Summary of Circling the Elephant (2020) by John J. Thatamanil

[My May 25 regular blog post was about the book that I am summarizing much more fully here. Click here to read the much shorter blog article titled “Pondering Pachyderm Perambulation.”]

This is a very scholarly book that, after the Preface, begins with “Introduction: Revisiting an Old Tale.” That “old tale,” is “The Elephant and the Blind(folded) Men.” Although Thatamanil doesn’t mention it, perhaps that tale is best known in the U.S. because of what the American poet John Godfrey Saxe called “a Hindoo fable” in his 1872 poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” (That poem in its entirety is included at the end of this summary.)

After that important 19-page introduction, the first numbered chapter is “Religious Difference and Christian Theology: Thinking About, Thinking With, and Thinking Through.” A careful reading and understanding of the author’s points there helps the reader to understand the scholarly discussion of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism in the next two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the complexity and misunderstanding of the concepts of religion and the religious, which according to the author have often been problematic.

After dealing in chapter 6, “The Hospitality of Receiving,” with the thought and practice of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the following chapter is the author’s contribution to constructive theology as he writes about “God as Ground, Singularity, and Relation: Trinity and Religious Diversity.” The book concludes, then, with the ten-page chapter titled “This Is Not a Conclusion.”

Author Thatamanil

John J. Thatamanil was born in Gerala, India, and migrated to Brooklyn with his parents when he was eight years old. In India and then in the U.S. he was affiliated with the Mar Thoma Church, which, it is claimed, can be traced back to Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, who went to India to evangelize. In addition to his personal knowledge of Hinduism, the indigenous religion of India, the author also has deep, first-hand knowledge of Buddhism, and in the Preface he informs his readers that he continues both “Buddhist practice and Christian worship” (p. xvii).

He earned the Ph.D. degree at Boston University in 2000 and is noted for his scholarly study of Christian theologian Paul Tillich. The influence of Tillich is evident at various places in the book. After several years as a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, in 2011 Thatamanil became an Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary.

The Central Issue

Thatamanil’s first sentence in the Introduction identifies the central issue of the book: “Is religious diversity fundamentally a problem?”—and he particularly seeks to deal with the question of whether it is, or should be, a problem for Christians. He tips his hand, though, when in the epigraph at the beginning of the Introduction he cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words spoken at Union Seminary in 1965: “In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God.”

The author wants to see religious diversity as promise rather than as problem. “That,” he states, “is the question Circling the Elephant sets out to explore” (p. 1). A strong advocate of harmony and mutual acceptance, Thatamanil says, “To imagine religious diversity as promise instead of problem is to refuse those who seek to turn diversity into divisiveness” (p. 2). Positively, he emphasizes that the world needs “religious diversity in order to register and receive the rich multiplicity of the divine life” (p. 5).

It is in this setting that the old fable is considered, and the author states that if the tale is suitably reformulated, it is “appealing because it gives theologians a way to imagine real diversity as a positive good” (p. 6). So, after discussing five problems with the old allegory, Thatamanil states, “This book is a Christian exercise in pachyderm perambulation” (p. 11).

The foundational first chapter is “Religious Difference and Christian Theology: Thinking About, Thinking With, and Thinking Through,” and he begins with discussing “Should Religious Diversity Be a ‘Problem’ for Christians? (pp. 21~29). He concludes this important topic by saying that there are “robust reasons for believing that we need not only our neighbors but also their [religious] traditions if we are to move more fully into the life of God.” Thus, “Only a ‘relational pluralism’ in which the salvific power of our various traditions [is] mobilized and animated through relationship and mutual transformation can serve as an adequate foundation for a theology of religious diversity.”

So, focusing on this central issue, Thatamanil declares: “This book articulates the hope for a comparative theology of religious diversity” (p. 34). And at the end of chapter 1 he explains that he seeks “to formulate a theology of religious diversity that makes interreligious learning and mutual transformation possible (p. 40).

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism

For many years now, Christian theologians of religion have identified and written about three positions that are widely known as exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Thatamanil discusses these three positions in his second and third chapters, negatively evaluating all three except for what he proposes as “relational pluralism” in the third chapter. Before presenting his specific assessments/criticisms, though, he reiterates his central position near the beginning of the second chapter: “A theology of religious diversity that celebrates attentive learning might move away from regarding religious diversity as a problem to be solved and recognize religious diversity as a promise to be received” (p. 42). Thus, he is positive about relational pluralism as he notes that it is marked by a “taste for multiplicity” and shows its “delight in the gifts of other wisdoms” (p. 103).

The last part of the third chapter is “A Concluding Warning: The Trouble with Religion,” and this is his springboard into the next two chapters.

Analyzing “Religion” and “the Religious”

Near the end of chapter one, Thatamanil states: “We need theological projects that remind us that the invention of ‘religions’ and the invention of races were historically coterminous and part of a single, albeit multifaceted, imperial project” (p. 39). Thus, the third chapter is his criticism of the use of the word/concept “religion” and the next chapter explains how he prefers to use the adjective “religious” rather than the reified noun. He thinks that there is “little empirical resonance between the way Western scholars imagine religion and the way religious identities are actually lived out on the ground” (p. 127).

