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  • Religious Identity and Openness in a Pluralistic World
  • Rita M. Gross

In our final sessions after twenty years of working together, we have been asked to reflect in some way on identity and openness in a pluralistic world. Specifically, the question is, "How do I understand my own identity as a religious Buddhist or Christian in light of the fact that I am open to the validity of the beliefs held by the other tradition?"

Frankly, this puzzle seems like a no-brainer to me and always has. Religions are language systems, and no language is universal and absolute. End of problem. In one fell swoop, as we concede the relativity of all our language games, we also recognize that more than one language could be "valid," whatever that might mean. There is no reason to assume that all people speak my language and it would be illogical to claim that people who don't speak my language are deficient. The worth and utility of my language is in no way diminished because it is not the only language in the world. Language is a tool through which we communicate, and any language could be a useful tool, so long as we don't endow it with universal relevance, more freight than it can bear.

There may or may not be a formless absolute that grounds all finite existence. All religions assert that there is, whether as a being or as an experience. But beyond that assertion nothing can be determined because all such assertions must be expressed in language or some other limited expression—an expression in form. There is no other option. Much as we might long to transcend expression in form and leap into mind-to-mind transmission, in a public medium that is not possible. Many of us may have intuited such experiences of mind-to-mind transmission, but when we open our mouths to speak, we can only do so in the realm of form. And so we are stuck with our myriad expressions of a formless, transcendent absolute and cannot even determine for sure if we are talking about the same thing when we try to express the inexpressible.

Therefore, we are compelled to concede the limits of language. This is the solution to the problem of the coexistence of a strong individual religious identity with openness to the relevance of other religious languages. Other religions, as well as my [End Page 15] own, are nothing more than highly relative language systems. There is no logical or spiritual way for them to be anything more. It seems to me that copping to the limitations of language, to the inability of language ever to capture truth completely, is completely essential in the pluralistic world we now inhabit. It is hard to imagine how people could believe that the deity speaks Arabic, not Hebrew, or Hebrew, not Arabic, and biblical Hebrew (rather than any other version of Hebrew) at that! It is hard to imagine how people could believe that they have the actual words of Jesus in the red print in their new testaments, even though those words were originally written in a language he never spoke and were translated into an archaic English that we no longer speak and barely understand. Nothing but egotistical pride can drive such self-aggrandizement, such identification of my viewpoint, my verbal attempts to express my experience, with the eternal and ultimate Way Things Are.

In light of the historical and cross-cultural information that is now more than abundantly available, the only rational and humane conclusion to be drawn is that all religious institutions and creedal systems are human constructions dependent at least in part, if not wholly dependent, on the particular circumstances of those who construct and utter them. Therefore, they are of limited rather than universal relevance. Their cultural specificity is too obvious for any other conclusion to be feasible. Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and English are not universal languages, and only extreme hubris could claim the Formless Absolute speaks my language, not yours. Thus, even if our religions owe their genesis to some transcendent, nonhistorical source, they can be codified and captured only in a relative...


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