Liberalism in the Encounter Between Living World Religions

Leslie T. Pennington



Berry Street lecture

May 20, 1960


            I begin with an episode from Commager's Theodore Parker, Yankee Crusader.


In that rather stormy period following Emerson's Divinity School Address and Professor Andrews Norton's denunciation of it as "the latest form of infidelity” the Unitarian clergy of Boston were reading a letter from Levi Blodgett. It pointed out that the intuitive truths on which Christianity rested had no need to be bolstered up by miraculous proofs. Mr. Blodgett went on "to add, quite gratuitously, some reflect­ions on the Church, on Christianity, and on Christ. Christianity, he asserted, was merely one of many religions, and was subject to the same tests of its authority that we apply to the others. And Christ, himself, the highest type of religious leader, was not infinitely perfect; he did not exhaust God's creative power, and Mr. Blodgett was not sure that God, who created Christ, could not create even greater Christs.”


Not long afterward everyone knew that Levi Blodgett was none other than Theodore Parker of West Roxbury;

Parker soon began to be aware of hard looks and painful slights. When he spoke on 'Inspiration' before the 'Great and Thursday Lecture', one elderly divine denounced him as 'impious', and Parker left him and went weeping through the wintry streets of Boston until he bethought him of his friend George Ellis, and dried his tears.   When the Berry Street Conference met that spring, the members gravely discussed the propo­sition: 'Ought differences of opinion on the value and authority of miracles to ex­clude men from Christian fellowship and sympathy with another?' Hedge and Stetson spoke nobly for the negative, but Parker, who sat silent throughout it all, felt that the atmosphere was distinctly unfriendly, and when he came home he poured out his feelings in his journal: 'This is the nineteenth century! This is Boston! This among Unitarians!'[1]                                                                                                                                                                                      

If Theodore Parker were alive today, I am not sure what he would think of us!

If any one thing seems clear in the action taken at Syracuse last October, it is that Unitarians and Universalists, at least as they were represented in that action, do not think of themselves as belonging exclusively or in any distinctive way either to the great living tradition of Christianity or of the Judeo-Christian faith. There is some question even as to whether this action indicates that there is still any living concern among us to maintain the distinction between The Transient and the Permanent in Christianitymade by Parker in his famous sermon of 1841, and considered one of the basic distinctions of American Unitarianism for more than a hundred years - at least from any vantage inside of the Christian tradition or of the great and variegated family of Christian faith, including the churches of the Left-wing of the Reformation.

That action stated among our purposes the following: "To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to Cod and love to man.”

In the paragraph before this we stated among our purposes: "To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.”


In the area between these two statements of purpose I think it is important that we should explore together the role of liberalism in the encounter between living world religions. This is a Great subject which I hope will engage our concerted attention for many years to come, to which I can only present a very modest pre­face today. It is imperative that we should do this if we are to play the role which I hope we shall play, and which in many ways we are distinctively fitted to play in the great dialogues which: are already under way between the great living relig­ions of the world and which are bound to increase and become of crucial importance in the coming age of world civilization.                                                                      


Dr. Joseph Kitigawa of the Department of History of Religions in the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago once said to me that the Unitarians are the only religious body in Christendom (if we are in Christendom) which really accepts the essential basis of such dialogue. He went on to point out that, despite this, we have not developed in our ranks the scholarship requisite to fulfill this vantage in this strategically important field. To illustrate what he meant by this, he said that no one could really know Buddhism as a living religion who had not stu­died it at first hand in all three of the Asiatic countries where it now exists as, a living religious culture in its basic variations - Japan, Burma and Ceylon - and in the native languages of these peoples. May future generations of Unitarian scho­lars bear this in mind!     


But is Dr. Kitigawa right in this? He himself is an Episcopalian and is now equipping himself to do this very, thing which he suggests in the study of Buddhism. And Dr. Bernard Meland, in his study of "The Christian Encounter with the Faiths of Men,”[2] presents as the essential base of such dialogue Karl Barth's four marks of man's humanity: "openness to one another as human beings; letting the other person understand me by talking to him and by listening to him; being ready to assist ano­ther, being there for another; and doing all this joyfully.” These are the ways, he says, "by which Christian and non-Christian people within a common discipline can cut across barriers of culture and religion and engage one another in a most profitable exchange of meaning and cultural criticism.” Incidentally, these points taken from Karl Barth sound suspiciously as though they come directly from Martin Buber's central conception of the "life of dialogue,” the "I-Thou relationship.” That this is taken from the later-writings of the "new” Karl Barth, is only one example of how these interfaith conversations are already under way, of how Buber is influencing the thought of leading theologians of both orthodox Protestantism and Catholicism.


