Grounding Our Faith in a Pluralist World | John P. Keenan

Grounding Our Faith in a Pluralist World

The following is an excerpt from Grounding Our Faith in a Pluralist World by John P. Keenan. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

How in this world today can we affirm the faith that is in us—the faith handed down by our mothers and fathers, or another faith that we ourselves have sought and embraced—how can we affirm one faith and still remain radically open to the many other religious traditions in our world that claim, and indeed demonstrate in practice, their own validity as authentic guides for human living and dying?

How can we acknowledge the truths of many different faiths without denigrating the power of any one particular faith to convert and transform the lives of its followers?

How can we, from our limited perspective within a particular grounded faith tradition, understand other religions or adjudicate among them? Should we even try? Is it possible that our religions are only as culturally valid as our racial or ethnic identities? Are they something to be cherished, but in no way to be promoted to super-historical status?

These are questions that urge themselves upon members of any religious tradition who are committed to practicing their own faith but at the same time aware of the competing truth claims of different religions practiced among their neighbors and around the globe.

A multiplicity of religious faiths is not new. Nor are these questions new. What is perhaps new is that more and more people are willing to grant that valuable insights can be found in traditions other than their own. And those other traditions confront us with their own efficacious spiritual paths of practice, their canons of scriptures, and their own immense body of tradition. Today’s issue is existentially poignant, more so than the classical confrontations between Christian and Jewish traditions vis-à-vis the pagan world and its philosophies.

We have today come a long way from the exclusivistic denial that any truth could possibly exist in other people’s religions. Many have even moved beyond the stance of inclusivism, the acknowledgment that other faith traditions may incorporate at least some of our own truth. In recent decades, in fact, a rather large number of people have adopted the attitude of “pluralism,” which is the affirmation that a number of different religious traditions are indeed valid.

But there is a downside to the open-minded, pluralistic view: It has a tendency to lead people to doubt the importance of identifying with, or fully participating in, any faith tradition. If one tradition is just as valid as another, then what is the point of committing ourselves to any of them? In other words, a stance of religious pluralism can potentially lead to an attitude of “whatever.” If all religions are equally true and meaningful, some wonder, are they not just as equally meaningless?

I would submit, and it is the argument of this book, that we human beings possess no adequate viewpoint that can give us a paradigm for understanding the plurality of religious traditions. The discipline known as history of religions can study religions as phenomena of human life, but only at an objectifying distance, only at arm’s length. By intentionally bracketing issues of truth—setting such matters aside as inappropriate for scholarly consideration—the study of religions cannot raise or treat the conflict between an individual’s commitment to a particular faith and his or her awareness of the multiplicity of faiths. Commitment to a particular religious tradition, by the very intensity of that commitment, favors that faith above all others and tends to regard those others as somewhat suspect, or at least alien. How then can we proceed without insisting on some faith-abandoning neutrality?

What follows is not an argument for or against any specific theological or doctrinal viewpoint. It is rather a suggestion for changing the nature of the present interfaith discussion—its purview, its ground, its premise, its philosophical tenets. The approach recommended here would emphasize the limits of human knowing and would question the nature of questioning itself, to the end of grounding us each with intense commitment in our own vernacular faith tradition while at the same time opening us radically to the rich panoply of our neighbors’ faiths.

As an aid to this project of developing a new interfaith philosophy, I propose to employ Mahāyāna Buddhist thought, specifically its philosophy of mind and understanding, which can serve us well in considering issues of faith commitment and expressed truth. “Mahāyāna” means the Great (Sanskrit mahā) Vehicle (yāna) of Buddhism. This is the branch of Buddhism that is prevalent in East Asia. Its philosophies are indeed “philosophy” in the most literal sense of our term, for their central concern or affinity (Greek philos) is for awakening—that is, wisdom (sophia). Indeed, the goal of the Mahāyāna path is wisdom. Mahāyāna thought addresses itself to all who have minds and who seek to understand.

Although Mahāyāna philosophy originated within the Buddhist tradition, it can support any tradition that would attempt to explicate faith in understanding. Its nuanced approach to religious thinking reveals that all our usual attitudes toward other people’s faiths—exclusivism, inclusivism, even pluralism—are inadequate, in that they are grounded in our conscious or unconscious preconceptions of just how the universe fits together. Our common, though often unacknowledged, metaphysical assumptions determine the vantage point from which we regard other faiths. These assumptions in turn are based upon the necessity of having some vantage point from which to survey and arrange this world of many faiths.

“Mahāyāna philosophy will bring these assumptions of ours into question, confronting us with the limitations of human viewpoints and even of human language. It will lead us to realize that we must abandon our bloated claims to having captured truth in language, to having seen the big picture of reality. It can then finally bring us back around to a radical commitment to the power and truth of our own particular and grounded faith tradition, and at the same time encourage us toward a radical openness to, and respect for, the traditions of others.

At the same time, because such an approach serves the truth without pretended claims of capturing the one and only truth, each of us in our different traditions are freed to develop apologetic, and indeed missionary, approaches for our traditions that both recommend our faith and learn from the faiths of others. We all need to give reasoned accounts of the faith that is in us, and those reasoned accounts will depend on philosophies of human faith and understanding in all its languaged and cultured diversity. Apologetics endeavors to “defend” faith as a valid and authentic human commitment, while missionary efforts recommend that faith to others for their personal consideration.

In virtue of my own history, I am grounded in the Christian tradition and that since my infancy. I was raised in Roman Catholic schools and trained in the scriptures and traditions in a Catholic seminary; I now serve as a part-time priest in an Episcopal Church in the northernmost reaches of Vermont. Since the late 1960s I have been attracted to Buddhist thought and doctrine. After seminary, I studied Chinese language and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and then Buddhist traditions at the University of Wisconsin—to the point of identifying with Mahāyāna philosophy. I have many mentors in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions and am deeply grateful to all. This double orientation accounts for a greater emphasis on these two traditions in the pages that follow. In truth, this book is the work of a Christian theologian addressing primarily other Christians, but I hope that the Buddhist philosophy of faith offered herein may be helpful as well to people of other religious traditions.

About the Author

John P. Keenan is Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Newport, Vermont, and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. He was trained at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and in the Buddhist Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (1989), The Gospel of Mark: a Mahayana Reading (1995), and The Wisdom of James: Parallels with Mahayana Buddhism (2005).


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