April 8, 2017 Boston University
NEMAAR – New England-Maritime AAR Panel
Theology Without Walls: Modes of Engagement with the Divine
Time and Location:
Saturday, April 8th, 1:15-2:30pm,
Boston University, School of Theology,
745 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA.
Jerry Martin, Convener – University of Colorado
Robert Neville – Boston University
Kenneth Cracknell – Brite Divinity School
Richard Oxenberg – Endicott College
Theology Without Walls is dedicated to the task of reflecting upon the nature of divine reality as it may be revealed in any of the world’s religious traditions, without confining itself to any one tradition. John Thatamanil speaks of TWW as “the quest for interreligious wisdom,” a quest which requires orienting ourselves to ultimate reality both cognitively and affectively in the most comprehensive way possible. TWW differs from comparative theology in that inquiry is not rooted in a specific confessional tradition as one’s “home.” .
This panel will explore avenues of access to, and modes of engagement with, the divine from a transreligious perspective. Traditional theology relies on authoritative teachings and writings as its basis for apprehending the divine. Our panel will consider how a transreligious theology might proceed in the absence of such traditional grounding. Are there transreligious norms for apprehending the nature of divine reality? Can these be identified and employed in a meaningful way? Might theological methods from one’s home tradition be adapted and extended for employment in a theology without walls? Conversely, might transreligious reflection yield insights that can deepen one’s engagement with one’s home tradition? These are some of the questions our panel will explore.
A Discussion at the Frontiers of Theology
At the conference on the Frontiers of Theology recently hosted by the The Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology there was an all-star panel on transreligious theology – Roland Faber, Mark Heim (via satellite), Jeffery Long, John Thatamanil, and Wesley Wildman. I had stepped out of the room but returned as Heim was making generous comments about my role in launching Theology without Walls – generous indeed in light of the fact that he has been “of two minds” about the project, as he explains in his contribution by that title in the special issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (dated Fall 2016 but just out). One of his reservations is whether a new theological venture, however bold, is likely to come up with any really new alternatives. Haven’t all the basic possibilities (immanent v transcendent, personal v impersonal, etc.) already been explored? Could there be anything new?
I responded as follows:
That’s how it always seems prior to a creative leap. In 1900, someone might have said, “Haven’t all the things you can do with color and canvass been done already?” Then came Picasso.
As a student, Einstein was undecided whether to major in physics or in music. His physics prof advised music, since “all the major problems of physics have been solved.”
Finally, I gave Heim’s own book, The Depth of the Riches as an example of a creative response to the transreligious impulse. Following on his Salvations, which argued that each religion seeks a different outcome (salvation, enlightenment, etc.) and achieves it, his more recent book develops a quite sophisticated and spiritually probing communitarian or relational theology of the Trinity, and then brilliantly brings the other “salvations” under its umbrella as fulfilling aspects of what the Trinity achieves. Who had thought of doing that before?
Over dinner, Wesley Wildman disagreed, not with my characterization or praise for Heim’s book but for giving it as an example of TWW. “It is confessional — it is not an example of TWW at all.” To be a viable (perhaps even an intelligible) program, mustn’t TWW have some precision in its definition? Isn’t being non-confessional the marker of TWW?
Wildman makes a good point. However, it has always seemed to me that religious traditions are more open and elastic than they like to admit. A confessional theology might well be expanded sufficiently, and in ways it may be difficult currently to imagine, to accommodate multiple sources of revelation or insight into the divine. What Heim has achieved is a major step in that direction.
There is a second order issue or methodological issue as well, about the need for precision. The case for precision is, first, that one wants to “get it right” and you can hardly know whether you have gotten it right without precise definitions that tell you what is in and what is out. Second, how can you even proceed to discuss TWW, if you don’t know what you are talking about?
But there is also a case for vagueness. In my initial statement of TWW, and again in the JES special issue, I warned against “premature definition and over-precision.” The main thrust of TWW is to open doors. Super-precision closes doors (that is its job). Even scientific concepts are generally (to use Friedrich Waismann’s term) “open-textured.” They are sufficiently stable to carry forward past discoveries, yet vague enough to permit and even suggest new directions. Imre Lakatos argues that this sort of conceptual adaptability is a feature even of mathematical discovery. In any case, the definitions of key terms in TWW must, for the present purposes at least, remain open-ended. But Wildman’s point must be kept in mind, for there may be contexts and purposes for which more precision is necessary.
