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Religious Diversity: Finding the Real Questions

Written by Dr. Rita M. Gross
March 28, 2015

by Dr. Rita M. Gross
Much of my scholarly life as been devoted to inter-religious interchange, Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and theology of religions—effort that has finally culminated in my book Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity.  The result of that long process is that I have concluded that, regarding religious diversity, we have been asking the wrong questions.  I make this claim primarily against Christian theologians of religion, who have dominated that area of inquiry, with very few voices from other religions making contributions to theology of religion.  This is not because Christians have kept them out of the conversation but because critical and constructive thinkers from other traditions have been slow to enter it.
It seems to me that Christian theologians of religion have been occupied with the question of whether or not the different others are enough like them to be worthy of salvation as conceptualized by Christians.  Three main answers have been given: the others are just too different (exclusivism); the others have some similarity to us, but lack essentials of our approach (inclusivism); and the others are essentially like us at a deep level, whether of abstract thinking or of religious experience (pluralists).  In recent decades, a fourth option, that of simply withholding such judgments while learning more about the various religions has also become popular.  But all of these options, in one way or another, share the presupposition that differences among religions is a problem, even a mistake, and that unity or agreement would be preferable to difference and religious diversity.
But it seems to me that as theologians of religion, we need to start at the other end of the puzzle, conceding from the get-go that religious diversity is here to stay, is inevitable, normal, natural, and, therefore, not the major problem or issue.  The important questions are not about them, the others who are different from us, but about us.  Why do we dislike diversity so much? Why does it make us so uncomfortable? Why does difference so frequently elicit the response of ranking the different options hierarchically? And, most important of all, how can we cure our own discomfort with diversity?
Short of overcoming our own discomfort with diversity, there seem to be few viable options.  Many of the other solutions that have been tried—ethnic cleansing or holocaust, aggressive proselytizing, economic and political penalties for belonging to a disapproved religion, even hostility or indifference to religion in general—are deeply immoral and/or unsatisfying.  Instead, we need to develop a theology—a spiritual/religious worldview—that finds theological, not just historical or sociological justification, for prioritizing diversity and difference over unity and sameness.  Even more important, we need to practice the spiritual disciplines that help us overcome our egocentric preferences for a world in which everyone else would be just like us and can, instead, live comfortable in a world that accommodates vast differences.
Published with the author’s permission.