It may be well for us to bear in mind at this point one of the "Guideposts in Our Quest for Religious Understanding” suggested by the Unitarian-Quaker philosopher, A.E. Burtt in his Man Seeks the Divine. "We must bring with us,” he says, "a warm and lively sense of the best in our own religious heritage, as it has come down to us from the prophets and saints among our own forbears. One who lacks this sense - who views the religious tradition of his own time and place with indifference or hostility - will find himself viewing the religion of other peoples with at best an amused curiosity. Except in the case of the few who, in rebellion against their own tradition, rush to a naive embrace of some other faith.”[3]


In preparing for this paper I have endeavored to become familiar with outstanding studies of the encounter between the living world religions during the past twenty-eight years. The authors selected represent a cross section of the Western, Christian, Protestant point of view. Among them are philosophers, theologians, historians, keen observers and participants in world affairs - varying from extreme Protestant neo-orthodoxy to liberals in the finest sense of that great word. One is an Alsatian one a German, one Dutch, three English and several American. They all take religion seriously and reckon with scholarly concentration upon the encounter between living world religions, some also from first-hand involvement with living religious cultures, other than their own. For this reason I have also reckoned with the experience of Christian Foreign Missions, for, whatever we may think of them, they have, perhaps more than any others, first-hand experience in this encounter between living religions throughout the world. I shall also speak briefly of certain projects now under way or projected to develop creative dialogue between living world religions.


I begin with Schweitzer's Christianity and the Religions of the World, published in 1922. This is one of Schweitzer's lesser books, due largely to the inadequacy of his source materials on religions of Asia. You will remember his thesis: that the religions of Asia are largely life-denying and world-denying; that Christianity presents a life-affirming, world-affirming, ethical world-view. This description of Christianity at its best is a criterion which we should bear in mind. But his characterization of the religions of Asia is inadequate, and he corrects this in his later writings. However, despite this inadequacy, he does present at the end of this book a profound statement of Christian faith at its best and of its role in this en­counter:

All problems of religion, ultimately, go back to this one - the experience I have of God within myself differs from my knowledge concerning Him which I derive from the world. In the world He appears to me as the mysterious, marvelous creative Force; within me He reveals Himself as ethical Will. In the world He is impersonal Force, within me He reveals Himself as Personality. The God who is known through philosophy-and the God whom I experience as ethical Will do   not coincide. They are one; but how they are one, I do not understand.[4]

In order to enter into contest with the other world-religions, Christianity must meet them in the whole depth of its simplicity. Face to face with that logical relig­ious thought (of the East), it must not simply rest upon its historical revelation. That would be an unsafe defense. Christianity cannot withstand that logical religious   philosophy unless it shows its real character as the more profound and more deeply religious thinking. . . It must show that its attitude, in not claiming to be logical, self-contained knowledge, stands to reason, and-that the inconsistencies and incom­pleteness in which it is content to remain are not errors in reasoning but inevitable imperfections of a philosophy which tries to go to the depth of things.

Christianity must, clearly and definitely, put before men the necessity of a choice between logical religion and ethical religion, and it must insist on the fact that the ethical is the highest type of spirituality, and that it alone is living spirituality. Thus Christianity shows itself as the religion which, penetrating and transcending all knowledge, reaches forward to the ethical, living God, who cannot be found through contemplation of the world, but reveals Himself in man only. And it is thus that Christianity speaks with all the authority of its inherent truth.[5]               

Ernst Troeltsch prepared his lectures on The Place of Christianity among the World Religions to be given in England shortly after the First World War. Unfortunately he died before the occasions on which they were to be delivered, but they were published in 1923 with an introduction by Baron Friedrich Von Hugel. They present Troeltsch's last judgment on this subject, sobered by the shattering experience of the war. Twenty-two years before, in 1901, he had written his The Absolute Validity of Christ­ianity. In that book he had examined the theories that its absolute validity rested upon miracles, and the evolutionary theory of Hegel that in the universal process of history Christianity emerged supreme as the universal consummation of man's religious development - that it is not a particular religion; but religion in its most perfect expression. Then he turned to the theory that Christianity, like every religion, contained an "element of truth,” but was "a purely historical, individual, relative phenomenon,” which could only have arisen in its own particular cultural and historical situation. Within this theory, rejecting the earlier two, he concluded that "Christ­ianity owes its claim to universal validity not to the correctness of its reasoning, not to the conclusiveness of its proofs, but to God's revelation of himself in human hearts and lives. . . its belief in a revelation within the depths of the soul, awakening men to a new and higher quality of life, breaking down the barriers which the sense of guilt would otherwise set up, and making a final breach with the ego­tism obstinately centered in the individual self.” This is not far from Schweitzer's position. From it he concluded: "We simply leave aside the question of the measure of the validity possessed by other religions.”[6] This was his conclusion in 1901.                          

As he looked back upon this twenty-two years later, he wrote: "Further investigations, especially into the history of Christianity, of which I have given my results in my The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (written. in 1912), have shown me how thoroughly individual is historic Christianity after all, and how invariably its various phases and denominations have been due to varying circumstances and conditions of life. Whether we regard it as a whole or in its several forms, it is purely a historical, individual, relative phenomenon, which could, as we actually find it, only have arisen in the territory of the classical culture, and among Latin and Germanic races. . . I found Buddhism and Brahamanism especially to be really humane and spiritual religions, capable of appealing in precisely the same way to the inner certitude and devotion of their followers as Christianity, though the particular character of each has been determined by the historical, geographical, and social conditions of the countries in which they have taken shape,” It is significant that the realism presented in his great classic, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, drove him to this conclu­sion, from which, he wrote, "the somewhat rationalistic concept of validity, and specifically of supreme validity, falls considerably into the background.”[7]

It is from the vantage of this position that he presents one of the finest statements of the relation of Christianity to our European and Western civilization: "It is historical facts that have welded Christianity into the closest connection with the civilizations of Greece, Rome and Northern Europe. All our thoughts and feelings are impregnated with Christian motives and Christian presuppositions; and, conversely, our whole Christianity is indissolubly bound up with elements of ancient and modern civilizations in Europe. From being a Jewish sect Christianity has become the religion of all Europe. It stands or falls with European civiliza­tion; whilst, on its own part, it has entirely lost its Oriental character and has become Hellenized and Westernized. Our European conceptions of personality and its eternal, divine right, and of progress toward a kingdom of the spirit and of God, our enormous capacity for expansion and for the interconnection of spiritual and temporal, our whole social order, our science, our art - all these rest, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, upon the basis of this deorientalized Christianity.

