REASONS FOR THE EMERGENCE OF RELIGIOUS PLURALISM




REASONS FOR THE EMERGENCE OF
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

In history, there were very few instances in which people of one faith-tradition were really concerned about the people of other faith-traditions.  But today, inter-religious understanding calls for a serious consideration.  There are many reasons for this remarkable change.  An outline of these reasons can be an adequate background for the study of religious pluralism. 

9.1       Geographical Explorations
J. Paul Rajashekar writes, “the age of European geographical explorations in the 15th to 17th centuries stimulated a new interest in other religions.”[1]  So far the western world felt Christianity to be the only world religion applicable to all people, place and time and hence they were so immersed in their missionary zeal.  As a result, they were keen on meeting new people to present their religion.  Geographical explorations helped people to realize that there were people other than Christians. 

9.2       Collapse of Colonial Power
V.F. Vineeth gives various reasons for the emergence and seriousness of religious pluralism.  One of the reasons he points concerns the collapse of colonial power.[2]  His point should be esteemed.  It was the fact that, after the collapse of colonial power many nations witnessed revival in their national, cultural and religious life.  People found freedom to express themselves in matters of religion and culture.  According to S. J. Samartha, the new freedom helped even the church to come up with its own position regarding other faith-traditions.  He says, “it is not without significance that it was only a couple of decades after the dismantling of colonialism that both the Vatican (1965) and the World Council of Churches (1971) came out rather reluctantly, with more positive statements about people of other faiths.”[3] 

9.3       Global Village
Modern technology, scientific developments and advancements in communication have reduced the world to a village.  Of course, religiosity too is no longer a secret affair. V.F. Vineeth maintains, “thanks to the amazing achievement of science and technology, our world has been reduced to a ‘global village’ and contact with men of other faith has now become a day-to-day reality for many, both in the East and in the West.”[4]People from different religious traditions have not only come into greater contact but are also being exposed to mutual claims and commitments.[5] S.J. Samartha states:
The resurgence of national cultures with a strong religious content, both in the colonial and the post-colonial era; the emphasis on human rights and liberty of conscience; the rapid means of travel bringing people closer together; the growing use of mass media and audiovisual techniques – these are among the more important factors that have contributed to the sharper emergence of religious pluralism in the world today.[6]
The interaction, interrelatedness, cooperation, fellowship and common-sharing between people of different faith-traditions have forced religious pluralism into the thinking process of all the people  

9.4       Knowledge of Other Faith-Traditions
The scientific study of religions has brought forth correct details about every religion, especially living.  Harold G. Howard mentions this development as “for the first time Christian scholars have available to them full factual information on the other world religions.”[7]  Again, about the impact of this development, he says “no longer can Christians view Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims as heathens living in far off lands to be converted by Christian missionaries.”[8]
Religious pluralism is an issue that worries Christians more than anybody else.  It is because Christians maintain that theirs is the superior religion.  In fact western Christianity was moved by the emergence of religious pluralism.  The basic explosive behind this new awareness is the knowledge about other great religious traditions of the world.[9]  For Kuncheria Pathil the “discovery of the other faiths and the recognition of their role in the universal salvific plan of God is perhaps the greatest challenge to Christian theology today…”[10] 
According to Paul F. Knitter “the knowledge that is making religious pluralism a newly experienced reality is not just a knowledge of other religious systems or ideas.  It is also, and especially, a knowledge of other religious persons.”[11]  About the other religious persons Knitter says, “they are normal, happy human beings, getting their jobs done, raising their families as well, perhaps better, than we, and living lives of love, of service, of commitment.”[12]  Knitter might have intended to ask his Christian friends, what else is so special that it needs to be conveyed to others.
Jacques Dupuis highlights another area of knowledge i.e., multi-religious context of humanity.[13] This is very crucial because in the past people were under the illusion that a particular religion was the only way to live.  But now humanity is brought to a great awareness that human context is always multi-religious. 

