgments on others. This may not be evident, of course, and with Makransky we need to assess the extent to which traditions are able to see through (or even think they should see through) their own assertions about the nature of reality. It may be that making claims about the Supreme Way (as Habito puts it) is entirely appropriate and natural to believers who care about their traditions; but at the same time an uncritical embrace of such claims can be a deleterious substitution of words about oneself and others for the truth one has rightly discerned through ones tradition; supremacy is a clue pointing not only to competition, but also to a different kind of higher, common ground, and it should be evident that believers need to keep asking what claims to supremacy mean, neither merely accepting nor merely apologizing for them. What may seem a problem to a progressive believer seeking harmony among religions, may in a comparative context nonetheless offer a fruitful perspective, as claims to uniqueness and supremacy suggest the possibility of a higher meeting point for religions.

We can conclude by asking if there is anything in particular that the reader of Theological Studies should take away from a comparative study of theological assessments of the other. Already mentioned is the fact that the Catholic emphasis on uniqueness (as profiled in Dominus Iesus) is hardly unique. Noticing this not only removes some of the drama from Vatican claims, but also gives proponents and critics of Vatican views less to argue about. It also removes pressure to replace the claim to uniqueness with a more inclusive one, since we can see more clearly now that religious people are always tending to make exclusive claims. It seems advisable to observe Catholic claims closely and in the light of the broader pattern, repeatedly repositioning the Catholic insight with respect to Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (and, again, with the numerous other and important traditions not mentioned in these articles).

As our project, the fruit of over two years of collaboration, drew to a close, we were fortunate to obtain an informative background study by Gerald OCollins about the recent writings of Jacques Dupuis whose publications have recently been scrutinized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Since the works of Dupuis and OCollins are closely allied to the goals of our own collaboration, we accepted the editors invitation to include his study as an appendix to our own research.

We express our thanks to John Borelli of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and to Michael Fahey, this journals editor, for their scholarly input into this theme issue. Given the Catholic tradition of intellectual openness and willingness to study what is new and unfamiliar, there is reason to hope that Catholic intellectuals will now more energetically factor into their thinking the wider array of religious strategies about how Catholics ought to respond. One hopes that as a result Catholic theologians will be better able to sort out what merely happens to appear Catholic or Catholic theology, what is asserted by habit simply because enunciated in the past, what is and ought to remain alive and central in Catholic views of other religious traditions, and what skills are required to move from merely asserting claims about others to a useful conversation with them on ultimate values and their implications. Future theologies of religions, we hope, will include comparisons and contrasts across the very same boundaries which are the topic of discussion in traditional theologies of religions. With intelligent self-assessment will also come a new ability to respond more consciously and intelligently to those others when they in turn speak to us in their categories, by the norms of their assessments. Such will be the stuff of a more mature dialogue. We hope that our writings have contributed to this broader, more well-informed, and more dialogical exploration of the religious claims about self and other made by all the various traditions introduced here.

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

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