Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem?”

An hourlong teleconference with

Rita Gross

Wednesday, January 13, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Rita Gross for the first conversation of 2015’s WATERtalk series. Gross, a Buddhist dharma teacher, professor emerita of comparative studies of religion at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and past president of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies, discussed her views on the necessity of interfaith dialogue and acceptance of religious diversity. WATER thanks Rita for her truly enlightening presentation. What follows are notes on the presentation and subsequent discussion. These are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.

 Rita’s talk was inspired by her new book Religious Diversity — What’s the Problem?: Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity and she opened with how, in a sense, she has been writing it for her whole life. She is well-known for her work in feminist studies in religion but few people know just how important issues of religious diversity are to her – perhaps even more central to her arguments for a better world.

Though Rita majored in philosophy in college, she realized when studying to be a college professor that “philosophy was purely intellectual, that it didn’t deal with the whole person, with emotions,” Rita said. “I wanted to ask the big questions. I wanted to know what makes the world go around. The place where people ask those ultimate questions is in religion.”

In the 1970s, Rita’s graduate work involved both feminist studies in religion and global religions, and it was through such learning that she became involved in Buddhism. Religious diversity appealed in part because of her upbringing in a “fundamental, narrow-minded version of Christianity that was absolutely sure everyone else went to hell, period,” she said. “It seemed completely obviously to me that no there was no reason to assume that all the interesting or the good answers to questions of what it all comes down to, what is life about, were in the religions of my own western culture. Buddhism did speak to the questions of what’s true, what we can do that is valid.”

To be with a feminist and a Buddhist was “not a very comfortable position,” she said. Buddhism is a more patriarchal religion; feminist friends thought she was crazy and Buddhist colleagues called feminism nonsense. Yet she was interested in different questions: “How can religions and religious people live together peacefully, understanding each other and not always denigrating each other and putting each other down?”

When Rita began teaching courses in religious diversity (her most popular course was Intro to the Religions of the World) she did not just teach facts, but a way to understand and appreciate why people don’t all think the same religiously. The idea that there could ever be one universally accepted world religion is ludicrous, she said, and only those religions who make exclusive truth claims have construed it.

Part of the reason Rita hasn’t brought feminism and religious diversity together often in her writing is “because feminist theology movement is just too focused on western religions.”

Rita believes it’s important for women and feminists to be involved in interreligious dialogue movements because it’s an issue on which well-being and survival depends. One of the barriers women sometimes feel is that there’s no room in such a male-centric arena. Yet in finding the common ground between all religions, patriarchy is an aspect most share. “We need to be in there as a visible presence to spur the conversation to religions in dealing with their patriarchy and their sexism,” she said.

It’s also important to find ways to live in religiously diverse societies. “There’s a psychological growth leap one has to take,” Rita said. “It’s easy to be in an environment where everyone thinks like you and looks like you and has the same mannerisms, but we don’t have a choice, besides learning how to cope with it.”

Rita asked the following questions: How can we transform our religions so that they are much more comfortable dealing with religious diversity? What are the grounds on which we can evaluate other religions and on which we can corporate?

To argue about theology, she said, is beside the point. The fundamental questions are ethical. “There’s much more consonance on ethical principles than there is on metaphysical notion on ultimate truth,” Rita said. “How boring would it be if everyone agreed on theology? Where we can work together is on ethical issues which intercept very strongly with feminist concerns, the ethical issues of the ways in which women have been put down in every religion in the world.”


Discussion followed:

  1. The first caller asked Rita to say more about not arguing over theology, which is a very divisive point. What are suggested frameworks for discussion?

Dialogue with fundamentalists is difficult; the people who need to dialogue often won’t. The starting point has to be more of an educational enterprise than a dialogue.

There are two stages to the process, Rita said: first, learn information and differentiate between facts and emotions. Second, try to encourage empathy by obtaining a good background of facts about religious others to imagine how it might feel to live in that religious universe. “This isn’t about changing your religion…it’s just about getting the facts and figures about other religions of the world,” she said.

  1. One person wondered if Rita saw a difference between people in their 20’s versus 60’s in how they approach religious diversity.

“What I hear always is that people in their 20s and 30s are much more open-minded about race, sexual orientation, the acceptance of marriage equality,” Rita said. “If people are more flexible about issues of race and sexual orientation, they would also be more flexible about questions of religion. “

In her teaching at the university, Rita saw many people leave the world religions course changed. While she often wished she could teach religious diversity at a seminary, she was denied because people had so much to learn about their own religions and didn’t have time to learn about others. Yet “people are going to learn much more about themselves by taking a course in Buddhism than by taking another course about the New Testament,” Rita said. “You will learn much more about yourself if you really study with a lot of deep empathy something that is very different from what you had thought. How can you know yourself fully if you don’t have examples of what isn’t yourself? Instead of what is fighting with what is not you, learn how to react empathetically and ethically.”

  1. Another participant praised Rita’s book and commented on Chapter 10’s “Training the Mind,” wondering how training the mind is in keeping with progress in religious diversity.

Rita responded that it’s not enough to just think about things; you have to solve problems on a much deeper level through a lot of contemplation. She cited two spiritual disciplines to living well with religious diversity: empathetic understanding of religious others, and contemplation of essential questions slowly, rather than grasping for easy answers.

“We’re always educating towards the test,” Rita said. “There comes a point where having a good question is much more enriching than having an answer. Whatever answer you have becomes grounds for further questions…moving from a superficial understanding to a deep understanding.”

  1. The moderator asked in terms of ethics and theology, where does Rita draw the line. She uses theo-ethics as a hybrid term, but what’s the separation point?

People say one’s metaphysical perspective is intertwined with one’s ethical perspective, and apathetic theology is helpful if you want to stay within theological framework to do religious diversity. “You have to somehow come to an ethical perspective that values human well-being in a very broad way,” Rita said. “Whatever your views are, there are ways that religions can cooperate together. If people can develop flexibility of mind, lack of dogmatism…and get rid of the certainty that ‘I know the truth,’” they can start to see where others are coming from. Said Rita, “If religions would teach their followers to be less dogmatic and kinder, and more flexible…the world would be a much better place.”

  1. The last question was how can a Buddhist perspective be useful with ritual problems?

Rita suggested developing flexibility around rituals. “Ideas and rituals are tools,” Rita said. “And the point of a tool is, does it work? There’s no one tool that does every job. That’s the way Buddhists think about the variety of religious ideas and rituals. Many are very useful depending what context they’re used in.”

Bibliography for Rita:

A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion. Missoula, Montana: Scholar’s Press, 1977.

Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Feminism and Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1998.

Rita’s latest book is entitled Religious Diversity — What’s the Problem?: Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity. The book is available from Wipf & Stock Publishers. Her forthcoming book on Buddhist Dharma, slated for a 2016 publication, is called How Clinging to Gender Subverts Enlightenment.

The next WATERtalk will be Wednesday, February 4, 2015 with Dawn Marie Gibson. We will send out publicity shortly. All are welcome so please join us. For more information, visit

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland

January 15, 2015