Asian Religious Pluralism and Higher Education

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By Felix Wilfred

Felix WILFRED is professor at the School of Philosophy and Religious Thought, University of Madras. He has been a member of the International Theological Commission of the Vatican and has been secretary of the Theological Advisory Commission of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Hong Kong. His research cuts across many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.


The world is becoming today what Asia has always been—a multireligious society. For centuries, people of various religious traditions have coexisted and interacted not only in what concerns matters of belief, but also in mundane questions. Buddhism, for example, is not only a religion. It is a way of life that has profoundly influenced the Asian ethos, and it has been in dialogue with other religious traditions, giving many things, but also continuing to receive. It has allowed itself to be shaped by cultures and religions of the various regions of Asia. As a result, we could speak of Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, etc. Islam too is not a monolithic religious entity. The Islam of Indonesia is not the same as in Arabia and the rest of West Asia. In Indonesia, it has been shaped by Hindu and Buddhist religion and culture, and therefore we could speak of an Indonesian Islam.

What history tells us is that the religious encounter of peoples has been very enriching. In the case of Buddhism it provided the environment in its monasteries for higher education. We remember the renowned universities of Nalanda and Takshila, where higher education in various secular fields was promoted. Thousands of monks from China visited these centers of higher learning and copied precious Sanskrit manuscripts which are today, ironically, not available only in Chinese translation, not in the original Sanskrit. In short, in Asia, to speak of religious pluralism is to recall its culture, its traditions, ways of life, modes of education, etc.; it is to recall Asian civilization.

We need to be aware of the fact that in present circumstances in Asia, religious identity conditions the lives of the people. People are often identified in relation to their religion in national politics. For example, to be a Thai or a Sinhalese amounts to being a Buddhist; to be a Malay means to be a Muslim and to be a Nepalese means to be a Hindu; to be a Filipina means to be a Christian. Such religious identification has repercussions in all spheres—political, economic, cultural, educational, etc. That is another important reason why we need to take into serious account religious pluralism in Asia.

Religious Pluralism—from Fact to Option

Religious diversity is a self-evident and observable fact. Recognition of this fact is not the same as acknowledgement of religious pluralism. Religious pluralism says that we are not simply in a factual situation of religious diversity, but that we opt consciously to relate ourselves to these traditions that are different from ours. There is the will to engage oneself in the religious beliefs and practices of one’s neighbors; there is the desire to participate in some measure in the religious experience of others and to understand others as they would like to be understood.

There is something called phenomenology of religion. That is to say, that I study another religion as it appears in its beliefs, institutions, practices, etc. What makes religious pluralism different from phenomenology of religion is that we are engaged with others, with what they hold as most precious—their religious worldview and convictions. In this way, religious pluralism cements deeply the relationships in society.

Religious pluralism is much deeper and wider in scope than religious tolerance. Religious tolerance could be motivated by the pragmatism of "live and let live." It is nurtured lest there be harmful religious conflicts and violence. Religious pluralism takes us beyond religious tolerance. It positively recognizes the value of other religions and believes that each of the religions has a unique contribution to make to the welfare of humanity and its future. This is what the great emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism and nonviolence, after the shocking experience of a bloody war, tried to promote. He noted in one of his edicts the following:

A man must not do reverence to his own religion [sect] or disparage that of another religion without reason. Deprecation should be for a specific reason only, because the religions of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another. By thus acting, a man [sic] exalts his [sic] own religion, and at the same time does service to the religions of other people. By acting contrariwise, a man [sic] hurts his [sic] own religion and does disservice to the religions of other peoples.1

In modern times we have several great spiritual leaders who have inspired us with such high ideals that augur well for the future of humanity. One such figure who promoted very actively interreligious understanding is Ajahn Buddadasa Bhikku, the most influential Buddhist monk in twentieth century Thailand. He saw the role of all religions as the same, namely, to liberate human beings from selfishness and suffering. He was a person of religious pluralism, interreligious dialogue, and harmony.

Religious pluralism is very important today to understand and practice religious freedom, which is a fundamental right. Here, respect is shown to our neighbor by recognizing her right to be different and to believe, practice, and propagate her religious convictions. It is no exaggeration to say that the barometer of political and social standards of any society is its readiness to accept religious pluralism and religious freedom. Where this is present, there is assurance of peace and harmony in society. Where there is the culture of religious pluralism, the upholding of religious freedom becomes a matter of course.

