First Things First

The rise of religious pluralism in societies has created a new climate for theologians. As prominent theologian Langdon Gilkey says:

If I were asked what are the biggest changes in theology since the first half of the twentieth century, since the great neoorthodox days, I would mention, first, the concern for the issue of the pluralism of religions, and second, the deep, and very new, theological concern with nature.

One of the primary issues that is often comfortably ignored in a homogeneous religious environment is the starting point for a theology. Every theology starts somewhere. That starting point varies from theologian to theologian. Most theologians grow up within some religious tradition and that is a natural starting point. If that is the case then there will be a natural bias towards the worldview/ontology of that tradition. In the past, this has not been much of a problem because religious traditions tended to be isolated from one another, usually geographically. In isolation, the fundamentals that a theology is based on rarely come into question.

Today things are different. With the advent of globalization of businesses and the ability to travel and move freely about most of the world, adherents are seeing the rise of religious pluralism in their communities. That pluralism calls into question an uncritical acceptance of a particular starting point within a tradition. This is especially acute when the foundations of a particular theology rely heavily on scripture. In the world, scriptures abound. We have the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao, etc. In many cases, each of these has a different starting point for their understanding of reality and its relationship to the divine. Those points of departure are significantly formative in what follows in the theology or religious philosophy. For those theologians who wish to be relevant in a global environment, it is no longer possible to avoid defending why they start where they do in their theology.

If embraced, that defense, however, has gotten much more complex. It is not enough to just appeal to some scripture as authoritative. To just say that one’s worldview or ontology is an authoritative starting point because the Bible says so, or the Koran or the Upanishads shuts down dialog between the world religions and is a particular problem when trying to persuade those who are looking for a religious home. Something outside the traditions must be offered. Once that is done then a true dialog can ensue. But where could such a starting point come from? I think it has to come from experience. Unless a theologian claims supernatural authority (which also shuts down dialog) for how they begin their theology then experience is all there is. For many people, this would create a great discomfort. They find security in giving de facto authority to their particular tradition’s take on reality. A modern theologian can not afford to adopt that position. Theologians must decide whether they are first theologians, per se, or first Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. theologians. If they claim to be theologians, per se, first then that broadens the epistemic issues they must address. If experience is the only valid starting point for third-millennium theology, then how can one proceed?

I think the first step is to recognize that all explications of theology and religious philosophy found in the scriptures and writings also proceeded from a personal analysis of experience. There are obviously many human experiences that one can draw into the question of the structure of reality. Love, hate, suffering, guilt, individuation, participation, pleasure, pain, life and death are only a few of the experiences that can enter the mix of puzzling out an ontology. Each of the great traditions has chosen a few of these experiences to emphasize in forming their starting points. For Eastern religions, a prominent one was suffering. For Western theisms, it was guilt and justice. From those emphasized experiences whole theological and religious philosophical systems were built.

So what does human experience tell us about reality? We all experience guilt. Does this mean we are fallen creatures that must be saved or is the structure of life as it should be and in order to experience the beauty of life we must also struggle with the ambiguities that are present? We all experience suffering. Does that mean that ultimately suffering must be eliminated or does it mean that in order for there to be life there will always be the potential for suffering? Does our experience of evil cause us to reject this world, something needing to be transformed, or is life something so wonderful that even though there will always be the potential for evil, it is worth it?

These are examples of how one can take the experience of life and opt for different ontologies. If there can be no particular ontology given de facto authoritative status and experience is the only criterion for determining theological starting points then a subjective decision must be made which particular ontology seems to match experience. This can create a point of departure for a theology but that is not the end of it. As a theology develops each step of the way must also find a comfortable match to experience. Those ensuing matches must not only include subjective intuitions about reality but also the full range of human knowledge and understanding at the time. This means as Gilkey suggests that theology must also embrace what we know about nature. Those theological starting points that eventually end up coming into conflict with the best knowledge we have about nature from science and philosophy must be critically reexamined. Now, this approach may seem too indeterminate for something so important as religion. However, I am of the opinion that there is no other alternative going forward into this millennium. Those theologies that fail to defend, from outside their traditions, the starting points and the theology that ensues will become less and less appealing to many people. In the end, the loss of idolatrous absolutes is really a blessing. It means that faith must come from a personal conviction that accepts its fallibilistic nature. If one truly believes that there is a unity of being and knowing in the world’s participation in the divine life, then a faithing fallibilism is completely warranted.

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