From Exclusivism to Convergence - Part 2

Originally printed in the July - August 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Somerville, James M. "From Exclusivism to Convergence - Part 2." Quest  88.4 JULY - AUGUST 2000): pg 136-139.

By James M. Somerville

Faced with the fact of divergence in the religious traditions of the world, some believers in a particular tradition are exclusivists, rejecting all other traditions as errors. Other believers are inclusivists, recognizing other traditions as lesser or imperfect forms of truth. As possible responses to religious diversity, there remain two other approaches: pluralism and convergence.


Shouldn't we regard the various spiritual traditions of the world as roughly equal? Isn't one as good as another, depending on the needs of ethnic people? What suits a Hindu villager, surrounded by temples with gongs, bells, erotic images, and grotesque statues representing different aspects of God, may repel a European or American urbanite. Yet the Hindu peasant's religion can lead to the practice of the highest moral virtue with boundless trust in the promise of the sanatana dharma, or eternal doctrine. By the same token, the Hindu would probably find the externals of Western religion not only unfamiliar but indescribably dull and depressing.

Thomas Merton, when he visited the giant Buddha images at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, approached them reverently, barefoot, transformed by the peace emanating from those extraordinary faces. It was as though they had seen through every possibility, "knowing everything, rejecting nothing." Here was the peace "that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything."

Who can say whether the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, became a pluralist in those last days before his accidental electrocution. But it was a good way to die, away from home in a foreign land, on the verge of seeing that truth is not bound or confined in any set of theological formulas. God's reach is not shortened. There are saints and sinners in all the great traditions, and who can say "who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18.1)?

St. Teresa of Avila strove to make it plain that her mysticism was grounded in Christ and that in her most lofty ascents he was always present. This may have been true also of St. John of the Cross, but in his poetry he does not speak explicitly of Christ. Basing much of his verse on the Song of Solomon, his stanzas are universal enough to be understood and treasured by a Sufi, such as Rumi, or a Hasidic Jewish mystic in the tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Meister Eckhart's apophatic mysticism all but leaves behind every trace of Catholic dogma, an omission which, among other things, earned him a condemnation after his death by Pope John XXII. "His notion of God," writes Urban T. Holmes, "is more the Neo-Platonist One than the Trinity."

Regardless of how pluralistic one may become, most of us are born into a religious or an a-religious culture or household. We all begin somewhere, and most of us stay there. One is reminded of the story about the husband who, returning to his house unexpectedly, found a man who had been courting his wife hiding in a closet. Opening the closet door, he shouted to the man inside, "What are you doing in there?" to which the embarrassed intruder replied, "Well, sir, I gotta be somewhere." This is just another way of repeating what was said at the start. We've "gotta be somewhere." Most people live and die in the religion into which they were born and raised. Most will hold that it is the right religion for them, even the only true one. Few have the urge or the energy to look elsewhere. If they have to be somewhere, they might as well stay where they are.

Each religion has its own mythos, which is familiar to its adherents from childhood. It feels right and comfortable, whereas other religions, even denominations within the same faith, seem strange. And certainly, at the level of systematic belief and practice, religions vary greatly. The real issue is whether at the highest level Christian trinitarianism can be reconciled with the strict monotheism of Judaism and Islam; whether, in spite of the similarities between Buddhism and the Hinduism from which it diverged, the anatta, or no-self teaching of Buddhism, can be reconciled with the atman, or supreme-self doctrine, of Hinduism. It does make a difference when one faith holds that there has been only one incarnation (Christianity), while a second holds that there have been several (Hinduism), and a third denies that there have been any at all (Islam).

Some commentators try to weasel their way into reconciling differences by redefining what they understand by the divine, by incarnation, by what constitutes uniqueness. Since these are all merely doctrinal matters, what really matters, say the modern mystics (and not all of them are new-age types)is that, in the mystical "Cloud of Unknowing," beyond all images and conceptual structures, all doctrinal differences fall away in a direct experience of divine union. Maybe. But since few students of mysticism have actually had this kind of transforming experience themselves, they are reduced to taking someone else's word for what it is like. Reduced to faith in another's experience and not having had that kind of adventure themselves, most pluralists are loath to try to reconcile the differences among the various religions. They prefer to leave them in their otherness.


Another approach to ecumenism plays with the idea of convergence. At their best and most authentic level, the major religions are, as Frederick Franck has said, like fingers pointing to the sacred. You get a sense that they are all moving toward the goal of transcending the limitations of image and speech, each trying through its peculiar story to communicate by the use of symbol and myth a sense of the Ineffable. Do not even presume to utter the divine Name, say pious Jews. But this very reluctance testifies to the conviction that the heart and source of all reality does exist, though it cannot be reduced to words or concepts. Each religion, beginning with its own story or myth, is capable of eliciting in its adherents a longing for transcendence and a desire for the infinite.

