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Never Wholly Other

by Jerusha T. Lamptey, Ph.D.

Theology and Interfaith Dialogue

As a theologian exploring the topic of religious pluralism, I am fascinated by the manner in which we encounter different religious traditions and people. Do we embrace encounters that cross boundaries and engage difference? Are we tolerant of ‘others’ and of difference? How are our interreligious (and even intrareligious) interactions shaped by our theologies, and vice versa?

It is this latter question that has become the central focus of my research. When I first started to explore religious pluralism, it seemed that tolerance and peaceful co-existence were the desired endpoints, and that theology was of less immediate relevance. Certainly, tolerance and co-existence are desired and desirable. However, I became increasingly interested in the relationship between practical action and theological understandings. Was tolerance directly connected to a positive theological view of other religions? Did an exclusive theology impede co-existence? Did theology even really matter?

Sadly, it is not difficult to find examples of interreligious intolerance and denial of religious freedoms. Muslims have been both the perpetrators of such violations as well as the recipients. Such waves of religious violence and oppression force us to ask difficult questions about the relationship between theological depictions of religious ‘others,’ intolerance, and oppression. While there is not always a direct connection, at the very least, negative theological depictions can be used as fuel for already kindled fires of intolerance.

Yet, my interest in the relationship between interaction and theology does not only arise from these provocative, destructive and largely disdained manifestations. It is also spurred by the fact that in many other situations it is not religious intolerance that is the norm, but rather constructive interreligious interaction. For example, in many contexts in the United States, interreligious cooperation has grown substantially in the last decade. While not triggered by September 11th, the horrific tragedy and resultant trauma of that day certainly increased awareness surrounding the necessity and value of interreligious cooperation and involvement. This has led to interfaith dialogues and interreligious efforts focused on social justice and community welfare. Interreligious engagement appears to be a new norm of mainstream religious communities.

But, the embrace of interreligious engagement – that is, the practical embrace of the religious ‘other’ – has not necessarily been paired with a theological embrace of the religious ‘other.’ In fact, there frequently exists a gap between practical action and theological understandings of religious ‘others.’ Some Muslims, for example, are fully committed to interreligious engagement and detest interreligious strife, yet still harbor theological commitments to the finality, uniqueness and superiority of the religion of Islam. This does not mean that other religions are completely devoid of divine guidance or value, but it nevertheless does imply that the ideal relationship with God is possible only within the specific tradition of Islam.

Bifurcation between the practical and theological is problematic because the two topics are treated as if they do not come into contact, nor inform one another. Questions of how we act—or should act – in this world in relation to other humans become severed from questions of how we should act in relation to God, and vice versa. Ultimately, this is an unrealistic – and therefore unstable – partitioning. Moreover, bifurcation of practical action and theological views appears to be a luxury of situations of relative calm and bounty; it easily and quickly crumbles in the face of conflict and scarcity.

In Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York: Oxford, 2014), I offer a critique of this general bifurcation, and of some contemporary Islamic theological perspectives on religious diversity that aim to support tolerance. While valuable in their shared commitment to peaceful co-existence, these contemporary efforts largely do not problematize the hierarchical theological view of Islam as the most correct and final religious tradition.

In response, I draw upon the work of Muslim women interpreters of the Qur’an and of Christian feminist theologians to re-think the concept of difference. Religious difference does not always necessitate hierarchical evaluation according to these feminist scholars; difference can be acknowledged without being ascribed a fixed and determined value. In simplified terms, if two things are different, one does not have to be better than the other.

I use this “rethinking of difference” to then reinterpret the Qur’anic discourse, including the manner in which it refers to particular religious communities, and the manner in which it describes various relationships to God and other human beings. I ultimately argue that the various relationships (both praised and disdained) are not dictated based upon membership in a particular religious community. This argument then serves as the basis of my constructive articulation of a Muslima theology of religious pluralism, which attempts to offer an integrated account of the Qur’anic discourse on religious diversity, weaving together questions of creation, human nature, revelation(s), human diversity and interactions, and divine evaluation.

Jerusha T. Lamptey is Assistant Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Her research focuses on theologies of religious pluralism, comparative theology, and feminist theology. The above piece is based on her recently released book Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York: Oxford, 2014).