Reviewing John J. Thatamanil’s Theology of Multiple Religious Participation

Reviewing John J. Thatamanil’s Theology of Multiple Religious Participation September 2, 2020

It is one of the primary Christian virtues that teaches us to approach other religions hospitably rather than antagonistically. “If Christians are to exercise a virtue that lies at the core of Christian tradition–namely, hospitality–we must be prepared to receive as well as to give” (17).

Multiple religious participation has often been characterized by theologians uncharitably as individualistic, just religious consumers choosing from a smorgasbord of options.

But in reality, many multiple religious practitioners do so not out of hyper-individualism, but rather out of a deep love for more than one tradition.

I have seen this increasingly in my ministry as a pastor. Not only do I have Christian parishioners who practice yoga. I also have members who attend synagogue, identify as Buddhist, and connect with Islam and other religious traditions.

Over the last few years in particular, the engagement between our local Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish communities has increased, in particular through a summer Interfaith Youth Camp and joint service together in community.

What I love about Thatamanil’s new book is its offer of theological equipment for consideration of the ways we learn more about ourselves by learning from others.

He writes, “We can learn to love and love to learn from what is not already our own. After generations of seeking to convert the world and thereby erase religious diversity–a project that has underwritten all manner of colonial violence–the time has come to receive rather than propagate, to reorient Christian communities toward the virtues of humility and hospitality rather than an aggressive ‘giving’ that believes it has nothing to receive. What is a closed hand that is unwilling to receive but a fist” (3)

Much of the reflection on the religious traditions of others has historically been focused on simply understanding the neighbor in their difference. There is nothing particularly wrong with that approach, if the goal is simply tolerance and understanding.

But if inter religious learning is “holy labor,” as Thatamanil argues, then we need our neighbor’s faith and traditions in order to understand our own.

Perhaps it can be stated this way: I only become a Christian by moving in humility toward my neighbor’s wisdom, born out of their religious tradition.

I do not become a Christian by converting them to Christianity. I become a Christian through my own ongoing conversion attempting to love more deeply what my neighbor loves.

Honestly, this should come as no surprise to Christians. Christianity did not emerge wholesale as a complete religion sui generis. Christianity is, rather, grounded in Judaism, which was previously shaped by traditions like Zoroastrianism. Christianity was then shaped by Hellenestic forms of thought and religious practice.

Christianity itself could not and would not be what it is apart from those traditions.

As we now emerge into a 21st century that is more religiously diverse than ever before, we can claim those origins, and as Thatamanil argues, “make it possible for the faithful to conceive of religious diversity as promise rather than problem, as resource rather than as rupture” (29).

The middle portion of Thatamanil’s book engages theologians of religious pluralism and enters conversation with them. This may or may not captivate all readers.

But his introductory chapters make a strong case for multiple religious participation, and for the fluidity of Christianity itself.

“One problem in particular captures my attention: the notion that stark and immutable lines separate ‘the religions.’ Christian reflection has, from its inception, been situated in a world of fluid crosscutting differences. Indeed, it would be possible to craft a history of Christian thought and practice written as a series of interactions with and transmutations of movements and traditions that Christians have come to demarcate as non-Christian. Such a history would demonstrate not only that many of the central categories, practices, and symbols of Christian life are borrowed from Hellenistic philosophical schools, mystery religions, and of course, most vitally from what we now call ‘Judaism,’ but that for long stretches of history, no clearly defined and rigid boundaries existed between ‘Christianity’ and those traditions we now take to be Christianity’s others” (110).

The two concluding chapters of the book are particularly captivating.

A section on the hospitality of receiving focuses on the inter-religious learning that was a hallmark of Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement, in conversation with Mohandas Gandhi.

He asks: “Although it is widely known that King marched alongside and worked with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and admired the work of Thich Naht Hanh–so much so that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize–why haven’t we named this moment as inter religious?” (197).

And this tantalizing point: “What is incontestable is King’s claim that Gandhi was the first to demonstrate and embody [a vision of Jesus as engaged in collective nonviolent resistance] on a mass sociopolitical scale and so vindicate any political reading of Jesus that might have been available prior to Gandhi. That a Hindu should be the first to accomplish this revolutionary work is what strikes King as remarkable. To assert the Christianness of Gandhi then is not so much an attempt to baptized him but is instead an act of affirmation that a Hindu understood and performed the true meaning of Jesus’s life and teachings more deeply than any Christian had heretofore done” (206).

Christians can practice theological vulnerability. We signal willingness to entertain the possibility that others may be able to shed more light even on our most precious categories than we can manage when left to our own devices (217).

What if the calling of our time, a calling from the Holy Herself, is to adventure and sojourn into new religious terrain, not now to convert and to conquer as Western Christians once did, but to humbly and hospitably receive other wisdoms (258).

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