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April 1983    Vol. 12 No. 2    pp. 28–33 

The Study of Other Religions: Its Necessity and Problems

Ronald W. Neufeldt

As a Mennonite engaged in the study of world religions (the discipline which used to be referred to as comparative religions) I teach in the area of Hinduism in a religious studies department. This brings me face to face with the thorny issue of the relationship between my beliefs and perceptions and the beliefs and perceptions involved in other religious traditions, particularly those designated as “non-Christian.” From time to time I have attempted to grapple with this question albeit on a very amateur level. What follows is an attempt to put into writing some of my own reflections on this issue. In doing so, I do not profess to have any final or definitive answers. Perhaps we never will arrive at a final answer on this issue. Perhaps all we can do is work patiently hoping that each time we address the issue we might be able to understand a little more clearly and fully. I offer these reflections, not as a theologian, but as a historian of religions; that is, as one who is engaged in the task of trying to understand what it is people have believed that gives meaning and direction to their lives, how these beliefs were related to the daily lives of people, and how these beliefs have changed and developed over the centuries. I point this out because the issue is a large one and should be addressed from the perspective of a wide variety of disciplines and fields of study.

I intend to address myself principally to two questions. The first is, why should we be concerned about an understanding of other religious traditions? The second, what are some of the questions raised by the concern to understand other traditions for a person committed to Christianity, or in my case, for someone committed to Christian faith within the Anabaptist tradition?

This article is an invitation to come to grips with how other people understand themselves, the world around them, their relationship to that world, their destiny, and the means used to achieve that destiny. We need to understand how others have treated those questions which {29} we as Mennonites have traditionally regarded as “religious questions.”

While there are numerous religious traditions which stand as great monuments to man’s attempts to understand himself and his universe, strangely, our reaction to these monuments has often been hostility, indifference, or both. This reflects a rather serious inconsistency in our attitude toward the study of culture. For some reason we have had no problems with spending much time and money on familiarizing ourselves with aspects of Western culture, which traditionally have not been seen as Christian. For example, we have in our Christian educational institutions taken pains to develop an understanding of ancient Greek and subsequent Western philosophical traditions. This is as it should be. After all, we live in a world whose culture is rooted largely in the philosophical traditions of the West. If we are to speak to our Western world, we must take steps to understand that world in terms of its traditions. Yet, when the question of non-western religious traditions has been raised, the reaction has often been a rather hostile one, implying that it is neither profitable nor necessary to study other religions. Ironically, the Greek philosophical traditions which the church fathers took seriously and which we study have helped shape both the theology and practise of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons for giving attention to the religious and philosophical traditions of the West is that these phenomena are part of the world in which we live. In this latter part of the twentieth century, the argument applies equally to the so-called foreign or non-Christian religious traditions, particularly the Eastern traditions.

There is a sense in which we are living in a new age. There was a time when one could make a broad distinction between Eastern and Western culture because these designations referred to separate geographical entities which rarely, if ever, met. This is no longer the case and for two reasons. Our world has shrunk in size in proportion to the development of sophisticated methods of travel and communication. As a result, one can speak of a tendency toward the development of a world culture. Different modes of perceiving man and his universe from both East and West are now in constant interaction. Traditions which were once Eastern are now part of our own backyard. I am referring here not only to those off-shoots of mainline Eastern traditions which are viewed with suspicion in both the East and West (e.g., T.M., ISKCON, Yoga) but also to the growth in North America of longstanding Hindu and Buddhist traditions. These traditions have developed in the past decades through the expansion of oriental communities in North America and through the attraction of their teachings to non-oriental North Americans. There are for example, two large Buddhist communities in North America, the Jodo Shinshu and the Nichiren Shoshu, which have behind them centuries of development in Japan. 1 To this might be added the many other Buddhist groups which {30} enjoy long-standing lineages of spiritual masters. Whether we like it or not, we are faced with the challenge of the meaning and value of non-Christian religions. We can, of course, turn our backs on this challenge, but we will do so to the impoverishment of our own theological enterprise.

