VOLUME XI:2 - July - December 2021

Perry Schmidt-Leukel’s Fractal Interpretation of Religious Diversity

Alan Race and Paul Knitter eds.

Orbis Books


As Perry Schmidt-Leukel prepared his 2015 Gifford Lectures ‘Interreligious Theology: The Future Shape of Theology’ a sudden insight thirty years in the making stirred him awake in the wee hours of the night: a fractal interpretation of religious diversity. What began as late-night sketch was developed and delivered as the final lecture in that august series. The potential of these ideas, particularly his fractal interpretation, to shape the future of interreligious theology and theology of religions is the focus of this finely edited volume by Alan Race and Paul Knitter. Here they have gathered together a distinguished group of scholars and theologians to offer constructive and critical comment on Schmidt-Leukel’s thinking. The result is a well-deserved and diverse engagement with a set of ideas that seem to stir up much more than simply Schmidt-Leukel from his sleep.  
New Paths for Interreligious Theology consists of four parts. In the first, Schmidt-Leukel presents a helpful summation of his fractal interpretation. While this chapter is not the exact text the other contributors are working with—they seem to have another Orbis Press publication Religious Pluralism and Interreligious Theology: The Gifford Lectures—An Extended Version before them—it provides the reader with the necessary background to engage the text fruitfully. The second section consists of methodological and contextual assessments of his theory with several essays focusing on the tension between theology of religions and comparative theology. The third offers a multireligious examination and application of the theory from traditions within Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism. Combined, these two sections offer a theoretical and practical engagement and assessment of these ideas with the former testing the internal logic of  Schmidt-Leukel’s fractal interpretation and the latter examining its adequacy when taken up by the religious traditions themselves. The final section sees Schmidt-Leukel responding to the other authors.   
Although this frame is the primary organizing structure of the text, Knitter and Race note from the outset that another schema is possible. Alongside the theoretical/practical structure are the other authors’ ‘verdicts.’ They categorize these as affirming (further showing the potential of Schmidt-Leukel’s proposal), correcting (especially his criticism of other viewpoints), and fixing (showing how ‘possibly debilitating’ inadequacies can be fixed). In the end, the volume is not an uncritical coronation of a new pluralist paradigm, but rather a lively, scholarly engagement between a serious thinker and his equally capable interlocuters. This exchange bears fruit beyond the immediate fractal focus of the text. By engaging established models and/or by offering new horizons, each essay has the potential to unlock something new (or old) for the reader. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with Schmidt-Leukel, the welcomed unsettling of existing models and approaches and the necessary rethinking required in such instances will continue to help push interreligious theology, comparative theology, and theology of religions forward.
Outlining his fractal interpretation, Schmidt-Leukel writes, “The nucleus of the theory is that the diversity we observe among the religions globally is mirrored in the diversity that we find within each of the major religious traditions. And that we can also discern some patterns—or elements thereof—within the religious orientation of individual persons.” This pattern of “recursiveness and (rough) scale invariance” from the interreligious to the intrareligious and intrasubjective resembles the concept of fractals introduced by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010). Fractals appear not just in nature (organic and inorganic) but, as Schmidt-Leukel argues, in culture and religion as well. The analytic and methodological value this heuristic tool provides is assessed in the subsequent sections. Here he identifies three major contributions: 1. “The cross-relationship between interreligious and intrareligious diversity can only be analyzed by means of comparison,” 2. “A fractal interpretation of religious diversity rehabilitates the use of ‘religion’ as a meaningful concept,” 3. “A fractal interpretation of religious diversity is of significant hermeneutical value” among and within religious traditions.
He concludes his introductory chapter by offering two examples of fractal theory at work. The second of these showcases the ‘fractal coalescence’ among the epithets ‘Buddha-Awakened One,’ ‘The Incarnate Son of God,’ and ‘Prophet’ and the corresponding actions of awakening, proclaiming, and embodying. Although each tradition might emphasize one of these actions over the others, Schmidt-Leukel notes that all are nevertheless present and operative in the others. Gautama awakens to, proclaims, and embodies refuge and Dharma. Jesus awakens to “the ultimate source of life,” proclaims the Good News, and embodies the eternal word of God. Muhammad awakens to, proclaims, and embodies the ultimate unity of God, the oneness of justice and mercy, and submission to God. These moments of unity in diversity open up the possibility for religious traditions to learn not just more about religious others, but also themselves. They also create connections that allow for the legitimacy and complementarity of religious differences to be recognized and upheld. One religion need not be more ultimate, efficacious, and/or true than the others. Rather, one can become attuned to how the religious diversity between traditions is exhibited within them all as well.
