Friday, January 4, 2013

Seeing the Elephant

For my write-up today on Paul Knitter's No Other Name?  A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, I'll comment on points that Knitter makes on page 221 and page 229.
On page 221, Knitter states the following:

"More concretely, the Christian doctrine of the trinity needs the Islamic insistence on divine oneness; the impersonal emptiness of Buddhism needs the Christian experience of the divine Thou; the Christian teaching on the distinction between the ultimate and the finite needs the Hindu insight into the nonduality between Brahma and atman; the prophetic-praxis oriented content of the Judeo-Christian tradition needs the Eastern stress on personal contemplation and 'acting without seeking the fruits of action.'"

On page 229, Knitter states: "A global practical theology is telling Christian social prophets that they must be more contemplative, and Eastern mystics that they must be more prophetic.  As John A.T. Robinson concluded from his passing over to Hinduism: 'The mystical center needs the prophetic center if it is not to become airborne....But equally the prophetic center needs the mystical center if it is not to become arrogant, narrow, and unlovely."

There's a lot of wisdom in what John A.T. Robinson is saying.  There are advocates of social justice who are arrogant, self-righteous, condescending, and unhappy, and why not?  They're concerned about injustice and how it is hurting and killing vulnerable people, and yet they live in a world that is unjust, where a number of people do not share their concerns.  And then there are mystical people who sit around staring at their navels without accomplishing any concrete good in the world.  But they themselves are taming their inward beasts, as they become more patient and understanding of themselves and of others.  As Robinson astutely affirms, both a concern for social justice and self-reflection are good to have.

That said, I'd like to comment on what Knitter says about inter-religious dialogue in the passages that I just mentioned.  Many of you have probably heard the story of the blind men and the elephant (see here), in which blind men are feeling different parts of the elephant and disagree about what it is that they are touching.  The blind man who is feeling the elephant's leg believes that he's touching a pillar, the one feeling the elephant's tail thinks that he's touching a rope, and so on.  The lesson of the story is that, by talking with one another, the blind men can get a fuller picture of what it is that they all are touching, and perhaps they would then realize that it's an elephant.

The story has been said to be a parable that supports relativism or religious pluralism, but I can understand the argument of critics that this is not so.  The story does not appear to be saying that each blind man is correct according to his own point of view; rather, the story is saying that there is a truth out there (the elephant), all the blind men have the wrong idea, and that only by talking with one another and bringing their experiences to the table can they arrive at the truth of what it is that they are touching.

Knitter believes that he sees the elephant.  Granted, he says that we should all be humble as we realize that we do not have the full truth, and thus we should be open to learning.  But he seems to have an idea in his mind about what the conclusions of inter-religious dialogue should be, and where the world religions are right and wrong.  Perhaps he makes good points: As I said above, I'm all in favor of balancing the prophetic with the mystical.  And I also see value in viewing everything as one, while also respecting individuality.  But I think that it would be presumptuous for a Christian to tell a Buddhist that he needs to recognize a divine Thou.  Maybe the Buddhist does not want to recognize a divine Thou because he's a Buddhist and has a more impersonal conception of the transcendent.  Is Knitter interested in letting Christians be Christians and Buddhists be Buddhists, or does he want everyone to convert to his own conception of what religion should be?

I suppose that the way that I would approach this issue is to be open myself to what other religions can teach me, while realizing that others are free to be open or closed to the lessons of my religion.  At the same time, I would feel free to explain why I believe that elements of my religion are so valuable----why I think that a personal God is important, why I am committed to social justice, why I feel that apathy regarding social justice has disastrous consequences, etc.  Perhaps my approach of listening and trying to persuade overlaps in areas with Knitter's conception of inter-religious dialogue.

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