Monday, September 27, 2004

pluralist pizza with all the toppings?

What is the problem with sharing a pizza? (this is a parable, bear with me!) Everybody wants a slice, but not everyone wants the same topping. The short answer is to get something pretty uninspiring like a four cheeses or a margherita so no one is annoyed. But as they say, a compromise disappoints everyone. So is there an answer? Apparently so. In some restaurants (if you want to sponsor this blog, please email me) you can order a pizza with (wait for it) different toppings on each slice. The great thing about this is, everyone can enjoy their own favourite toppings and maybe even have a bite out of their neighbour's slice; hence discovering something new! This would not be possible with a boring compromise.

Now I will explain the parable. The pizza is the Ultimate Reality of the Universe. The people eating it are religious folk from all different climes, and the slices of pizza are their religions. The toppings are dogma, doctrine and beliefs. Now, I'm a Christian, and I value my faith very much. However, I'm not entirely comfortable with vaunting it over others who also have a faith that they value. Especially when I'm sure I don't entirely understand all world faiths. So, I would like to open myself up to a place where I can accept that non-Christian faiths may hold just as much truth as Christianity; I want to share the divine pizza with Jews, Hindus, Druids, Jains and everyone else. However, when we get to sharing our faith, we often find that our toppings have to be removed - apparently, we can't come to inter-religious discussion with such 'exclusive' beliefs as the Incarnation, the Trinity or the Atonement. John Hick, a pluralist scholar with a Christian background, has said that these doctrines must now be interpreted in a metaphorical or mythological way. Marcus Borg, another progressive pluralist Christian, says:

"As a Christian, I do not think Jesus is the only way. He is neither indespensable for salvation, nor unique (except in the sense that every person is unique). The exalted terms with which he is spoken of in the New Testament (as Messiah, Son of God, Lord, Word of God, Wisdom of God, light of the world, bread of life, and so forth) are not literal doctrinal truths, but are all metaphors pointing to what Jesus became in the experience and tradition of the early Christian movement."

Now I have a deep respect for both Borg and Hick, and indeed the site from which I pinched the above quote: The Christ Path. However, I'm not happy about ditching all the central tenets of Christianity before I engage in inter-faith dialogue. I wouldn't want Buddhists or Muslims to drop their central tenets either because that would result in the margherita option:

"The only authentic way to... discovery of unity is honest acceptance of religious differences and faithfulness to one's own religious heritage... Dialogue ceases when one or both partners affirm that their differences are unreal, and the dialogue degenerates into a futile exercise in diplomacy..." - Thomas Matus in Yoga and the Jesus Prayer Tradition (one of the best books ever! Buy it now at!)

The 'all the toppings' option is the emerging way of inter-religious dialogue, whereby prejudgements are made neither about the supremacy of one faith nor about the complete affinity of all faiths. The proof is in the pizza; only by dialogue can we ascertain the truths in other faiths, and we do so conscious of our own religious language. The Dalai Lama, who regularly engages in inter-faith programs, particularly with Christian monastic communities, has emphasised that religious differences are just as important as similarities. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has done the same.

In this way, the world religions "confirm and illumine one another"; so wrote Juan Mascaró, the translator of many eastern religious texts and a lecturer on the Spanish mystics. We can all try one another's toppings, and remain loyal to our own (mine is that Pizza Express one with an egg). Hence, Christianity can still remain a religion about salvation:

"Jesus and the Jesus event are the contingent working out and embodiment of God's universal salvific will (in the Christian sense of salvation) in the unavoidable concrete particularities of history. Such concrete embodiment is not required to make God gracious, but it is required for the graciousness of God to be causally effective in the economy of history as Christians understand it." - Robert Davis Hughes III, in the article that inspired this blog entry.

We can now fulfil the Great Commission by making disciples to the way of Christ and not converts to Christianity. A disciple of Christ would be someone such as Mahatma Gandhi who followed Jesus' teachings better than most Christians, and yet remained steadfastly Hindu until his death.

(Aside: I thought maybe if I continue to write about pizza, I will get noticed more...)

Did you find Hughes essay independently, or through one of my enthusiastic links to it?

(I'm currently reading "Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered - the Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions", which had been in mending at the library for *ages*; it appears to have come out of mending with all the pages still falling out, but I slipped it past the borrowing desk without anyone noticing that. It was compiled largely as a sort of response to "The Myth of Christian Uniqueness" which Hick and Knitter edited, and is a bit of a mixed bunch of essays, some rather better than others, some discussing positive experiences of dialogue, some simply Hick-bashing, but a lot of heavy-hitting names among the non-specialist contributors - Rowan, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Milbank &c)

(Congrats on being picked up and introduced to the world by Maggi Dawn, by the way - I'd somehow missed that!)


I found that interesting and profound, until i realised you were only talking about pizza for your own fame and fortune!

no seriously, some good thoughts there...
We can now fulfil the Great Commission by making disciples to the way of Christ and not converts to Christianity.too true

The trouble I have today with the small slices of the inter-faith works in my city are that, despoite being together in a room, each group has its own cliques, and despite being for the promotion of the act of being faithful, the group itself is a clique of sorts.

Does one of the problems lie with those within the group not publicising the group, or with others expecting that inter-faith means everyone compromising and everyone being marginalised crust (rather than a plurality of topping)? I'm getting a little tired of other friends of faith traditions saying "inter-faithers, what, the guys who can't do anything because they're all compromise and nowt else?", when the motto of the Southampton Council of Faiths is "Listen with respect. Speak with pride."

The inherent cliquey-ness of each faith group may only be nerves: people scared of trying a bite of their neighbour's pizza topping combination. I guess I should hope and pray that this improves with time...

take care.
love ken.

Thanks for your comments guys :)

Robert - you did indeed recommend that article to me, and I found it very enlightening! (I had it stuck in my favourites for ages and finally took the decision to print the beast and read it!) I'll check out that book you mentioned - although I should say again that I don't necessarily have a problem with Hick's aims of the equality of all faiths, just the method of proclaiming them entirely similar.

Sarah - I will be honest and admit that I nabbed that 'disciples vs converts' idea partly from the article I linked to and partly from a comment in Dave Tomlinson's 'The Post Evangelical'. :P

Ken - I think the main problem in those kinds of interfaith meetings might lie in the initial hurdle of figuring out what other people believe. Although books are a pretty rubbish way of experiencing other people's faith, I reckon everyone doing a bit of homework before hand couldn't do any harm. Of course, I've been deprived of official inter-faith meetings so far, but that should all change in the final part of this year!


Andy - That wasn't a book recommendation, I was just mentioning my current reading as an aside. Like I said, though good in parts, it's proved a pretty mixed and uneven bag.

Ken - I share some of your frustrations. The interfaith dialogue group I'm involved with currently feels as though it is petering out, and those who retain energy and enthusiasm for it seem to predominantly be those on the edges of their own faith communities (and to a lesser extent those whose own faith communities place a heavy emphasis on this approach, such as the Bahai. But even they haven't turned up yet this term).


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