Its primary claim to validity is thus the fact. that only through it have we become what we are, and only in it can we preserve the religious forces that we need. And apart from it we lapse either into a self-destructive titanic attitude, or into effeminate trifling, or into crude brutality. ... It is binding upon us, and it brings us deliverance. It is final and unconditioned for us, because we have nothing else, and because in what we have, we can recognize the accents of the divine voice...   But this does not preclude the possibility that other peoples, living under entirely different cultural conditions, may experience their contact with the Divine Life in   quite different ways, and may themselves also possess a religion which has grown up with them  and  from which they cannot sever themselves so long as they remain what they are.[8]                                                                                                              

It is as though in the aftermath of the First World War he were prophetically seeing what would happen to Europe, torn up from its Christian roots, in the Second World War. My only criticism of his statement is that wherever he uses the term Christian, I should substitute the word Judeo-Christian.


 And I would make this same substitution of Judeo-Christian in the one distinc­tion which he makes with regard to-Christianity. These are his words: "It contains, like all other world religions, and perhapsmore than any other world religion, the impulse and the power to continual self-purification and self-deepening, for it has been assigned to that Spirit which shall lead men to all truth, and which seeks its fulfillment in the coming of the Kingdom of God; and again, because it has been bound up from the first with all the intellectual forces of Hellenism.”[9]


Upon the base of this conception he makes a prophecy particularly relevant to the world situation now before us. "So far as human eye can penetrate into the future,” he wrote, "it would seem probable that the great revelations to the various civilizations will remain distinct, in spite of a little shifting of their various territories at the fringes, and that the question of their several relative values will never be capable of objective determination, since every proof thereof will presuppose the special characteristics of the civilization in which it arises.”[10]


On the base of this prophecy he makes the following admonition: "What we learn daily through our love of our fellow-men, namely that they are independent beings with standards of their own, we ought also to be able to learn through our love of mankind as a whole - that here too there exist autonomous civilizations with standards of their own. This does not exclude rivalry, but it must be a rivalry for the attainment of interior purity and clearness of vision.”[11]                                                                              


A. C. Bouquet gave the Hulsean Lectures at the University of Cambridge, England, in 1925 on The Christian Religion and its Competitors Today. I shall not reckon at length with this, for he bases his conclusion upon Troeltsch's Absolute Validity which in quoting he has the honesty and grace to say, "It is not, it is true, representing Troeltsch's latest opinion.” But he does make one observation particularly relevant to my theme. "Consider here for a moment the. amazing extent,” he wrote, "to which for a brief period in the golden age of Athens, human thought got free, and how on a relatively low level of culture are to be found extra­ordinary flashes of very high artistic, and philosophic inspiration. This brief period has never exactly repeated itself, but has remained absolute and normative for others which have followed it. It is admitted that the great thinkers of Greece are the intellectual parents of modern empirical science, and that they are still shaping the thought of the world today. The career and crucifixion of Jesus Christ are just such another absolute and normative group of events which continue to shape the thought of the world.”[12]                                     


Meanwhile, the issues of the encounter between living world religions were being faced at first hand in the foreign mission fields themselves. It is interesting to note that as early as 1705 one of the pioneer Protestant missionaries to India had become favorably impressed with both the philosophy and temple worship of Hinduism. The Protestant mission authorities in Germany were shocked by this, and exclaimed, "The missionaries have been sent to India to destroy heathenism, not to praise it.” Among the majority of missionaries this view of converting the "heathen” prevailed until the last decades of the Nineteenth Century. But by 1880 a massive change was well underway. Science was beginning to do its work. By 1900 missionaries began to question their identification of western cultural forms with the Gospel. By 1907 the conception of Christianity as the "fulfillment” of the "broken lights” of other living religions began to spread through missionary circles. In 1913 the publication of Farquher's The Crown of Hinduism spread the idea that Christianity was to be presented as the crown and fulfillment of the religions of the East. In general this attitude prevailed through the Jerusalem Conference on World Christian missions in 1928, down to the Madras Conference in 1938. I remember attending a great Student Volunteer Convention in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1918 at which John R. Mott, Robert E. Speer and Sherwood Eddy presented us with dramatic interpretations of the slogan: "The Evangelization of the World for Christ in this Generation.” This ideal is much further from realization now than it was then, and even at that time some of us as students were wondering whether it would not be better first to put the house of the so-called Christian life of our own nation in order. After the decade of the 1920's fewer and fewer missionaries devoted themselves to the study of Asian religions. They were no longer thought to be rivals to the Gospel.


