Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism

In the 20th century, there was a great religious leader who also became a great political leader. After some time in exile, he returned to lead his people and led them as they threw off their oppressors and the forces that threatened their cultural integrity. When he died, the whole nation was frantic with grief. The leader's name? It could be Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual founder of modern India. But, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual father of the current Iranian theocracy, also fits the profile. He remains in very high esteem, not only in Iran, but throughout the Muslim world.

Can we say that both these men had equally valid and appealing grasps on the nature of the divine and what it means to be human? Or that either's guess was as good as the other's when it came to pointing to the ineffable, the sacred or the holy? Will we not inevitably credit one more than the other? On what basis? Their respective effects on American foreign policy? The degree to which their words and actions comport with certain intellectual currents in the West? Our individual tastes?

The Mahatma or the Ayatollah. If we prefer one over the other, it will be based on something. Nobody actually in practice accords all religions and all religious teaching equal respect. Everyone uses some standard by which to measure their merits – our cultural/political/class/national prejudices and convictions etc. There is a presumed superiority in whatever standard is used and however conscious or unconscious its application. Something will be trump. It is no more presumptuous for Christians to say that we measure Gandhi and Khomeini against the example of Jesus Christ because he is the definitive revelation of the divine-human drama than to use something else as trump.

The earliest Christian creed was "Jesus is Lord," i.e., Jesus is trump. It had to be declared. It had to be lived. It had to be, if it came to it, died for. Because it was true. If Jesus was just one among many spirit persons, even though a particular favorite, he could not – cannot – be Lord. And there would be little point in paying him any more attention than Spartacus or Socrates. Nor would there be any conflict between worshipping Jesus and worshipping Caesar. To claim Jesus as Lord means that everything else – personal preferences, familial traditions, political ideologies, national loyalties, other religious teachings – everything is measured in light of what we know of God and life in light of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This does not mean that there is no truth or wisdom to be learned elsewhere. One can hold emphatically that Jesus is uniquely Lord and still believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through the hearts and scriptures of those who do not know him as Lord. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying. But, we lose something essential when we abandon the scandal of particularity that is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. With reverence. With gentleness. With humility. With forbearance. But, it must be declared.

I am concerned that in our reaction to simplistic, heavy-handed fundamentalism, we not slip into a simplistic pluralism that has more to do with the intellectual agnosticism of modernity than with Christian witness to the mystery of God. As Stephen Prothero has written in a fine article, such pluralism is not only disingenuous and misleading, it is also dangerous.


A. D. Hunt said...


Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Tony.

Steve Hayes said...

You speak of the "impossibility" of religious pluralism, but how is it possible to escape it, except possibly in Albania under Enver Hoxha, where there was no religious pluralism because there was no religion at all?

Or is the Anglican spirit of the "Act of Uniformity" still alive in Chicago? And how will you escape the provision of the US Constitution that prohibits laws that prevent the free exercise of religion?

Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for dropping and by and for the comment.

I would make a distinction between religious plurality which, as you point out, is a inescapable and religious pluralism, which is an ideology that I maintain is ultimately untenable.

I recognize and respect the reality of various religious traditions – along with various political and other ideologies. I have no interest in Acts of Conformity or Albanian-style uniformity. The penultimate paragraph of the post was meant to address any concern that I meant to imply that there is no truth outside the Christian tradition or that other traditions should not be respected. For example, I have done a fair bit of reading in Buddhism and the Tao to my edification. Perhaps I should have been clearer there. I accept the reality of a diversity of religious and ideological positions (religious plurality) in modern society as a given. But, that is not what the post was meant to address.

Accepting plurality in that sense is not the same thing as religious pluralism as an ideology which is what I was trying to get at. Plural–ism is a religious/ideological position that holds that all religious traditions are more or less equally right and equally wrong. It is that "ism" that I reject. Not only because, as a Christian I believe it is wrong, but because it no one engages all religious teachings and practices as though they were truly equal. Everyone assesses some better than others. I’m suggesting that it is no more presumptuous for Christians to say we measure all things against Christ than for others to measure things against whatever conscious or unconscious criteria they use. For example, I find Gandhi a more sympathetic figure than Khomeini because I think his behavior and, to some extent, his teaching were more Christ-like.

I hope that clarifies things. If not I’d be glad to give it another shot.