At the end of the fourth chapter, the author writes, “To be religious is not to belong to a timeless cultural-linguistic framework with a deep and stable transhistorical grammar but to seek comprehensive qualitative orientation by the creative use of contested and porous traditions that are always composed of what they are and what they are not” (p. 151). That is his lead into the fifth chapter: “Defining the Religious: Comprehensive Qualitative Orientation.” The subtitle expresses his attempt to explain what being religious is all about.

Thatamanil writes, all in italics,

Any qualitative interpretation of the felt character of the universe . . . I take to be religious when such an interpretation is accompanied by a commitment to practices that shape communal and personal comportment in the universe as so interpreted. Conversely, commitment to practices that so shape communal and personal comportment, such that they imply and generate a qualitative interpretation of the felt character of the universe . . . is also religious (p. 164).

It needs to be noted that the author recognizes that “secular institutions and activities continue to perform religious work.” He thinks that the religious “refuses to be confined to the sphere of religion or the religious even though moderns have come to think of comprehensive qualitative orientation as the special prerogative of what we now call religions” (p. 172). Thus, he has brief sections on “Economics as Religion” (pp. 183~7) and “Capitalism as Religion” (pp. 187~190).

Learning from Other Religions

Chapter 6 is “The Hospitality of Receiving: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Interreligious Learning.” In some ways, since it deals with well-known people and events, this is one of the easiest chapters in the book to read and understand—but perhaps it is also the most problematical.

Thatamanil highly evaluates Gandhi’s learning and internalizing Tolstoy and his teaching about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and then in turn praises MLK, Jr., for using what he learned from Gandhi. He concludes, “Even traditionalist Christians can confess that God has disclosed God’s self most fully in the Christ and yet also believe that one’s Hindu neighbor may see dimensions of that fullness that Christians have not yet appreciated” (p. 211). While that may well be so, that is quite different from what he wrote, with reference to MLK, Jr., on the previous page: “. . . no tradition affords more complete or efficacious access to ultimate reality than any other.”

A New Formulation of the Trinity

One of the author’s major purposes in this book is presenting a new formulation of what Christians have traditionally called the doctrine of the Trinity, and this is what he sets forth in the seventh chapter, “God as Ground, Singularity, and Relation: Trinity and Religious Diversity.”

It is difficult to summarize his argument succinctly, so suffice it to say that he expresses the traditional Christian concept of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by forwarding the concept of “God as ground, singularity, and relation” (p. 217)—and he says that this formulation “is just one Christian theologian’s venture at redescribing the elephant after a series of forays into Buddhist and Hindu traditions” (p. 220). However, the idea of God as the ground of being is based on German philosopher Martin Heidegger and Christian theologian Paul Tillich as well as on the Hindu emphasis on the nonduality of Brahman and atman.

Thatamanil’s discussion of singularity is mostly based on the ideas of Christian mystics and the theologian John Duns Scotus (1266~1308). Also, in formulating the third part of the Trinity, the author uses the word Spirit some, but never refers to Holy Spirit. He does emphasize this as his central point: “Relation names the truth that nothing whatsoever is what it is apart from its relation. To be is to be in relation” (p. 240). (He might have introduced the Bantu/South African concept of ubuntu here, but he didn’t. Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis on “we inter-are” could also have been included here, but it is not mentioned until the last chapter, on p. 251—and Nhat is misspelled there and in the index.)

Near the end of this chapter, Thatamanil emphasizes his main point that we need to be engaged in “the work of learning about our neighbors, the work of learning from our neighbors so that we might ourselves learn more about God” (p. 247).

The Conclusion which is Not a Conclusion

The eighth and last chapter of Thatamanil’s book is titled “This is Not a Conclusion.” That is partly because “interreligious learning is an endless process because there is always more to be known” (p. 249). In summarizing the thrust of his book, though, the author writes, “Circling the Elephant repudiates religious isolationism and calls for thoroughgoing vulnerability” (p. 251), and he asserts that “we can no longer think of religious traditions as isolated blindfolded persons, each focused on one aspect of the elephant because each tradition, in its spiraling around ultimate reality, begins to interpenetrate each other” (p. 253). Further, “We must circle the elephant together if we are to understand each other, let alone the elephant.”

THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT

A HINDOO FABLE

I.

IT was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

II.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

III.

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

IV.

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

V.

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

VI.

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

VII.

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

VIII.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

~John Godfrey Saxe (1816~87)

About Leroy Seat

* Born in Grant City, MO, on 8/15/1938 * Graduated from Southwest Baptist College (Bolivar, MO) in 1957 (A.A.) * Graduated from William Jewell College (Liberty, MO) in 1959 (A.B.) * Graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) in 1962 (B.D., equivalent of M.Div.) * Received the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from SBTS. * Baptist missionary to Japan from 1966 to 2004. * Full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (Fukuoka, Japan) from 1968 to 2004. * Adjunct professor at Rockhurst University from 2006 to 2014.
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