In 1932 a bomb of realism was thrown into the foreign mission movement by the  publication of the report of the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry, Re-Thinking Missions.William Ernest Hocking, the Harvard philosopher, was its Chairman, and Rufus Jones, the Quaker, one of its leading members. While granting the value of the educational, medical and humanitarian work of Christian Missions, it revealed the whole sorry plight of the relation of missionaries to the religion and culture of the peoples they were endeavoring to convert. "The furor which greeted the theological ideas expressed,” wrote Dr. Pierce Beaver, one of America's leading contemporary experts on missions, "led to an almost complete disregard to the remainder and practical part of the report.”[13]

In 1938 a counter bomb was thrown into the religious position taken by the authors of Re-Thinking Missions. This was Hendrick Kraemer's The Christian Messagein a Non-Christian World written from the Barthian or neo-Calvinist point of view in preparation for the Tambaram World Missionary Conference. Kraemer had been a missionary for many years in Indonesia, was a gifted linguist, at home in many Eastern and European languages, and Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Leyden. While this book roused a storm of controversy, it made him the recognized defender and champion of the missions of Protestant Christianity throughout the world. During the war he was an acknowledged guide of the Dutch Churches in their resistance to Nazism, and his courageous vision and leadership helped them to gain a renewed life and purpose as the result of this experience. From 1946 to 1955 he was Director of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches at Bossey, near Geneva. He has recently served as Fosdick Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

His thesis in this book which turned the tables on Re-Thinking Missions was that Christian faith is based upon the direct revelation of God, that non-Christian religions are merely human achievements, putting Christianity in a class utterly by itself. This is the theory of "discontinuity.” So strongly was his ire roused against philosophy that he usually tended to think of it as a fraud. In 1956 he followed this with a more philosophical treatment of the same theme in his Religion and the Christian Faith. In this he mitigated somewhat the sharpness of his distinction between Christianity and the non-Christian religions by his theory that God is always trying to speak to all men, but the non-Christians have not been able to hear Him so accurately. The real line falls between ontological philosophy and the Biblical Revelation of God in Christ. By this test the chief ax of his criticism falls upon Paul Tillich for not keeping this distinction clear. Although he has great respect for the wide range and depth of Tillich's scholarship and thought, Kraemer accuses him of building a system "which is a 'house divided' from the first foundation stone and upward.”[14] For Kraemer the essence of faith is not to grasp the truth of being and participate in it, but to be grasped by the Revelation of God in Christ on God's own initiative. This and this alone is the real meaning of the Christian faith. Obviously those who share this conception of faith are excluded by it from true dialogue among the living world religions. If this conception of the leaders of the World Council of Churches should prevail, it will set Protestantism immeasurably back in its ability to minister to the religious needs of mankind in the coming age of world civilization.

Fortunately, in the same year that Kraemer published his The Christian Message to the Non-Christian World, in 1938, William Ernest Hocking gave the Hibbert Lectures on Living Religions and a World Faith. These lectures presented his mature conclusions after his experience as Chairman of the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry and the rather stormy reception of its report, Re-Thinking Missions. In them he examined and rejected both the principle of the radical displacement of all other religions by any one religion considering itself to be the only true and absolute one, as Christian extremists consider it to be; and that of a synthesis of all living world religions in one. In contrast with these, he presents the principle of the radical self-reconception of each of the great living religions, not alone, but in vital reciprocity with the others. In this reciprocity they should all shun competition and rivalry with one another; purify themselves of all transient elements - to use the phrase which. Theodore Parker applied to Christianity; cultivate the permanent; and assimilate such true insights of other great religions as could be incorporated into the organic wholeness of their own living religious culture.

The particular strength of Hocking's position is that he has devoted his life to the study of the philosophy of state as well as to the study of religion, and is constantly concerned with the impact of religious faith and principle upon the whole fabric of culture, society and civilization as it is developing in history. In this process of self-reconception in the great religions Hocking believes that Christianity will out-match all others. This is the major premise of his The Coming World Civilization published in 1956, somewhat sublimated in his Strength of Men and Nations, A Message to the USA vis-a-vis the USSR, published last year.

His principle of radical self-reconception is one of the most fertile suggestions yet made in this field. It rejects the temptation to attempt a superficial synthesis of all religions, what has been called "a cafeteria of religions”, which is rejected also by Schweitzer, Troeltsch, Toynbee and Dewick. It is in line with Troeltsch's principle of respecting the cultural, integrity of each of the great living religions in its own right. And it adds to this the principle of vital reciprocity among them in their individual processes of self-reconception to meet the needs of man. This is in line with the principle of challenge and response which Toynbee develops in his Study of History, which even Kraemer approves in spite of his theory of "discontinuity.”

This is the approach which I think will command the future and to which I hope Unitarianism will devote some of the finest energies of its leadership. In the framework transcendentalism it lay at the base of the study and thought of both Emerson and Parker. It was as a teacher of Comparative Religion that James Freeman Clark became a member of the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 1867, and his The Ten Great Religionsof 1871 was the first systematic treatment of this subject to come out in America. Jenkin Lloyd Jones was one of the moving spirits in setting up the first World Parliament of Religions in connection with the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. To this conception of interfaith dialogue Charles W. Wendte devoted some of his finest energies. American Unitarians under the leadership of Samuel A. Eliot played a significant role in the organization of the International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Christians in 1900. This Council was reorganized in 1910 as the International Congress of Free Christians and other Religious Liberals. Finally, in 1932 the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom (I.A.R.F.) was officially inaugurated. We all remember with what enthusiasm the late President Frederick May Eliot devoted himself to planning the program of the 16th Congress of the I.A.R.F. in 1958 as genuine and searching dialogue among leaders of the five great religions of the world on the theme "Today's Religions Can Meet the Needs of the World Today.”

