Notes on Religious Pluralism

interfaith-calendarI had a chance to attend a symposium on religious pluralism at Oklahoma City Community College, where I teach religion and philosophy part time. It became obvious that there was a tension in the room. This came from having two opposing view points in the room. And the viewpoints largely talked around each other. Let’s call the first view point universalism and let’s call the second view point, exclusivism.

The presenters and most of the students made clear that they were universalists of a sort. In this they claimed all the religions were largely the same, that they all lead to the same path, that it is important to focus on our commonalities and not our differences, that interfaith work means solely developing friendships of people of other world religions. That the golden rule was the unifying feature of all world religons. And that it was possible to keep one’s faith intact while relating to those of a different religion.

The exclusivists wanted to sort out which religion is correct and which religion is false. A few really wanted to pick a fight with Islam. Afterwards, I had a chance to briefly speak with one of the exclusivists. He argued that religion cannot change, it has essential properties from their origins and you can evaluate which religion is true or false based on the origins, more so then what the religion looks like as it is actually practiced today.

Every time some objection was raised about a particular religion, the universalists, would go back to the need to live together, be neighborly, love one another. But the discussion never advanced as a result. Now I’d much rather live in a world with universalists than I would with exclusivists. You could see the hostile energy coming from one side in the room in particular, as they were being smothered with love and good feeling from the universalists.

But, suppose, as a thought experiment, that religion was like a language. It is the discourse we have at hand to get on in the world. Would it be possible to go with either view?

Is it the case that all languages are the same? They they all have an essential unity? That to learn about other languages, is not to be involved in the particulars, but find where they come together? I’d argue no. You can’t get a hold of a language without knowing the particulars, the uniqueness, the specific features of what makes it the language that it is.

Not that learning about overlaps is irrelevant, Danish and Swedish do overlap. Spanish and French do too! It is just that without the particulars, you won’t discern much of the overlap and the differences. You have to study language in the particular.

But could you say, look, either French is true or German is true, but they both can’t be true? No. The best criteria that you could come up with is adequacy. Does the language describe well the world? Does it have flexibility, does it through its phrases, vocabulary, capture something about the world that we should be attentive to?

And does language change? You bet! And are older versions of the language more true than the current one? No, of course not. The present language communicates, likely better than the older versions. Now you can know more about the present language if you know its history and development, but there is no pure form of the language. All you can do is study how folks speak if you want to begin to understand the language.

OK, insert the word religion here. I get the impression that the universalists would have us all speak Esperanto, the artificial language that takes from many major language to make a melting pot of words. And the exclusivists, I presume in the room at OCCC, want us all to speak Christian. Both don’t create a context for religious diversity.

But I would propose, as many many religion scholars have proposed, a third way. It’s called pluralism. We celebrate the many religions. We really have a better sense of the world with more religions, not less. But if we really want to understand other religions, we don’t just celebrate them in the abstract. Nor by just rushing off to Holy Texts to determine the true version of the religion.

You study religion by diving deep into a tradition but also as it is actually practiced. And we assume that such an encounter will change us as a result, that we’ll see something new in the world as a result. We wouldn’t worry which religion is true or not. We would worry in what ways religion can be humane, can be adequate to human life. And yes you certainly want to talk to folks of other religions or no religion.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

6 replies »

  1. The biggest hiccup is that, if you don’t actually care whether the thing you profess faith in has real merit (maybe you were just raised in a family which abided by the faith, so you never interrogated it), there’s no clear reason to go around telling people you believe it.

    Put another way, If your goal is to be humane/neighborly/loving/whatever, that’s more than easy enough to do without speaking the language of myth and divinity. I’m not sure why decent behavior would require a mysterious or supernatural element to plead its case. From the standpoint of caring about what the right answers are, you’re putting high-level beliefs on the same playing field as things like astrology and Myers-Briggs personality types: it’s sometimes harmless fun to look at your horoscope or take a short quiz, but the results are ultimately meaningless because they’re not built on anything reliable (and, to the extent those things have been subject to experimental scrutiny, they have repeatedly failed).

    So like, I’m not sure what your religious position actually is–if you actually think the Christian faith is true in some fundamental respect, you can’t make your brain treat other religious beliefs with equal dignity. You couldn’t *legitimately* make yourself believe that Buddhists, Muslims, Shintoists, Hindus, etc. are on course toward eternal salvation, so while their belief structures, iconography and history, etc. might be interesting from a cultural standpoint, you have to do one of two things when thinking about them: (a) say that pluralism is false in a strict sense (because the other views are false); (b) stop professing your faith (because you’re no longer searching for truth).

