by Anantanand Rambachan
Our world has always been characterized by religious diversity, both across and within religious traditions. We have held different beliefs about the absolute, described it differently, and adopted a variety of ways and practices for attaining life’s ultimate goal. What is new about our religious diversity is the fact that it is rapidly becoming a feature of the landscape of many societies where a single tradition was predominant. Our awareness of other religions has never been as great as it is today. We are growing also in the realization, some more slowly than others, that this diversity is here to stay. The world’s religions have emerged from colonialism with a renewed sense of purpose and universal relevance.
We understand better today, our political need for each other in the light of the interdependent character of our lives. All of our religious traditions, in addition to what they proclaim and teach about individual human destiny and fulfillment, also imagine and include a social vision of the ideal human community characterized by justice, peace, and prosperity. Any religious tradition which is today concerned about the social order and its transformation is challenged to reach across historical frontiers, find common values with people of other faiths and strive together to overcome human suffering. Our hopes for just and peaceful communities will only be realized together or not at all.
Less clear, however, is our understanding of the theological need for each other. Our traditions generally understand themselves as theologically self-sufficient and independent and with little or no need for a religious ‘other.’ Our relationships with people of other traditions have not always been informed by theological humility and gratitude. If meaningful human relationships, however, are nurtured in the gratitude of humility and in recognition of the need for an ‘other,’ then our articulation of the theological value of persons of other traditions becomes important. Where do we discern our need for the religious ‘other’ that urges us to seek relationships? Where do I locate my religious need for you? What is my value to you theologically? Are we convinced, at the core of our traditions, of our need for each other? It seems to me that our focus today is on articulating the political dimension of interreligious relationships with much less focus on the theological in this sense. Although there may be urgent contemporary challenges that explain this choice, I want to make a plea for deeper reflection on our theological need for people of other faiths.
The political significance of people of other faiths is not an argument made only by religions and those who observe them. Many have articulated powerfully the pragmatic value of building relationships and of cooperating with people of other faiths. There is also a transient character to such arguments, dependent as these are on the exigencies of the moment. The political arguments needs to be enriched by and grounded in our more profound and enduring self-understanding of our theological needs.
In my own case, as a Hindu, my most profound theological need for my neighbor of another faith arises from my tradition’s teaching that Truth (brahman/sat) is always more than we could define, describe or comprehend with finite words and minds. As the Taittiriya Upanisad (2.9.1) reminds us, brahman is “that from which words turn back with the mind.” The constitutive nature of brahman eludes all direct definition. The consequence of such a radical sense of our human limits ought to be deep attentiveness and openness to considering and learning from multiple ways of speaking about the ultimate that occur in different traditions. It is the wise, after all, as Rg Veda (I.164.46) reminds us who speak differently (“The One Being the Wise speak of in many ways”). By attributing differences of speech to the wise, this text invites a respectful and inquiring response to theological differences. We must not associate wisdom only with our way of speaking, as precious as this must be to us. The possibility for mutual theological enrichment, learning, and sharing is a significant justification for entering into interreligious relationships.
If our theologies cannot limit the limitless, we need each other, and we can all learn and be enriched by the ways in which others have apprehended the absolute and by the values they have derived from such encounters and experiences. This is, for me, the most compelling ground to seek out my neighbor of a different faith. My own religious life as a Hindu has been and continues to be immensely enriched and stirred by my encounters with practitioners of other traditions. I benefit immeasurably from the opportunity to converse and interact with fellow pilgrims. We need each other to help us see and understand ourselves better and to deepen out religious lives. Without the voice of the other, the human proclivity toward self-centeredness and self-righteousness may go unchallenged and arrogance and selfishness, rather than humility and compassion, may become the dominant values of our existence. We should not be hesitant to acknowledge this.