Not only is the vantage of this approach natural to use it has the added advan­tage of challenging us to master more thoroughly the finest elements in the living religious culture which lies at the base of our own Western civilization in order to share more creatively in these dialogues with other living religions, and at the same time to make the greatest possible impact upon Protestantism and the inter-faith dialogues which are going on between Protestants, Jews and Catholics in America as they are confronted in common with the living issues of our society and culture.

I am ever intrigued by that basic statement of Wilhelm Pauck, Professor of Church History in Union Theological Seminary: "Protestantism will remain the dynamic movement in Christianity that it has been only if liberalism, particularly theological liberalism, actually comes to determine the life of the Protestant churches. . . If this victory should not take place, then the prediction of Schleiermacher of a hun­dred and fifty years ago will come true, that Christianity would enter into the lives of men as barbarism, as lack of culture, and that science would ally itself with un­belief.”[15]

From the vantage of Hocking’s approach to true dialogue between living world religions considerable developments are already under way. In the present world situation there is no sign that the non-Christian religions are withering away. As Dr. Pierce Beaver has said, we are confronted with "the resurgence” of the religions of Asia. Amid the tensions of the cold war, the awakening of peoples and the emerg­ence of new nations, each of the five great living world religions is engaged in its own process of dynamic self-reconception and expansion, and even some new religions are spawning. "The religions of Asia,” writes Dr. Beaver, "are today resurgent because the wellsprings of the spirit have begun to flow once more.”[16] The Burmese regard Buddhism "as the very font of Burmese culture, the source of national vitality, the most potent possible force of integration and unity in the common life; and the spiritual power essential to national salvation. . . Ceylon demonstrates the most passionate identification of this faith with nationalism and the deepest invol­vement of religion in politics. . . The most fascinating aspect of the Buddhist revival, however, is the reappearance of that faith in India, the land of its origin. During the autumn and winter months of 1956 and 1957 more than half a million Indians suddenly became Buddhists through acts of mass profession.”[17

In the face of this the hope of the Christian evangelization of the peoples of the world is not only failing, but being drastically set back. As Dr. Beaver says, "Unless a theological explanation of the relationship of the Gospels to other faiths is found that makes communication more effective and speeds the process of the indigenization of the community of the faithful, the whole subject will soon become utterly academic and possibly even irrelevant to the-situation. The population explosion will then have rendered it difficult in fifty years to find one Christian among a thousand in Asia, and Christianity will again become a Western religion rather than a world faith.”[18]

In the face of this situation there is evidence of a growing body of Christian leaders and philosophers who are already participating in genuine dialogue with the leaders of the non-Christian faiths. One of the most beautifully organized and incisive studies, clearly devoted to this approach, by an Anglican churchman and scholar who has shared also at first-hand in the encounter between Christianity and the living religions of India during his years of service there, is Edward C. Dewick's The Christian Attitude to Other Religions, the Hulsean Lectures of 1949, delivered at the University of Cambridge. While he himself holds "that the Incarnation in Christ is a distinctive and central (but not necessarily an exhaustive or exclusive) revelation of God,” he concludes that "there is no intrinsic objection against co-operation with non-Christians, in both worship and discussion, with the expectation of mutual edification, and with readiness to receive, as well as to give. All that is essential is a sincere desire on both sides to find out the troth and to welcome it from any quarter.”[19] He cites with approval the already-existing world Congress of Faiths and lists a number of distinguished Christian leaders who are giving support to it.

Notable philosophical explorations of the role of religion in civilization and in the comparative teachings of the great living religions were made by Edwin A. Burtt of the Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University, in his Types of Religious Philosophy, 1939,[20] and by George P. Conger, now Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Minnesota, in his The Ideologies of Religion, 1940.[21] Dr. Burtt followed his Types with the publication of his Man Seeks the Divine in 1957,[22] one of the best introductory analyses and comparative studies of the distinctive beliefs and teachings of the great living religions known to me.

In that same year the University of Calcutta published Dr. Conger's Stephanos Nirmalendu Ghosh Lectures of 1954-55, Towards the Unification of Faiths (Comparative Religion).[23] This is one of the most sensitive and comprehensive attempts yet made at the appraisal of the religions of Asia in relation to those of our Western world in the light of the whole history of philosophic thought and the religious experience of mankind as they are confronted with the new conception of the world and of the universe now taking shape under the advancement of the sciences in so many fields. While Dr. Conger writes of "the unification of the Faiths,” it is in no sense of superficial syncretism. He conceives of religious faiths as related to the living cultures of the peoples amid which they have emerged in the same way languages are related to them.


