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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 123-126

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Beyond the Usual Alternatives?
Buddhist and Christian Approaches to Other Religions

Virginia Straus
Boston Research Center for the 21st Century

In regard to the three commonly accepted attitudes toward other religions—exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist—Terry C. Muck presents an extremely persuasive critique of the existing paradigm. He objects to the ideological stereotyping "The Paradigm" promotes. He proposes that we make a shift in the use of The Paradigm: Instead of labeling people and their points of view, it would identify modes of thinking about certain beliefs and practices, without negative connotations. He calls this a shift to an instrumental or functional use of The Paradigm. His cost/benefit analysis of this shift attributes to the benefit side of the ledger the following advantages: less name-calling, more engagement with the substantive ideas being presented, new openings for dialogue among Christians formerly separated from each other by negative use of The Paradigm, and possible resonance with the logic of non-Western traditions.

As I read these ideas I recalled a recent paper written by Miriam Levering, who, with no knowledge of Muck's novel and irreverent approach to The Paradigm, wrote about Buddhist thinking, answering Muck's question about whether his idea resonates with non-Western traditions. Levering presents a fascinating description and analysis of the position taken by certain Chinese Buddhist teachers and two contemporary Buddhist leaders, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. She says Buddhists, when making judgments about religions, tend to divide them into three parts: teachings, practices, and realization. In regard to teachings, she says Buddhists use discernment to evaluate other teachings. As Levering describes the use of discernment, she cites three modes of thinking that resonate rather well with Muck's instrumental approach. She says Buddhists distinguish among three kinds of teachings:

  1. Teachings that are wrong, unskillful, and do not lead to liberation (that is, they take an exclusivist position on a particular doctrine);
  2. Teachings that, while partial or shallow, can lead people to make progress on the path to liberation (an inclusivist position); and
  3. Fully liberative teachings (a pluralist position). [End Page 123]

In regard to practices, Levering indicates that the Buddhists she has studied do not apply discernment to practices. They all appear to take a pluralist position at all times on all practices, whether old, new, or yet to be invented. Although she does not say so, I am sure she would agree that this is not true of all Buddhist traditions. Pure Land, Nichiren Buddhists, and others have specific practices to which they are exclusively committed. In Levering's discussion of the third dimension of religions—the one she terms "realization"—she finds the Buddhist view to be primarily inclusivist rather than pluralist.

With this in mind, I would like to raise two questions that may provide a helpful starting point for discussion. First, how does the recent scholarship aimed at developing a fourth alternative relate to this paper?

Muck, with his justifiably jaundiced view of the use to which The Paradigm has been put, shares the dissatisfaction with the existing paradigm that has motivated this recent scholarly work. Yet he claims to be "skeptical that simply expanding The Paradigm by adding new forms would really get us anywhere." I wonder if he is not too quick to write off this promising work. In fact, I think this scholarship would help those searching for a fourth way (Levering included) and further refine the reflections they make on the pluralist position and also would suggest a fourth alternative mode of thinking to be used in the instrumental way Muck suggests.

Specifically, I am thinking of James Fredericks's work on what he calls comparative theology, which he considers a process or practice rather than a theory. In essence, he, like Muck, is shifting to an instrumental use. By emphasizing the comparative approach, Fredericks hopes to understand a religion 1 on its own terms without glossing over differences as in the pluralist approach. Another thinker on this subject, James Wiggins, would substitute the term...