Speaking of religious pluralism, we should not limit ourselves only to major religious traditions. There are numerous primeval religions among the tribal and indigenous peoples of Asia. They are very important today, especially because of their close connection with nature and their cosmic vision. They teach us the importance of harmony with nature and the universe and our obligation to nurture the earth and not wantonly destroy its resources and cause environmental degradation and crises.

Religions as Complex Symbolic Systems

There are certain experiences which defy our conventional language. Such is the case with religious experience. That is why, in order to convey what lies behind such experiences, religions use myths and symbols. This is true of all religious traditions. For example, one could not explain through the power of reason the presence of evil in the world, especially evil as the suffering of the innocent. Hence, all religions have recourse to myths and symbols to throw some light on this mystery. For instance, we have the highly symbolized narration of the original fall (Adam and Eve), the theory of karma bound up with many myths, and the belief in predestination which also has a certain mythical character.

Religions use also elaborate symbols in their ritual practices. Each religion can be characterized as a system of symbols and codes. Consequently, to know another religion cannot be simply a notional knowledge. We need to get into the world of experience of our neighbors. It is like learning a new language which is also a system of codes. We understand peoples of other faiths when we try to enter into their world of experience and their symbolic system. Such an effort brings us closer to our neighbors because, in this way, we participate in something which they believe to be very intimate and sacred. On the other hand, we will do great harm if we do not respect the religious symbols of our neighbors simply because they are not like our own. This could lead to violence.

Identity and Dialogue

Does the acknowledging of religious pluralism and dialogue mean the dilution of one’s identity as Christian, Buddhist, Hindu …? No! On the contrary, we become more Christian and understand what we believe and practice more deeply when we see ourselves in relationship with peoples of other faiths. Any culture, in order to survive and flourish, needs to be constantly stimulated by other cultures; so it is with religions. Our religious identity is not watered down but is grasped in a new light when we reach out in dialogue with our neighbors of other faiths. If we go through the history of Christianity, we will note how all through the centuries, especially in its early period, it was influenced by other religious traditions—Greek, Roman, Germanic, Gallic, etc. The elements of these traditions have entered into the texture of Christian faith, worship, and practice. The close association with other religious traditions can help purify our faith and enable us to see what is more important and what is secondary in our religious practices. In this way, religious pluralism deepens our faith.

In recognizing the faith of our neighbors, we acknowledge what God has done to them, especially when we meet Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who give such an inspiring witness to selfless love, deep spirituality, and a life of commitment and dedication. This is what Bishop A. J. Appasamy had to say after trying to understand the faith of the Hindus:

I for one cannot believe that such profound devotion to God, conviction of the utterly degraded nature of the devotee, sense of the need for complete surrender, and radiant joy in God’s presence, which is found abundantly in Hindu religious literature, can be achieved by human effort; they can only be regarded as God-given.2

The Role of Religion in the Public Sphere and Liberation

We recognize that history has been made today with a new signature. Barack Hussain Obama, whose ancestry goes back to the infamy of slavery, has emerged as the foremost political leader of his country and of the world. If such a surprise could take place at much faster pace than projected, it is due to various reasons, not the least, through the influence of religiously inspired pioneers like Martin Luther King, a religious minister who was fully involved in the civil rights movement. We think of his renowned speech in Washington, "I Have a Dream," which today has become a reality. The dream of this minister was that discriminated black people be given the same opportunity and be treated equally.

If apartheid was abolished in South Africa, it is due no less to the involvement of Bishop Desmond Tutu. In East Timor, during the years of great convulsion and violence, the leadership of Bishop Belo contributed to peace and reconciliation. It is remarkable that none of them was defending their religion, or were primarily interested in religious rituals. They were moved by the plight of the people without any consideration of religion, race, or ethnicity. If in Korea and the Philippines dictatorships were brought to an end, it was again due to the important role played by religiously motivated people to act in the public sphere. Similarly we could cite the example of the role religion played in the breakdown of totalitarian systems in Eastern Europe.

The point to note is that the role religions are called upon to play in the public sphere could more effectively and fruitfully be done by cooperation among the various religious groups towards the common good and what pertains to the welfare of the community. In this way, the interrelationship among religions has a much wider scope than simply coming to an understanding among themselves as religious entities. Religions enshrine resources, which when rightly interpreted, could be harnessed to the goal of liberation and humanization. This has been the crucial point in the interpretation of Christianity in Latin America, for example. This experience has given also a new impetus for religions to come together to respond to the plight of humanity and work towards its emancipation.

