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Interreligious Theology: The Future Shape of Theology

University of Glasgow

1. Interreligious Theology: Whither and Why?

“Interreligious theology” refers to that type of theological inquiry which draws on more than one religious tradition, in principle and ideally on the whole history of religions. The lecture argues that interreligious theology will become increasingly more important because it reflects the unstoppable trend of religious pluralization, offers a sound alternative to fundamentalism and relativism, reduces inter-religious conflict potential and emphasises the truth-seeking dimension of inter-faith dialogue. Interreligious theology rests on four cardinal principles: It extends to the religious other a theological credit of trust and relies, against some postmodern trends, on the unity of reality. It is located in interreligious discourse and is of a processual, open-ended nature. For the remainder, the lecture deals with methodological issues. In contrast to intercultural philosophy, interreligious theology is perspectival by taking into account the confessional nature of religion. It is imaginative in trying to look through the religious other’s eyes. It is comparative in seeking reciprocal illumination and it is constructive in aiming at mutual transformation. 

The following three lectures will exemplify the principles and methodological stances of interreligious theology in focussing on the confession of Muhammad as the Prophet, Jesus as the Son of God and Gautama as the Buddha. Following closely the course of inter-faith dialogue they take apparent conflicts as an “invitation to synthesis” and ask to what extent these religious affirmations can be become meaningful interreligiously. The concluding fifth lecture will introduce a new interpretation of religious diversity. It supports the aims of interreligious theology by pointing out a strong continuity between inter-religious and intra-religious diversity.  

2. The Prophet and the Son

The Christian claim that Jesus is the Son of God seems to be as unacceptable to Muslims as to Christians the Muslim claim that Muhammad is the final Prophet. The underlying reason is a conflict between the Muslim rejection of a divine sonship and the Christian affirmation of it. And this rejection of divine sonship is a major factor in the Christian rejection of Muhammad’s prophetic role. The lecture questions the widespread assumption that the conflict is irreconcilable. New light is shed on it by asking whether both sides have the same understanding of “Son”. The divide can be bridged if it is realised that there is a considerable consensus behind the reasons that motivate the reciprocal rejections. Both sides are concerned about retaining God’s oneness and transcendence which are two interlinked predicates of divine nature. And both are also concerned about how to understand the divine presence in the act of divine revelation, be it through the word that becomes text, as in the case of the Prophet, or the word that becomes flesh, as in the case of the Son. The confessed finality of both, the Prophet and the Son, can be interpreted as instrumental to the finality of divine mercy, which would make a synthesis feasible. 

3. The Son and the Buddha

In the past Christian assessments of the Buddha have been as ambiguous as Buddhist assessments of Jesus: harsh rejections are found next to clear evidence of spiritual attraction. The lecture deals with obstacles that hinder a Christian acknowledgement of Gautama as the Buddha and asks what such acknowledgement would imply. Interreligious dialogue has led Christians to see the Buddha as a figure in which they, as in the case of Jesus, encounter “a mind from beyond” – not only as a teacher of liberation from attachment, but also as a manifestation of ultimate reality revealing itself in the human sphere as a unity of guiding wisdom and saving compassion. Buddhist attempts at understanding and endorsing the Christian confession to Jesus as the Son of God are analysed by discussing the positions of three progressive Buddhist voices, John S. Yokota, Bhikkhu Buddhadāsa and the current Dalai Lama. While a Christian acknowledgement of the Buddha questions the doctrine of Jesus as the unique saviour, a Buddhist recognition of Jesus as the Son of God expands the horizon of the Buddhist understanding of liberation. In both cases, the spiritual basis of such reciprocal endorsement is identified as the complementarity of detachment and commitment.

4. The Buddha and the Prophet

Although Buddhism and Islam know each other much longer than Buddhism and Christianity, a theological dialogue between the two religions is still in its infancy. In the past reciprocal judgements have often been negative but there are also some significant exceptions. In the twentieth century it was in particular the so-called “perennialist” or “traditional school” which has pointed out the need and possibility of deepening a reciprocal understanding of each other’s teachings. A crucial foundation is provided by Islamic mysticism and its accompanying metaphysics, known as “the unity of being” which has some affinity to Mahāyāna Buddhist ontology. Yet this leaves open the question of how the “Buddha” and the “Prophet” as religious categories may expand, complement or correct each other. While there is a longer tradition within Islam to see the Buddha as another prophet, the document “Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism”, released in 2010, opens up an interesting way of how from a Muslim perspective the Buddha can be interpreted as a messenger who manifests divine revelation in a form in which it takes a distinctly spiritual appearance that resonates with Sufi spirituality. On the Buddhist side understanding the nature of prophethood deepens the challenge that Buddhists have sensed in their encounter with Christianity. Apparently the different relations of Islam and Buddhism to Christianity have an impact on the relation between Buddhists and Muslims. Interreligious theology has thus the potential of raising theological issues which emerge from bilateral relations to a new level of awareness as it is cultivated by a multireligious discourse. 

5. Towards a Fractal Theory of Religious Diversity

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot introduced the term “fractal” for structures of strict or approximate self-similarity across different scales. Irregular fractal structures are found in a number of natural phenomena as in coast-lines, crystals or plants. The intercultural philosopher Elmar Holenstein has observed that cultural differences often replicate themselves within cultures, which would indicate that cultural diversity may also display a kind of fractal structure. Is this transferable to religious diversity? As the lecture will show, pioneering scholars of comparative religion made a number of observations which would indeed confirm a fractal theory of religious diversity, that is, the theory that essential features characteristic of the differences between religions are also found in analogous form within the religions and even, to some extent, at the level of individual religiosity. A fractal theory of religious diversity turns out to be rather fruitful for the further development of interreligious theology and harbours a strong explanatory potential. It explains why there is usually a starting point within the home religious tradition that helps to understand the religious other and why interreligious enrichments is possible without implying the incorporation of something completely alien. A fractal understanding presents a meaningful alternative to various theories of cultural and/or religious incommensurability and opens up a whole range of perspectives for further theological or non-theological research into the segments and particulars of religious diversity.

Videos of the lectures are available here




Religious Pluralism and Interreligious Theology

Maryknoll, NY
Orbis Books
  • University of Glasgow