No religion, of course, can deliver the Absolute or the Infinite to order. That would be like trying to get back to the 10-35 second after the Big Bang and before the cosmic inflation began. At that point all the known laws of physics break down. Anterior to that moment is the pretemporal state, whose laws, if they exist, are unknown to us. Analogously, though all the various religions converge toward Omega, none ever manages to bring us all the way. Spiritually and psychologically, what we would encounter "there" is emptiness, emptiness of all form. In the idiom of Nicholas of Cusa, Nothingness and the All coincide. But where they coincide is beyond where the lines of convergence can reach. Religion can bring us to the verge, to the brink, but like Moses, who led his people to the Promised Land, but could not enter in, there is no place for religion in the world to come. Religion is our vehicle for the journey. Once arrived, it will be left at the door.

Convergence saves us from the frustration and inconclusiveness of relativism. It recognizes the abiding reality of the Absolute, but by approaching it in conscious creaturehood, those who opt for convergence keep both poles of the creator-creature relationship intact. This enables one to acknowledge the limitations of all religions and thus to avoid turning any one of them into a Golden Calf.

Conversion and Ecumenism

Exclusivism, in its fundamentalist dress, has sometimes degenerated into bullying: either convert or be killed. Jews have repeatedly been faced with the choice of death or conversion. Short of threats to life and limb, a gentler form of terrorism is the policy of the true believer to frighten potential converts with visions of what will happen to unbelievers in the world to come. They will surely be lost unless they are baptized and are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Since they know they are right, exclusivists are known to wave aside every nonconformist element in their domain. They often use democratic means to take over the leadership of a denomination, as well as its seminaries and educational institutions, then oust all the well-trained faculty members who do not agree with their inerrantist literalism. Exclusivism does not always take this form, but the historical record shows that it very often does.

Inclusivism can admit the value of traditions other than its own and can even learn from them. But when pressed, it "knows" that its own tradition is best and truest, not just relative to the ethnic needs of its devotees but absolutely best and true. It therefore relativizes all the rest by making itself the judge and bar before which all the others are to be evaluated. It reduces, then, to a variety of exclusivism.

Pluralism, for all its good intentions, by allowing for the separate but rough equivalence of all religions, leaves itself open to the charge of relativism. Unless manyness has a focal point, even a receding one, we are left with a collection of radically independent worlds or universes with no unifying principle. As Kurt Gödel pointed out in mathematics, to account for the unity of any collection of items, one has to go beyond the set in order to find a principle of unification that is not a member of the set. Pluralism, to the extent that it leaves out transcendence as the goal toward which all religions are moving, has given up trying to address the problem of the coexistence of the one and the many.

Those who opt for convergence view the receding horizon of transcendent unity as the stimulus that animates all the religions of the world. Their starting points and some of their theologies may be irreconcilable when viewed separately. But none of the major religions is static; otherwise they would not have lasted for centuries. They are like the spokes of a wheel that converge toward the hub. Though, on the analogy, the hub may be invisible, the fact that the spoke-religions do converge means that the hub is not merely an invisible, external goal but an intrinsic, dynamic, guiding principle whose action is already inwardly operative in impelling the devotees to seek the hub.

Conversion to another religion is sometimes to the earthly advantage of the converted. If conversion frees individuals from slavery or an oppressive caste system, they may be better off joining the religion that liberates them or, in some cases, assures them of superior educational opportunities. People do not always have disinterested reasons for abandoning one religion and joining another. As for the trans-temporal advantages of conversion, who can say that a person's lot will be better hereafter for having changed from one religion to another?

All religious adherents do well if they are able to give a reasonable account of their faith to others. They also do well if they are prepared to listen patiently and attentively to what others have to say about their faiths. That is what ecumenism aims to achieve: not conversion but conversation. Where good will is at work, theologies turn out to be less important. What matters is the kind of faith which, in the Letter to the Hebrews (11.1), is defined as "the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of the reality of things not seen." But the dynamism does not stop there with a solipsistic "alone with the Alone." There must be a return movement, back, down to earth, whereby the fruits of devotion are turned into the service of others. The test of any true religion is the way it leads us to treat one another.

James M. Somerville taught philosophy for many years at Fordham University, where he was chair of the department and co-founder of the journal International Philosophical Quarterly. He is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy from Xavier University in Cincinnati and a Quest Book author (contributing to The Goddess Re-Awakening, 1989). His most recent book is The Mystical Sense of the Gospels (Crossroad, 1997).

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