I asked the participants to this little dialogue whether they would mind my sharing it, and of course giving them an opportunity to amend or correct.
Jerry, this is fine with me. But at dinner I was expressing how I prefer to use the term “transreligious theology”; I don’t have a lot at stake in how that term is used more broadly, and I don’t mind the big tent approach you advocate. Also, I was calling not for precision, and certainly not for super-precision, but merely for intelligibility-conferring limits on usage (in this case, the limit is that transreligious theology does not privilege any body of putatively revealed information). So your counter argument slightly mischaracterizes my view. That said, I’ll keep using the term in my way–vagueness within limits–knowing that others are using it in theirs, and happy for everyone to muddle onwards through what looks to be an exciting adventure.
Fine with me for you to use the notes as you suggest. Wesley is quite right that my work is confessional. I like “trans-religious” as referring to the work that eschews (intentional) privilege for specific sources. Neither people nor works need necessarily be all one thing on this score (i.e. there might be trans-religious “moments” within a more generally confessional work, or the reverse, as I would see Wesley’s Christology and his other helpful writings about contemporary Christian church life as confessional moments in a larger project that is genuinely trans-religious.) Sorry to have missed seeing you all in person. Mark
Obviously no objections from me as my comments are not touched upon. I suspect that these will be fruitful reflections for furthering conversation.
March 16, 2017 – 10:15 A.M.
Mid-Atlantic 2017 AAR Proposal
Theology Without Walls: Modes of Engagement with the Divine
Christopher D. Denny – St. John’s University
Jerry L. Martin – formerly University of Colorado at Boulder
Rory D. McEntee – Drew University
Peter Savastano – Seton Hall University
Theology Without Walls (TWW) has been described as doing theology beyond the borders of any particular religious or wisdom tradition. In its fullest sense, theology is not merely a single faith or confession seeking understanding; it is all spiritual insight, wherever found and however acquired, seeking understanding.
From a theological standpoint, why not seek to utilize whatever insights available into the nature of Ultimate Reality and rhythms of Divine life? Why inscribe our theology within a single wisdom tradition?
TWW differs from other forms of comparative theology in precisely this way. The exploratory goals of TWW and comparative theology are in many ways overlapping. However, comparative theology’s insistence on claiming a specific theological tradition as one’s “home,” from which one can reach out to other traditions while remaining rooted in one’s own, is seen as too restrictive for TWW. It is not that one can not engage TWW from such a perspective—that is, being rooted in a single faith tradition—but one is not required to.
The ultimate goal is not just intellectual. John Thatamanil speaks of TWW as “the quest for interreligious wisdom,” a quest which requires orienting ourselves to ultimate reality both cognitively and affectively in the most comprehensive way possible. Ideally, TWW facilitates engagement with divine reality, more fully and truly understood.
This panel will explore transreligious avenues of access to the divine reality and modes of engagement. The hypothesis to be considered is that avenues to the divine, evidences about the divine, and engagements with the divine are closely intertwined. The nature of ultimate reality determines proper comportment or orientation towards it and proper actions, attitudes, disciplines, and engagement. At the same time, our experiences of and engagement with the divine are sources of insight into divine nature. Confessional theologies provide authoritative correlations of these aspects of the spiritual life. Without such guidelines, how is the transreligious theologian to assay such correlations?
TWW works to broaden our understanding of the lived experience of wisdom as it crosses religious boundaries. As new modes of religious life develop, emergent avenues, evidences, and engagements with ultimate reality are born. TWW can reflect on, dialogue with, and embody these spiritual impulses in ways not always open to comparative theologians, bringing both insider and outsider perspectives to bear in proposing discerning correlations and in synthesizing insights into divine reality as experienced by humanity.
“Sacrificial Multiple Religious Belonging: Vedic and Christian Test Cases”
One major factor in debates about secularization and religiosity in contemporary sociology centers upon the methodology used to determine affiliation. Is self-identification sufficient for establishing religious belonging, or should researchers search for markers of religious behavior such as participation in worship services, personal prayer, or knowledge of scriptures and theology? When examining the phenomenon of self-identified “multiple religious belonging” this question becomes even more acute. This essay will explain how theologies of sacrifice in Vedic and Christian traditions can articulate intellectual frameworks for multiple religious belonging that are more tangible than definitions of affiliation that rely only upon self-identification. The functional focus on ritual also provides more sociological content than alternative theological explanations of multiple religious belonging that only appeal to essentialist assertions regarding supernatural providence or internalized altruism (e.g. the categorical imperative, Gefühl, “anonymous Christians,” “reality-centeredness”). I will argue that Vedic ritual and ancient Christian Eucharistic celebration provide models for reconceiving multiple religious belonging so that communal participation in sacrificial rites from different traditions embodies a visible commitment to self-transcendence that makes claims to multiple religious belonging more credible.
