The Quiet Revolution: the emergence of interfaith consciousness (Peter Kirkwood)

  (23 September 12)

The Quiet Revolution: The Emergence of Interfaith Consciousness


Keynote address by Peter Kirkwood to the 2012 SoFiA Conference



In the field of religion, we are entering a new era of belief. It tends to be a quiet revolution, unfolding in the background – but it is nevertheless profound. To give it a name or description, it could be called an era of Radical Pluralism.


Of course the noisy revolution in the foreground is fundamentalism and militant religion. This is happening in reaction to the broader move to pluralism. I believe fundamentalists are the minority, and by far the majority is moving to a pluralist position.


This is not an academic paper. In an informal way, it provides a framework and some language to help discuss the issues. Beginning with a description of this new era of radical pluralism, it introduces some key people who represent different forms of the new pluralist way of believing. (ed. Videos supporting the original presentation of this Paper are from the ABC TV program Compass series called ‘The Quiet Revolution’). Along the way, at intervals, we’ll look at some questions to think about your personal experience and views on these new forms of religion.


What is Radical Pluralism?

David Kreiger in his book ‘The New Universalism: Foundations for a Global Theology’, refers to Radical Pluralism as “the unique historical situation of the late 20th century wherein humanity finds itself on the threshold of a global culture… (It is the new experience of deep contact) among different worldviews which are constituted by their own criteria of meaning, truth and reality, and which, therefore, claim absolute validity.”


This is revolutionary. The renowned religious philosopher Raimon Panikkar saw it as leading to “a radical mutation of the concept of religion”….it is “not merely evolution, reform or improvement, but a real mutation, a new step, another sphere, more akin to revolution than evolution.”


The religious historian Karen Armstrong observes that we are in a new Axial Age of religion – the word ‘axial’ refers to a major shift on its axis, or a pivotal shift in the nature of belief. German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term Axial Age in his book ‘The Origin and Goal of History’ (1949). The first Axial Age roughly 800 to 200 BCE, saw a shift from tribal and animist religions to the beginnings of the great world faiths. In this Second Axial Age Armstrong says that “for the first time in human history, we have the opportunity to look in depth at the devotion that lies at the heart of every single world faith in a way that wasn’t possible before…this is beginning to change our religious world in a considerable way, so that we’ll never be able to see either our own or other people’s religion in the same way again.”


This view is supported by major American theologian Paul Knitter: “I believe right now we religious people are facing the need for another Axial shift in which we will move away from claiming ‘My God is better than your God…’ into a relationship in which we will genuinely listen to each other, genuinely challenge each other, genuinely learn from each other.”


Personal ‘Religiousness’

Taking this notion of radical pluralism to its ultimate logical conclusion, rather than people belonging to a religion and all believing the same, more and more individuals are working out their personal belief system, and there is now a general recognition of the validity of this.  Panikkar called this a shift from religion to religiousness. As Panikkar himself described it “…the first characteristic of this religion of the future will be its personal aspect, what could be called its ‘religiousness’…with as many different manifestations as there are different persons”


Let’s reflect for a moment. Each of us forms impressions and judgements about other individuals all the time, especially those who are strangers to us – about where they are from, their background, their job, whether they have a family, what is their religious background. Leave your tribe for a moment, step out of your comfort zone, and speak with someone you don’t know. Ask the other person and also ask yourself “What religion or belief system were you brought up in as a child?” And follow this with another question “What is your religion or belief system now?” Share deeply, from the heart, particularly if there is some hurt, struggle or emotion surrounding these questions. Don’t be afraid to take a risk in your communication. Take note of your inner feelings – is there apprehension, enjoyment, judgement, learning, prejudice, enlightenment?


In this exercise you’ve encountered someone you didn’t know before, a stranger, someone possibly with very different beliefs to you. This encounter with difference is at the heart of the revolution we are in the midst of.


Consider a related question “Have you developed your own personal way of being religious, your own personal belief system, and your own religiousness?”


Many people prominent in the world of religion and theology have travelled this path and developed their own religiousness. The American theologian, Paul Knitter has spoken about how the Catholic Church viewed other religions prior to the Second Vatican Council. Theologians call this view Exclusivist, and back then it was much the same amongst all the Christian churches. This motivated their vigorous missionary efforts to convert people of other religions. He described the major shift in the Church from this Exclusivist position to an Inclusivist position.


Outlook Models

Theologians have three basic categories to describe the way individuals look at other religions: Exclusivist, Inclusivist and Pluralist.


Paul Knitter’s highly regarded book ‘Introducing Theologies of Religions’ analyzes these stances (though he gives them different names):


  1. Exclusivist (Replacement Model): this group believes their religion exclusively contains the one true revelation, the only way to God, to fulfillment and salvation. They believe their religion will one day replace all others. Many believers, particularly conservatives and fundamentalists still believe in this way.
  2. Inclusivist (Fulfilment Model): this group believes their religion is the full revelation, but they concede that other religions contain some divine inspiration and truth. They see other religions as being included in the bigger divine plan without fully expressing that plan, or, in other words,   the lesser religions will be fulfilled by the religion of that believer. This is a current stance of most mainstream Churches.
  3. Pluralist (Mutuality Model): this group believes that the plurality of major religions are equally valid means of achieving fulfillment or salvation, they all have something to teach the others, and all can learn from the others. So as Knitter would explain, they should be in a relationship of mutuality. This prompted Knitter’s best-selling book ‘Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian’.
  4. (Acceptance Model): Paul Knitter proposes a fourth category, a variation on the Pluralist stance. These individuals recognize the equality of other religions, but see them as so different that there’s a deep gulf between them. They say that any relationship between religions should begin with an acceptance that they have very little, or nothing in common.



