Circling the Elephant:A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity by John Thatamanil (Review)

Who Should Read this Book – Readers interested in religion, theology and especially inter-religious dialogue from a Christian perspective.

What is the big take-away from this book: American Christians are already part of multiple religions, once we recognize the modern definition of world religion needs redefining and we then include consumerism, nationalism, capitalism and other ideologies that shape us as religious in nature.

And a memorable quote: “if capitalism is, at the very least, a quasi-religion, then it seems incontestable that virtually all American Christians are engaged in a complex and arguably idolatrous form of syncretism if not multiple religious belonging. If capitalism can be understood as a complex therapeutic regime that so forms human desires such that human beings come to be embedded within a complex comprehensive qualitative vision with its own theological anthropology and eschatology, then few American Christians are in a position to deny that their customary mode of religious life is other than syncretistic.”

John Thatamanil begins this book with an autobiographical sketch, which is helpful in giving the reader context for where he is coming from. Thatamanil was born in India and came to the United States as a child. He grew up Christian while always having an interest in learning more about the Indian religious traditions. This early interest led to a love of other religious traditions which is one of the primary points at the core of this book. Thatamanil remains a Christian while desiring to learn from other traditions.

You’ve probably heard the old story of blind persons touching different parts of an elephant and being asked what an elephant is . Depending on which part each person is touching, their understanding will be different. This story has been used by religious pluralists to say that each religion is merely touching on a different aspect of the divine. Of course, the obvious criticism of the story is that the person telling it is putting themselves in the position of ultimate understanding. This begs the question, how did this person achieve the universal understanding to see the whole elephant? Thatamanil does not ignore this critique, citing one instance of it from missiologist Leslie Newbigin. Thatamanil’s response is that the criticism is actually valid if the story of the elephant is told with a focus on knowledge. But Thatamanil encourages us to see the allegory as merely emphasizing “how it might be that the traditions are warranted in the claims they advance and still have something to learn from others who propound claims that seem radically incompatible.” In other words, if the person telling the allegory is trying to make the point that all religions are actually the same and they possess special knowledge above all specific religions, be wary. But if the allegory is told simply to encourage people to humility in the face of other claims, its helpful.

The way this plays out for Thatamanil is that he approaches inter-religious dialogue as a Christian rather than claiming some objective, non biased universal knowledge. He walks around the elephant, as a Christian, describing what he is seeing, as a Christian, while being open to learning from others who are not Christians and who possess wisdom that may be beneficial for Christians.

The first few chapters in the book set the stage by examining other works on religion from Christian perspective. He looks at how some Christians are open to dialogue with other religions, yet affirm that everything true is already revealed within Christianity (inclusivism). Thus, anything true in other religions is affirmed because its already found in Christian theology. Contrast this with dialogue that moves forward with openness to learning from other religions, even learning things not already in Christianity (pluralism). Of course, this relates to discussions of whether different religions lead to different ends or we all end up in the same place and other related questions.

These first few chapters are slow going, even bordering on tedious at times. I suspect that’s more my preference than Thatamanil’s work. He goes into great detail to provide a solid entry into theology and comparative religion (for the record, he even discusses the difference between “comparative religion” and “inter religious dialogue”, a difference I am not really adhering to in this review). I appreciated the analysis of the work of other writers, but I mostly just wanted to get to the point of Thatamanil’s own proposal.

That said, the most important takeaway from this book, for me, was not his proposal in chapter seven but the way Thatamanil describes and defines religion, as well as the history (or genealogy) of religion (chapters 4-5). “World religions” are a modern western invention. There was no such thing as “Hinduism” until British colonialists showed up in India and said “you’re all Hindu” (Tom Holland talked about this in his book Dominion, my favorite read in 2019). The idea of world religions as distinct entities leads us to imagine these religions as well defined with sharp lines separating them. Thatamanil shows this is problematic for two reasons. First, the diversity within religions makes it difficult to draw a line that separates who is in and who is out; religions are more groups of people asking the same questions then necessarily providing the same answers. Second, as all religions have existed together and humans have lived together, these religions have always learned from each other. Thatamanil uses the term “relational pluralism” here, seeking to unite the best of pluralist (“taste for multiplicity”) and particular wisdom while avoiding excesses of each (such as “all religions are actually the same” or “everyone’s wrong but me”). In seeking a relational pluralism, we recognize “none of our traditions can be independently efficacious because none exists independently.”

