- Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity by Rita M. Gross
Robustly shared constellations of values are crucial to engendering and sustaining the collective action needed to respond effectively to such global predicaments as climate change, persistent hunger, and deepening inequality in a world of unprecedented wealth generation, and they are no less crucial to addressing the frustrations of those for whom immersion in these predicaments is a daily reality. In the face of such needs, many have turned to religious tradition for inspiration. Some have done so through fundamentalist interpretations that support exclusive truth claims and the ideal of values uniformity. Others have insisted, instead, on the merits of values pluralism in both turning to and returning from tradition in ways that will have significant and lasting contemporary global relevance. Rita Gross’s timely book, Religious Diversity, is a clear, creative, and compassionately informed argument for going beyond tolerating the fact of religious plurality to embracing religious diversity as a cardinal global value.
Engaging Religious Diversity is a greatly rewarding experience. Gross has brought to writing the book a depth of religious studies expertise that evidences decades of wide-ranging dialogue in the field, an ability to make complex religious-studies scholarship accessible to nonacademic audiences, and a sincerity of purpose that manages at once to be both challenging and resolutely inviting. Refreshingly, while she provides scholarly supports for each stage of her argument, Gross does not hide the personal concerns and commitments that inform her valorization of religious diversity behind a veil of academic objectivity. On the contrary, she openly acknowledges that the book “comes out of a lifelong, heartfelt project”—rooted in her own teenage experience of the impacts of religious exclusivism—of seeking the conditions for interreligious harmony (p. vii).
This willingness to reveal the intimate, spiritual motivations for writing Religious Diversity is helpful in framing the book for its intended, proximately American, readers. Religious Diversity is a book of advocacy that offers distinctively Buddhist advice about alleviating the discomforts and identity anxieties associated with the experience of religious plurality to a majority Christian and minority Jewish, Muslim, and agnostic readership that has little reason to be open to this “foreign” advice. By making clear that the central concerns of the book originated from within religious and cultural horizons that she shares with her intended readers, Gross’s subsequent journey through a half-century of “cross-cultural, comparative study of religions” and four decades of “immersion in Buddhist study and practice” (p. 12) is effectively qualified as one of both critical and caring return. As she affirms, her aim is not to advocate for Buddhism as having “all the answers to questions about religious diversity” (p. 10). Indeed, she devotes a section of chapter 3 (see especially pp. 45–51) to discussing [End Page 249] specific instances in which Buddhist interventions and institutions have served to foster—rather than dissolve—the conditions social and political conflict. Rather, her more modest aim is to bring back from her studies Buddhist insights that are practically useful in addressing the discomforts of religious difference and eventually in appreciating the value of religious diversity.
The central theses of the book are that religious diversity is a fact, that it is here to stay, and that it is not a flaw or mistake. Acknowledging that religious difference nevertheless remains a source of great discomfort and at times violent conflict, Gross’s central argument is that alleviating these discomforts and conflicts will entail a “Copernican revolution” in how we think about personal and religious identities and differences. Although religious tolerance is preferable to intolerance, tolerating difference is not enough. We need in addition “resources and means to become comfortable with and untroubled by the fact of [religious] diversity” (p. 82) and eventually capacities for actively appreciating the religious advantages of living in a world of religious plurality rather than one of religious “monocultures” or “monopolies” (pp. 233ff.). This revolution, she claims, does not require people changing “what...