Relating to other religions

A vintage article by Rowan Williams still seems fresh
May 20, 2009

Episcopalians increasingly back into the question of how Christianity should relate to other religions. An African-American woman priest claims dual membership in Islam and Christianity. A bishop-elect draws on the richness of Buddhist spirituality in his prayer life.

This is not new. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, introduced the spirituality of Eastern religions to mainstream America in the 1960s and his books have been bestsellers ever since.

It will come as a surprise to some that in 1990, a British academic theologian named Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote comprehensively on the "Trinity and Pluralism" in a 1990 volume called "Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered," edited by Gavin D'Costa, a Roman Catholic theologian of world religions.

The Williams article was in part a book review of Raimon Panikkar's "The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man." Panikkar, who spent many years in India as a Roman Catholic priest, is best known for his observation on his faith journey: "I ‘left' as a Christian, ‘found' myself a Hindu and ‘return' a Buddhist, without having ceased to be a Christian."

A lively, expansive, intellectually inviting quality pervades the Williams essay, characteristic of his writings before he was elevated to his present post. His trinitarian vision is not frozen in time, but represents a steady unfolding of the fullness of Christ, always being discovered, and not locked into any conceptual pattern that reduces the full worth of other religions.

Final knowledge of the Trinity's mystery "can never be seized as a single object to a single mind" and interfaith encounter should lead to concrete working together in ways "which does not involve the triumph of one theory or one institution or one culture."

Christians can invite people of other faiths to find in the life story and witness of Jesus and his community a way of unifying the diverse range of human struggles for integrity, without denying the uniqueness of other historical religions, he wrote.

Williams added, "we do not, as Christians, set the goal of including the entire human race in a single religious institution, nor do we claim that we possess all authentic religious insight." A constantly unfolding understanding of the Trinity is anchored in Christian tradition (the logos, or the word made flesh through Jesus) yet accepts constant change (through the spirit).

The living Trinity's action is neither exhaustive nor exclusive, but is grounded in "a hopeful and creative pluralism, its affirmation of the irreducible importance of history, of human difference and human converse." Most striking of all, for those who have watched the unfolding of central Anglican pronouncements of the last several years, is the Welsh cleric's conclusion.

If the object of dialogue is the discovery of how the Christian can intelligibly and constructively unite with the Buddhist or Muslim in the construction of the community of God's children, rather than arriving at an agreed statement, a religious meta-theory, or (worst of all) a single institution with a single administrative hierarchy, there is no contradiction in a "Trinitarian pluralism."

Williams writes glowingly of "the existence of a new people of the covenant (a people existing because of God's promise to be their ally), a new unit in which the process of the shared creation of free persons, adult children of God, could go forward." Williams specifically cites "the covenant sacrifice of the cross and resurrection," not the leaden document now bumping its way about the shallows between the so-called "Instruments of Unity" of recent origin.

The Williams essay is amazingly fresh, though written nearly two decades ago, and in a different setting from current controversies rippling through the Anglican Communion. Grounded in classical Christian thought, it reflects a generous orthodoxy, and sensitivity to some of the most combustible issues raised in present interfaith debates. It serves as a timely reference for those exploring the present, swiftly evolving interfaith encounter.