9.5       Eastern Religions
The awareness about eastern religions and the unbiased study of oriental scholars, intentionally or otherwise brought home the greatness of eastern religions to the western world.  Particularly the Sacred Books of the East edited by Max Muller gave new insights about the eastern faith-traditions, which were not available earlier.  Knowledge about eastern religions created definitely a changed attitude and openness among the westerners about eastern religions.[14] 
Jacques Dupuis writes “while thousands of Westerners, especially the young, journey to India each year in quest of religious experiences Christianity has apparently denied them, Hindu ashrams and Buddhist monasteries are built in Western countries, attracting no insignificant number of devotees.”[15]  Indeed, the awareness of eastern religions enhanced the seriousness of the inescapable fact of religious pluralism. 
Sreenivasa Rao cites two more reasons for the paramount impact of Eastern religions on the Western perception.  He considers “Inter-Faith Dialogue is the natural outcome and the direct result of the challenging encounter of Christianity with Hinduism, after a hundred and fifty years of missionary activity on the Indian soil.”[16]  He also feels the historic speech of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA, in 1893, restored the self-confidence of the Hindus in their religion.[17] 

9.6       Rise of Islam
Rise of Islam, with its conquests, monotheistic understanding of God and missionary orientation was another challenge to the missionary activity of Christianity.  Owen C. Thomas writes, “with the rise of Islam the Christian Church was faced for the first time with a new and powerful missionary religion.”[18] 

9.7       Department of Religious Studies
One of the reasons for the cause and seriousness of religious pluralism was in setting up departments in the universities for the study of religions.  V. F. Vineeth writes that, “the opening up of faculties of religious studies in several Western universities where each religion is studied and expounded from its own perspective instead of being treated as a side-issue in a faculty of Christian theology.”[19]  These religious studies were responsible for the enlightenment of people that all religions have some element of truth and each religion needs to be respected, irrespective of its shortcomings. 
Along with the study of religions, the critical study of the Bible also helped the emergence of religious pluralism.  Biblical scholars who questioned the authenticity of some of the unique claims of Christians,  drew attention to the cultural, human and special elements involved in the development of the Bible.

9.8  Failure of Christianity
Early Christians and missionaries were of the opinion that, a good number of missionaries could convert the whole humanity to Christianity.  To their dismay, it never happened.  Today, Christians are aware that far from disappearing, the religions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are alive and well in spite of all the Christian missionary efforts.[20]
Another failure is that, in attempting to change the world, Christianity perpetuated exploitation and oppression on large scale.  The best example is the Christian crusades.  One more example is that Christianity was always connected with colonial activity.  Further, Christianity was insensitive to the injustice, especially to the Jews.  John Hick says “the picture would be very different if Christianity, commensurate with its claim to absolute truth and unique validity, had shown a unique capacity to transform human nature for the better.”[21]  Hick is very clear that Christianity alone cannot do this job. 
S. J. Samartha questions the credibility of Christianity: “the Holocaust that took place in the country that gave birth to the Reformation, the first use of the atom bomb, and the more recent threats to humanity because of environment pollution and the shadow of nuclear annihilation hanging over all life, have raised profound moral and spiritual questions about the credibility of Christianity.”[22]  Samartha’s real feeling about the unrealistic claims of Christianity is again expressed as “if Christianity was unable to prevent these horrors in countries over which it held sway for so many centuries, why export it to people in other countries who live by other faiths?”[23] 
The issues raised above are crucial for the Christians.  Now it is time, to realize that all faith-traditions have to work together for a new bright future. 

9.9       Struggle of the Oppressed
Both M. M. Thomas and S. J. Samartha draw our attention to the struggle of the oppressed in the context of religious pluralism.  For them this is one factor which activates religious pluralism.  Samartha writes “this is the struggle of oppressed people everywhere, the large majority of whom belong to religions other than Christianity and cultures other than the Western, for a life of freedom, self-respect and human dignity.”[24]  In short, people all over the world, irrespective of religious boundaries, struggle for identity.  This is a caution to Christians that they cannot ignore other religions and people.  Maintaining their identity is crucial even in inter-religious endeavors.  Thus each religion has a share in contributing towards attaining this goal. 

9.10     New Sciences
S. J. Samartha points that even in science, there is nothing static, but everything is a possibility.  Paul F. Knitter writes, in philosophy “the catch phrase is that we are not in a state of being but in a state, or better a process of becoming.”[25]  Even in religion, the state of becoming has to take place if it has to be relevant to the present world. 
Taking clues form sociology and psychology, Knitter calls for a world citizenship.  He says that in order to be a good citizen of any one nation one has to be a world citizen.  This world citizenship does not deprive the national.  Relating this fact to religions, he writes, “to be religious and to be serious about it one must, generally belong to a religion.”[26]
The need for urgent consideration of religious pluralism is found even in the political and economic realities.  Knitter writes, “we know the problems too well: starvation and malnutrition, economic inequality, dwindling resources, exploitation and poverty, official flouting of human rights.  And over all this tinder hovers the flame of nuclear weaponry.”[27]  The simple point Knitter makes is that, modern science, philosophy, sociology, psychology, politics and economics are providing a strong philosophical and existential background for a constructive approach to religious pluralism.  For him, the time is ripe for religious pluralism.  Thus he calls the present time as kairos, a specific time for religious pluralism. 

