Religion in a new key
Global perspectives and encounters challenging the study of religions
ABSTRACTThis article highlights aspects of the new situation in which thinking and theorising about religion is being done. This new situation is characterised by an increasing global awareness, increasing awareness of religious pluralism in the interfaith encounter, the importation of critical gender categories into the study of religion on a theoretical and metatheoretical level and an awareness of the increasing complexity of our world and of the phenomenon religion. The challenges brought to bear on the study of religion by these aspects of the new situation, as well as the effects they have on the way we study the phenomenon religion, are discussed.
I wanted to highlight the distinctiveness as well as the newness of our situation, the qualitative changes and processes of transformations that we are part of when I entitled my lecture `Religion in a new key'. This title has been used before -- most recently for a set of lectures given by Darrol Bryant in India on the movement from traditional through the modern to the postmodern study of religion and also on the impact of interfaith encounter on this process 1 -- but its best known association is Langer's influential study of more than fifty years ago, Philosophy in a new key. A study in the symbolism of reason, rite, and art.2 She used the idea of the musical key -- the concept of interrelated chords and their key relationships as expressing patterns, moods and musical forms -- as an analogy for the transformations occurring in philosophy, but the notion of a key is also used in machine construction, biology and cryptology for decoding, locking and unlocking things, or as a means to decipher and reproduce the original meaning of a text. Langer opened her study with the statement that every epoch is characterised by its own questions and produces new `generative ideas' which operate within their fields. For her the new key to understanding the constructive process of the human mind was symbolisation, about which she wrote:
In the fundamental notion of symbolisation -- mystical, practical, or mathematical, it makes no difference -- we have the keynote of all humanistic problems. In it lies a new conception of `mentality', that may illumine questions of life and consciousness, instead of obscuring them as traditional `scientific methods' have done. If it is indeed a generative idea, it will beget tangible methods of its own, to free the deadlocked paradoxes of mind and body, reason and impulse, autonomy and law, and will overcome the checkmated arguments of an earlier age by discarding their very idiom and shaping their equivalents in more significant phrase. She concluded that the study of symbols perhaps `holds the seed of a new intellectual harvest, to be reaped in the next season of the human understanding. (Langer 1942:25)
There are many different ways in which we might discuss to what extent we are experiencing a 'next season of human understanding', in what sense we are gathering `a new intellectual harvest', and how far this is connected with a greater understanding of the nature of symbolism and the intellectual processes of construction. I am interpreting the 'new key' available to us today for deciphering the significance of religion and its study -- and I think the two, though distinct, are also interdependent -- as a number of processes which impact on and challenge the direction in which the study of religions is going. These processes can be named as the challenge of the global, the challenge of interfaith encounter, the challenge of gender insights, and the challenge of complexity. I shall explore each of these and their transformative effects in turn, but I would like to preface my explorations with a note of warning that we are in the midst of these processes which makes it impossible to give a definitive assessment of what they will eventually achieve.
THE CHALLENGE OF THE GLOBALAt present, the global paradigm is mostly used in international finance, trade, science and ecology rather than culture or religion. Conferences and publications range from global banking to global warming, from global deforestation to global human resources, to mention just a few examples. We now also find references to global theology and global spirituality. This growing use of the adjective `global' is more than simply a fashion of renaming what was previously described as the `world', as in world literature, world history, world economy or world religion (although the word is sometimes used in this way). But much more than that, it indicates a different kind of consciousness which takes into account a new order of complexity in which the particular and the universal, the local, regional and international interact in quite a new way. There is also a search for new identities, personal, social, and transnational, sometimes described as corporate, critical self-consciousness which expresses itself in the search for a new collective will and a new global order characterised by greater unity, peace and social justice.
The word `globe' is derived from the Latin globus, a round body or mass in the form of a sphere. It has been used in English since the middle of the sixteenth century and was soon applied to the earthly, terrestrial globe, to our world. In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan popularised the idea of `the global village' based on our new electronic interdependence whereby the highly increased potential of information technology, so much further increased since McLuhan's time, obliterates traditional boundaries so that everybody can potentially know about and participate to some extent in everything that happens around the world. In practice this may be far from accurate, but the idea of the worldwide, transnational impact of knowledge and events caught people's imagination. It also has considerable importance for the understanding and practice of religion, and the greatly increased possibilities of scholarly networks in the academic study of religion around the world is a good example, as we can see at the congresses of the International Association for the History of Religions and here at the American Academy of Religion (AAR).
