Dilatato Corde 7:2
July – December, 2017

Perry Schmidt-Leukel
The Gifford Lectures – An Extended Edition
Orbis Books

About a third of the way into the book, Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel muses about the possible future of religion on this planet. Different religions, he writes, “would understand their home traditions as parts of a larger overarching religious reality, of which they represent equally valid components. Their still different identities would be seen by all of them as diverse individualities within an all-embracing ‘we’-consciousness” (p. 112).
Following the lead of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, for whom contradictions are an ‘invitation to synthesis’” (see p. 148), he sets out to test the position of religious pluralism by seeking to find out “in and through dialogue, whether what people from different religions believe and how they live is ultimately irreconcilable or whether it may be, in substantial respects, compatible or even complementary, so that they can learn from each other” (p. 126). “The exploration of possible compatibilities in the face of apparent incompatibilities,” he believes, “is one of the most exciting and significant facets of interreligious theology” (p. 206).
Part I of the book, “Religious Pluralism,” consists of lectures Schmidt-Leukel gave at Zhejiang University in China in 2014. In these lectures he explores the degree to which the major religious traditions of the world allow for a positive view of other religions. The titles of the six chapters nicely summarize their content: “Pluralist Awakenings in Christianity,” “Judaism and the Many Covenants,” “Submission to a Divinely Willed Diversity: Islamic Pluralism,” “Is Hinduism a Pluralist Religion?” “The Difficult Road to Pluralism in Buddhism,” and “Pluralist Inclinations in Chinese Religions.” Readers who assume that Christians are virtually the only ones concerned to understand how their own religion relates to other religious traditions—whether that be to convince themselves and others of the superiority of Christianity or to investigate the possibility that teachings of other religious traditions might be compatible with or even compliment those of Christianity—will discover in these carefully documented chapters that interest in interreligious investigation is much more widespread than they imagined.
Part II, “Interreligious Theology,” is the main part of the book and consists of the Gifford Lectures[1] given in 2015 at the University of Glasgow, where the author had been Professor of Religious Studies and Systematic Theology from 2000 to 2009. He is now Professor of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology at the University of Münster in Germany and head of its Institute for Religious Studies and Inter-Faith Theology. The title of his lectures in Glasgow was “Interreligious Theology: The Future Shape of Theology.”  Abstracts of the lectures are provided on the University’s website, which also refers to video. However, only audio is available.
The author defines interreligious theology as “that type of doing theology which reflects on the major issues of human life by drawing on insights from more than one religious traditions” (p. 113). He goes on to note in his introductory lecture that because of the diversity of religions, interreligious theology also involves an interreligious reflection on different understanding of religious diversity and their possible compatibility. As he puts it in the on-line abstract for this first lecture, interreligious theology is “perspectival by taking into account the confessional nature of religion. . . . imaginative in trying to look through the religious other’s eyes. . . . comparative in seeking reciprocal illumination and . . . constructive in aiming at mutual transformation.”
In the following three lectures he looks at the Muslim confession of Muhammad as the Prophet, the Christian confession of Jesus as the Son of God, and the Buddhist regard for Gautama as the Buddha to determine to what extent these religious affirmations can become meaningful interreligiously. His careful study of the similar revelatory function that these titles have in all three religions leads him to conclude that in spite of contradictions, a synthesis is feasible. For example,
If both [Christian and Muslim] teaching are seen as subservient to the inner dialectics of revelation in a way that has it obvious analogues in the Islamic debates about the primordial Qur’ān, and if both sides agree that the Word of God may not only assume the form of a text but also that of a human person, it will become possible for Christians to acknowledge Muhammad as a post-Christian prophet. Christians could then accept Muhammad—as suggested by Hans Kung—as “a prophetic corrective for Christians in the name of the one and only God.”[2] That is, Muhammad could indeed be taken as someone who legitimately warns Christians not to be misled by their Trinitarian speculations into distorting God’s oneness and transcendence” (p. 161).
In a similar vein, with regard to the relationship of the Son to the Buddha, Schmidt-Leukel notes that
Through dialogue, some Christians and Buddhist have tried to achieve a better understanding of what the confession of Gautama as the Buddha and of Jesus as the Son of God might mean to them reciprocally On both sides, these attempts seem to point to the awareness of a common theme: The awakening to ultimate reality that makes a Buddha a Buddha and the embodiment of God’s mercy in Jesus’ life and death that makes him the Son can both be interpreted in terms of the manifestation of an unmanifest or unlimited reality in the realm of finite experience” (p. 182).
The concluding lecture, entitled “A Fractal Theory of Religious Diversity,” takes up a concept/term introduced by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. According to a fractal theory of religiosity, the essential features characteristic of the differences between religions are also found in analogous form within the religions and even, to some extent, at the level of individual religiosity. Making use of this concept is one way of coming to the realization that “Religions resemble each other, but they resemble each other precisely in their diversity” (p 232f).
Religious Pluralism & Interreligious Theology provides an extensive record of the great advances made by interreligious scholarship over the past decades (the list of works referred to by the author is 30 pages long). To the work that has already been done, Schmidt-Leukel adds his own penetrating scholarship and brilliant insights to argue, clearly and convincingly, that increased knowledge of and respect for other religious traditions can enrich and even purify one’s understanding of and commitment to one’s own religious tradition

[1] The Gifford Lectures are an annual series of lectures which were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford, as a means to "promote and diffuse the study of 'natural theology' in the widest sense of the term". (From the University’s website.)
[2] Hans Küng, Josef van Ess, Heirich von Stietencron, and Heinz Bechert, Christianity and the World Religions, 2nd ed (London: SCM Press, 1993), p. 129.
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