- The Process of Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
The interaction among people of different religions is one of the most pressing of the world's problems. In the absence of constructive, respectful conversation and understanding, religious peoples fight. The problem is how to get people of differing religions to speak to one another respectfully and constructively—and act toward one another peacefully and constructively, and feel loving and respectful toward one another. So the issue Paul Ingram addresses in this book, the piece of that larger problem encompassed by relationships among Christians and Buddhists, is important. It is important even though historically Buddhists and Christians have had a good relationship, comparatively speaking. Ingram's work shows us how to build on that largely healthy relationship and make Buddhist-Christian interaction a model for the interactions among other religions. [End Page 146]
In short form, Ingram says that when religious peoples talk to one another their tendency is to fall into one of two ditches on the road to peaceful coexistence: one ditch is essentialism, the other is relativism. Historically, and currently, far and away the most common ditch has been essentialism, the idea that my religion is right and yours is wrong. Religious peoples, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or whatever, think their religions are the right ones. This essentialism can create conflict, although the extent to which that is the primary reason for conflict is debatable, and it is extremely difficult to isolate essentialism as a causative factor from other equally destructive factors such as ethnicity, nationalism, and tribalisms of all sorts. But that's quibbling. Let's stipulate that essentialism probably isn't the most productive way to relate to people of other religions, as Ingram does, and move on from there.
The other ditch, relativism, is definitely the less frequented ditch, although it is becoming increasingly full of modern theologians, buddhalogians, philosophers of religion, and such, who are appalled (definitely not too strong a word) at what they perceive as the evils of essentialism. Yet in so vigorously pulling themselves and us up and out of the essentialism ditch, they scurry across into the other ditch that sees all religions as equally valid, as systems of liberation in their own right, so different, and so dependent on historical and contextual constructivism, that they cannot even speak to one another. In relativistic systems religious groups become incommensurable to one another, and all we can do is accept them and pleasantly wave to one another on our way to whatever end each is advocating. Of course, this mere acceptance is not the answer either, since our goal, the road to peaceful and constructive interaction, is missed altogether.
Ingram is advocating that road—he calls it the pluralism road—and he describes it as the halfway house between essentialism and relativism. He offers some rich comparisons between his position and those of others, referring to (in order of appearance) Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Richard Rorty, John Cobb, Raimundo Pannikar, John Hick, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Paul Knitter, Huston Smith, Gordon Kaufman, Stanley Samartha, Marjorie Shuhocki, Rosemary Ruether, Paul Tillich, Jurgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, John Keenan, Winston King, Seiichi Yagi, Masaaki Honda, Lynn de Silva, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, and members of the Kyoto school. His main exemplars, those he agrees with and utilizes the most, are three: process theologian Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, and philosopher of religion John Hick. Hick is a well-known figure in these scholarly circles, Whitehead is known, and Lakatos largely a newcomer to the conversation.
Many if not most would agree with Ingram that what he calls the pluralism road—some point between essentialism and relativism—is the road to be on, without totally agreeing with him as to what that road is. He provocatively argues that being on the pluralism road means that to some degree one incorporates elements of essentialism (particularly the idea that not all religious ideas are necessarily good and that intellectual and volitional judgments must be made) and relativism (particularly the idea that other religions are worth exploring and...