“The Interactive Logic of Engagement with the Divine in a Transreligious Context”
This paper will explore transreligious avenues of access to the divine reality and modes of engagement. Avenues to the divine, evidences about it, and engagements with it are interrelated. The nature of the divine determines proper actions, attitudes, disciplines, and engagement. So too, our experiences of and engagement with the divine are sources of insight into the divine nature.
Usually, comparative theology is rooted in a home confession, which provides authoritative correlations of these aspects of the spiritual life. By contrast, Theology Without Walls does not privilege or presuppose a “home” confession. Without confessional guidelines, how is the transreligious theologian to assay such correlations? This paper will explore ways theological methods from one’s home tradition can be adapted and extended beyond confessional terrain, as well as well as what non-confessional resources homo religiosis — the human person open to the divine — can bring to the task.
“Multiple Religious Belonging or No Belonging? Discernment, Religious Depth, and TWW as Spiritual Practice”
As scholars and the public struggle and grope towards understanding emergent forms of religiosity (multiple-religious belonging, spiritual but not religious, interspirituality), notions of discernment, religious depth, and spiritual practice often figure prominently in both defining and assessing these forms. Some form of commitment to a particular religious tradition is often considered the appropriate type of discernment concerning religious depth. Spiritual but not religious is seen as an amorphous searching for something vague and undefined, beholden in many cases to a rejection of institutions and the drifting whims of an immature ego. This categorization has been earned through ethnographic work among younger people.
I will argue however that ethnographic understandings which fail to take into account the most mature elements (and practitioners) of emerging spiritualities are bound to miss the most important developments, just as similar methodologies would in studying a religious tradition. Further complicating this model, I will point out problems with correlating religious depth with belonging to a particular religious tradition. While scholarly tempting, this can lead to blind spots and neglect of creative theological resources. As a result, I hope to point out ways to allow for religious belonging to be conceived more broadly. TWW could then play an intrinsic and needed role in the unfolding of emerging spiritualities, as a locus of the depth and commitment needed for mature theological reflection. Along the way I will look at religious experience, perennialism, practitioners of emergent forms of religiosity, and post-colonial considerations.
“Can You Dig More than One 60 foot Well in a Lifetime?”
An Auto-ethnography of Engagement with the Divine, Dispatches from the Field!
Huston Smith, the scholar and practitioner of various religious and spiritual traditions, who died on December 30, 2016, said in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, given in the late 90s:
Mine has been a rather peculiar history, and I don’t want to leave the impression that one is in any way spiritually ahead because of this kind of incorporation. I liked what a teacher in India once said to me. If you are drilling for water, it’s better to drill one 60-foot well than 10 6-foot wells. And generally speaking, I think a kind of smorgasbord cafeteria, choosing from here and there is not productive. So I would not at all put what’s happened, I feel, to be feasible for me in any way ahead of where I might be if I had devoted my entire spiritual exercises to Christianity.
Over the course of a lifetime of deep engagement with various religious and sacred traditions of the world, I too have heard from various teachers about the dangers of digging 10, 6-foot wells rather than just one well, 60 feet deep. Perhaps it will be for others to judge in the end, but this has not at all been my experience. Rather, I have been lead to follow a path by the Divine Spirit that has involved digging more than one 60 foot well over a lifetime and I’m still digging. Taking an auto-ethnographic approach, this essay explores what it means to deeply immerse oneself in various religious and sacred traditions over extended periods of time, and finding a meaningful pattern in this process. Also explored will be some of the metaphors that best describe this pattern based on personal firsthand experience. Is it a “spiral”, a “labyrinth”, or a “language”? How does the Divine operate in one particular life and what does it mean to do theology without walls or to do theology with walls that gratefully have many large windows and doors for one to leave when the signal comes to move on to another religious or spiritual tradition or practice or, even more challenging, none at all?