Interreligious dialogue and cooperation in Asia should be a contribution to Asia’s struggle for greater humanization. It is this which calls for dialogue and understanding among religions, so that they could participate in the public space and join hands to build up the community. M. M. Thomas, a 20th century Asian Christian thinker, put the matter in this way:

Christianity, renascent religions, and secular faiths are all involved in the struggle of man [sic] for the true meaning of his [sic] personal social existence—each on its own terms but together. It seems to me that the relations between Christian faith and other living religions and secular faiths are passing to a new stage, because they not only coexist in the same society but also cooperate to build a secular society and culture. It is within such coexistence and cooperation that we can best enter into dialogue at the deepest level on the nature and destiny of man [sic] and on the nature of ultimate truth.3

To be able to understand the public role of religion, we should distinguish between two dimensions of religion: religion as function and religion as performance.4 Religion as function means that it continues to repeat its beliefs, rituals, and practices through the course of time. This helps the maintenance of religion and its status quo. On the other hand, religion becomes a performance when it tries to respond to those questions and issues which various systems in society have raised but have left unanswered. Starting from a holistic perspective, religion could intervene in various areas of life for greater humanization and for the creation of fellowship and true community.

In many Asian societies, religion and religious leaders hold the key to peace and amity. If religiously committed people engage in dialogue and understanding, peace and harmony will reach societies faster than through any other means. Therefore, the axiom that "there is no peace in the world without peace among religions" could be verified also at the micro level in the different societies of Asia. Hence, formation for religious pluralism in our campuses serves the larger purpose of peace in society.

Influence of Religion in Various Areas of Public Life

Religious beliefs, convictions, and practices have repercussions in various departments of human life—political praxis, cultural configurations, formation of social mores, etc. To what extent religion could influence and condition politics is well-known and does not require elaboration. What is less known is the fact that religions and religious beliefs could shape also economic activities. Let me cite two examples here. In his classic work, Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed how Protestant ethics was responsible for creating a culture of work and frugality and how belief in predestination spurred on people to produce wealth, which was seen as a clear sign of God’s blessing and an assurance of eternal salvation. The other example is from Jainism. The belief in nonviolence led the Jain community to shun agricultural profession and take up commercial interests. Also we have the example in Japan of the intimate connection of Zen Buddhism with an economy of frugality. Zen Buddhist monks played an important role in the commercial activities of the Ashikaga Period. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), religion was an important factor in the economic development of Japan.5

Secularism and Religion

Why do we want to talk of religion? Are we not in a secular era? Do we not live in a global world that transcend religions and religious identities? Why don’t we then speak of the secular rather than the religious?

Yes, of course, there is ample room to speak of the secular in Asian societies. After all, secular thinking is not the monopoly of any one people or culture. There is an Asian secular approach to reality which has been reflected in its history, philosophy, tradition, etc. Buddhism was a secular movement that challenged the hegemony of religion and religious agents and proclaimed the equality of all and the possibility of everyone reaching the ultimate goal. In all our nations we could find the emergence of secular movements.

However, Asian secularism does not want to banish religion from public life. Religion cannot be relegated to the private realm in our Asian societies. The point of secularism in Asia is that it does not favor any one religion in preference to others. All religions are treated equally (sarvasamaya samabhava). Asian secularity is not a matter of the absence of religion from the public realm. The real secular question in Asia is that in every country all religions receive the same treatment. In this sense, several countries face the problem of the secular in their societies, especially in the relation of the state to religions. Secularism is not ignorance of religion, nor denial of the role of religion in public life. In Asia, secularism is a way of life that includes respect for all religions.

The Impact of Religious Pluralism in Higher Education

Higher education can benefit immensely from religious resources and religious pluralism. First of all, religions bring in a new dimension to life. In a world of fragmentation and specialization, there are many unanswered questions. There is no claim that religions could answer them all. What needs to be highlighted however is that religious pluralism helps us to see reality from a holistic perspective—to see the whole of reality as interconnected and not as compartmentalized. For example, the academic study of development could give us technomanagerial solutions to poverty. But then, we are left with certain ultimate questions that color and condition our attitude to life, truth, knowledge, etc.

