Jonathan Weidenbaum teaches World Religions, Ethics, and Philosophy in the Division of General Education at Berkeley College, NYC, and St John’s University in Queens (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
I recall a stirring set of paintings on the inside wall of a pagoda in Sri Lanka. Above the image of demons tearing apart the bodies of those spirits unfortunate enough to have been reborn in the hell realm is a depiction of the deities in their heavenly abode—each one graceful, serene, and blissfully reposed. Or, blissful in comparison with the denizens of the other realms which comprise Buddhist cosmology. For this is a context in which the gods, like any other sentient being, are conditioned by karma and would do well to be born in the human realm in order to reach nirvana—thereby gaining release, once and for all, from the wheel of life and death. The beliefs surrounding this complex image from the pagoda wall always struck me as signifying a stronger rejection of theistic belief than even atheism. It is one thing to deny the existence of deities, another to deem them as of lesser spiritual importance.
Of course, the divide within a single religion can be equally vast, if not more so, than those between different religions. The Theravada Buddhism found in Sri Lanka is not, say, the Pure Land Buddhism of China and Japan. And within a single theistic faith God may be conceived as, among other things, a personal creator being who speaks through prophets and cares about humankind—Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “divine pathos”—or the transcendental One with which the soul of the contemplative is to identify (Harper Torchbooks, 1975).
One evening, during a discussion group composed mostly of renegade and heterodox Jews from around the New York City area, a stately and elderly gentleman sought to dissuade me from ruminating too much over such theological contrasts. Examining and comparing different religions and denominations is fine and even useful as an academic game, he explained, but it is a mere intellectual exercise, a skating over surfaces and of less significance for genuine theological insight. It was when I began to respond that I discovered, finally, where I truly stood in regard to the relationship of a vital philosophical theology to the examination of other denominations and traditions.
Several theological orientations toward faiths other than our own could only lend support to my older acquaintance’s attitude toward comparative religions. Drawing upon some well-known definitions, these include an exclusivism in which only our own tradition is understood as leading toward spiritual fulfilment/salvation, and an inclusivism in which other traditions possess value only insofar as they approximate our own. If a pluralism holds that all major religions lead to a salvation of sorts, an identist pluralism perceives these traditions as pointing toward the same salvific truth. A classic example of the latter is the perennial philosophy which argues that, while religions unquestionably differ on the exoteric surface, their esoteric core (to borrow a distinction from Frithjof Schuon) all lead to the same transpersonal and metaphysical ground (Quest Books, 1984).
Once a proponent of the last of these positions, the past years have increasingly alerted me to one of the severe limitations of an identist pluralism when drawn so tightly: if all higher spiritual traditions cohere upon the same ultimate, then what do other religions truly have to teach me? That is, beyond alternative methods of leading to the One, or simply different ways of expressing it. Next to the search after honest spiritual illumination, examining other religious traditions in such an understanding is a mere cataloging of similarities and differences, more anthropology than theology. In order for the mission of comparative religions to have sincere depth, the differences between traditions need to be more than their surface, and, in fact, must be seen as reaching all the way down.
Happily, richer forms of pluralism are readily available for those, like me, who seek robust support for the different ways in which the divine has been conceived. I will briefly mention three. First, the main project of Theology Without Walls rests upon what Jerry Martin, its founder, calls an “ineluctable syllogism” (forthcoming). If theology’s goal is to grasp the divine, and knowledge of the ultimate is not found only within one tradition, then what is required is a theological effort beyond and across “confessional boundaries.” Martin’s own investigations and personal religious experiences lead him to affirm a “many-sided” divine reality, one that is partly personal, partly transpersonal, and much more. Second, theologian John Thatamanil has worked out a novel Trinitarian vision in which our comprehension of the divine is enhanced as we open ourselves to religions devoted toward, alternatively, a loving and personal deity, an underlying and all-inclusive cosmic unity, and a realization of the interdependent nature of all things as espoused, for instance, by Mahayana Buddhism (Fordham University Press, 2020).
Third, if Martin and Thatamanil argue for one ultimate with multiple sides or aspects, the deep religious pluralism of process theology generally envisions a reality complex enough to feature more than one ultimate (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Without going into their exquisite and detailed metaphysics, these ultimates are proposed to correspond with how the divine is understood by different religions—namely, as personal, impersonal, and the sacred character of the natural world, as perceived by some.
Currently, I sympathize more with a deep religious pluralism than those which argue for a single and complex ultimate. It has always seemed to me that the blissful inner state of nirvana and the personal deity of the Abrahamic religions, among others, can be appreciated more richly and fully as different portions of existence than as two sides of a single absolute. But I admit this preference, at least at this point, is intuitive. A stronger justification for this, along with the broader implications of it, is for a future essay.
Griffin, David Ray (ed.). Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, Volume II. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975.
Martin, Jerry. Radically Personal: God and Ourselves in the New Axial Age. Forthcoming.
Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1984.
Thatamanil, John J. Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.