You will soon learn as you read this blog post about an old story, a new book, and the ongoing issue why I have used such an enticing (and puzzling?) title.
An Old Story
Many of you know that old story, but it is worth reading again in its entirety, so please click here and take a couple of minutes to read what poet Saxe called “a Hindoo fable.”
Early versions of the old tale go back to at least 500 BCE, and its origins were probably far earlier than that. References to it are found in ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts.
That old story has often been used in what the poet Saxe called “theologic wars,” but interestingly, the old fable has been used in teaching about the Peace Corps, in discussions of systems engineering (see here), and in a 2020 Psychology Today magazine article, to give but a few examples.
A New Book
John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. His new (2020) book is titled Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity.
Thatamanil, born in India and a U.S. resident since the age of eight, is an impressive scholar and his book will be appreciated most by scholars in the academic field that used to be called “comparative religion.” Most others will likely find reading/understanding the book quite demanding.
The book begins with “Introduction: Revisiting an Old Tale” (pp. 1~19). In the first thirteen pages, Thatamanil briefly summarizes the old story and discusses some of the criticisms leveled against it.
He informs his readers, “This book is a Christian exercise in pachyderm perambulation” (p. 11). In more common words, it is about circling the elephant, the author’s metaphor for how he “seeks to make theological sense of the reality and meaning of religious diversity” (p. 12).
The first chapter begins with a discussion of the question “Should Religious Diversity Be a ‘Problem’ for Christians?” (pp. 21~29)—and for the next 230 pages Thatamanil argues that the answer to that question should be No.
The Ongoing Issue
So, how do people of one religious faith relate to people of other faiths? Traditionally, the usual stance of Western Christians was the “we are right, they are wrong” position.
But through the years, interreligious contact increasingly morphed the views of many Christians toward inclusivist, as opposed to exclusivist, views—and then more and more toward pluralistic views.
Thatamanil critically examines those three positions in chapter two. He wants to move beyond all three of those widely held viewpoints—or at least to what he calls “relational pluralism,” as elucidated in chapter three.
And then the concept of religion itself is discussed in the fourth and fifth chapters. This prompts us to raise questions such as, In comparing Christianity to other religions, what form of Christianity is chosen? And what form of, say, Islam?
Do we compare the Christianity of the Quakers and Mennonites with the Islamic jihadists?
Or do we compare the Christian militants through the centuries with the Buddhism represented by people such as Thích Nhất Hạnh–or the Muslim family that lovingly cared for my Christian friend Delores (see here)?
In spite of all that Thatamanil wrote in his scholarly book, and the ongoing intellectual issues that he dealt with so admirably, perhaps the most serious religious issue today is not how the various religions “see” the “elephant” differently but how people increasingly don’t see the “elephant” at all.
And even those who do argue most about the various facets of the “elephant” increasingly belong to the same religious tradition—and those embracing significant agreement increasingly belong to different religious traditions.
** I received the book introduced above under the auspices of the Speakeasy book review plan that is headed by Mike Morrell. In addition to this article, I have posted a much fuller summary of the book on my supplementary blogsite (see here).