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.