Webster's New Dictionary records the first use of the word `globalization' in 1961, although the idea of this process had been around for at least thirty years. However, discussions about globality stem largely from the 1980s and are mostly expressed in works on economics and ecology. Roland Robertson has defined globalisation as `the process by which the world becomes a single place' and also as `the consciousness of the globe as such'.3 This process and the consciousness of its occurrence involves individual groups, national societies and different institutions in different ways and to a different degree, but it has implications not only for international relations, but for our very conception of individuals and of humankind as a whole. It is of considerable interest that conceptions of the world as a whole and of the intrinsic unity of humankind are found in many religions, although our currently fashionable critical scepticism may well make us shy away from the universalising vision of such `grand narratives'. Nor is a new global understanding of the world to be confused with `the new world order' advocated by certain politicians whose rhetoric is tainted by their implicit neocolonial and imperialistic aspirations. In a global culture there is no single exclusive centre which governs all else. There is a plurality of centres and the process of globalisation is accompanied by a concomitant stress on the local and regional so that some authors use the term `glocalization' -- a term to indicate that the global and the local intersect, as is also expressed by the slogan `think globally, act locally'. The awareness of global patterns of development is accompanied by a greater recognition of marked historical, cultural, ethnic, racial and religious differences.
What is the challenge of the global for religion? Why is the global perspective important for the study of religions? First, there is the ever-greater availability of global data on religion, whether in the form of global statistics, a greater number of monographs on particular patterns or groups, or the existence of studies which set themselves the task of integrating data from different traditions in an overall global perspective. Global sociopolitical changes have a considerable impact on different religious groups and institutions around the world. They also have an effect on the study of religion which now increasingly occurs within a consciously adopted global perspective. The global context of the study of religion can be understood in two different ways: first it can mean that this study is worldwide and ideally involves the study of all religions, not just those of a particular part of the globe. Second, it indicates the necessity to take seriously the insights of scholarship from different parts of the globe, so that the study of religion becomes truly global rather than merely Western in its outlook and assumptions.
The global situation of religions is one of great pluralism and complexity. The sheer statistical diversity of religions is well documented in David Barrett's World Christian encyclopedia. A comparative study of churches and religions in the modern world AD 1900--2000.4 The diversity of religions, religious systems and quasi-religions runs into many thousands, although twenty major distinct religions are distinguished. Almost all of these have expanded numerically as well as geographically since 1900, so that in many countries around the globe significantly large communities of different religious groups are living next to each other in the same area. Almost all categories of religions have grown in absolute numbers, but there is a gradual decline in terms of percentages of the total world population. The most recent statistics I have been able to obtain are those of 1991, published in the 1992 Britannica book of the year (Chicago 1992). Its table of World Religious Statistics shows that all groups of Christians together (and there were, on an earlier count, 20 870 distinct and independent Christian denominations in the world) represented 33,1 per cent of the world population in the 254 countries of the world existing in 1991. Muslims represented 17,7 per cent of the world population and were found in 172 different countries. These figures show that together Muslims and Christians represent just over half the world's population, followed by 16,4 per cent of non-religious people in 220 countries, 13,4 per cent Hindus in 88 countries, and 5,7 per cent Buddhists in 86 countries, to cite some of the most significant examples (which cannot be analysed in detail here). Barrett simply comments on the year 1991 that it `demonstrated once again that massive geopolitical convulsions -- the eclipse of Communism, the Gulf war, the flight of the Kurds, the resurgence of the UN -- do not of themselves change people's religious affiliations ... Most religions ended the year stronger and more numerous than they had been a year earlier' (Barrett 1982:269).
More important than the plurality of numbers are the conceptual tools with which these co-existing and competing diversities are interpreted. It is interesting to examine both the idea of a coherent world order and that of the potential oneness of humanity which is found in the teachings of many religions. The scholar Kitagawa has examined such ideas -- particularly as found in eastern religions -- in his book The quest for human unity. A religious history (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1990). In the Christian tradition the notion of the oikumene, of `the whole inhabited world', taken over from the Greeks and Romans, was present early. Though originally merely descriptive, as referring to the whole known world of their time, it soon acquired a theological meaning through the doctrinal authority accorded to the early representative Christian gatherings, the so-called `ecumenical councils' which discussed and regulated the canons of Christian belief and practice. From the ancient Mediterranean world Christianity eventually came to reach out across the entire globe so that it is now found in some form or other in immense diversity of organisational structures and credal formulations in every country of the world. In the twentieth century this very diversity of Christianity has become truly visible and has stimulated the development and growth of Christian ecumenism as a movement to bring about the reunion of the divided Christian churches to express the wholeness of the Christian faith and a shared worldwide mission. A particular expression of this Christian ecumenism is the World Council of Churches whose significance in creating a greater global awareness among Christians cannot be overestimated. An institutionally less concretely embodied but even more important idea is that of a truly global ecumenism, expressed through more amorphous trends to bring members of the different world faiths more closely together and thereby to respond imaginatively and creatively to the challenges of religious pluralism and interfaith encounter.
