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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 282-287

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Book Review

Wrestling with the Ox: A Theology of Religious Experience

Wrestling with the Ox: A Theology of Religious Experience. By Paul O. Ingram. New York: Continuum, 1997. 276 pp.

Paul Ingram has set out a formidable task for himself. Even though he identifies himself as an historian of religion, he has chosen to push beyond phenomenological description of the religious enterprise to make a prescriptive proposal, a theology that can illuminate and guide the great faith traditions. Simultaneously, his proposal aims at interpreting the necessity and the outlines of interreligious dialogue. Such dialogue, he argues, is not a peripheral enterprise reserved for a handful of religious exotics. It is central to understanding any and all religious traditions in the postmodern world.

All religions have been discovered to reflect inescapable historical and cultural relativization. The old assumptions of unconditional claims and absolute assertions are no longer tenable. The world shared by all the religions today is characterized by an unavoidable religious pluralism. It is in this context that religious affirmations must be expressed and religious life embraced. According to Ingram, this is no accident. It is an ontological inevitability. As process philosophy and its roots in modern physics [End Page 282] --and, interestingly, the Buddhist recognition of dependent co-arising (pratitya samutpada)--understand, reality is unending process. This entails the inevitable relativization and contextualization of everything--including the religions. The theological questions that emerge are crucial ones. Among them: Is there an ultimate unity underlying this diversity, generic features common to all conditioned forms of religious faith and practice? What does religious pluralism show about the nature of the Sacred and of being human? Is any one religious Way best or is this even a question worth pursuing?

Ingram proposes that the answers to these questions and the only viable response to religious pluralism can be found in interreligious dialogue. He does not even consider religious exclusivism as a viable option. This means only "inclusivist" and "pluralist" approaches are worthy of consideration, approaches that he names the "theology-of-religions model" and the "primordial model" respectively. Both recognize the problem of the relativity of belief and seek to overcome it. Both see the importance of interreligious dialogue as fundamental to religious affirmation. But Ingram rejects the theology-of-religions model because, despite its openness to other religions and its willingness to have interreligious encounter shape the affirmations and life of the believing community, it is self-encapsulated. One moves out from a particular community of faith, "passing over"--to use the language of John Dunne--into another religious Way in order to be creatively transformed, but only to return once again to the original community of faith. One stays within "the theological circle" (Tillich), one does not get beyond it. Some Christians, accordingly, make a blanket assertion about the ultimate and unsurpassable lordship of Christ despite their indebtedness to the creative transformation that interreligious dialogue can produce.

Ingram clearly prefers the "primordial model" even though he recognizes that some of its classical proponents have made it vulnerable to criticism. Aldous Huxley's "perennial philosophy" and Sri Ramakrishan's assertion that "all paths lead to the summit" will not do. Huxley assumes that the mystical recognition of the ineffable common root of all religion critiques the historical and culturally relative expressions of this ultimate reality. But Huxley's attempt to make an end run around the problems involved won't work. His approach is ahistorical, makes uncritical assumptions about the nature of mysticism and religious experience, and is totally undialogical. The particularities of the differing religious Ways are dissolved in a universal solvent that is anything but self-evident. The same holds true for Ramakrishnan's subtly imperialistic (and very Hindu) model. It too has no room for religious particularity and imposes a pre-conceived common denominator on the multiplicity of religious phenomena.

Ingram derives his term "primordial model" from Huston Smith's argument that a "primordial tradition" can be discerned underlying the multiplicity and variety of religious expressions. His is...