By Rita M. Gross

In this entry, I wish to introduce my new book, Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity.

It is an entry into the field usually called “theology of religions,” a field in which theologians of one religion evaluate how members of their own tradition think about members of other religions.

To date, this field has been almost completely dominated by Christian theologians, at least in English language literature. My book is one of the very few to take up this topic written by a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who is also a Buddhist critical and constructive thinker.

As a scholar-practitioner, I hold dual allegiance to the academic study of religion as practiced in the Western academy and to traditional Buddhist practices and understandings of the world. I have trained intensively in each.

As a Buddhist critical and constructive thinker, I take up the task of evaluating my tradition critically and also take it upon myself to reconstruct the tradition where needed. For an example of such work, see my well-known book Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (SUNY, 1993).

For much of my professional life, I have participated in inter-religious inter-change, especially Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

In that work, I have become very familiar with Christian theologies of religion, and have become convinced that Christian theologies of religion could benefit from certain insights that are central to Buddhist ways of thinking about and approaching reality. Christian theology of religions is a very recent enterprise, having developed mainly after Vatican II and the breakup of European empires, as Christians began to concede that other religions were not going to give way to a universal acceptance of Christianity. How then to think about these other religions? Are they enough like us (Christians) to be acceptable?

The traditional Christian position had long been that there was “no salvation outside the church” or that there was “one true religion.”  Though Catholics and Protestants came to severe blows over which of them constituted the one true religion, they basically agreed that there could only be one true religion.

That position, which many still hold, is called the exclusivist position—salvation is exclusively, only available to Christians.

In the mid-twentieth century, the German theologian Karl Rahner developed the inclusivist position as an alternative. According to him, though Christianity was the only fully adequate religion, members of other religions could find salvation through their own faiths because they sought many of the same things that Christians sought. In fact, they might be called “anonymous Christians,” a label that he made famous.

Their religions would be improved by greater incorporation of Christian elements, but their religions were not so defective that they were irretrievably lost.  Still later, the British philosopher of religion, John Hick, developed the pluralist position. Though this position has many variations, all of them basically say that religions are more similar than different.

Taken abstractly, their teachings are almost identical, and they are all grounded in similar religious experiences. Therefore, no religion can claim superior truth to the others. More recently still, a fourth position has been taken up by some. Called the “acceptance model” or sometimes comparative theology (a slightly different discipline), these thinkers call for withholding judgment about the truth or falsity of any religious position, and even about their similarities and differences until further study has taken place.

To a greater or a lesser extent, each of these Christian theologies of religion focuses on differences between religions as the problem and asks how similar are those religions to ours? Are they similar enough to be acceptable to us? In other words, the major concern is with them and their differences from us and difference is assumed to be a problem, with agreement or unity being preferable to theological divergence or difference.

Herein I locate the problem with theologies of religion as constructed to date.

I suggest that instead of focusing on them and instead of asking if they are enough like us to be acceptable, we should focus on us, asking why difference, especially in religion, disturbs us so much, why we so much prefer unity and universality to diversity and difference.

This, I suggest, should become the chief question for theologians of religions.

It is precisely regarding this question that I believe that Buddhist sensibilities and practices offer some help that has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this puzzle of how to flourish with religious diversity.

The superficial source of our discomfort with diversity is relatively easy to locate. It is a knee-jerk reaction initially to be more comfortable with what is familiar than what is different. For example, most people initially prefer their local food to foreign cuisine, even though their preferences say nothing about the relative merits of the diets in question. Similarly, most people initially think that their culture is “better” than others, but, really, all that means is that it is easier to be in a more familiar environment than a less familiar one.

Living in a foreign environment requires attentiveness and takes more energy than living “at home.” But then, living at home doesn’t teach us much that we don’t already know either.

Such initial reactions of disliking or being hostile to religious and cultural diversity may be understandable, but in a crowded, globally inter-connected world, they are too dangerous to tolerate. Furthermore, with introspection and kindness, it is relatively easy to replace such more instinctive initial reactions to difference with more useful, less dangerous ways of dealing with diversity.

Such internal changes take some effort and training, but what alternative do we have, given that it is clear that the rest of the world is never going to come around to doing things “our way?” Especially regarding differences in religions, the history of religions demonstrates extremely clearly that there never has been and never will be agreement about religious ideas or practices, which means that the goal of “one true faith” universally adhered is extremely unrealistic.