THE CHALLENGE OF INTERFAITH ENCOUNTERInterfaith encounter must be taken as a given in the contemporary world of religious pluralism. However, there are some academics who warn against the use of a `dialogical model' in the study of religions and judge this to be outside legitimate academic boundaries. Being personally involved in and committed to interreligious dialogue may be a religious activity, but this must not prevent us from asking critical and constructive questions about such activities which are now found in many places around the world in one form or another.
I have deliberately used the more neutral and open-ended term of `encounter' rather than the stronger word `dialogue'. In one way or another the encounter of religions has always taken place throughout historical time, but the potential for contacts and conflicts has increased exponentially in the modern world. Given the religious pluralism which now exists, such contact may simply be one of co-existence or it may lead to closer cooperation. Strictly speaking, encounter does not take place between religions as systems of belief and practice, it occurs between individuals and groups of people who practise and live from within the perspective of a particular faith. Religions are sometimes described as `ways of life'; they might be more appropriately called different `forms of life'. But these forms of life are now often simply reduced to forms of discourse, especially when the study of religions is primarily considered as the study of texts.
How does interfaith encounter challenge the study of religions? Current methodological debates show that there are many kinds of approaches to the study of religion and to studying the complex forms of religious life in their outward and inward manifestations, as well as their practical, intellectual, social and individual dimensions. If one agrees with the principle that each subject matter requires a methodology appropriate to that subject, then the complexity of religious life in all its pluralistic forms invites a holistic, integral methodology which can account for what is being studied.
Some current methodological debates seem to be undertaken from what might be called a fortress mentality, where the surrounding walls of a clearly demarcated, well-known territory are high and solid, almost impenetrable. Such a mentality might provide a clear and secure sense of identity, but is not particularly helpful for dealing with organic forms of life. If religions are viewed dynamically and organically, it is more appropriate to approach them in the spirit of a journey which remains ever open-ended and continuing. This sense of exploration and discovery, a sense of birth, growth, change and also decay -- the pattern of all organic life which at the human, mental level is tied to that very process of symbolisation of which Langer speaks -- leads to the search for a more dynamic and integral methodology. It is in this context that the contemporary existence and practice of interfaith encounter presents a challenge to the study of religion.
Let me briefly describe the kinds of challenge I am thinking of. There is first a challenge at the empirical level in terms of academic production. The number of books, journals and bibliographies devoted to interfaith encounter in general or to the meeting of people from two or three different traditions is growing and there is plenty of evidence that individual scholars as well as university departments are taking an active interest in and are contributing further to these developments. One can therefore legitimately call the area of interfaith encounter a growing field in the study of religion, a field which invites further critical analysis and appraisal.
I need only remind you of the impact of the historic 1893 World's Parliament of Religions on the comparative study of religions, especially eastern religions in the United States, which is paralleled, though perhaps not equalled, by some of the reflective and critical studies which have accompanied or are following the recent centennial celebrations of that event. Another lesser-known example is the participation of French religion scholars in the founding of the Union des Croyants, the French branch of the World Congress of Faiths, in 1947 and the strong scholarly support given to its interfaith activities in the early years after the Second World War. Yet another earlier example is the commitment of the German scholar Rudolf Otto to such activities, expressed through the founding of his Religiöser Menschheitsbund.
I am mentioning these examples merely to illustrate that particular academics have been and are involved in the process of interfaith encounter, which in turn invites academic reflection, which then again may further contribute to the transformation of the way in which encounter and dialogue occur.
