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Unpacking Pluralism

By Mark Waters


“Remember that words have usage, not meaning.” This off-the-cuff remark from Dr. Frank Stagg in a seminary classroom more than thirty years ago has repeatedly helped to clarify my thinking. I might modify the statement, saying that “words have usage, not inherent meaning” or “the meaning of a word is shaped by usage and context.” But the point is, nonetheless, well-taken. Words have usage, not meaning.

“Pluralism” is a case in point. This reality came home starkly in a conversation with a faculty colleague a few years ago. Although I know him to be a progressive thinker and open to people of other faiths, he spoke of religious pluralism in a rather dismissive way. Later I learned that his dismissal of pluralism was really a dismissal of the theologian John Hick’s version of pluralism.

My friend is not alone. When I converse with people who either accept or reject pluralism, I consistently discover that many have little or no awareness that the term can be used in several ways. Their acceptance or rejection tends to be based on a tacitly accepted definition without significant critical reflection.

This article explores various understandings of religious pluralism. My goal is not to convince the reader of a particular use of the term, but to encourage all of us involved in interfaith initiatives to be aware of what we mean when we say “religious pluralism.” Without such clarity we risk talking past each other rather than understanding each other in interfaith dialogue.

Pluralism as Transcendent Unity

A number of scholars, like Hick, assume a transcendent unity of religions. Hick hypothesizes that ultimate reality (God for many people) is the “Real.” Religious paths lead, in different ways, to the Real. Hick further uses the thinking of philosopher Immanuel Kant by asserting that the Real cannot be known directly. We can perceive phenomena through the senses, but we cannot directly know “things in themselves (the noumenal).” The Real is the unknowable noumenal reality that is “One,” encountered in various religions yet interpreted differently on the phenomenal level.

John Hick (1922-2002)            – Photo: Claremont Graduate University

John Hick (1922-2002)            – Photo: Claremont Graduate University

Frithjof Schuon and Huston Smith offer similar perspectives. Transcendent ultimate reality is one. Different religions represent different exoteric paths, but all paths lead to the same esoteric, transcendent reality. Thus Schuon’s key book on the topic is entitled, The Transcendent Unity of Religions. A similar view is also explored in the perennial philosophy popularized by Aldous Huxley.

In popular parlance, transcendent unity is represented by the ‘one mountain peak, many paths up different sides of the mountain’ understanding. Readers will recognize the mountain peak as a frequently used metaphor to describe this view of religious pluralism in interfaith settings.

Critics of this perspective note a couple of problems. Here I am speaking of friendly critics who are supportive of interfaith values, not critics who reject pluralism because they are exclusivists. First, these friendly critics note that this use of pluralism does not account sufficiently for real differences among religions. A good example is Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. Prothero offers a great introductory survey of eight major religions and discloses their very real differences.

A story I recently heard makes the point. A Buddhist and a Christian were discussing their understandings of Heaven as mystical union with God and of Nirvana. The Christian insisted that the two are the same, just expressed differently in the clothing of diverse cultures. After some dialogue and explanation from each, the Buddhist respectfully said, “I really think we are talking about two different realities.” When the conversation ended and the Buddhist departed, the Christian leaned to someone nearby and said, “We are really talking about the same thing. She (the Buddhist) just doesn’t know it yet.”   

The lesson here is that we should discern similarities and differences in the inductive movement of interfaith dialogue rather than assuming, in advance, a transcendent unity and then trying to make one another’s concepts fit that unity. Like the Christian in the previous conversation, some interfaith advocates tend to equate respect for the religious other with affirming a transcendent unity.

But is it really respectful to assume transcendent unity if or when our conversation partner disagrees, or to make this assumption without really listening to the other? Might it not be more respectful to recognize real differences when they arise? While I personally affirm transcendent unity as a beautiful ideal, I am also committed to being genuinely open to and respectful of others if they are, so to speak, actually on another path up a different mountain. I have no right to assume sameness if my interfaith partner expresses genuine difference. And I come to know this difference – or sameness – in the inductive movement of dialogue and study, not in deductive reasoning that is derived from a priori assumptions.

