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.

Wildman responded:

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.

Then Heim:

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

Finally, Thatamanil:

Obviously no objections from me as my comments are not touched upon. I suspect that these will be fruitful reflections for furthering conversation.

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