Interfaith encounter also raises a challenge of choice and direction for the study of religion at the current time. On closer examination it is evident that interreligious dialogue as we know it at present owes its matrix of birth and occurrence to secular society and its acknowledgement of religious pluralism. Such dialogue does not flourish in monocultural and monoreligious societies. It requires a more neutral framework in which members of different faith communities can discover shared concerns and realise their interdependency and mutually accountable responsibility for the great and urgent tasks of the contemporary world.
Interfaith encounter and dialogue as praxis can be liberating as it frees one from the boundaries and oppression of one's own standpoint and makes one discover the particular lens through which one's own tradition has mediated the world. I do not consider such an encounter a threat to the study of religion, but rather a potential source for new creativity and an incentive for paradigmatic change. Within a global context such an encounter may well provide an occasion for mutual catharsis and may follow the action-reflection-action model known from liberation theology. In other words, the active praxis and experiential dimension of interfaith encounter must lead to new critical and reflective work which in turn can engender further action at the practical level.
As has been recognised by others, our knowledge of religion and about religions impacts on our awareness and transforms our understanding of religion. Such transformed understanding may well modify the practical process of interfaith encounter. There is a dialectic process at work here which raises important questions about the study of religion, such as: what is its significance of such study in schools, colleges and universities? What is the contribution of the study of religion to the circle of knowledge, to the traditionally called area of humanities, but also to society, culture and politics, and even more to human wellbeing at a personal and social level?
Such questions of evaluative choice may be ruled out of court by some scholars of religion, but they do raise the third, essential challenge about the issues which interfaith encounter presents us with. I would describe this challenge as methodological and substantive. Quite a few scholars have voiced the need for a paradigm shift in the study of religion because of the limitations and inadequacy of existing methods for studying different forms of religious life within our contemporary global context. The study of religion as a human phenomenon -- with all that this implies -- requires more than a historical, phenomenological or scientific method. The decisive issue here is how to interpret and understand the existence of religious pluralism. Diana Eck, in the autobiographical account of her spiritual journey from experiencing a Christian community in the USA to Hindu religious life in Benares, has provided some pointers towards the practical understanding of pluralism.5 She stresses the quality of active engagement with plurality, which requires not simply tolerance but the seeking of understanding whilst recognising and respecting genuine differences. Interfaith dialogue here is seen as the very basis of pluralism -- a true encounter of commitments -- leading to mutual understanding and mutual transformation. These are both enormously important, for `in the world in which we live, the cooperative transformation of our global and local cultures is essential' (1993:198).
If it is the direct aim of dialogue to understand ourselves and our faith as well as that of others more fully and clearly, we can also say that indirectly, at a meta-level, the influence of interfaith encounter can contribute to a transformation of methods and approaches in the study of religion. If such study is not necessarily and harmfully compartmentalised, but envisaged as an organic and dynamic process, then we become able to perceive flows of exchange, patterns of growth, sources of energy and resources for the shaping of the human community and its wellbeing in the whole field of religions. The academic community of scholars in religion must contribute its share in enhancing the understanding of and concern with religion as a vital force in human life and culture.
I see the challenge of interfaith encounter as one of promising potential for the further development of the study of religion, without the need to give up any hard-won ground in terms of methodological advances and refinements. Our tools of analysis have to be ever more finely sharpened, but we must not forget that besides the myriads of particular details and the challenging tasks of critical analysis, there is also a great need for synthesis and forward-looking vision. We need to go on wrestling with definitions of religion; we have to investigate the nature of the religious quest as an important dimension of being human; we need to go on building explanatory theories about the nature of religious language and experience, about the kind of constructs we have created regarding ultimate reality and transcendent foci. There are ever so many tasks and levels that different scholars of religion may need to engage in, but these levels of study and conceptualisation are not necessarily mutually exclusive as long as one does not dogmatically proclaim that there is only one correct way of studying religion. Such an exclusive stance does not take seriously the reality of pluralism -- which also involves a pluralism of methods and approaches. Rather, the different levels of study and the multifaceted methods and approaches are interrelated and complementary. If rightly understood and correctly practised -- that is, if open to critical debate and revision -- then such diversity of approaches and scholarly interpretations cannot be anything but mutually enriching and supportive within the enterprise of conceptualising and advancing the study of religion.
THE CHALLENGE OF GENDER INSIGHTSAnother important challenge to the contemporary study of religion is the application of critical gender categories to the analysis of all data. Gender studies concern both women and men, yet in practice at present they remain mostly focused on women because of the vast need to overcome women's invisibility, marginalisation and subordination in history, society and culture, and in the world of scholarship and academic debate.
