by Jerry L. Martin

As editor of Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative, I was quite pleased with the quality of each contribution, but it was only after the volume was published that I was able to see the Argument of the Whole. It is not a straight-line deduction but more like a weaving of intellectual strands as individual essays contribute to a larger argument and more complete theological project. 

Why Theology Without Walls?

The introduction lays down the essential premise of TWW: that the aim of theology is an articulate understanding of “ultimate reality, not [merely] of one’s own tradition” (Martin). This premise is further explained and enriched in the other contributions. The following brief quotations reflect thoughts explained and argued for in the essays.  “Ultimate reality cannot be corralled or confined within the boundaries of ‘the religions’” – those somewhat artificial and suspicious constructs (Thatamanil). “Any theology that omits the insights of traditions other than one’s own falls short of being adequate to the ultimate reality” (Martin). If God is the God of the whole world, “surely he can be found anywhere one thinks to look” (Thatamanil).  In light of the discovery of “divine truth” outside our home traditions, TWW betokens “a new revelation” that has soteriological power to overcome tribalistic rivalries and “thereby bring us closer to the divine” (Oxenberg). “The sacred, whatever its form(s), is a natural presence, equitably available to all communities” (Hustwit). Hence, “the only way to do theology is to do it transreligiously” and “to follow the truth, even if it takes one beyond the limits of her home tradition” (Hustwit). One is “logically required” to look beyond one’s own affiliation to avoid committing the fallacy of hasty generalization (Diller). Theology needs TWW just to fulfill itself as theology (Oxenberg). 

The Argument of the Whole advances additional reasons for TWW that go beyond the initial premise. “Theologies with walls reduce to sociological claims” – this is what my tradition “believes” (Neville).  TWW fits “the zeitgeist” (Feldmeier). “In place of a world of fixed religions … we face a world of contending, unpredictable individual choices” (Richardson). In theological thinking, there is “a human agent making the choice,” a fact that provides theology with “a new starting point from which to engage the bewildering array of religious options” (Denny). “Theologians without walls need to make their own decisions about how to evaluate the positions compared” (Neville). As a result, we must have “discursive spaces with no theological limitations” within which “any discursive handling of divine or ultimate topics … will qualify as kinds of theology” (Richardson). “No one really trusts walled-in answers” to fundamental questions (Neville). Transreligious theology is no longer “illicit syncretism” but “perfectly legitimate” in a multiply religious setting (Hedges). Theology “may need to catch up with the rest of the world” (Hedges). 

These are very different kinds of considerations. Each stands on its own footing – they are logically independent of one another – and each, by itself, is probably a sufficient ground for TWW. Yet they reinforce one another. This is the logical weaving I mentioned at the outset. 

Methods of Theology Without Walls

TWW is not itself a theology; it is a field or subfield. It might be considered a branch of comparative theology, but one that does not require that, after “passing over” to another tradition, one “return home” to confessional restrictions. “Any place truth can be found is home” (Martin). Like any field, TWW can be pursued in various ways and, being new, the methods are emerging (Martin, Neville, Thatamanil, others).

TWW draws upon the revelations, enlightenments, iconic figures, and spiritual practices of various religious traditions. These sources are presupposed in most of the essays and discussed explicitly in several of them (Neville, Richardson, Thatamanil, Knitter, Savastano, McEntee, Feldmeier, Wildman-Martin, Hustwit, Hedges, Diller, Heim).  The traditions are approached, in interweaving warp: through “philosophical theology” (Neville, Wildman-Martin), “foregrounding human subjectivity” and “choice” (Denny), dialogue (Richardson, Hustwit), “interreligious wisdom” (Thatmanil), dual belonging (Knitter), spiritual and interspiritual participation (Savastano, McEntee), “strategic participation” (Hedges), and expanded confessional theologies (Heim, Clooney, Long, Lee).   

However, “TWW is open to taking evidences wherever they can be found” (Martin).  One might start philosophically, by developing one’s metaphysics (Neville), pursuing Socratic wisdom (Oxenberg), exploring the most persuasive models of ultimate reality, which cut across traditions, in light of conceptual trade-offs (Wildman-Martin), or look to the sciences for guidance (De Smedt, De Cruz, Wildman). Scientific evidence suggests that God is less like a person and “more like light or electricity” and hence creative (Neville) and existentially potent phenomena such as “love and desire have cosmic significance” betokening “the potent axiological possibilities in the very depths of nature” (Wildman).  None of these choices can be settled by authoritative doctrine.      