There is, however, a much more important issue in our openness and response to other religious traditions. If we are at all concerned about human welfare, human dignity, human fulfillment, world peace, and survival we must take seriously the fact that man is more than a social, political, and economic animal. Man is by nature deeply religious.

Within our study of history we have paid too little attention to religious questions. In fact, history textbooks have often given the impression that religious issues are a nuisance or, at best, a curiosity fit only for those who insist on dealing with the esoteric. This is rather astounding when one considers that history is the story of man. If we believe that man’s religions are a substantial part of human culture and that religious questions matter, then it is time we take religious diversity seriously.

If differences in this area are at the root of political misunderstanding, tension, and conflict, then the cultural area requires much greater attention by those concerned with world peace and community. 2

There are human concerns which demand that we make a concerted effort to understand our fellow human beings on the religious as well as other levels.

I would also insist that there are beliefs which we have traditionally held to be Christian, which demand that we take seriously what other peoples and their religions have to say to us. We assert that God is, after all, a God of all mankind, that all men are created in the image of God, that God has never left himself without a witness among the nations, that all men have been and are in some sense confronted by God, and finally, that God has revealed himself in the Christ figure to be a loving, reconciling and caring as well as a just God.

On the moral level, there follows an imperative towards reconciliation, unity, harmony, and brotherhood. At this level, all men are included: we strive to break down barriers, to close up gulfs; we recognize all men as neighbours, as fellows, as sons of the universal father, seeking Him and finding Him, being sought by Him and being found by Him. At this level we do not become truly Christian until we have reached out towards a community that turns mankind into one total “we”. 3 {31}

Surely these deep-seated beliefs of ours have something to say concerning our approach to other religious traditions. For the most part, our response to other peoples and their traditions has been characterized by the use of such words as diabolical, false, totally wrong, superstition, primitive and infantile. We have consequently become part of the bigotry which has characterized the attitude of the West to anything foreign or different. One still sees in use in our churches and our educational institutions the word “cults” applied to beliefs and traditions other than our own. If the term cult were used in its neutral anthropological/sociological meaning I would not quarrel with its use. Unfortunately in our use of the term too often we are neither neutral nor Christian. Rather we mean the term in the sense in which it is understood by the man on the street and used by the newsmedia—that is, a cult is not just something we regard as false, but also as dirty, conspiratorial, intrinsically wicked, and inhuman. By our very use of language we create barriers which militate against any understanding and reaching out. Understanding is a necessary prerequisite to reaching out. This means, understanding a person or group in its own terms as a starting point.

No period in the history of Christianity has ever been a full and complete expression of truth. We only perceive things partially. Yet, in the history of Christianity, we have often acted as though we have understood completely. We have had a penchant for seeing our understandings, interpretations and theologizings as ultimate and final truth. If we really believe in human finitude, perhaps other peoples and their religions will have something to teach us even concerning our understanding of Christianity and the revelation on which it is founded.

Finally, the so-called “new religions phenomenon” in our North American society has highlighted anew for us the issues of religious pluralism and religious liberty. In particular, the development of the anti-cult movement and its call for special anti-cult legislation and support for deprogramming raises for us the question of the extent to which we as Christians are willing to push the concepts of religious pluralism and liberty. This is particularly important for us as Mennonites who belong to the believers’ church tradition where the voluntary confession of faith on the part of adults has traditionally been the key to church membership. This tradition has serious implications for religious pluralism and liberty. It means that we should not join the anti-cult bandwagon. But it also means that we should treat other religious traditions with more seriousness and integrity.

Inevitably, the demand that one takes seriously other religious traditions will raise questions. It will call into question the exclusivist (and arrogant attitude) of evangelical Christians toward other religious traditions. We will have to ask ourselves whether the Christian church has been right when it has claimed that God has revealed himself only {32} to a few groups, in one book, and in one or perhaps two religious traditions. In effect, we will have to ask ourselves again what we understand by the concept of the revelation of God.

