Circling the Elephant | John Thatamanil

Circling the Elephant

The following is an excerpt from Circling the Elephant by John Thatamanil. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Circling the Elephant repudiates religious isolationism and calls for thoroughgoing vulnerability. If I am truly to be open to the mystery of the infinite, I must be vulnerable to the mystery of my neighbor. If I am to move ever more fully into the divine life, I must move toward my neighbor in receptivity and love. No pilgrimage to God apart from a pilgrimage toward the holiness of my neighbor. I must entertain the possibility that you know what I do not know precisely because your vocabulary and practices are not identical to mine. A minor marginalized note in my tradition is sometimes a symphony in yours. Even the line between what is yours and what is mine is provisional and remains ever in flux. We negotiate those lines together and cross them routinely in life and learning. Inside and outside, yours and mine, are relative not absolute categories. Our “religions” are not ontologically reified and isolated; they are distinct but not separate. To contest religious insularity and to cultivate interreligious conviviality, we must interrogate racialized understandings of religions as reified entities that can be hierarchically ordered. Genealogy of religion dismantles the notion that there has always existed a fixed set of world religions together with some other local or indigenous religions, all of which can be rank-ordered on a scale of truth and soteriological power. It also disrupts the notion that each religion is governed by a static transhistorical grammar that persists even when surface details change. Claims for the existence of such grammars are essential to theological strategies that suggest that the mixing of ingredients from more than one religion is a recipe for nonsense and incoherent gibberish. Neither is it credible to argue that each religion possesses but a single worldview or interpretive scheme. There is neither a single Christian worldview nor a single Buddhist worldview. A key plank in that critical argument is the claim that religious traditions are enduring arguments about a historically fluid repertoire. What should be in our repertoire, and how should we employ that repertoire to arrive at comprehensive qualitative orientation? What interpretive schemes can be generated by means of our repertoire, and how can those schemes be installed in individual and social bodies for the sake of right comportment to reality rightly understood? Traditions are arguments about these questions. This way of imagining religious traditions allows for both distinctiveness and relation. Not everything in my repertoire is in yours or yours in mine. The cross is in my Christian repertoire not in your Hindu repertoire. Ahimsa is in your Hindu repertoire but not my Christian repertoire.

Except, of course, matters are never so neat. As we saw from our study of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, elements from our repertoires float across boundary lines. Leo Tolstoy writes about the Sermon on the Mount, American abolitionists and pacifists read him and send him their writings. He is struck by the ongoing and undiminished vitality of nonviolent readings of the Sermon within certain American communities. He includes extended excerpts from those writings in his treatise, The Kingdom of God Is Within You. A young Indian lawyer in South Africa reads those writings and incorporates a reading of the Sermon and its preacher into his experiments in satyagraha. His reading and performance of the Sermon generate a new Christology of Jesus as the exemplary satyagrahi. The lines between Christian and Hindu repertoires are muddied. Gandhi’s reading of Jesus as satyagrahi and his glad Hindu discipleship to that Jesus and his construction of new therapeutic regimes for cultivating the capacity for nonviolent resistance are expressions of genuine interreligious creativity. Novel insight is birthed by the open-handed giving and receiving of religious gifts. Then, Gandhi’s new reading and performance of The Sermon on the Mount are received back again in the US context by King’s teachers and then by King himself. As a result, Christians know more about Christ with Hindu help than they did before. Here, the central allegory is, if not disrupted, then complicated: we can no longer think of religious traditions as isolated blindfolded persons, each focused on one aspect of the elephant because each tradition, in its spiraling around ultimate reality, begins to interpenetrate each other. Relational pluralism acknowledges this reality: relation entangles. What enters into relation is transformed.

