- Rita Gross:Buddhist-Christian Dialogue about Dialogue
The following brief—all too brief—assessment of Rita Gross's contribution to our understanding and practice of interreligious dialogue is both professional and personal.
It is professional in that ever since I first heard her speak at a meeting of our Society in Hawai'i in 1983, I have tried to read everything she is written that has to do with religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue (especially with Buddhist-Christian dialogue). That is an impossible task; I cannot keep up with her; she is always coming up with something new—most recently her partially completed book manuscript Others, Identity, and Integrity: Surviving Religious Diversity (on which I am basing many of the following remarks).
It is personal in that, as is the case with so many of us in the SBCS, Rita and I have been both colleagues and friends. And we've "done dialogue" together, a lot of it—in projects such as the Myth of Religious Superiority conference and book,1 the religious pluralism seminars for seminary professors that we taught at Auburn Seminary in New York City for two summers, and, most recently, in inviting her to Union Theological Seminary for our Religions in the City course.
So, from what I have read and especially from what I have heard and felt as we engaged in conversations in the classroom or across a restaurant table, I, as a Christian theologian, have come to regard Rita as an invaluable partner in our Buddhist-Christian dialogue about dialogue. She keeps raising questions that, for a Christian theologian like myself, probe, stimulate, and sometimes sting, but keep me moving.
Let me first describe where she has challenged Christian theologians, and then how we Christians can both engage and learn from her.
The Danger and Impossibility of Exclusive (or Final) Truth Claims
Rita asks Christians (and Muslims) whether they are being self-contradictory—or maybe hypocritical, even imperialistic—when out of one side of their mouths they call for interreligious dialogue and out of the other insist that they have the God-given exclusive or final word on truth and human well-being. In this regard, she [End Page 79] makes three very clear and sobering claims that all religious persons committed to dialogue have to face.
First, claims of superiority, whether in their exclusivist or inclusivist or particularist forms, end up strangling diversity. In the opening chapter of her book manuscript, she states with her usual crispness and clarity: "Exclusive truth claims and religious diversity are mutually exclusive . . . To say it again, religious diversity and exclusive truth claims are incompatible and do not mutually survive or thrive."2 In making such announcements, she is very clear that she is not questioning truth claims in themselves; only claims that hold themselves up as superior or final over all others: "I am criticizing only the exclusive truth claims attributed to a religious belief, not the belief itself. . . . I don't even find it problematic when someone says, 'Jesus is my only savior.' Only when their belief somehow mutates into the claim 'only Jesus saves you and you must believe that' do I raise objections and become frightened."3
In this regard, she points out the discomforting contradiction between what religious people say about multiculturalism as citizens and what they say about multi-religionism as believers: "In our society now, there is at least a polite and superficial consensus that cultural diversity is here to stay and may enrich life. Minimally, people realize that cultural, ethnic, and class chauvinism create problems and are inappropriate, though they may be difficult to overcome. Regarding religious diversity, quite a different evaluation is often employed. Many people value the feeling that their religion is indeed superior to others and regard such religious chauvinism as a necessary component of religious commitment, or even a virtue to be cultivated among the faithful."4
Second, the monotheistic religions seem to be the biggest sinners. Among the religions that squelch diversity and dialogue under the weight of exclusive or final truth claims, Rita argues, the monotheistic faiths are the biggest offenders. "Historically, such claims [to absolute truth] are much more...