Judette Cowartd (JC): People fight wars and strap themselves with bombs in the name of religion. When your students ask for a definition of religion what do you say? I find it such a controversial, contested term.
Professor Anantanand Rambachan (PAR): The definition of religion depends on the discipline that one pursues. I offer a theological definition of religion and the one that I love the best is by the American theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich spoke of religion as matters of ultimate concern. In other words his definition of religion has to do with what concerns a person ultimately? Some questions that help that definition are: ‘What do you value the most?’ ‘What is at the centre of your world view?’ If you think about it, your life is going to be shaped by what is of ultimate concern to you and this gets diffused in other dimensions of your life so I think this is a very good working definition of religion.
(JC): I am surprised that from a theological standpoint that the definition does not encompass the word God, that there is not some component of deity or the divine in your explanation.
(PAR): Historically it has a lot do with the deity. At the same time, however, we have to acknowledge that when we look at the world of religions, there are vital living religious traditions that do not speak about God as a creator of the universe. Yet they have very deep and profound answers to the human condition. I am thinking in particular of a tradition like Buddhism. You will see in Buddhism an understanding of the human problem which is suffering caused by greed and overcome by being on the path to nirvana. Nowhere in the Buddhist understanding of the human problem and the solution do we find the word God but the Buddhist has something of ultimate concern, which is the attainment of nirvana. So we have to speak of Buddhism as a religion in that sense.
(JC): Is salvation then the whole premise of religion?
(PAR): I think it is a fair conclusion, I think when we look at the religions of the world they share a structural similarity, and that structural similarity I think is four fold. They each have a certain understanding of what is the human problem, what is the human predicament? They all give an account of what is the cause of the human problem. In Buddhism that human problem is defined in the language of suffering or dukkha. If you ask a Christian he or she may speak in the language of sin; a Muslim may say disobedience to God so there is clearly a certain understanding of the human problem. Secondly, there is some attempt to account for this problem, the origin and its source? Thirdly, more precisely to your question, each of them offers a solution. All of the religious traditions are in some deep ways optimistic that the human problem can be overcome. Fourthly, they all point to what that solution is. A religious tradition would be pessimistic if it gave an account of the human problem and said there was no resolution to it. All of the living religions offer some form of resolution. It may not be the same but they do offer some sort of solution.
(JC): Religions might be structurally similar, but isn’t it their philosophical differences that account for so much of the conflict we see today in the world? I am talking here about the problem in Ireland, Sri Lanka and the conflicts in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine.
(PAR): Now here is the complexity of your question. It is true that in all of these situations of conflict there is a religious dimension. Religion defines very often the identity of the people who are in conflict so we have the Hindu Tamil and Sinhalese Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Israeli Jews and Christians or Muslims in Palestine, Irish Protestants and Catholics, so there is a religious dimension. But at the same time all of these situations are very complex because religion gets too closely identified with nationalism, with ethnicity, with race, then religion becomes a servant of those kinds of interest. Religion in my own understanding, sensible religion, ought to be able to overcome the boundaries of nationalism, ethnicity and race and can speak meaningfully to a human community that is inclusive, that does not exclude anyone. When it becomes tribal it loses its prophetic voice.
(JC): Does conflict then permit people to question the relevance of religion in their lives?
(PAR): I think all the conflict can lead people to dislike the term religion or at the very least think religion may be irrelevant to their lives. I am very much in agreement with the anthropologist Ernest Becker who said that all culture, all art, all drama is essentially religious even though we may not use that term. Because all of these are expressing this human anxiety in some way or the other with the idea of mortality. Whether we put up statues of great leaders, whether we write books with our names on them, on some deep level, we want to be, we want to affirm existence in the face of death. As long as we remain the kind of self-conscious beings that we are, I think religion will always be important. It may not always be institutional or organisational religion as we understand it, but as long as human beings continue to ask questions about meaning, I think religion will always be part of our lives.
(JC): How can so much diversity among the word’s religions lead to opportunities for a more meaningful and energetic engagement?
(PAR): I think religious diversity is a great opportunity for learning, for growing in wisdom. We ought to develop a very positive attitude towards religious diversity as a great opportunity for learning. Not that we have to cease being committed to the traditions that we value and honour. I think our diversity today calls us to a new way of being, which is to learn to practice commitment with openness, to learn from the wisdom of other religions. I speak these words because in my own personal experience I have been tremendously enriched and I continue to be enriched by my deep relations with friends who are Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. I will not give up the wealth of those relationships because they mean so much to me.
Rambachan is a Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, USA. He has been teaching at St. Olaf since 1985. Rambachan is a Hindu and was the first non-Christian chair of the Religion Department at this Lutheran college.He is a member of the Theological Education Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion, the Advisory Council of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, an advisor to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project and a member with Consultation on Population and Ethics, a non-governmental organization, affiliated with the United Nations.