By Peter Eaton
The human future will necessarily be a multifaith future in which the religions of the world will have learned to live in genuine dialogue and true mutual respect. In the wake of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 there is both a unique opportunity and a unique obligation. I believe that this is an Anglican moment — the kind of moment that comes along from time to time. It is a moment into which we can live fully, or it is a moment that we can let slip by.
The late Ninian Smart was of Scottish heritage, a philosopher of religion, and an Anglican, who died in 2001. For the second half of the 20th century, he was a leading lecturer and writer in the areas of world religions, and he was one of the most effective teachers of the traditions of the major world religions both in the United Kingdom and in the United States. His books remain important a decade after his death, and his influence continues to shape our interfaith dialogue and outlook.
In the issue of the journal Theology for July 1967, at the very beginning of his career, Smart wrote an essay entitled “The Anglican Contribution to the Dialogue of Religions.” In that essay he outlined ten theses in which he attempted to explore “whether there is something in the spirit and circumstances of Anglicanism which gives it a special form of insight and a special basis in relation to the interplay between world faiths.”
Smart’s essay is a perceptive piece of authentic Anglican reflection, and in the wake of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, his theses deserve a reconsideration. How might we in the Episcopal Church take a leading role in the opportunity that lies before us in all our communities across the United States to help to build a future for all our people in which religion is no longer one of the principal causes of human conflict? Such a human future will not build itself, and the old paradigms of relations between world faiths (let alone between different traditions within the Christian tradition) will not do any longer.
Smart’s essay needs to be read on its own terms, but let me summarize his theses here. For Smart the characteristics of Anglicanism are these: Anglicanism is “in principle” non-sectarian, ecumenical, catholic, evangelical, biblical, self-critical, historical, liberal, sacramental, and diffident.
It will help to say a bit about each of these attributes as Smart sees them.
Although Smart concedes (Thesis I) that Anglican establishment is problematic, he asserts that this heritage is “not bad: for it symbolizes the condition of ecclesiastical concern with people.” Anglican non-sectarianism means, in effect, that “the Anglican can talk to any one.”
Smart extends (Thesis II) the attribute “ecumenical” to its logical extent to include not only other Christian Churches and traditions, but the entire oikoumene — the whole human family. In terms of the Christian traditions, ecumenism means that others may believe differently from you, but may be genuine followers of Christ nonetheless. By extension, the “logic of ecumenism,” he says, “is that you drop propositional, as well as other forms of, fanaticism. You explore other men’s beliefs. You do not defensively write them off.” Because of Anglicanism’s own internal ecumenical experience in embracing both catholic and reformed traditions, it can speak to others whose beliefs differ even more widely, like the Hindu or the Buddhist, without “mushy unity” or syncretism.
Anglicanism’s commitment to its catholic heritage (Thesis III) enables us to understand the contemplative traditions of other world religions. Almost every religious tradition is shot through with the contemplative and the mystical, and not the Abrahamic faiths alone. Such common ground in contemplative experience can bridge the gap of understanding and relationship between traditions like Christianity and traditions like Buddhism. Smart is even prepared to assert that there is no difference in kind between theistic and non-theistic mysticism.
As a tradition committed to its evangelical heritage (Thesis IV), Anglicanism knows what it means to “draw on the experience of a devotional faith” and to share that faith with others, just as, for example, Islam and some Hindus also do. “Islam has something of the intimacy and yet outward-looking dynamism of evangelical Christianity,” he asserts, and the “Christian can hardly fail to be impressed with the Muslim’s prayer life and his sense of dependence on God.”
The Anglican inheritance of the Reformation of attentiveness to and seriousness about the Bible (Thesis V) offers several avenues for inter-religious exploration. First, as those who live under the authority of the Scriptures, we understand others, particularly Jews and Muslims, who do the same. We Anglicans are “simultaneously concerned to take the biblical heritage seriously and to see it as a product of its times,” and so we understand how to navigate “an alien culture.” Because the Bible itself belongs to an alien culture, and yet we can relate so intimately to it, we can allow this sensibility to be “a basis for treating contemporary alien cultures with the sympathetic desire to understand their meaning for the contemporary Christian.”
