My Personal Reading List for Theology Without Walls
by Jerry L. Martin
This list is meant to be helpful to newcombers to TWW, not as authoritative or canonical, but more as a personal report of those readings that played an important role as I was developing the TWW project.
- Initial Background
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), available in many editions. Among the data for theologizing are the vast range of first-person religious experiences. James describes a number of types of experience, not categorizing them by religion, but relating them to recipient’s temperament and circumstances, with empathic understanding and analytical perceptiveness. In my own view, this is the book to start with.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (1989). Smith argued that, instead of thinking about the world’s several “religions,” it would be more accurate to look at “religion in the singular” as a vast, ever-changing, interpenetrating flow of human experiences, practices, and ideas. Neither James nor Smith is offering a “theology of religions,” addressing the question, “Can other religious achieve the result my religion does?” They take the data of experience and history as starting-points for their theological or philosophical speculations.
Influences of a different kind were John Hick, whose Kantianism – wrong-headed in my view – meant that we knew nothing about ultimate reality itself, whereas it seemed to me that the revelations, enlightenments, epiphanies, etc., offered glimpses of it; and Keith Ward and Francis X. Clooney, who asserted the importance, even necessity, of consulting other religions but insisted that all such inquiries serve confessional commitments. They accepted the premises of Theology Without Walls while resisting the ineluctable conclusion. Still, the advantages of “the Clooney paradigm” as a theological research activity are impressive (see my note posted at www.theologywithoutwalls.com) and help define the challenge of engaging in a completely unfamiliar mode of theologizing without the intellectual structure and personal at-homeness theological walls provide.
- Methodological Essentials
Since Theology Without Walls draws on the resources of multiple religious traditions (as well as on other sources), it is important to take seriously the challenge of understanding and making use of practices and ideas from cultural contexts very different from one’s own.
In a major contribution to this goal, Robert Cummings Neville developed the Comparative Religious Ideas Project, which ran from 1995 through 1999, which brought together distinguished scholars of different traditions. Their studies were published in 2001 in three invaluable volumes: The Human Condition, Ultimate Realities, and Religious Truth. The discussions exemplified, tested, and refined Neville’s important theory of cross-religious conceptual comparison.
Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher, eds. Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities (2013). An invitation to contribute to this volume was my first occasion for putting my thoughts in writing. The resulting volume is a collection that reveals, among other things, that the “same” model sometimes occurs in multiple religions, and that each religion may itself be articulated through more than one model of ultimate reality.
- Comprehensive Projects
The most comprehensive, thoroughly-articulated transreligious theology to date is Neville’s three-volume Philosophical Theology. The first volume, Ultimates (2013), outlines the entire project. Neville provides a metaphysical framework that draws on several traditions from Plato to Whitehead, a rich engagement with Chinese philosophy, an epistemology rooted in a pragmatic theory of inquiry that treats theological claims as testable, revisable hypotheses, and a theory of religions as providing "sacred canopies," coherent clusters of symbols that connect an ultimate reality, itself beyond literal description, with the domains of human life and understanding to which they are relevant.
While Neville has provided a comprehensive theology, Wesley J. Wildman has proposed a comprehensive project. He advocates a systematic reorientation of the field in his Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry (2010) with a focus on the Big Questions of life that are “existentially potent.” Like Neville, he treats theological (and other) claims as hypotheses to be evaluated and revised by bringing to bear the widest possible range of evidence, from metaphysics and high theology to neurology and evolutionary biology. Wildman has published a series of six books carrying out major portions of this inquiry. In Our Image (2017) explores what he regards as the three most persuasive contenders for an adequate theological framework.
John J. Thatamanil, Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity (2020). Thatamanil critiques the modern notion of the “religions” and presents a theory of “the religious” that emphasizes first-order experience – based on the spiritual disciplines from multiple traditions -- as central to theologizing. As the title suggests, the various types of religious experience are seen as disclosing multiple aspects of a complex ultimate reality.
- Theology Without Walls publications
As the TWW project matured, a special issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies was published in Fall 2016 with eight contributors. The following year Martin edited an issue of Open Theology addressing the question, “Is Transreligious Theology Possible?” and, in 2018, on “Recognizing Encounters with Ultimacy across Boundaries.”
Martin, Jerry L., ed. Special Section: Theology Without Walls. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 51, no. 4, (2016).
-----------, ed. Topical Issue: Is Transreligious Theology Possible? Editor Jerry L. Martin, Open Theology 2, Issue 1 (2016).
-----------, ed. Topical issue: Recognizing Encounters with Ultimacy across Religious Boundaries. Open Theology 4, Issue 1 (2018).
In 2019, Routledge published a collection, Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative, with more than twenty essays, some of which are by sympathetic critics. Elsewhere on this website, I will soon post my own analysis of this collection.
- Particular Studies Beyond the Usual Walls
John J. Thatamanil, The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament, An East-West Conversation (2006). This study starts out in the usual comparative theology mode – with one difference, he has a theological problem in view. He finds Tillich’s theology to posit “tragic distance” between us and the divine. He explores how Shankara’s nondualism can help close the gap. He begins with a set of criteria determined by his Christian commitments but discovers that, once one moves outside one’s home tradition, “the very criteria for theological construction may be transformed ….” “Does it even matter whether a position is recognizably Christian, or does it matter only that a given position appears to be reasonable, attractive, compelling, and true?” Here he is moving beyond the walls in a decisive way. My note on this book appears at www.theologywithoutwalls.com.
Michelle Voss Roberts, Dualities: A Theology of Difference (2010). In a subtle and rich theological reflection, drawing on Christian and Hindu sources, Voss Roberts argues that, once we replace rigid categories with conceptual metaphors suggested by women’s bodily experiences, many of which are fluid and characterized by flow, dualities do not have to be dualisms. Other fundamental theological concepts might benefit from similar explorations.
- Mark Heim’s work provides a striking example of a confessional theology developed in a transreligious direction. In Salvations (1995), he argued that religions do not, as Hick had supposed, provide alternative routes to the same summit. Each religion offers its own “salvation” or solution to life’s deepest problems, and each succeeds. If you seek Buddhist enlightenment, then Buddhism will get you there. In The Depth of the Riches (2001), he draws on Dante’s insight that all lives achieve their own goals, such as they are, and interprets the Christian trinity in a creative way that manages to account for, and provide the capstone to, all the salvations.
Hyo-Dong Lee, Spirit, Qi, and the Multitude (2014). Converted to Christianity in his youth, Lee continued to be influenced by Asian, and particularly Korean, forms of thought. He searched for an adequate understanding of Spirit through several Daoist and Confucian thinkers as well as Hegel, Whitehead, Deleuze and Keller. Lee draws on a particular Asian conception of Qi with a personal dimension, through which he achieves a Christian pneumatocentric reconstruction of the Trinity, grounding a new “metaphysics of democracy.”
Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (2009). Read more
Deeply dissatisfied with certain aspects of Christianity, Knitter found that a deep immersion in Buddhism provided not only spiritual liberation but helped him understand his own Christian tradition in a more attuned and satisfying way. As his journey of dual-belonging has continued, Knitter has found blind spots in each tradition which the other one helps to illuminate.
If you get this far in your reading, you will discover “essential” readings, prior to the launch of TWW in 2014, not mentioned here. As transreligious thinking becomes more widespread and congenial, new studies will appear that go beyond any of these.