The Shift in the Spirit of Higher Education

There have been changes and transformations through the centuries in considering higher education. Both in the East and in the West, in the early centuries, higher education and learning were associated with religion and religious agents. Christian and Buddhist monasteries were centers of learning. Learning did not limit itself to religious studies, but covered a wide variety of subjects that were necessary for the life of the community and of the world—astronomy, medicine, mathematics, literature, etc. The monks were intellectual leaders. Something of that tradition we find in Dalai Lama, who is perhaps the most articulate Buddhist in contemporary times. He is also quite familiar with science and technology. In the West, such premier institutions of learning as Oxford and Harvard started as centers for the training of religious leaders. This tradition of association of knowledge with religion gave a certain sense of sacredness to all learning. Knowledge was considered supreme when it manifested itself as wisdom. In the course of time, though education became more and more secular and got dissociated from religion, it still retained the objective of forming character. John Henry Newman distinguished between "useful knowledge" and "cultivation of mind," and he reminded his contemporaries that education should not neglect the objective of cultivation of mind and forming people of character.

Today with globalization, we are experiencing two major shifts. First of all, knowledge and education are directed almost exclusively to the production of wealth. The ideal human being is homo oeconomicus, "the economic man." Therefore whatever contributes to the generation of wealth and serves the expansion of economic possibilities is assiduously cultivated, and this has brought about the fragmentation of knowledge and its compartmentalization.

The second development I am referring to is the identification of knowledge with information. If the first development means the loss of total perspective and a holistic understanding of human beings, the second development is the dissociation of knowledge from the subject. For many today, truth and knowledge are simply what appear on the computer screens, to be stored and retrieved. They are mazes of information which do not affect the person, the subject of knowledge. However, the mark of true knowledge is that it affects those who teach and those who learn.

The consequences of the understanding of higher education through the key of economy can be evinced when we reflect on its relationship with society, with the community. The model of know-ledge and education as useful information serves to maintain the status quo and its various systems. Antonio Gramsci called those who are involved in this as "traditional intellectuals." Even when we operate with the most modern equipment, we can be no more than "traditional intellectuals," that is, intellectuals contributing to the maintenance of the system. On the other hand, he spoke of "organic intellectuals." This refers to education and learning that leads to change, to transformation in the condition of the society. In this scenario of higher education, religions could be a great source of renewal, especially if they come together through understanding and cooperation.

Religions are able to provide broader motivation for the acquisition of knowledge and its application. Of course, there is no Christian chemistry, Islamic mathematics, or Buddhist thermodynamics. But religions could provide motivation as to whom chemistry, nuclear physics, or biotechnology should serve, and what kinds of research could be undertaken that could best serve the community. The predominantly market-oriented and power-centered knowledge could be turned into a community-directed enterprise.6

Religious Literacy

Today every effort is taken to be up-to-date and to follow the advances in various disciplines. As a result, we have intellectuals coming out of our institutions who are very competent in their fields. Unfortunately, professional competence often does not match up with religious knowledge. Very often what they know of religion is at the level of Sunday Bible school or catechism. In these cases, religion very often remains simply a matter of performing certain traditional religious practices and has no direct bearing on one’s knowledge and involvement.

A second important thing we need to do in our campuses is that students who pass through our courses should have at least basic knowledge of the religions of the country and their basic teachings and practices. Moreover, learning about one’s own religion (Christianity, for example) needs to be done in a multireligious context. This will help the students and faculty to get rid of prejudices, misinformation, negative attitudes, and stereotype images that are locked up in their minds.

Besides knowledge about other religions, institutions of higher education will strive to foster among students and faculty the necessary skills to deal with pluralism and help them practice dialogue as a way of life and everyday practice. This form of dialogue is not a matter for the elite, but for society as a whole. In this way an atmosphere will be created for a culture of peace and harmony. Formation in religious pluralism is a training not only to deal with religious differences, but to negotiate with difference as a whole, be it cultural, ethnic, geographic, linguistic, etc. In this sense, formation for religious pluralism helps one to learn the art of negotiating boundaries, which is very important in the pluralistic world of today.

From Confessional Chaplaincy to Multireligious Campus Ministry

The dominant model up to now has been chaplaincy catering to the denominational community to which the educational institution belongs. In general students from other religious traditions are served through moral or ethical instruction. The realization of the multireligious character of Asia calls for a shift in our approach. We need to have multireligious campus ministry and multifaith chaplaincy. The openness of Christian education should be evinced in caring for the faith of students of all religions. Not only should there be possibilities for them to learn about their own faith in depth, but also opportunities and structures that will facilitate the faith-encounter of the students and the members of the faculty. We should not hesitate also to move towards a multireligious chapel or prayer-hall that will serve students and faculty members of all faiths.