…As we study these transformations, circling, circling, we might find ourselves wondering how we ever came to think that we could truly understand the religious treasures of our own traditions until we gave them away and received them back again, enriched and transformed. Just where again exactly is the line between what is mine and what is yours? How did we persuade ourselves that we could claim to love you without learning to cherish and appreciate what you treasure? I cannot claim to love my neighbor if I disregard and dismiss my neighbor’s wisdom. I can know neither God nor even myself apart from you. If no religion is an island, then postures of religious insularity and isolationism must be surrendered. It follows then that what I say about you and your tradition (theology of religious diversity), my knowledge and appreciation for what you know of ultimate reality (comparative theology), and the work of coming to new intimacy with ultimate reality (constructive theology) cannot and must not be severed. I need you if I am to understand myself. I need you if I am to understand God. Reality seems so structured that these operations are inseparable.

That interdependence between knowledge of God and knowledge of neighbor is the deep meaning of relational pluralism. Relational pluralism affirms that our traditions grow as they learn from each other; that has always been the case. What God or reality has joined together, let no human being put asunder. There’s nothing new in relational pluralism; relational pluralism merely refuses to arrest processes of mutual transformation by which our traditions came to be in the first place. Such mutual transformation not only deepens our knowledge of each other but also leads to deeper knowledge of ultimate reality. Knowledge about each other is enriched by our conversation with each other; conversation with each other deepens our knowledge of the divine life. We must circle the elephant together if we are to understand each other, let alone the elephant. If I am to know why you name the elephant as you do, I must strive to know as you do. That requires that I attempt to, insofar as possible, walk over to your side of the elephant. In truth, this means I must become multiple. Without forsaking fidelity to what I have come to know through my tradition, I must risk being transformed by coming to know what you know.

Praise for Circling the Elephant

“With rigorous research and wisdom from years of Hindu-Christian-Buddhist trialogue, Dr. Thatamanil presents a trinitarian theology of religious diversity that is expansive, provocative, and imaginative. It is deeply rewarding to witness how intra- and inter-religious dialogues occur in this creative theologian’s mind simultaneously on many levels. The book pushes the envelope of the ways constructive theology can be done!”
Kwok Pui-lan, Dean’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

“Rooted in the expansive diversity of our actual human existence, John Thatamanil offers a new approach to the well-worn paths of theologies of religious pluralism and comparative theology. Challenging the very category of ‘religion’ from out of the near-infinite ways we humans orient ourselves in the world, this provocative proposal invites us to consider what it might still mean to be ‘religious’ when the unbounded encounter with the beauty of the particular is data for theological reflection. As complex and complicated as our moment in history, Circling the Elephant is an invitation to embrace the bewildering divine and human with a creativity that just might make us want to be better people.”
Jeannine Hill Fletcher, author of The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America

“Insightful, skillful, and convincing, this book could serve as an anchor for a course.”

“Circling the Elephant is a compelling case for interreligious learning in our times, grounded in a convincing critique of religious traditions as impermeable historical fortresses. Theological arguments for openness to the wisdom of our neighbors’ traditions are richly illustrated by stories of the creativity and transformation that flow from such deep human encounters. Thatamanil’s work is a new and valuable resource for comparative theology, theologies of religious diversity, and constructive theology across traditions.”
Anantanand Rambachan, St. Olaf College

About the Author

John ThatamanilJohn J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament; An East–West Conversation. He teaches a wide variety of courses in the areas of comparative theology, theologies of religious diversity, Hindu-Christian dialogue, the theology of Paul Tillich, theory of religion, and process theology. He is committed to the work of comparative theology—theology that learns from and with a variety of traditions.

2 Responses to Circling the Elephant | John Thatamanil

  1. don salmon April 8, 2021 at 1:55 pm #

    As our esteemed webmaster is a co-nondualist (co- with Father Rohr) I thought it might be interesting to look at Dr. Thatamanil’s comments from a non-dualist (non) perspective.

    This is only an anecdotal observation, but it seems to me that the American religious scene might be seen as a spectrum from extreme dualism (God is WAY far away, way up there in Heaven far from us mortal sinners wallowing in the dirt of our sins) to extreme non dualism (there’s no me, no God, no world, just That)

    Somewhere in the middle (The Middle Way, perhaps?) is an integral non duality, where individuality is celebrated yet at the same time there is no separation from the cosmic and transcendent God (individual, cosmic and transcendent – almost sounds like a Trinitarian view).