In the DNA of Anglicanism is a certain self-critical principle, a principle that is “ready to reformulate doctrines and so is ready to take non-Christian formulations seriously” (Thesis VI). Smart believed that the “new wave of self-criticism” of his day could “offer the hope of fresh thinking about the place of Christianity amid the great religions.” He concedes that “self-criticism within Anglicanism has not perhaps been altogether symptomatic of virtue,” but he also says refreshingly that “it is a happy Church which can nurture interesting propositions as well as true ones.”
The interconnectedness of Anglicanism with a political and social history that has evolved into liberal, democratic society is, on balance, a help (Thesis VII). We live now in a Western society that attempts to treat religions as equals, and so “nourishes the dialogue of religions.” This equality does not simply have to do with “practical opportunities. It has to do with theoretical ones, too.”
This thesis brings Smart on to the serious matter that Anglicanism is “ready to concede equality in the pursuit of religious truth (Thesis VIII). What, he asks, are the “rules of truth?” Smart is not a fan of those who get together “in a spirit of friendship and super-ecumenism” only. Dialogue and religious equality are a rigorous business: equality, he reminds us, “is not just the right to speak our faith; it is the duty to agree on the rules of discussion.” Such dialogue is long and difficult, and in “the meantime, we see in a glass darkly.”
The sacramental life of Anglicanism (Thesis IX) is our greatest asset in understanding the ritual lives of those of other religions. Religion, as Smart remarks, “is not just a matter of belief. It is not an ideology alone. It is bodied forth in ritual, in worship, in religious practice.” Not all rituals may be valuable, but we Anglicans know the deep power of the centuries-long tradition that is embodied in the Book of Common Prayer, so that, as we seek “truth in other beliefs, we should seek meaning in other rites.”
Lastly Smart reminds us of an aspect of our tradition with which we seem to have lost touch more recently, and it is worth quoting it in full: “Anglicanism, as chaotic and incompetent, is ready to be diffident, and so can avoid arrogance in regard to other faiths (Thesis X).”
He goes on so aptly: “Does this thesis need explanation? We are many of us frustrated within Anglicanism. It is the framework of much doubt and sorrow. Its faults are glaring. But this is, though bad, also good. It is good to see faults, and there is little possibility of avoiding a recognition of the faults of Anglicanism. It is not my task to detail them here. Why dwell on the dark side? Still, the very extent of the dark side is a stimulus to humility, a check to arrogance. The Anglican Communion is inefficient, often stuffy, frustrating for its sons [and daughters], and yet …. Well, its sons [and daughters] are still its sons [and daughters]. What better beginning to dialogue is the mixture of loyalty and exasperation which Anglicanism attracts among its devotees?”
It is remarkable how fresh Smart’s essay still reads after almost half a century — a half-century in which we have made some considerable progress in the dialogue of the religions, and a half-century in which have seen some of the worst violence that religious devotion can do.
Yet most striking about Smart’s theses is the identity of Anglicanism that they expose. For Anglicans to be true to our tradition, Smart’s reflections suggest, we do not simply have an opportunity of deeper dialogue with those of other faiths and religious traditions; we have an obligation. Without such costly engagement, Anglicanism remains unfulfilled not just in its mission, but in its essence. For example, we say that, in a fundamental way, we are not “persons” in the fullest sense except in relationship with other human beings — with all those others who are, in a word, fundamentally different from ourselves. Perhaps we are not the Church in the fullest sense unless we are in creative, mutual relationship with those who understand God and believing very differently, and with whom, by virtue of our common citizenship in God’s oikoumene, we share a common destiny.
Smart was neither a fool nor a denominational imperialist. He knew that many of the aspects of Anglicanism that he gathered into these concise theses are present in other Christian traditions. Other Christians live lives committed to the Scriptures, formed by the Sacraments, steeped in ritual, settled in contemplation, and so on. All this is true.
Yet to his initial question as to whether there is “something in the spirit and circumstances of Anglicanism which gives it a special form of insight and a special basis in relation to the interplay between world faiths,” his theses mean that the answer must be a resounding Yes.
Here is a mission for our post-9/11 world, if we would but accept the call. It is our only hope for a new human future.
The Very Rev. Peter Eaton is dean of St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.