To some extent, creeds and traditional theological concepts, formulations, and debates move to the background. Outside the walls, they may be less relevant. Experience, never neglected in theology, gains in importance and in range and variety.  “Theory eventually hits the wall of personal experience” (Savastano). William James, respecting the “freshness and immediacy of concrete experience” which can “shatter our prejudices and assumptions” and cause a “complete re-ordering of our inner lives,” advocated theology “with open doors and windows” (Weidenbaum). Indeed, theology could be defined as “spiritual experience trying to make sense of itself” (Knitter).”

The aim of theology is not just to know about God – not just to have the correct theory – it is to know God, the way the swimmer, and not the physicist, understands swimming (Thatamanil). This “interreligious wisdom” requires “the pursuit of truth gained through the theologian’s own transformation” through the “therapeutic regimes” of multiple traditions (Thatamanil). Dual-belonging provides spiritual depth and the ability to interrogate both traditions (Knitter). It is also possible to “drill ten sixty-foot wells” with deep, serious immersion in multiple traditions (Savastano).  It is even possible to form an “interspiritual community” that is “substantial, vital, and creative” and makes available to everyone “all the forms the spiritual journey assumes” (McEntee). This community can become one’s new spiritual “home” (McEntee). Whatever our own experiential starting-points, dialogue can expand our understanding through the sort of “healthy appropriation” that allows us to learn (Hustwit). 

These approaches can prompt new theological possibilities. Perhaps “ultimate reality is a multiplicity, not an undifferentiated simplicity” with “different dimensions” accessed by “specific spiritual disciplines that afford such access” (Thatamanil).  For example, is ultimate reality personal or impersonal?  “Sometimes one, sometimes the other” (Savastano).  “Might ultimate reality contain dimensions that are … nondually related to the world and self and also dimensions … meaningfully encountered as personal?” (Thatamanil).  A possibility called “partialism” is illustrated by Spinoza’s idea of the divine’s “infinite attributes” – perhaps “each religion grasps just one” and “no religion has full knowledge of the Ultimate” (Diller).     

Other possibilities appear that cannot be settled by pre-existing doctrine. Buddha-nature clarifies Christ-nature, and the combination clarifies the relation between justice and compassion (Knitter).  Multiple spiritual exercises can lead to having “the scaffolding fall away,” an “apophatic moment,” in which one experiences participation as a co-creator in the “unfoldings” of the “The Great Mystery” (Savastano).  The rough edges of the world and the importance of moral endeavor suggest the possibility of “a finite deity, a god for whom we are partners with the gradual perfecting of the world (Weidenbaum).” 

Thus we can start with sources of theology, drawing on the religious traditions and experiences, but we can also start with the questions – the “enduring questions of human life and death, felicity and suffering, love and compassion, justice and mercy, and so on” (Martin) and “draw insights from the widest net possible” (Martin), including multiple traditions (most of the essays), the sciences (De Smedt, De Cruz, Wildman), and “literature, philosophy, psychology, anthropology” (Martin, Thatamanil). 

There remains the lively possibility of “expanded confessional theologies” (Martin) that start with the beliefs of one’s tradition and proceed to take in truths found in in other traditions (Heim, Clooney, Long, Lee). Why assume, prior to investigation, that “this maximal integration does not yet exist?” (Heim). Doesn’t the Catholic tradition already provide “a solid foundation for finding God present in the world” including “in the particulars of other traditions” (Clooney)? Can’t Christian understanding “expand to accommodate and be transformed by insight and truth” from other religions (Heim)? In fact, Christian confessional theology “has no predetermined limit on where it might go” (Heim).  Vedanta is “already an example of Theology Without Walls” (Long). Expanded confessional theologies meet the standards of TWW if the truths found in other religions are not, insofar as possible, subordinated or distorted to fit the theological grid of the welcoming tradition. It would be suspicious if a single confession were to see itself in all mirrors.

A dramatically creative possibility of the sort we may expect to see more often is to develop a complex synthesis, drawing on the insights, in various religious and intellectual traditions, that strike the theologian as most true and important — for example, the “Confucian-Daoist-Donghak-Christian theology of Qi” (Lee).

Concerns and Objections            

Doesn’t TWW weaken religious commitment and affiliation? Possibly, but “through TWW, affiliators are expanding their knowledge of [the Ultimate] that their affiliation has put them in touch with” (Diller). If one adopts “partialism” — the idea that each religion represents a partial view of the Ultimate — then TWW need not threaten one’s own affiliation (Diller). In fact, setting aside “strong religious borders” may facilitate “strategic participation” in a “shared religious landscape” (Hedges). In such an environment, “doing ‘religion” is not a matter of adhering to a set of beliefs but is a way of making use of traditions, rituals, and practices to fit the range of needs that arise in a human life and community (Hedges). 