    So rather than trying to see how individual religions relate or differ, perhaps we might look at – right now, here, in this timeless moment – an integral non duality manifests.

    Do I see the extreme dualist religionist as “other”? Do I see any other as truly “other” (Holy Other or otherwise; apologies to Karl Barth and Rudolf Otto)?

    Can I embrace all as being inseparable from the particular form known as “Don” without losing the infinite value of this unique individual manifestation of Her? (Him or It, whatever you prefer)

    On another plane, am I othering my anxiety? Othering hatred, othering sadness, fear, craving, loneliness?

    “Inseparability” is kind of pointless if it’s just a theory. What does it mean to embrace anxiety, fear, craving, hatred, as inseparably woven in the web of creation?

    Perhaps it’s not even anxiety, fear, craving, etc but merely labels?

    Perhaps it’s not even Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism but merely labels?

    Perhaps it’s not Mike Morrell, Don Salmon, John J Thatamanil but merely labels?

    I’ll end with a little story.

    A few years ago, I met a former evangelical preacher. He had been “groomed” for some years to be a big star on the traveling evangelical circuit. Well, you know, if you cheat on your wife, this doesn’t necessarily get you bounced from evangelical stardom. The problem was, he was caught, found out. So, yes, he got bounced from the possibility of stardom in that sphere.

    When I met him, he was searching for… he didn’t know what. He seemed unusually open at that point so I asked him a question:

    “Why is it that among so many conservative evangelicals I’ve met, they seem intent on putting God as far away from themselves as possible?”

    He gave me some theologically pat answers, but he could see that was not going to suffice. And when I asked him about the Kingdom of Heaven being within, or Paul’s comment that “God is He in whom we live and move and have our being,” well, it didn’t go much better” (I’ve talked to Greek scholars who say the Kingdom of Heaven is AMONG us, or God is he BY whom… etc – but I didn’t see that really leaving behind altogether the non dualist implications of those verses)

    So I said to my new preacher friend, “would you be willing to try something?” (and to you, dear reader, would you be willing to try something?)

    Listen to the sounds in the environment. Don’t get caught up in analyzing or labeling, just enjoy the sheer sensuous quality of sound. If I may quote the Buddha, “In hearing, let there just be hearing.”

    Enjoy this. Let it persist for a bit…..

    Now, redirect attention to the thoughts arising in the mind. Instead of focusing on the verbal meaning of the thoughts, hear them merely as sounds – “blah blah yada yada yada da da da da da da blah blah blah.” They don’t usually have much more significance than that anyway, so you should feel safe listening to sounds this way.

    Just hear the pure “sound” of thoughts arising and passing away.

    Now, look closely –

    Can you find a distinct boundary between the “sounds” IN “here” and the “sounds” arising OUT “there?”

    Can you even clearly distinguish IN here and OUT there, or is it all here – one sphere of vast, unbounded awareness which is undulating ceaselessly and joyfully as sound, light, tactile vibrations, etc?

    Now, bring to mind the oft quoted description of God as omnipresent – feel the omnipresence of HERE and of AWARENESS and feel the Presence of all “this.””

    Where is there an “other”?


    “Those who see all creatures in themselves
    And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
    Those who see all creatures in themselves
    And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
    How can the multiplicity of life
    Delude the one who sees its unity?”

    Isha Upanishad, translated by Eknath Eswaran

  2. don salmon April 8, 2021 at 1:58 pm #

    I didn’t see a way to edit comments, and there was one paragraph with a mistake big enough to make it almost unintelligible, so here’s a better version:

    So rather than trying to see how individual religions relate or differ, perhaps we might look at – right now, here, in this timeless moment – how an integral non dual (non) perspective might manifest:

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