I have just edited a volume of essays on Religion and gender (1995). In my introductory essay to this collection of theoretical papers I surveyed the current state of debate and publications in the area of religion and gender (see pp 1--38). (For a fuller discussion I refer you to that essay because I can only emphasise a few points here.) Throughout most of human history there has been an oppressive, unjust asymmetry in the relations of power, representation, knowledge and scholarship between men and women. Feminist critical theory and analysis have shown that it is necessary and liberating to examine the lenses of gender which are so deeply embedded in our cultural discourses and social institutions. We constantly use these lenses for constructing our notions of masculinity and femininity, and for conceptualising male-female difference. In a process of critical self-reflexivity we have to ask ourselves what these lenses are and what they do to our humanity -- how they possibly distort our full potential for being human.
At present most gender studies are almost identical in practice with women's studies, but the debate about gender is increasingly being widened. Yet in the canons of scholarship there is often still little recognition of women as agents and participants in their own right, especially not in the major literature surveys and handbooks of religious studies. Nor is the contribution of women pioneers in developing the study of religion generally acknowledged in the histories of the discipline.6 The work of many male scholars is underpinned by androcentric assumptions which can cause serious deficiencies at the level of data gathering, model building and theorising in religious studies. Yet in spite of this many such scholars go on affirming their commitment to `value neutrality' and `objectivity' which, however, remain equally unexamined. Much of the sexism of religious studies scholars is not overt but rather what has been called a `sexism by omission'. Many scholars do not examine their subject in relation to gender construction and gender roles or in relation to the uneven structures of power, representation and participation in the different forms of religious life.
In the past, the role, image and status of women in different religions have occasionally been an object of enquiry for male scholars, but mostly in a descriptive and rather undifferentiated way. Also, when most research was designed by men, many important questions were not even asked. With the advent of critical feminism and women's full access to scholarly training and their greater participation in the academy, women themselves are now both subjects and agents of scholarly analysis. The existence of women scholars in religion, accompanied by the critical transformation of their consciousness, means that women's research challenges some of the existing paradigms in religious studies. The move `toward a brave new paradigm', as Randi Warne called it in 1989,7 can be seen as occurring in three areas: women are asking new questions of traditional materials; women's research is moving from universality to particularity, from abstraction to engagement; and women's scholarship includes a critique of objectivity and the revisioning of all knowledge as morally significant. It thus raises fundamental questions about the nature of all knowledge. It is not only about what we know but even more about how we come to know, how we construct our knowledge and also how we use and apply it.
The feminist perspective has introduced an important paradigm shift in the contemporary study of religion, both in theology and in religious studies. However, this should not mean that these new developments and insights are ghettoised in `women and religion' courses in the curriculum. On the contrary, they should help to transform the way all religion is studied, and here the concept of gender is essential for examining the implicit and explicit meaning of sexual differentiation in the collection and analysis of all data.
The innovative research of women in religion means, as Anne Carr 8 (1990:93) has written, that
much of past scholarship is placed on a new map of religious reality. Less than half the story has been told. To begin to tell the other part is to acknowledge that women have always been involved (even when excluded or ignored) in everything human, in everything religious ... the concept of gender reminds us that the experience of women has been and always is in relationship to men in the whole of society. Thus women's studies affects the study of men (now seen as part of the whole), the study of the human in its wholeness and religious studies generally. That wider whole will not be fully understood, given the androcentric history of the disciplines, without women's studies as a subject matter in its own right and as a necessary transition to the transformation of scholarship and the university curriculum.
Women's scholarship in religious studies is transformative of the discipline. It makes use of non-traditional sources and methods which produce alternative contents and structures in scholarly knowledge. The methodological process starts with a hermeneutics of suspicion vis-È-vis traditional sources and methods, followed by critical deconstruction and reconstruction of the key elements of the discipline, eventually resulting in its transformation.
The study of religion and gender is a self-reflexive process which leads to a new, more differentiated consciousness on the part of those undertaking it and also implies the critical examination of one's own beliefs, attitudes and experiences. Thus understood and practised, feminism is linked to an academic method and a transformative social vision, as Rita Gross 9 (1993) has argued in her book Buddhism after Patriarchy. The critical attention to gender issues challenges not only religious studies as a discipline, but also many practices of religion, as can be seen in the currently worldwide debates about women in religious ritual, women's spirituality and women's participation in interfaith dialogue.