    I don’t think the dissonance is resolvable.

    • No need to appeal to the supernatural. But I do take my religious beliefs as meaning more than astrology, since I believe my religious beliefs map on to the world. The world provides the content so this is not merely subjective. And then language is what I use to get access to this world. To do so, does not mean other languages are wrong, to the degree they are mapping the same world. What likely happens is that some languages appeal to certain features of the world more strongly, adeptly than others. Maybe Buddhism on subjective experience (which is what Sam Harris has discovered). Maybe Judaism on what makes for a moral, just society. Christianity on grace. Just examples. But this is why, besides being a good neighbor, interfaith dialog is important because it means opening the world up a bit more as one discovers other religious languages. I suppose the example would be, your world is wider being multilingual than being monolingual.

      • Respectfully, your position sounds like it directly advocates picking out the most favorable/”accurate” parts of different religious doctrines while discarding those which don’t fit into your mosaic. You attempt to reconcile the cherry-picking issue by analogizing faith to language, suggesting different faiths, because they have different styles, emphases, and traditions, may contain elements of truth worth exploring. I think there are a couple issues here:

        (1) I disagree faith and language are analogous on grounds of truth. Language itself isn’t “false”, not because all languages contain grains of truth, but because it’s not truth-apt to begin with (and not just because there are non-apophantic speech acts)–you can take together and (to some extent) blend up the grammar and vocabulary of arbitrarily many languages and create a beautiful body of expression, because the richnesses and specificities of different languages are complementary. I suggest you cannot do this with different faiths, because many of their fundamental claims–ontological claims about Creation, cosmology, history–are contradictory, and it is at least a bit dishonest to excise certain claims from their original context. Whether or not dialogue in general is encouraged, I don’t think any particular faith–including yours, so far as you genuinely believe your faith maps to the world–could say “all religions contain some truth” without admitting something vaguely damning. I’m not sure how many Muslims would be willing to accept Christian accounts of “grace”, or Jewish accounts of ethics, or Buddhist accounts of the self and the soul (particularly where it goes after you die–they would certainly dispute it returns to be reincarnated, and I’m not sure on the contrary you could assert). Beyond cultural understanding, the point of trying to co-opt parts of other faiths isn’t exactly clear if (a) you believe your faith is sufficiently accurate to grant access to the good side of the afterlife (unless you believe Hindus and Wahhabists will celebrate eternity alongside Christians?), and (b) you hold your faith for non-empirical reasons. This dovetails into

        (2), which is that most of the things I think you could learn from being open-minded are non-exclusive to supernatural belief structures. Seems to me, unless you believe in non-overlapping magisteria, that most questions of how best to map the territory, insofar as the reason we care about doing so is navigating the territory accurately (rather than the abstract pride of being good at making maps), have to be resolvable in some kind of common syntax–not so much the language as the underlying mechanics. So, unlike interfaith dialogue, where it’s not clear they’re effectively using different languages to talk about what turns out to be the same general world (no Hindu I’ve ever met thinks Brahma is identical to the God of Abraham), actual physical mechanics can reliably bear weight as the common denominator of human experience and language (even if, as with jargon, different general languages speak more or less aptly to different aspects of those mechanics)–you mention Sam Harris, for instance, who somewhat compellingly represents the view that ethical questions, insofar as they ultimately pertain to biophysical realities in conscious creatures, are in principle empirically soluble. In this view, we can dispose of questions about deities and creation, grace and souls, and all of the textual/doctrinal struggling among faiths those things imply.

        The takeaway for me is this: you can have your particular faith, and you can, for non-empirical reasons, hold it forever because there’s no falsity condition (hence why it’s an article of faith); you can also discard faith and arbitrate all disputes empirically, including disputes over ethical considerations; what I don’t think you can meaningfully do is, while claiming to hold something as an article of faith, pick out and adopt decontextualized elements of other faiths or beliefs (like, you can assert the Buddhist account of subjective experience and the self has been born out in research, but you can’t say, as a Christian, “the Buddhist account of this is true because their beliefs about cosmology and the nature of mortal beings, on which this account rests, are true”).

  2. I used to subscribe to the universalist position as you describe it here. As my mystical experience has deepened, I now see it as a lowest-common denominator principle that masks the complexity of spiritual practice, and therefore disempowers the religious from doing meaningful spiritual work.

    You use the metaphor of language here, and I think it is a useful one. What kind of leverage does our religious language give us as we enter into spiritual agency? I would assert that any language the limits its scope to human outcomes is impoverished to the point of being useless – if not dangerous.

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