A second critique of transcendent unity is that it presumes a “God’s eye view.” Hick adjusted his thinking in response to this critique by changing his wording. The oneness and applicability of the Real in all religions, he said, is a hypothesis rather than a presumption of a God’s eye view. The hypothesis, nonetheless, has to be tested in the inductive movement of interfaith dialogue, not applied as a presumptive lens that controls the dialogue in advance.

Pluralism as Engagement with Diversity

Harvard’s Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project, is a seminal advocate for pluralism as the engagement of diversity. She offers four dimensions of pluralism:

Diana Eck welcomes participants to a symposium at Harvard University on civic society and multireligious America. Photo: Harvard University Pluralism Project

Diana Eck welcomes participants to a symposium at Harvard University on civic society and multireligious America. Photo: Harvard University Pluralism Project

  1. Pluralism is not diversity alone but “the energetic engagement of diversity.”
  2. Pluralism is more than tolerance. We can tolerate without knowing anything about the religious other. Pluralism involves the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.
  3. Pluralism is not relativism, butthe encounter of commitments. “The new paradigm of pluralism,” writes Eck, “does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.”
  4. Pluralism is grounded in dialogue. Everyone has a place at the table with their identities and commitments.

Eck’s pluralism implies the inductive movement, in the context of similarity and difference, described in the previous section. Whether there are multiple mountain peaks or a single peak, everyone has a place at the table.

Pluralistic Inclusivism

The scholars noted so far are distinctly Western. I was delighted recently to encounter the thinking of Kalarikkal Poulose Aleaz. Aleaz teaches religious studies at Bishops College in Kolkata, West Bengal, India and is an Orthodox priest. He notes the traditional positions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism and then coins the term “pluralistic inclusivism” to describe his perspective. Yet, his use of the term “inclusive” is quite different than the traditional inclusivism of, for example, Karl Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” or Mohandas Gandhi’s affirmation that “everyone is a Hindu.”

For Aleaz, inclusivism means raising the question, “How can I include wisdom from other traditions in my own faith and practice?” His perspective is truly plural in that Aleaz recognizes genuine differences, even the possibility of ultimate differences. A Festschrift written in his honor is entitled, The Many Ways of Pluralism. His model is inclusive in the sense of seeking ways to include the wisdom of the religious other in one’s own faith and practice. For instance, how can a Christian theologian include the wisdom of Advaita Vedanta, non-duality, in Christian theological investigation? How might Hindu philosophy enrich Christian thinking about Jesus’ statement, “Whenever you do it to the least of these, you do it to me”? How might one correlate Namaste – the divine in me recognizes the divine in you – with the Judeo-Christian affirmation of Imago Dei, the Orthodox experience of Theosis, or the mystic experience of union with the Divine?

I find Aleaz’s methodology to be similar to the hermeneutical method of theologian David Tracy at the University of Chicago. Tracy advocates mutually critical correlations. Some correlations disclose similarity-in-difference. In dialogue with the other, a mutually critical correlation includes criteria of adequacy and appropriateness: Is the inclusion of a perceived truth from the other appropriate to one’s own tradition and is it an adequate representation of the truth of the other. This correlation can be used in many ways such as the correlation of science and theology. The applicability to interfaith dialogue is certainly suggestive.

More could be said. I make no claim that the exploration of pluralism herein is comprehensive or exhaustive. Glaringly absent, for example, are Paul Knitter’s application of liberation theology to pluralism and David Ray Griffin’s deep religious pluralism. My objective is not to cover every base but, rather, to call us to heightened self-awareness in interfaith understanding. What do we mean when we affirm religious pluralism? Responses to this question are themselves plural, but raising the question and becoming aware of our use of the term is crucial for creative and effective interfaith dialogue.