Along with the concept of the revelation of God, we will also have to reassess our understanding of how God works and has worked in history. We must take into account not only the tremendous religious diversity which has been discovered since the beginning of the nineteenth century as well as the discoveries of archaeology and paleontology concerning the age of man and this world. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith has asked, if we believe that God is the creator and that he is active in history, can we claim that he is totally absent from any history? 4 In what sense can we see God at work in cultures of other times and place?

Inevitably, a sensitivity to other religious traditions will also raise questions about the meaning of salvation and the means of salvation. Has our understanding of salvation been too restrictive? Have we attempted to program the saving work and grace of God along very narrow channels? Or will we be able to say as a result of our experiences with people of our traditions, that people outside of the Christian church do in fact live in the presence of God, that they are in fact godly people? Will we be able to realize that our understanding and interpretation of God and his ways are exactly that—only an understanding and an interpretation? Or will we confuse our understandings and interpretations with revelation as such—a position which has, in the history of Christianity led to much intolerance, arrogance, self-righteousness, insensitivity, hatred and in some cases, bloodshed?

Scholars in Biblical studies have pointed out that there is within the Bible a universalistic message that has been largely ignored, particularly by evangelical churches. If this is so, one must ask what implications this larger message has for our attitude and approach to traditions other than our own. It would seem to call into question the intolerant exclusivism which has too often characterized our attitude to other religions. However, I am also dissatisfied with the concept of the “anonymous Christians,” even though it takes the universalistic message of the Bible seriously. It argues that people of other faiths are Christians without knowing it. I find that to be a singularly condescending and insulting concept. Should a Hindu, for example, suggest to me that I’m alright because I’m really an anonymous Hindu, my first response would be to suggest to him that he is not taking me seriously. In fact, this view ignores the differences that exist among religious traditions.

An alternative approach, would be to work at understanding traditions other than our own without the assumption that these traditions are somehow heathenish, demonic, or totally wrong. This leads us to recognize obvious similarities as well as clear differences between our {33} own tradition and the traditions of others. It is the fact of similarities which has the greater implications for our theology and for how we understand God and His work throughout history. This is what is meant by religious dialogue.

Philip H. Ashby spells out some of the questions which are raised when we examine religious positions other than our own with integrity:

To what extent will the legitimate demands of their own religious faith allow them to recognize the Religious Knowledge claimed by other religions with whom they seek to work? Are they prepared to face squarely the fact that despite many similarities in the fundamental presuppositions of the major religions there are conflicts which are formidable and far reaching? And, most important of all, are they fully aware that by embarking on such a course they face the probability that over the years they will be forced to give up certain distinctive claims for their religion which they now hold? 5

It seems to me that Ashby is suggesting an approach to other religious traditions which demands a good bit of realism and honesty, a realism and honesty which transcends the very restricted outlook that has characterized much of the history of Christianity and our own history as Mennonites. Such honesty requires that we admit to our uncertainties in approaching other religions, that we make an honest attempt at understanding our past approaches to other religions and the implications of these approaches for how we view God, the world, ourselves and our fellow man. Some feel that this kind of honesty is detrimental to one’s faith. That need not be the case. Indeed, an openness or willingness to continue to learn from one’s experiences, whether these come in the form of personal relationships, events, or formal studies, lies at the heart of faith. To cease to be open is to make a transition from faith to dogmatism or to a closed system of theology which may have very little to teach because it no longer has anything to learn.

REFERENCES

  1. Charles Prebish, American Buddhism (North Scituate, Massachusetts: Duxbury Press, 1979), p. 185.
  2. Owen C. Tomas, (ed.), Attitudes Toward Other Religions, Some Christian Interpretations (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 1.
  3. Willard G. Oxtaby (ed.), Religious Diversity, Essays by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 19.
  5. Philip H. Ashby. The Conflict of Religions (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1955), pp. 192-193.
Ronald Neufeldt is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary, Alberta, and an active member of the South Calgary Mennonite Brethren Church.

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