The feminist paradigm shift in religious studies involves an important methodological dimension. Women's new awareness as a gendered self in relation to others in community requires different research methodologies which elicit more empathetic involvement and personal concern in relation to one's studies. In no way should this mean to imply the abandonment of the highest scholarly criteria and competence, of objectiveness and critical assessment, but the application of these criteria within a different grid of complexity.
Complexity, in the sense of integration of diversity without obliteration of differences, is probably the best way to sum up all the challenges facing the study of religion today. Women's studies in religion are often described as cross-cultural and interdisciplinary; perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of their transdisciplinary orientation. The present emphasis on woman-centred approaches to the study of religion, where religious thought, language, practice and structures are examined primarily with reference to women, will have to shift to a wider focus on religion and gender so that the field becomes enlarged to include differentiated and critical data about both sexes in relation to each other rather than about women alone. Gender is a comprehensively encompassing factor in the area of social relations because the complex aspects of engenderment affect all areas of human life, including religion. In another sense, however, gender is only a partial factor of explanation for social reality and religious life, because it intersects and is interstructured with other factors such as race, class, ethnicity, generational, cultural and other human differences. However, an enormous amount remains to be done to elucidate and critically understand gender issues more clearly and to bring female and male gender perspectives into closer relationship with each other. Only if such integration can be achieved, can we come to understand the complex interconnections between gender and power, sacred and profane; only then can we develop the strength and wisdom needed to create greater justice and peace in the human community and thus radically transform the global order.
THE CHALLENGE OF COMPLEXITYThe challenge of the global, of interfaith encounter, and of gender insights can be summed up together as the unprecedented challenge of increasing and accelerated complexity. The impact of complexity often remains unrecognised in contemporary debates, especially in the methodological discussions of religious studies which seem to reflect more of a contesting `camp mentality' than a genuine commitment to seeking new insights and advances by working collaboratively together. Frankly speaking, I find the adversarial and confrontational spirit expressed in many writings, often linked to staking out narrowly demarcated territorial claims, is not particularly helpful for advancing human knowledge and insight, or for transforming the rigidities of some of our academic departments. The human propensity for enquiry and learning is far more complex and dynamic -- it is part of the exuberant flow of life itself -- and the defence of what has been called a `demarcationist' standpoint in religious studies in opposition to a so-called `convergentist' perspective of theology and religious studies10 can only lead to a deadlock. The demarcations are often set far too narrowly and prohibit innovative, open-ended enquiry nor do they allow evaluative stances which are part of life and of the ways of life -- the religious worlds -- we study. Furthermore, these confrontational debates contribute to creating separate islands and ghettos in the study of religion rather than an integrated, large field of combined strength.
Rita Gross, as a historian of religions, has spoken of the need for a `unity of methodology' and the inseparability between a history of religions and theology approach. She writes: `The engaged study of religions, with its combination of dispassionate existential commitment to just and human values is the single most powerful lens through which one can view religion' (1993:317). Quite a few years ago the Swiss scholar Georg Schmid in his book Principles of integral science of religion (1979) proposed a complex and differentiated methodology to deal with the whole of religion in an integral manner whilst clearly recognising that the reality of religion -- all that is intended in religious life and experience -- cannot be got hold of by either theology or religious studies. But what characterises the modern study of religion is the complex link between specific research on particular data with an integral reflection on the meaning of religion and the significance of particular data in a larger context. I think Schmid's book, published in 1979, has not been given the critical attention it deserves.11 Many scholars shy away from a more integral reflection on the significance of their particular data, but this is precisely what is required in the contemporary situation of growing global complexity and awareness.
No phenomenon can any longer be understood in a static and one-dimensional way. Everything, in the study of religion as elsewhere, requires a multi-level, multi-perspectival, dynamic analysis to uncover the diversity and complex structures inherent in our objects of investigation. Ninian Smart has argued that a cross-cultural, dynamic worldview analysis is a defining characteristic of the modern study of religion.12 Such an assessment does not provide us with methodological details, but it does indicate a general orientation and direction in which the study of religion is going. Such study has to be undertaken in a global context, as has been recognised by a number of contemporary writers.