The ideas of what a “religion” is and how the idea of “world religions” was a modern invention could be a book on its own. It was certainly my favorite part of this book. He writes:

“One problem in particular captures my attention: the notion that stark and immutable lines separate “the religions.” Christian reflection has, from its inception, been situated in a world of fluid crosscutting differences. Indeed, it would be possible to craft a history of Christian thought and practice written as a series of interactions with and transmutations of movements and traditions that Christians have come to demarcate as non-Christian. Such a history would demonstrate not only that many of the central categories, practices, and symbols of Christian life are borrowed from Hellenistic philosophical schools, mystery religions, and, of course, most vitally from what we now call “Judaism,” but that for long stretches of history, no clearly defined and rigid boundaries existed between “Christianity” and those traditions we now take to be Christianity’s others.“

And:

“We come to recognize that religion, far from being a universal and timeless feature of human experience, is not only of Western provenance but perhaps one of the West’s most successful exports.”

From recognizing that the idea of world religions is a modern idea, Thatamanil makes the eye-popping yet compelling point that it was this modern invention of world religion which went along with the modern invention of the secular (and again, I feel the need to go reread Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age). When we have assumed that religion is about spiritual things (the afterlife, reincarnation) and thus our place in a religion is about our beliefs in regard to such things (as a Christian, I affirm one life then judgment rather than reincarnation) then we leave the material world to something other than religion. In other words, religion is not about economics or how we organize society.

What if defining religion in this way blinds us to the forces that are religious in nature, making claims on all of us, and guiding our lives: capitalism, consumerism, nationalism and others.

Growing up and learning about what it meant to be a Christian, there was great concern about not believing in the wrong ideas about God. The term for this is syncretism, which simply means to combine ideas from outside the faith with the true teaching of faith. I remember being warned about New Age or Eastern Religions that were infiltrating America and seducing Christians.

Yet the question of syncretism rarely applies to the ways we’ve uncritically accepted individualist, consumerist and capitalist ways of life. Thatamanil writes:

“If everyday immersion in the practices of market capitalism constitutes a form of religiosity, does that mean that most Americans who call themselves Christian but remain engaged in the market are routinely engaged in syncretism if not multiple religious belonging?1 The answer to that question depends on how the religious is defined.”

And:


“If capitalist Christianity is indeed a syncretistic religiosity that has become common for most professing Christians in America, why is such syncretism regarded as harmless and unworthy of interrogation whereas those who engage in Buddhist-Christian life are called out as unfaithful?”

He goes on to argue that, following Paul Tillich, if capitalism is, at least, a quasi-religion, then practically every Christian in America is already living in a form of multiple-religious belonging (syncretism). The easy criticism of pluralism from a Christian perspective of any sort is that it betrays the core tenets of the Christian faith. Thatamanil disarms the criticism that it is wrong to corrupt the pure faith of Christianity with ideas from outside by pointing out that even the Christians making it are already part of multiple religions and has already corrupted the faith.

I think this is the biggest takeaway from the book because I think Thatamanil is right. The last few years have made it crystal clear to me that a large majority of white Christians in America are practicing a faith much more described as Christian Nationalist than anything distinctly historic, orthodox Christian. We’ve accepted the idea that Jesus functions solely to save us from sin so we can go to heaven and once that’s squared away, we can place Jesus aside and move into the world. In doing so, Christians don’t realize we’re always being shaped by other forces (read James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love). Along with nationalism, capitalism is certainly a religious force which is unquestionably accepted as an act of faith with heretical beliefs (socialism) that lead to excommunication (for more, see The Enchantment of Mammon by Eugene McCarraher and The Economy of Desire by Daniel Bell).