What about the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR), who have already set aside religious affiliation and strong borders? Doesn’t theology presuppose a “living faith,” a “community” rather than a mere “audience,” which provides a “forum for spiritual transformation” (Feldmeier)? On the contrary, TWW may be especially helpful to SBNRs, who see themselves as “on a spiritual quest, journey, or path, seeking such things as spiritual experience, greater understanding of the self, authenticity” (Mercadante).  An “interspiritual community” offers them a home for this exploration (McEntee), hermeneutically sensitive dialogues offer a means (Hustwit), Socratic wisdom a method (Oxenberg) and James’ probing of types of religious experience a model (Weidenbaum).

Objections and concerns expressed by some authors were, of course, written without the benefit of having read the other essays. They provide standards against which to measure the Argument of the Whole. 

Aren’t the insights from different traditions “tied to structures of thought that can be incommensurable with other structures of thought” (Feldmeier)? Of course, this is a concern for all forms of comparative theology, indeed of all multireligious and intercultural studies. Comparative categories are “astonishingly hard to develop” (Neville). There are several “problematics” that a theological system must address, e.g., how to have a good self.  “Religions say many different things about them” and “they are often in wild disagreement” (Neville). One way to relate understandings from two quite different traditions is by use of “functional analogies” (Knitter). Engaging in the spiritual practices of more than one religion (Thatamanil, Knitter, Savastano, McEntee) does not presuppose commensurability, nor does “strategic participation” (Hedges). In fact, diagnoses of instances of false commensurability are critiqued (Neville on sunyata-kenosis, Feldmeier on the Dao and Christianity). None of the essays advances a false commensurability. 

How can TWW ask us to “give full credit” to “all religious data” — “who knows what all the data are” (Heim)? This is a helpful misunderstanding. It would be more precise to state the point in the negative: no religious data – no religious insights wherever we find them — should be omitted due to confessional restrictions.      

Some probing questions can be answered only by reading the essays to see if the criticisms apply to them. These quotes give only a hint of the subtlety and depth of the questions being posed.

In apparently requiring a “simultaneous, impartial, and comparative assessment” of religious insights (Heim), doesn’t TWW suppose we can start with a “blank slate” (Heim, Feldmeier)? But, in most forms of inquiry, an impartial assessment does not require a blank slate, and none of the essays attempts one. The only requirement is that, whatever one’s initial commitments, they not be allowed to override, veto, or contort truths found outside one’s own religion. 

“There can be no meta-narrative, no absolute vision or paradigm that could absorb or account for everything” (Feldmeier). Check to see, but none of the essays claims to be a total meta-narrative or “absolute vision.” 

Does TWW overstate the “unifying qualities in the world’s religions” (Feldmeier)?  On the contrary, their diversity is stressed in many essays (Martin, Neville, Richardson, Thatamanil, Knitter, Savastano, Weidenbaum, Wildman-Martin, Hedges, Diller).  

Wouldn’t TWW be “formless” – “would it start from scratch” (Feldmeier) with an “unrestricted field of hypotheses and sources” (Heim)?  Setting aside doctrine does not necessarily make us “more open” — we might just become “directionless, aimless” (Clooney). The assumption seems to be that any inquiry not restricted by doctrines is formless and aimless. In TWW, there is actually no requirement that doctrines be set aside, but only that they not block or unduly distort truths found elsewhere. The essays start, not from “scratch” but from theologically informative sources in various religions, experiences, philosophy, the sciences, dialogue, the logic of theological choices, and elsewhere.  In most essays, the aims are explicitly stated, e.g., “First-order intimacy is the cherished goal” (Thatamanil).

Final Word

It is difficult for a synopsis, even of this length, to do justice to the fine-grained argument of individual essays.  Moreover, these contributions offer but a glimpse of ideas explored in greater compass in the authors’ other writings — enough, I hope, to prompt the reader to make a bolder foray into theologizing beyond the walls.  

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Jerry L. Martin, Ph.D., D.H.L., former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and of the Department of Philosophy, University of Colorado at Boulder; editor, Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative (Routledge 2019); author, God: An Autobiography, as Told to a Philosopher (Caladium 2016).  Website:  www.theologywithoutwalls.com; E-mail: jerry.martin@verizon.net.    

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