I 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