While this is my biggest takeaway, I have not even gotten to Thatamanil’s proposal for Christian pluralism. Before he gets there, he has a delightful chapter on what he sees as religious learning in practice, talking about what Martin Luther King Jr learned from Gandhi. Then in the final chapter he puts forth a “Trinitarian engagement with religious diversity.” Following his desire to learn from other religions, he does not limit this investigation to Christian resources but brings in Buddhist and Hindu ones. His view is Trinitarian by speculating on God as three: ground, (source of) singularity and relation. First, God is the ground of being and all that is exists because of participation in God. God is not a being among beings, but is being itself. Second is singularity, the focus of which is on the distinctive character of all that is. Every creature participates in being, but every creature is unique and beautiful as a singular. Third is relation, we are unified in community. This reflects God as Trinity – God is a community of three distinct persons which is reflected in creation where we are distinct individuals always tied together in community.

Overall, this is a fantastic book. As is clear above, I find a lot here to learn from even if I am not fully convinced of pluralism as the author is. I would probably still be qualified more as an inclusivist, seeing the fullness of truth in the revelation of God in Jesus. I still see a uniqueness in the incarnation of God in Jesus. All truth can be welcomed where it is found, but I would affirm it is truth as it fits in with my distinctly Christian conception of God. I think Thatamanil’s approach to world religions rooted in the Trinity makes sense, but I think it makes sense because the Christian theology of God as Trinity is closest to who God really is.

This does not mean “Christianity” as an institutional religion is the best religion though, and I think Thatamanil does a lot to illustrate this. Being part of this religion, with clear boundary lines drawn, is not the point (and belonging to a religion over against other religions is a symptom of the modern world). To make it the point as many Christians have done just leads to the sort of spiritual arrogance that Jesus warned against while inoculating us to the ways we’ve already incorporated anti-Christian ideas into our faith.

Rather than taking pride in some imaginary in-group status, we can humbly seek to grow closer to God (ground of being, our creator, our Father who loves us). Some of our fellow travelers on this journey are, like us, Christians who have cluttered their lives with idols similar to ours. Some make no claim to the Christian tradition at all, though they may find Jesus compelling. They have their own idols and blind spots, but they might have insights we’ve missed. They might even have insights about Jesus that we’ve missed due to our nationalism and capitalism!

I guess my biggest criticism of this book would be that while Thatamanil approaches the discussion as a Christian, to formulate religious pluralism still seems to have to devalue Jesus as uniquely God in human form. He chose to speculate on the trinity while listening to Buddhist and Hindu resources. But what about places where religions disagree? It seems too easy to only focus on the agreement.

For example, Christians believe Jesus is unique, perhaps Hindus believe God has become incarnate many times of which Jesus is just one. We can respect and learn from each other. But we both can’t be correct. Either Christians give up our belief in the uniqueness of Jesus or Hindus give up belief in many incarnations. A more tangible example may have been to grapple with Islam more deeply, especially as Christianity and Islam are the two largest world religions. Islam unequivocally rejects God as Trinity. What would Thatamanil’s Trinitarian engagement with religious diversity and relational pluralism look like in conversation with Islam? There are other books that discuss this (Miroslav Volf’s Allah comes to mind) but it seems like a pretty big elephant in the room to ignore.

I find this book much better than some others I’ve read on the subject. I recently gave a negative review to a book by Stephanie Rutt on prayer because I wish she had taken more time to examine differences in religion rather than just ignoring them. I probably should have read this book first as it provides the background I was looking for in that one (though Rutt’s book still needs judged on its own merits). If you’re looking for books on comparative religion from a Christian perspective, read this one!

Two final notes: Since I had this book as a PDF on my kindle, I was unable to find the page numbers which is why the quotes above have no page numbers. Along with that, I wish I had gotten a hard copy. I enjoy reading fiction and history, maybe some spiritual classics, on Kindle but books that are more scholarly with lots of references such as this one are better read in hard copy form. I am sure my “tedious” comment above reflects not liking reading a book like this as an e-book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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