In the second section—Methodological/Contextual Perspectives—Kenneth Rose, Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Jerusha Tanner Rhodes, and Hans Gustafson offer their assessment and analysis. Rose sees fractal theory and interreligious theology as reestablishing pluralism’s place over the inclusivist tendencies present in Clooney’s new comparative theology. For Rose, the fractal theory helps pluralism overcome the critiques of relativism and nonengagement—theologies of religion operating abstractly from above rather than engaging the concrete particularities from below. Gustafson also affirms much of Scmidt-Leukel’s findings as they resonate with his own pansacramental worldview. Like Rose he lauds the theory’s ability to overcome impasses especially postmodern and postliberal incommensurability as well as the its potential for interdisciplinary work.
Rhodes examines fractals from a feminist comparative theological lens. Arguing that theology is never apolitical, she calls for an approach that interrupts and modifies configurations (fractal or otherwise) towards liberation and justice. Comparative theology and theology of religions require feminist and postcolonial analysis even if one is not specifically doing feminist or postcolonial work. Clooney is one of the only authors to wrestle with the mathematical theory underpinning fractals. In doing so, he carves out a space for his own comparative work to fit within a fuller theory of fractals that embraces not just patterns but randomness. Clooney’s ‘feisty’ response makes greater sense in light of Schmidt-Leukel’s larger volume. There Clooney’s particular approach to comparative theology is critiqued for the presence of an inclusive theology of religions and a perceived dismissal of theology of religions in general. He concludes with a détente of sorts while affirming also that complexity and mystery cannot be so easily fixed by theory.
In the third section—Multireligious Perspectives—Rong Wang, Swami Medhananda (Ayon Maharaj), John Makransky, Ephraim Meir, Alan Race, and Maria Massi Dakake put fractal theory and interreligious theology into practice. Wang finds both well-suited for the Chinese context. The need for “religious Sinicization” coupled with a long history of Sanjiao Heyi (“the three teachings combine into one” / “harmony”) make it necessary for religions in China to become Chinese. Schmidt-Leukel’s theories appear capable of providing a sophisticated theology of religious pluralism. Swami Medhananda offers a critique in light of the pluralist approaches of John Hick, Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda. He is particularly concerned with a synthesis that maintains unity at the expense of real difference as well as one that fails to uphold Hick’s distinction between “soteriological vital”’ and “sotieriologically inessential” religious doctrines. Makransky invites the reader into his/her own fractal experiment. Focusing on two 14th to 15th century figures in Tibetan Buddhism, he highlights the intrareligious diversity in key teachings on theological anthropology, soteriology, and gnoseology. Recognizing that unfamiliarity with another tradition necessarily inhibits fractal pattern recognition, he seeks to provide a ground for others to explore interreligious and intrareligious diversity.
Meir grounds his critique in a “deed-centered” rather than logocentric approach to religious pluralism. Drawing on the insights of 20th century Jewish philosophy, he notes that the face of the other requires a response, and this ethical demand becomes the necessary starting place for critical reflection. Like many of the authors identified as correcting or fixing, Meir wishes to maintain an element of incommensurability and incomparability between traditions. Race examines the potential of fractal theory for Christian theological reflection. Questions like, “Is it Christian?” still hound pluralists, and Race sets out to demonstrate the appropriateness of a pluralist theology of religions especially as Schmidt-Leukel’s interreligious theology can draw upon multiple theological disciplines. Dakake employs the Quranic concept barzakh, “the meeting point between to realms or realities.” She does so to mark her reticence regarding an interreligious theology that dissolves this liminal meeting space present in interreligious engagement. Interreligious theology ought not be post-confessional, but a theology on the edge where boundaries and differences remain recognized.
All the essays along with Schmidt-Leukel’s careful response to them succeed in showingthat a fractal interpretation of religious diversity and interreligious theology is quite capable of generating and soliciting new insights from the fields of theology of religions and comparative theology. For those scholars in full support of his approach, Schmidt-Leukel demonstrates a sophisticated theology ably responding to the inter- and extra-religious critiques that have accompanied pluralist positions from the beginning. For those scholars more critical, he has spurred creative and definitive responses that will prove to be jumping-off points for future interreligious inquiry. All heuristic tools are helpful until they are not. The common critique voiced by several scholars is a warning not to succumb to the temptation of collapsing diversity and obscuring particularity in the quest for unity. One fractal area that could have been developed more is the intrasubjective. The volume succeeds in showing fractal theory at work at the interreligious and intrareligious levels. How fractals manifest at the individual, personal level would have been a helpful addition.
Schmidt-Leukel is deserving of the accelerated reception and engagement that New Paths for Interreligious Theology provides. Four years from lecture to volume is a quick feat, and Knitter and Race are to be commended for following up on their intuition that Schmidt-Leukel “was on to something” and inviting an excellent and diverse set of scholars to put his thinking to the test. Many readers will find that having Religious Pluralism and Interreligious Theology: The Gifford Lectures—An Extended Version handy is helpful, but not necessary. This volume harkens back to the days of The Myth of Christian Uniqueness and Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered. Those essays defined a generation of interreligious discourse. This volume shakes off the dust that settled on those lively engagements and promises to point the way for the next generation. 
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