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What Difference does Religious Plurality Make?
M. Thomas Thangaraj

Here are some reflections on the question posed. I answer this question in two sections. First, what difference does religious plurality make in my own personal journey of faith? Second, how does religious plurality affect my work as a Christian theologian? Before I proceed to answer these two questions, let me make a preliminary remark. The answer to the question posed depends more on how one perceives religious plurality than on the bare fact of religious plurality. For example, if one sees religious plurality as a problem or an undesired situation to be eliminated, then the phenomenon of religious plurality will make a particular kind of difference in terms of living out one's Christian religious life and practising one's vocation as a theologian. On the other hand, if one sees religious plurality as something valid, acceptable, and beneficial, then one's approach to it will be entirely different. Therefore, the impact of religious plurality is shaped significantly by how one views religious plurality as such. This needs to be borne in mind while answering the question that we are dealing with.

1. What difference does religious plurality make in my personal journey of faith?

I am a fifth generation Christian who grew up in the small villages of South Tirunelveli District of Tamilnadu, India. These villages were known as Christian villages because the people in the village, except a few, belonged to a single form of Protestant Christianity. My own ancestors belong to a village, called Nazareth, where in 1804 the people of the village became Christians in large numbers and changed the name of the village to Nazareth. Growing up in such a "Christian" setting, I had a little or no consciousness about religious plurality. As a little boy I knew of the Hindu temple in the nearby village and its annual festivals. I visited the village during one of its festivals as well. But the religious plurality that I was aware of was extremely marginal to my journey of faith as a Christian. Thus, as a child I was nurtured completely by the Christian tradition.

When I entered college, I became more aware of the multiplicity of religious traditions and still kept it at a distance from my immediate spiritual concerns. During the end of my undergraduate studies, I had an experience of recommitment to the Christian faith and the people of other religious traditions became one of the icons on my personal and spiritual screen. Yet they were part of my life only as those who needed to be converted to Christianity. So religious plurality made a difference in the way I would live out my Christian life by reminding me of the need to double my efforts to witness to people of other religious faiths and lead them to Christian faith. When I moved to graduate studies, I encountered more Hindus and Muslims in the Halls of Madras Christian College and read the Quran in Tamil for the first time. I was beginning to appreciate religious plurality in ways in which I had not done before precisely due to the friendships that I had with Hindus and Muslims.

As I entered Serampore College for my theological education, I was intensely aware of religious plurality both through the classes that S. J. Samartha and Y. Tiwari taught and through my personal encounter with Hindu students. This experience made two significant impacts on my life as a Christian. First, I became acutely aware of the particularity of the Christian religious language, and that compelled me to find a new language to express my faith to my Hindu friends. Second, I began to experience an existential anxiety about my own faith. The universality of my faith was challenged in significant ways. Is the Christ the only way to God? This question began to haunt me from then on.

When I entered pastoral ministry in the parishes in Tirunelveli Diocese of the Church of South India, the issue of religious plurality was not paramount in my work. I was more focussed on nurturing the Christian folks in my congregations, though there were a couple of incidents such as interreligious marriage that raised the question of religious plurality. Soon after I started teaching theology at Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, religious plurality became an important element in my teaching and research. This had its impact of the way my own personal faith in Christ was shaped. I began to see more clearly my need to be in dialogue with Hindus, especially the Saivites, to make sense of my own faith. The spirituality of the Saivite saints, especially their hymnic writings, became part of my spiritual heritage.

2. What difference does religious plurality make in my work as a Christian theologian?

a. As a theological teacher, I bring in the fact of religious plurality into all my teaching. The way I taught "Introduction to Christian Theology" to my students in Tamilnadu Theological Seminary included a conversation between Christians and Saivites at each point in the teaching. The courses that I teach now at Candler School of Theology, including "Christian Encounter with Hinduism", take the issue of religious plurality seriously into account in constructing one's theology.

b. My research over the years and my publications indicate the inclusion of religious plurality into every aspect of thinking. My book, "The Crucified Guru: An Experiment in Cross-Cultural Christology", is an attempt to understand and articulate one's faith in Christ through the category of "Guru" in the Tamil Saivite tradition. The awareness of religious plurality and an appreciation of it have led me in this book to come up with a functional understanding of Christology and a reconstruction of the exclusive claims of Christ. The next book, "Relating to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know", outlines the various ways in which one may relate to people of other religions for a lay audience. The most recent work, entitled, "The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission", takes the fact and appreciation of religious plurality as the starting point of constructing a theology of mission for today. The next major project I am dreaming of is to write a one-volume systematic theology, which takes interreligious, especially the Hindu-Christian, conversation as its system.

M. Thomas Thangaraj is Professor of theology at Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.

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