 9.11 World Community and Welfare State
Today more than ever before, people are striving to establish universal peace.  This also includes a world community.  These two are possible only by the coming together of different religious traditions.  In the words of Owen C. Thomas “the problem of the relations between the religions of the world is decisive in the quest for world peace and community.”[28]  M.M. Thomas[29] says, after the Second World War every nation was keen on establishing the welfare state.  In the process, many of the religious programmes were taken over by the government.  Today, the ideas of world community for peace and welfare state can be achieved only through the mutual sharing of the variety of rich religious resources available.  Thus consideration of religious pluralism is an urgent affair. 
The urgent theological task in relation to religious pluralism is that, Christian theology needs to realize that it could not be complete without adequate resource from other faith-traditions.  In the context of many missionary movements, Christianity needs to rethink of its mission in relation to other missions. Further, in a country like India, many great souls are inspired by Hindu scriptures as other scriptures do to their own people.  Thus, in the Indian pluralistic context religious pluralism has greater role to play. 



[1] J. Paul Rajashekar, ed., Religious Pluralism and Lutheran Theology ,LWF Report 23/24
(Geneva: 1988), p. 11.
[2] V.F. Vineeth, “Inter-religious dialogue: Past and present a critical appraisal, Journal of
Dharma, Vol. XIX, No.1 (January – March 1997), p. 42.
[3] S.J. Samartha, One Christ Many Religions: Towards a revised Christology, (Bangalore:
SATHRI in association with Word Makers, 1992), p. 3.
[4] V.F. Vineeth, op. cit., p. 42.
[5] J. Paul Rajashekar, op. cit., p. 9.
[6] S.J. Samartha, Courage for Dialogue: Ecumenical Issues in Inter-religious Relationships
(Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981), p. 16.
[7] Harold G. Howard, Religious Pluralism and the World Religions  (Madras: The Dr. S.
Radhakrishnan Institute for Advanced Study in Philosophy, University of Madras, 1983), p. 25.
[8] Ibid.
[9] John Hick, “The Non-absoluteness of Christianity,”The Myth of Christian Uniqueness:
Toward A Pluralistic Theology of Religions, ed. By John Hick and Paul F. Knitter (New York: ORBIS Books, 1987), p. 17.
[10] Kuncheria Pathil, “Christian Approach to other Faiths. A Historical Perspective”, N.C.C
Review, Vol. X, No.2 (February 1990), p. 66.
[11] Paul. F. Knitter, No other name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World
Religions (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1985), p. 3.
[12] Ibid., p.3.
[13] Jacques Dupls, Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions, Translated form the
French by Robert R. Barr, First Indian Edition (New Delhi: Intercultural Publications, 1996), p.3.
[14] Owen C. Thomas ed., Attitudes Toward Other Religions: Some Christian Interpretation
(London: SCM Press Ltd, 1969), p. 10.
[15] Jacques Dupuis, op. cit., p. 4.
[16] CH. Sreenivasa Rao., ed., Inter-faith Dialogue and World Community (Madras: CLS, 1991),
p. 14.
[17] Ibid., p. 18.
[18] Owen C. Thomas, ed., op. cit., p. 11.
[19] V. F. Vineeth, op. cit., p.42.
[20] Harold G. Coward, Religious Pluralism and the World Religion (Madras, The Dr. S.
Radhakrishnan Institute for advanced Study in Philosophy: University of Madras, 1987), p. 15.
[21] John Hick, “The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity,”The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, op.
cit., p. 17.
[22] S. J. Samartha, One Christ Many Religions: Toward A Revised Christology, Op. cit., p. 2.
[23] Ibid., p. 2.
[24] Ibid
[25] Paul F. Knitter, No other name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World
Religions, op. cit., p. 7.
[26] Ibid., p. 13.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Owen C. Thomas ed., op. cit., p. 4.
[29] M.M. Thomas, Man and the Universe of Faiths (Madras: CLS, 1975), p. 16.

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