Discussing Religion in Particular(s)

Discussing Religion in Particular(s)

In Chiang Mai, inside Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, considered the holiest temple in northern Thailand.

It is impossible to talk of religions in general without giving a false picture.
— Wendy Tyndale

For me, it’s an occupational hazard: a conversation that turns religious, high in the sky. In January, flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai—the last leg in a journey to arrive for a doctoral study residency in Global Christianity—the conversation was with a 30-something Canadian, a Quebecois.

Having each explained our reasons for traveling to northern Thailand, run-of the-mill chit-chat ensued. Quickly, however, to spice things up, I trotted out the requisite question about Quebec secession. He confessed that passionate cultural identity and appropriate social pride easily transform into superiority and smugness. Ah, yes, now the conversation was getting particular.

Playing the priest, I took his further confession: he was a lapsed Catholic for whom even Christmas and Easter were not—anymore—occasions for attending Mass. Having recently lived in Vietnam for six months, he said he couldn’t get enough of Southeast Asia. Eventually, he came out with it, almost like a cliché dripping from the mouths of spiritual-but-not-religious babes, “I’m probably more Buddhist than anything.”

Two weeks later, on a gorgeous winter Thai afternoon, our learning cohort participated in a “Monk Chat” at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. (Someone please call the Guinness Book of World Records.) MU is a Buddhist university at the serene Wat Suan Dok. As I found out, “Monk Chat” was the 21st-century Buddhist equivalent of the numerous Christian iterations of “Ask the Pastor”—a calculated accessibility, plus saffron robes.

The monk-professor opened his talk with an inter-religious zinger, asking our group of Christian doctoral students, “Does anyone know why the Buddha’s ears are so large?” No one in our group knew. Or, at least, no one was about to risk getting it wrong in the early going in front of the monk-professor—notwithstanding his warm, humorous style. He proceeded to tell a joke about Chinese depictions of Buddha, which occasion a fatter Buddha than Thai depictions, because, well, the Chinese food did it to him.

The large ears, he said, were to emphasize the philosophical and spiritual significance of “mindful listening” as a fundamental Buddhist practice. Truthfully, I imagine I could’ve told you a little something of the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness. But, equally, I cannot say I had ever really noticed the particularity of Buddha’s ears in relationship to the now-obvious symbolism.

The inner pagoda within Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

A simple, almost silly moment in the context of Buddhist-Christian dialogue had become a telling reminder of the role that particular knowledge plays in our inter-religious understanding. Over the afternoon, more particulars would come into very sharp focus as our cohort engaged fourth-year Buddhist monks from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal and Thailand. I channeled a trip to Oman, in 2012, where the director of Al Amana Centre, Douglas Leonard, told me: “Experiential and relational interfaith education is what it will take to transform people’s understanding of the other.”

Under the far-flung canopy of globalization, how we talk religion when we talk religion no matter our religion especially when we talk of another’s religion should, I think, push us further toward particularity—and preferably in the context of real persons. I believe this means that our inter-religious exchanges must be conditioned by a sense of limitation, borne of humility and charitableness, even as we stay true to the strength of our own faith-convictions.

Living in a cultural milieu featuring religious plurality, it stands to reason that by pressing myself to learn the particulars of another’s religion—and to speak in particular about religion—I can arrive at a more truthful knowing. In time, a more constructive understanding emerges. But the alternative exists for the inevitable contrast: If I persist in crude generalizations—either ignorantly or willfully—I will most certainly arrive at a false knowledge and understanding. And, of course, as you must know, there are many treacherous trails after that.

Bill Sachs, who directs the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation in Richmond, Va., has couched the cultural matter of inter-religious illiteracy in the very sharp terms of prejudice. He says:

Prejudice thrives on outrageous generalizations. But overcoming prejudice requires enough accurate information to sense nuance. Prejudice diminishes as one knows more and knows accurately. Sufficient knowledge reveals varieties and subtleties.

Meanwhile, San Jose, Calif.-based pastor and author Ben Daniel employs the analogy of film/photography to hone in on this dynamic of particulars. Writing in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, Daniel admonishes Christians (and others) to resist insufficient knowledge. He puts it this way:

It's hard not to believe what one sees on a screen of any size. After all, images must exist in order to be captured through a lens. The problem with lenses, however, is that in order to capture an image, they must necessarily ignore the images and ideas that frame the shot.

In Thailand, in part because of Buddha’s large ears, I became re-convinced that more qualitative inter-religious understanding comes only via particulars—the ongoing accumulation of many particulars, especially as they are experienced in person. When we see beyond the single image of another’s faith or tradition, we are bound to find a truer picture.


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