A powerful recognition of the implications of global complexity for situating ourselves and all our enquiries is found in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's notion of the 'noosphere', the worldwide layer of interthinking and interaction covering the globe, so that we are interdependent not only intellectually, culturally, politically and economically, but also at the religious and spiritual level. For Teilhard religions have been a central driving force in the development of human culture and civilisations, but far from religions now being a phenomenon of the past, he regarded their contribution to the shaping of an emerging world culture as absolutely essential. Teilhard was not a history of religions scholar, but he was passionately interested in the future of humankind and asked some deeply searching questions about where our world is going. His theories about religion are well worth studying.13 They also demonstrate that the human search for truth and understanding cannot be exclusively pursued by cognitive criteria alone, however important these are, but does involve several other ways of knowing.
It would be a fascinating challenge to examine in depth the different attempts undertaken so far if not to integrate, but at least to combine the insights of the contemporary study of religions with new theological questions in a global perspective. There is no time to do this here, but I would like to mention at least a few examples. An intriguing one is Wilfred Cantwell Smith's book Towards a world theology, subtitled Faith and the comparative history of religion (Maryknoll, NY:1989).14 Smith argues for the development of a world theology by using the data of the history of religions and by tracing the emergence of a new consciousness in the different faith communities of being interrelated in the common religious history of humankind. Such patterns of commonality as to the meaning and purpose of human life have also been charted by N Ross Reat and Edmund Perry in their jointly authored book A world theology. The central spiritual reality of humankind.15 These are imaginative new attempts to explore the significance of particular data by interrelating them in a larger, more complex global context. The authors write about their world theology that it is an attempt `to construct a valid theological theory on the basis of factual information amassed by scholars of religious studies. Our theological statement, in turn, properly becomes additional data for religious studies to assimilate and evaluate. This situation illustrates the basic distinction between theology and academic religious studies. Theology ... is normative of human belief and behaviour. Religious studies is analytical of the beliefs and practices thus normed, and of the normative theologies themselves' (1991:313). Perhaps we need not only a `world theology' but also a growing number of `world believers' who are spiritually multi-lingual and multi-focused. Like the `world citizen' who feels at home in different countries and cultures, so the `world believer' might have roots in one faith, yet also be able to relate to many others. There are certainly some individuals around who fit already into this category.
As a last example I would like to mention the concept of `world scriptures' which is also currently being used. Strictly defined canons of sacred scriptures are far fewer than the vast groups of sacred writings or the global body of sacred literature which can be considered part of our global cultural heritage, a storehouse of wisdom and insight to which we now have wide access, thanks to tremendous translation efforts. Through this process of the cross-cultural mediation of sacred writings, scriptural texts, which are the foundational sources of particular faith communities, are in addition now being transformed into universally available resources for humanity at large. Besides taking into account the imagined speech communities of particular groups and peoples, we must also be aware of this new global community. My last example here is the new large translation project of the International Sacred Literature Trust. Unlike Max Muller's nineteenth-century series, The sacred books of the East, these translations are undertaken by scholars from within the faith communities themselves to make available hitherto untranslated or poorly translated sacred texts for their English-speaking diaspora members, and also to share insights and new reflections across the traditions. Six books have been published so far -- texts from Australian Aboriginal, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Taoist and other sources -- but many more are planned for the years to come.16 This exciting international translation venture, launched at the United Nations and published for the International Sacred Literature Trust by Harper, San Francisco, is part of the contemporary process of interfaith encounter. Such publications contribute to a deeper appreciation of the rich scriptural resources which can inspire and assist us in developing the much-needed transformation at a personal and collective level. It can also help to initiate a new conversation, a better informed dialogue among and across the different religious traditions, as well as between the secular and religious domains. It thus helps to promote common reflection on the values we share across the traditions and can assist in working towards a global ethic whose principles the 1993 Chicago Parliament of the World's Religions considered so important to promote.
I have reflected on four different perspectives -- the emergence of global awareness, the experience of interfaith encounter, the implications of gender issues, and the dynamics of increasing global complexity -- and I have argued that these four are challenging the study of religion in a new way, so that it is no longer enough to go on studying different religious traditions with our habitual skills and established methodologies alone, in the way we have done until now, but we must also take into account the newness of our situation and the critical questions arising from it. Whether any or all of these four perspectives will provide for our era the new generative idea of which Langer spoke is yet too early to assess. However, I think it is imperative that we feel critically challenged by this new situation and develop all creative scholarly and human resources to strengthen and enlarge the field of religious studies so that we can responsibly meet the challenges and interdependencies of our global world in the twenty-first century.
Prof Ursula King
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
36 Tyndall's Park Road