In the campuses we need to be touched and affected by the faith of the students and faculty belonging to other faiths. That this is possible and this could have great transformative effect is illustrated by the life of Alfred Hogg, who was involved in higher education for over thirty-five years in Madras Christian College in India. While Hendrik Kraemer and others were negative in their view towards other religions (Tambaram meeting of 1938), Alfred Hogg, on his part, was transformed by his contact with Hindu students and faculty in the college campus. He said:

Non-Christian faith is a subject of sincere perplexity for the Christian. When, then, am I so convinced of its actual existence? Most of all because I am sure that I have really met with it. I have known and had fellowship with some for whom Christ was not absolute Lord and only Savior, who held beliefs of the typically Hindu color, and yet, who manifestly were no strangers to the life ‘hid in God.’"7

Maybe in the past, with all good intentions, we have been concerned about what as Christians we could impart to our non-Christian students and members of the faculty. This is part of the "teaching complex" of Christianity. Today we need to think the other way. We should place ourselves in a mood of listening and learning from the faith of our students and our faculty.


There is enough reason to despair about religions for their various omissions and commissions through the centuries, for the violence they have engendered and the gender discrimination they have caused, and the justifications they have given to caste, colonialism, etc. But then like all realities in human life, religion too is ambiguous. There is also a brighter side to religion. The most sublime things human beings are capable of has been done in the name of God and motivated by religious beliefs. In this regard we need to take note that science and technology too exhibit an ambiguous character. It could be employed to produce biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons to wantonly destroy nature, etc. Whether space technologies, chemical technologies, or biotechnologies, all these could be abused. But that is no reason to write them off. In the case of religion, it is a question of drawing resources for greater humanization, for change and transformation in society, for a culture of peace. Indeed, aware of the potential that religious traditions possess, the UNESCO organized a series of conferences on "Religion and Culture of Peace."

Many alumni and alumnae of our Christian institutions are very appreciative of the high standards we try to maintain in our colleges and universities, and are impressed by the discipline and values we try to impart. At the same time, not few of them point out something which should make us think and change. They feel that they were often forced to attend Bible classes, participate in Christian religious services, etc. This may no longer be happening today. However, the strong impression is there that Christians tend to impose their religious views on students and faculty. This impression needs to change. One of the important forms of witnessing one could give is to turn our institutions into vibrant centers of religious pluralism.

We may take pride that our colleges and universities cater to all sections of society, peoples of different religions—Hindus, Muslims, Daoists, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. But the matter of fact of religious diversity in the composition of students and faculty does not make the institution truly interreligious or guarantee that it is committed to religious pluralism. There needs to be a conscious effort and move to highlight this fact and make it into a reality of great enrichment for one and all. The multireligious fact needs to be tapped for the transformation of the institution.

If we take seriously the fact that religious conflict today causes so much violence and violation of human rights, then the building up of peace should start from closer relationships among peoples of different religious traditions. This important agenda for humanity and for Asian societies requires contributions from all quarters—the state, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, etc. A very important contribution to the culture of peace and religious understanding should derive today from centers of learning. Christian institutions of higher education will set a good example for the promotion of a culture of peace by fostering religious pluralism. This is the need of the hour. The transformation that has taken place in the self-understanding of Christianity, in Christian theology, as well as the developments that have taken place in the secular realm, all of these invite us to take up in our campuses religious pluralism as an important mission for humanity and for our Asian societies.


1. Rock Edict XIII.

2. A. J. Appasamy, "Religious Experience in India," The Pilgrim 2 (January 1943): 87.

3. M. M. Thomas, "The World in Which We Preach Christ," in Ronald K. Orchard, ed., Witness in Six Continents, Records of the Meeting of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC held in Mexico City, 8-19 December 1963 (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1964).

4. Cf. Peter Beyer, Religion and Globalization (London: Sage Publications, 2000).

5. Cf. Robert Bellah, Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 107.

6. Cf. Felix Wilfred, "Knowledge-Ethics for Our Times," Jeevadhara (January 2009): 5–28.

7. A. G. Hogg, "The Christian Attitude to Non-Christian Faith," The Authority of Faith, International Missionary Council Meeting at Tambaram, Madras, 12-29 December 1938 (London: Oxford University Press for the International Missionary Council, 1939), 110.