Two Kinds of Pluralism

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

A funny thing happened on the way to the dictionary.  Words which once meant one thing now denote something quite different.  One example of this is the word “pluralism” as used in the phrase “religious pluralism.”  I have noticed that there are two ways the word is now used and we need to be careful to distinguish which meaning we intend.  On the one hand, there are those who say, “I am a religious pluralist” and intend to communicate that they believe that all religions, when boiled down sufficiently, are, at root, the same.  In this view of religious pluralism, all roads lead to God and one might just as well be a faithful Muslim as a faithful Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.  Because, they say, religions are nothing more than human attempts to provide a framework for human meaning and to explain the ineffable.

The other use of the phrase “religious pluralism” is the understanding that the world is filled with a wide array of religious particularity.  There are definable movements which are designated with names like Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism or Christianity.  Each of these movements has their own message, their own sacred texts, their own practices and beliefs, etc.

I have been deeply involved with inter-religious dialogue for almost thirty years.  I have engaged in public dialogues with dozens of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.  I have a few favorite memories.  One was a dialogue in Connecticut which had been planned for over a year (including the theme) but took place just one month after the attack on the World Trade towers.  The theme which brought me together with these Muslim friends was, “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”  Needless to say, we had a packed house that night!

I remember another night when I was enlisted by Gordon College (a Christian college in Massachusetts) to have an open debate with a Hare Krishna Hindu on the nature of God.  I arrived and discovered (to my amazement) that the auditorium was packed to the rafters with Gordon college students.  They were so many students there that they had to sit on the floor of the aisles to fit them all in.  I had a fleeting moment of self-gratification that all these college students had come out to hear me debate a Hindu on the nature of God when the President of Gordon College told me that it was the end of the semester and so many students were on probation for skipping chapel that he had declared to the whole student body that if they attended this one debate it would count for an entire week of missed chapels!

I have dozens and dozens of wonderful memories of inter-religious dialogues all across the country.  But what made them truly excellent was when the person who showed up to dialogue was an authentic representation of their respective faith.  I fully expect (and so did the audience) that the Muslim who stood before the audience believed in the authority of the Qur’an, embraced and practiced the five pillars of Islam and believed with all of his heart that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah, sent to rescue the world from unbelief and eternal judgment.  Likewise, everyone there expected me to faithfully represent historic Christian claims.  They assumed that I would affirm the authority of the Bible, the central and cosmic significance of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and so forth.  To me, this is the greatest expression of religious pluralism.  I am free to pray for and labor for the salvation of every person on the planet.  I want everyone to fall on their knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  I do not believe that there is salvation in Hinduism or Islam.  However, I fully expect that my Muslim friend desperately wants me to come to see the beautiful revelation of the Qu’ran, and to accept the prophethood of Muhammad and the power of keeping the five pillars, etc.  He believes my Bible is filled with errors.

This is the kind of pluralism which faced the early church.  We can make great progress in this kind of context.  We are free to proclaim the gospel, even as we defend the “dignity of unbelief” and protect with our lives the free speech of other religious groups.  As Richard John Neuhaus so beautifully admonished us, “a truly pluralistic public square is far better than a naked public square.”

What is heart-breaking is when I arrive at an inter-religious dialogue event and meet these full-orbed Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all beautifully representing their faith and the millions of followers who stand in these traditions, and then the Christian stands up and blathers on endless nonsense about how we are all really the same and how all religions lead to God and we are all really saying the same thing.  In my view, that is not religious pluralism.  That is religious relativism.  It is time that we recall the difference between the two.


  • Mary Page says:

    Glad to hear someone engages regularly in interfaith dialogue and sees faith in all its ways. Why is it we never talk about what we have in common as far as practices? Muslims, Christians, and Jews are children of Abraham. We have that in common along with Moses, prophets, and even Jesus up to the Crucifixtion. Hindus and Buddhists did not come from Abrahamic thinking but where did Melchizedek king of Salem come from and why was he so recognized and honored. What if it is Indus Valley ancestry? (Harappa or even Sumerian) Then the Eastern thinking becomes pre-abrahmic but still part of the story we know so ancient that only pieces filter through once in a while. I suspect you think that too~Sermon on the Mount~ Ezekiel 3.”Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand'” (Genesis 14:14, 16 – 18, NKJV throughout).

    The second reference to this priest of God is in the book of Psalms: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool . . . ‘ The Lord has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’ ” (Psalm 110:1 – 4).

    Who arrives but Jesus from the order of Melchizedek where in Christ there is no east or west but origin point from the first verses in Genesis. I don’t know but I know what “all people” means. What if that blathering though possibly misguided is an echo, a reminder of the priesthood of Melchizedek. Maybe when we have interfaith dialogues that appears and for a short time we experience each others faith. Facebook lets me pray with Muslims, Hindus mostly and Christians of an Eastern nature. Humbling sometimes the depth of faith. If you ever have a Hindu Atheist pray for you and bless you you know god is not dead and meets you where you are at. Just a thought or a few 🙂

  • Mary Page says:

    This site is interfaith and does much between the faiths.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Ah…would we know a religious relativist if one showed up commenting on Timothy Tenennt’s blog?

  • As a chaplain in the military, we regularly speak about how we serve in a pluralistic environment, by which we mean that there are many faith traditions represented and we need to make room for all of them. There are chaplains who can operate in this environment while not being relativistic, and (sadly) there are those who are relativistic. But I think the best chaplains, and the ones who serve soldiers and families the best, are those who believe in their own religion firmly and strongly.

  • When I lived in the Middle East, I attended an event just like the one you describe in your last paragraph. The so-called Christian clergy was completely unaware of how much disdain he engendered from the devout Muslims present with his relativistic comments. No wonder there is animosity towards the Church from those outside and insipid weakness and just plain foolishness on the inside.