"A man's religion, like a language,” he says, grounded in a culture or identified with a culture and finds its natural development there. A language, we might say, is like an index to a culture; a religion is like its table of contents. Except in relatively rare cases a man's mother tongue will mean more to him, and he will express himself in it better than in any foreign tongue. There will of course be cases where men choose to forsake their native languages and where they express themselves even more effectively in some newly acquired tongue, but these are border line cases not typical of the mass of men. A course more usual and in ways more reasonable is where a man nurtured in one language acquires a foreign tongue, ancient or modern, or several such, as auxiliaries to his own and finds his mother tongue broadened and enriched by the new idiom. In a similar way the study of comparative religion and comparative philosophy, now spreading in the world, has already begun to enrich the more provincial inherited systems of the past. It seems reasonable to say that except for justifiable exceptions, a man's ancestral faith is primarily the faith for him. Contributions from other faiths will correct its defects and enhance its merits. The religions are sufficiently defective and sufficiently alike so that skeptics have brushed them aside as all wrong; the more adequate answer is that they all tend to be right and as Professor J.B. Pratt, to whom we all look back as a pioneer in these studies, used to say, "it is the function of each of the great religions to bring out the best that there is in the others. This is the larger vision, the true world vision, of missionary work.”[24] "The mark of a new world need not be conversion from some religions to others; instead of this it may well be interconversion, so that each man is at home in some of the rich features of each of the great faiths.”[25]


There is no opportunity in the time allotted for me even to indicate the rich suggestiveness of the carefully disciplined, comprehensive, yet open world-view which Dr. Conger's lectures present. But this was only a step in his developing thought. As he recently wrote to me of these lectures, "The book is a kind of superstructure which appeared before the foundation of the argument were definit­ively in place. This work has now been done in a book called Synoptic Naturalism, which is distributed by the University of Minnesota Library to other libraries. . . Because of difficulties of production, no copies have been printed for sale. The argument is long and difficult, and must doubtless be left to produce its effect gradually.” By courtesy of the Harvard College Library I have delved deeply enough into this book to know something of what he means and to look forward to the opportunity of its further study.

With these studies by Dr. Burtt and Dr. Conger, belong the writings of Professor Floyd H. Ross of the School of Religion, University of Southern California, published by our own Beacon Press.[26]

In 1957, from the background of his monumentalA Study of History, its vast historical perspectives, and the world-wide recognition which it brought him, Arnold Toynbee gave his support to this new conception of dialogue among the great religion in his Christianity Among the Religions of the World. In its encounter with other living religions, he maintains, Christianity must free itself from its "Western accretions,” and from its "exclusive-mindedness” which he classifies as "the arch sin.” He condemns religious syncretism, but believes that Christianity and Buddhism represent the greatest hope for the future of mankind. I shall always be grateful to him for his concluding quotation from the Roman Senator Symmachus in his contro­versy with Saint Ambrose at the time when, after long struggle, the Christian Church was victorious in the Empire and the Christian Roman Imperial government was closing pagan temples and suppressing pagan worship. "It is impossible,” he wrote, "that so great a mystery should be approached by one road only.”[27]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    In addition to many inter-faith conferences which are now being held throughout the world for the discussion of the relationships between world religions, centers for more sustained study are also being established. Among them is the permanent center at Bangalore, India, "to promote scholarly research into Hinduism as a living ­religion by Christian students,” the Ceylon Study Center at Colombo which features the study of Buddhism, and the Commission for the Study of Buddhism at Rangoon, Burma. In the United States the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago has established a Program of Inter-Religious Study and Understanding which included a three-year program of exchanges between leading Buddhist scholars from Burma, Ceylon, and Japan and Christian scholars from the Federated Theological Faculty, made possible by a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Harvard Divinity School has its new Department of World Religions; and I understand that Dr. Floyd Ross is involved in similar developments in Southern California.

Following its 16th Congress held in Chicago, 1958, on the theme "Today's Religion Can Meet the World's Needs Today,” the IARF is initiating a project of setting up centers of "inter-faith, inter-disciplinary discussions among graduate students representing the various world religions in certain of the large universities of the Occident and the Orient.” It hopes to begin with the establishment of three such centers - at Harvard, the University of Leyden and the University of Tokyo (or Cal­cutta), extending the program to other universities as it seems wise and feasible to do so.          

The Church Peace Union, a Carnegie Foundation, in which for many years leading American Protestants, Catholics and Jews have been conducting an inter-faith educational program for world peace, with special emphasis upon publications, inter-faith seminars and consultations among selected religious leaders, moral philosophers, social scientists and government officials concentrating upon the bearing of religion ethics upon U.S. foreign policy and international relationships, is projecting the establishment of a center where selected-representatives of the living world religion may engage in the sustained study of the bearing of the religious ethics of these several religions upon the foreign policy of their nations, international relations and world peace. As a first step in this project it has engaged leading experts in the five great living religions to prepare basic studies of the implications of the ethics of their assigned religion for international relations. These five studies are now in hand, together with four or five critical analyses of each by eq­ually competent scholars representing differing points of view.    