And extremely dangerous.

Even within a single religion, rampant sectarianism is the norm. This should not be a surprising situation and therefore should not trouble people deeply.

I am always surprised when people assume that thinking alike religiously is possible or even desirable.

As we look around the world, we see that differences among things are much more prevalent than sameness, or even similarity. Trying to enforce uniformity usually has very negative results in the natural world. Monocultures, whether of lawns, crops, or forests, are difficult to maintain and much more subject to disease and destruction than a naturally mixed environment. Ancient monarchies sometimes tried to preserve themselves identically in perpetuity by close intermarriage; the results were disastrous.

I once found this out for myself with a litter of kittens accidentally born of one generation of brother-sister incest. We know that other people are not going to look exactly like us and we know that is not a problem but actually for the better, so why do we expect, even demand, that they should think like us? Why do we think they would be so much better off if only they thought more like us?

Yet that has been the expectation of many religious leaders throughout history, as the history of religious excommunications and warfare demonstrates so poignantly and vividly. Thus, the primary question regarding religious diversity becomes “Excuse me but what’s the question? Isn’t religious diversity normal and natural?” the title of one of my book chapters.

Religious diversity is not a mistake and never has been.

It is here to stay, and religions have to adjust to that fact, just as they had to adjust to the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Religions were not harmed in any way by making that adjustment. They will not be harmed by accommodating themselves to the inevitable reality of religious diversity.

How, then, to re-conceptualize this whole situation?

In my book, I propose that we need to seriously re-think our assumptions about self and other, about how we think about ourselves and about what we think the other may be. When we have thoroughly assimilated those insights, then we can begin to think about ways that “self” and “other” can interact with more integrity.

Re-conceptualizing “The Other:” Do Others Actually Exist?

The “other” has become a venerated category in inter-religious interaction. Those who engage in inter-religious dialogue take “the other” seriously, trying to respect and understand the other. Splendid as these intentions may be, they hide a serious problem.

Such language assumes that “the other” actually is out there, existing independently of the self’s perceptions, objectively existing in-and-of-itself. This is the assumption behind many everyday interactions and, to a limited extent, there is some conventional accuracy to this assumption.

Others do appear in our experience, but that does not mean that they exist independently of our experience. Experience is the result of the interaction of sense organ and sense object, but it is illogical to assume that either exists objectively, by itself, in and of itself.

When we do assume independent existence for either, that assumption ignores how much our impressions of “the other” actually are our own preconceptions and perceptions and have little to do with “the other” apart from our impressions of that other.

Self and other do not exist independently of each other. They co-create each other and co-arise together. Any reflection on how easily friends and enemies transform into each other should bring this realization vividly home.

Reflections on former spouses or lovers make this point especially clearly.

Yet, without reflection on the fact that the other does not and cannot truly exist independently of our own projections, we so easily reify and absolutize our version of “the other” as truly being an “other,” out there, existing completely separate from us and conditioning our reactions and responses, making it easy to inaccurately blame the other for our own reactions and impressions. In everyday English, these comments summarize Buddhist teachings on interdependence and emptiness, which could be so useful for religious leaders to apply to their comments about religious diversity and religious others.

How many vilifications of religious others are mainly misguided perceptions and projections. “They worship the devil! They waste their time meditating! They are nihilists!”

In a sense, these teachings are very simple and straightforward, easily understood, once someone explains them. But truly integrating them into our consciousness so that they affect our everyday reactions takes a good bit of introspection.

They do go against the grain of conventional assumptions, as does so much Buddhist wisdom.

Thus, the question “Do others exist?” which so many assume to be a stupid question with a self-evident answer, turns out to have a much more sophisticated answer: others do appear in our consciousness but that does not mean that they exist as we imagine them to exist, independently of our perceptions and projections.

Part 2 of Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? coming soon!

Religous Diversity


Rita GrossRita M. Gross is Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies of Religion at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Senior Dharma Teacher in the Nyingma Lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism. A past president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, she has participated in many forums for interreligious exchange. Gross is the author of many books and articles. Her major work is Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism (1993).


Photo: Matthew Fearnley/Flickr