Ask yourself the question “Where would you put yourself, if at all, on this spectrum, and have you shifted from one model to another?”


Multi Religious Experience

While Paul Knitter is a committed Christian who is open to other religions, there is another strand in pluralist belief, what theologians usually call Multiple Religious Belonging, and what Panikkar calls Multi-religious Experience. This is the experience of belonging equally to more than one religion – for the Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung it is Christianity and Buddhism, and for Panikkar it is Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.


Catherine Cornille, in her major study of this phenomenon, ‘Many Mansions?’ observes “A heightened and widespread awareness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but also of how many religions he or she might belong to. More and more individuals confess to being partly Jewish and partly Buddhist, or partly Christian and partly Hindu, or fully Christian and fully Buddhist”.


So ask ourselves the question, “In your personal belief system, in your religiousness, have you in any way combined elements from different religions?”


The process is one of bringing together complementary elements in personal religiousness. Chung refers to Christianity as a ‘hot’ religion and Buddhism as a ‘cool’ religion. And Panikkar used the metaphor of harmony – the different religions are different notes that come together in harmony. So both acknowledge the difference in the religions even though they claim belonging to more than one – they are embracing deep difference.


Another particular category of Pluralist, I call Universalist. At a risk of oversimplifying, people such as Australian multi-faith leader Stephanie Dowrick see the same spirit and same urges and desires behind all religions - different lamps but the same light. While this approach was more common earlier in the interfaith movement, it is not so common now. It diminishes the differences between the faith traditions, and tends to homogenize them.


Do you think the different religions are different manifestations of the same inner human impulse towards the divine?


I’d like to outline another type of belief system which is increasingly being recognized in this pluralist era – Secular belief or spirituality. I’ve said Raimon Panikkar embraced three religious traditions, but that isn’t quite true – as well as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, he also claimed belonging to what he called Secularity.  As he wrote later in life, “I am at the confluence of four rivers: The Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and Secular traditions”.


He explained what he meant by secular tradition in one of his major books, ‘Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics’ in these terms - “The secular religiousness of our day is in the midst of realizing the genuine experience of divine immanence. People devote themselves to the service of the earth, humankind, culture, society, science and even technology with the same pathos, the same seriousness, with which they formerly consecrated themselves to the service of God. The secular, which was for some time relegated to the profane, has again become sacred”.


This is not some sort of Intelligent Design theory that sees God behind everyday objects or experiences. But these things are transcendent in themselves, a source of amazement, wonderment, leading to feelings of being taken out of oneself, above oneself.


Recent writers describe this strand of belief.  As Stephen Batchelor in his book ‘Buddhism Without Beliefs’ has said “The true miracle is not walking on water, but just the fact of walking on the earth” - being able to walk, talk, think, experience the world, and relate to others.


I even find myself strangely in agreement with Richard Dawkins when he said at the beginning of his address at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne:

“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”


Or stating this another way, I was interested to read in an obituary of Jesuit priest and poet, Peter Steele, that he used to often quote an Arabic proverb, “It is good to know the truth, but better to speak of palm trees”.


Does this quiet shift into radical pluralism matter, and what is its importance? I believe the current upsurge in fundamentalism is in reaction to it – this is the noisy revolution that we need to deal with, and I think promoting pluralism will help to deal with it.


Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the challenges of this process, and what is the main thing that can be done about it?


Might I suggest a number of principles indicative of a way forward:


  • Respect and promote differences and diversity
  • Promote dialogue between difference wherever possible
  • Promote education about religions
  • Promote pluralism – or at least a shift to inclusivism
  • Within ourselves be open and self-critical – enter into the intra-religious dialogue of getting to know the other person from the inside                      


If we don’t rise to the challenge of radical pluralism, Panikkar’s assessment is quite bleak, even apocalyptic, and in the last ten years or so we have witnessed some of this apocalypse… Panikkar wrote before the tragedy of 9/11 “The present system seems to be running toward major catastrophes of all kinds…if there is any solution to this present predicament, it cannot come out of any one single religion or tradition, but has to be brought about by collaboration among the different traditions of the world.”


What have been the impressions and judgements you have formed of those about you who are strangers to you? And does the reality of their story, as they reveal it to you, match the impressions you first formed? The inner experience of encountering and entering into dialogue with another person, changes them, changes us, and changes all.




if we see different people who talk about own belief,we compare it in struggling wind to come across to the then we able to accept an on going theory of interfaith,and build a universal consciousness so that we may back to become one. and where in the history of the world could we experience this noble purpose,is that possible?

Posted by joel sarmiento

No faith is "right", except to the people who deeply believe it. That informs their behaviour, which either supports their culture or, in the long run, doesn't, in which case the culture, behaviour and belief all die out. Fortunately, there are other possibilities that might stand the test of natural selection. So we must support all (reasonable) belief systems and remember that "so that we may back to become one" is the definition of "religion". We already have universal consciousness - it's part of being human . Let's now enjoy the dialog, noting that different "religions" (belief systems) are a cultural expression of virtually identical human processes. Realize too, that even offensive behaviour w.r.t. "defence" of a system is almost certainly going to be part of the mix.

Posted by Bill Hendry

If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated. My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology. In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows: 1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others. 2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others. 3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost. Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third. * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious. ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is. For more details, please see: Samuel Stuart Maynes

Posted by Samuel Stuart Maynes

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