Is There Common Ground Among Religions? -- By: Terry C. Muck

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 40:1 (Mar 1997)
Article: Is There Common Ground Among Religions?
Author: Terry C. Muck


Is There Common Ground Among Religions?

Terry C. Muck*

Paul Nitze, one of the original “mighty men of Washington, D.C.,” recently made a comment regarding a political opponent in Washington: “He was a wonderful friend. We disagreed but after all our disagreements were only over matters of substance.” 1

A curious statement. It could have many meanings, I suppose. Perhaps Nitze was being facetious. Or perhaps he was defining the word “substance” in a way that would lessen the paradoxical nature of his statement. I think, however, that what he meant was that even though he and his colleague disagreed on matters of political philosophy and political strategy they remained friends over the years, and despite frequent public clashes they were able to maintain that friendship on a deep, very personal level. They had enough common ground so that despite their disagreements they could still relate.

I would like to explore the same kind of issue in terms of religious pluralism. The religions of the world differ on matters of substance. Each of them proclaims a different “truth” about where human beings come from, the reason for which they live on earth, and their ultimate destiny when life ends. Contrary to what some say, these differences are real and substantive. 2 In terms of interreligious interaction, the question raised by Nitze’s quote—”Can we disagree on matters of substance and still get along?”—is a real one.

Can we disagree on matters of religious substance—important matters, ultimate matters—and still get along?

There are three possible answers to such a question. The first is to say that we cannot get along when we disagree on matters of substance. The

* Terry Muck is professor of comparative religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 100 East 27th Street, Austin, TX 78705–5797.

religious world must inevitably be seen as one of conflict, competition, and violence, whether metaphorical or literal. 3

The second answer (the longest of the three) is to say that we can get along but only if we reduce the ultimacy of our “substantive” positions. This position has many forms and has managed to become the dominant one almost across the board in the academy these days. Yet it has not gone unchallenged. In the philosophy department the debate is between the foundationalists and the antifoundationalists. Among cultural anthropologists the debate is between the universalists and the relativists. Amon...

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