This concern for inter-faith dialogue, and for the full development and participation of our Unitarian leadership in it, is no academic concern. It is a concern for action, for massively concerted action on a scale commensurate with the magni­tude of the issues we face. It is not a concern which can be fulfilled by Unitarian talking and working among themselves alone, in isolation from the other great religious fellowships and movements of our time. In my work on the national Board of The Church Peace Union, in the Urban Renewal Program of our Hyde Park-Kenwood area of Chicago, and in our new organization, Home, Inc., endeavoring through its action program to develop open occupancy housing throughout Metropolitan Chicago, including the suburbs, I have been working with Protestants of many differing denom­inations, with Jews and Roman Catholics on some of the most pressing issues of our day - war and peace, creeping obsolescence and urban decay in our great metropolitan centers, and racial desegregation. In all of these areas we have been working with issues in our public life much too great to be resolved by any one of us alone - by any one denomination, by any one faith. We have endeavored to pool our finest re­sources as massively as possible to meet massive problems common to us all, and in doing so we have found some of the finest resources of dynamic, wise and realistic leadership among Protestants of various denominations, Rabbis and members of their temples, Catholic Priests and laymen. There are things which they can do with their own people which we cannot do; there are channels of communication open to them which are not open to us; and they often possess distinctive insights which we do not share. In working together we find that we have a common core of working faith and principle in which we are united, more sufficient to our common need and common task than those of any one of us alone.

It is at this point, where each of us, as we work together at a common task in a common concern, endeavors to assay and to marshal the finest resources of his own faith to the task at hand, in the knowledge that his companions are doing the same in terms of their own faith - it is at this point, that the radical and creative reconception of each man's faith and of the faith of each of the world's great living religions really begins. It is at this point that true dialogue among them rises to its highest and most creative power. At this point there is something that happens in one man's life worth being shared by another, in one of the world's great religions which is worth being shared by another.

I shall never forget the remark of a young Catholic woman with whom I have been working in the field of .race relations. "On an issue as important as the race issue in America today, other churches may fail,” she said to me, "but a church as great as the Catholic Church must not fail.” It fairly took my breath away, but it left me with a new respect for the faith of the Catholic Church at its best.

In the writings of Albert Schweitzer there is a dramatic contrast between his judgment of the religions of India in his Christianity and the Religions of the World of 1922, even continued in his Out of my Life and Thought of 1933, and the position he expressed in his Indian Thought and its Development of 1936. In the first he characterized Indian religions as life-denying and world-denying, in contrast with Christianity as life-affirming, world-affirming, ethical world-view. But he admitted in the preface of this book of 1936 that this earlier view had been wrong, that this life-denial and world-denial were only methods of self discipline for mastering the soul and disentangling it from enthralldom with worldliness in order that it might give its full creative power to the creative transformation of life and the world. Many factors contributed to this change in his judgment, but I hazard the guess that chief among them was the faith, witness and dynamic leader­ship of the Indian people by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu. While not wholly agreeing with the logic of Gandhi’s position, he stated firmly in his later book: "Gandhi continues what the Buddha began. In the Buddha the spirit of love set itself the task of creating different spiritual conditions in the world; in Gandhi it undertakes to transform all the worldly conditions. . . For him it is an established principle that material problems can only be solved by the Spirit. . . Political activity as well must be governed by the spirit of Ahimsa. . . His extraordinary service (lies) in having opened up the problem of activity and pointing to the profound truth that only activity in an ethical spirit can really accomplish anything. . . The fact that Gandhi has united the idea of Ahimsa to the idea of activity directed on the world has the importance not merely of an event in the thought of India but in that of humanity.”[28]

This is the radical re-conception of religion through true dialogue, of a high and creative order indeed, to the immeasurable advancement of both Hinduism and Christianity. The fact that Gandhi's religious movement has now been made indigen­ous in our own Christian soil by Martin Luther King's leadership of the Negroes of the South and that it is spreading widely through the "sit-in” movement is evidence that it is as valid an implementation of Christian faith as it is of the faith of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Applying this insight to the predicament in which the peoples of the world now find themselves, Vera Micheles Dean concludes her The Nature of the Non-Western World with this statement: The heart of the matter "is that while there is, and it must be hoped there always will be, great diversity between the many civilizations on the earth, there are no basic differences between the human beings who compose them. . . The Industrial Revolution is a great leveler. It knows nothing of diff­erentiations by race or color. It can serve with equal efficiency democracy and communism. It can erase the disparity between the advanced and the backward. . . (It) can also produce the ultimate equalizer of all mankind - the knowledge that any future war would have to be waged with nuclear weapons, and that the resulting havoc, even if it did not destroy all life on earth, could destroy the means of future industrialization which we would no longer have the materials to replace. This prospect deprives the great powers of the advantage they have had for centuries over the non-western peoples - the advantage of superior weapons - and gives the weaker underdeveloped nations the opportunity to use the weapon Gandhi made his own - the weapon of non-violent moral suasion.”[29]

In a way I should stop here. But in fidelity to the truth I cannot. For the major premise of all I have been saying has been clarified and passed deeply, and I hope indelibly, into the religious thinking and living of our time by one of the most creative thinkers in another great living religious culture. It was developed in him by his experience of the ancient faith of Israel in the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe and of one of the darkest and most bestial events in the history of Western civilization, genocide - which does not even appear as a word in the dictionaries Published before 1941 - the merciless slaughter of six million of his people by the Nazis. These forces gendered in him a spiritual travail as profound as that which went on in the souls of Albert Schweitzer, the Christian, and of Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu; and issued in a religious insight so universal and profound that it has passed deeply into the religious thought and life of all truly enlightened religious leaders in Western civilization, Judaic, Protestant, and Catholic, orthodox and liberal: the conception of the life of true dialogue, of the I-Thou relationship as the ultimate resource of the human mind and spirit.                                                   

There was a dramatic moment in the life of Martin Buber when he returned to Germany in 1953 to receive the highest honors that the civilized leaders of a defeated Germany could bestow. In his speech of acceptance, looking back over the ghastly experience of the previous ten years, he said, "Manifestations such as the bestowal of the Hansian Goethe Prize and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on a superannuated arch-Jew. . . are moments in the struggle of the human spirit against the demonry of the subhuman and anti-human. . . The solidarity of all separate groups in the flaming battle for the becoming of one humanity is, in the present hour, the highest duty on earth. To obey this duty is laid on the Jew chosen as symbol, even there, indeed just there, where the never-to-be-effaced memory of what has happened stands in opposition to it.”[30]

This is why I am happy that in our statement of purpose we have at least referred to "the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Both deeply within our own living religious culture, and in the dialogue between the great living religions in the world at large, our closest affinity is with the realistic, open, dynamic and universal faith of Judaism at its best. I do not think that Hocking or Toynbee, right as they are on so many points, really understand this. Our distinctive vantage as Unitarians is to make this unmistakably clear in our radical reconception of the Judeo-Hellenic-Christian faith which lies at the base of Western civilization as we share on this high creative level in true dialogue in the encounter of the living religions of the world.                                                                                                                   

"The solidarity of all separate groups in the flaming battle for the becoming of one humanity is, in the present hour, the highest duty on earth.”



[1] Theodore Parker, Yankee Crusader by Henry Steele Commager pp. 71-73.

[2] Bernard E. Meland, "The Christian Encounter with the Faiths of Men”, p.12 The Resurgent Religions of Asia and the Christian Mission, Papers of a Seminar for the Mission Board Executives and Professors of Missions, April 7-9, 1959, The Center for the Study of the Christian World Mission, The Federated Theological Faculty, The University Of Chicago.

[3]Man Seeks the Divine, A Study in the History and Comparison of Religions, Edwin A. Burtt, 1957, p.8.


[4] Christianity and the Religions of the World, Albert Schweitzer, 1923, pp. 76-77.

[5] Ibid. pp. 83-84.

[6] Christian Thought, Its History and Application, Ernst Troeltsch, 1923, p.50.

[7] Ibid., pp. 51-52.                                                                                                                                                                   

[8] Ibid., pp. 53-56.


[9] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

                                                                                                                                                          [10] Ibid., p. 62

[11] Ibid., p. 63.

[12]The Christian Religion and Its Competitors Today, A.C. Bouquet, The Hulsean Lectures, The University of Cambridge, 1925, pp. 123-124.

[13] R. Pierce Beaver, "Protestant Attitudes Towards Other Faiths”, p. 4 The Resurgent Religions of Asia and the Christian Missions, Papers of a Seminar for Mission Board Executives and Professors of Missions, April 7-9, 1959, The Center for the Study of the Christian World Mission, The Federated Theological Faculty, The University of Chicago.

[14] Religion and the Christian Faith, Hendrick Kraemer.

[15] Address by Wilhelm Pauck on "The Prospects of Protestant Liberalism” delivered to the New England Unitarian Ministers of the U.N.A., 1957. This point was also developed in his address by the same title at the I I.A.R.F. Congress in Chicago, August, 1958.

[16] R. Pierce Beaver, "The Revival of the Asian Religions,” p. 5, one of Seminar Papers in the collection mentioned in (13) above.


[17] Ibid., pp. 8-9.            


[18] R. Pierce Beaver, "Protestant Christian Attitudes Towards Other Faiths,” p. 8. See note (13) above.

[19] The Christian Attitude to Other Religions, B.C. Dewick, The Hulsean Lectures, The University of Cambridge, 1949, pp. 197-193.

[20] Types of Religious Philosophy, Edwill Burtt, 1939.

[21] The Ideologies of Religion, George F. Conger, 1940.

[22] Man Seeks the Divine, Edwin A. Burtt, 1957.

[23]Towards the Unification of Faiths (Comparative Religion), the Stephanos Nirmalendu Lectures, 1954-55, George P. Conger, published by the University of Calcutta, 1957, distributed in the United States by the ParagonBook Gallery, 140 East 59th Street, New York City 22, N.Y. pp. 120-121.

[24]Synoptic Naturalism, George P. Conger, published by the University of Minnesota Library, Minneapolis, 1960, available only through the university and public libraries among which it has been distributed. p. 726.

[25]The Meaning of Life in Hinduism and Buddhism, Floyd H. Ross, The Beacon Press, 1952. Questions that Matter Most Asked by the World Religions, Ross and Hill, The Beacon Press, 1954.


[26]Christianity Among the Religions of the World, Arnold J. Toynbee, 1956, pp. 111-112.

[27] Indian Thought and Its Development, Albert Schweitzer; 1936, pp. 231-234.

[28] The Nature of-theNon-Western World, Vera Micheles Deen, 1957p. 268.


[30] Martin Buber, The Life of Dialogue, Maurice S. Friedman, 1955, pp. 9-10.