Is pluralism the ONLY way?

Is pluralism the ONLY way?

Is religious pluralism the only way?

After all, the idea that…

“…just one religion has the only answer to all the problems of human life at all times for all peoples and all cultures is doubtful whatever be the vehemence with which such a notion is propagated” – Stanley Samartha, One Christ-Many Religions, p. 53 (italics original)

And isn’t such an idea even more doubtful the more diverse our neighbors are?  But consider:  What if religious/ideological pluralism is itself a religion of sorts?  Wouldn’t the following capture its central beliefs?

Pluralism’s dogma:  no one has the Truth (and that’s the Truth)

Pluralism’s gospel:  no one is wrong (yay!!), except those who think they’re right (pluralists excepted)

Pluralism’s greatest commandment:  disapprove of others for disapproving of others (or: tell others to stop telling others what to do; even the graphic above is an imperative to everyone else:  coexist)

Pluralism’s greatest virtue:  tolerance (i.e., let others ruin their lives and oppress others, because we love them enough to leave them alone)

Pluralism’s greatest value:  privacy (my actions only affect me, so leave me alone)

Pluralism’s prophets:  primarily those in institutions of “higher” learning

Pluralism’s faithful:  mostly white, degreed Westerners (the Enlightened ones)

Pluralism’s utopian future:  the status quo (because no one is wrong; no one needs to change)

A few questions for the pluralist:

– Why should pluralism be the only way?  How does the pluralist know that s/he’s right?  (Isn’t that arrogant?  Doesn’t that make it a fundamentalism of sorts?)

– Why should the pluralist tell me how to live my life?

– What is the difference between tolerance and apathy or cowardice?

If the pluralist is right to say that none of us can see the truth, would this not apply to the pluralist?  If none can see it, then all are blind.  Jesus asked, “Can a blind man lead a blind man?  Will they not both fall into a pit?”

3 thoughts on “Is pluralism the ONLY way?

  1. To play devil’s advocate:

    I think it’s helpful to clearly define what “pluralism” is. Who is the pluralist, fundamentally and in non-satirical terms?

    Some may, as you’ve implied, actually believe that all roads lead to the same god. That really is a paradoxical belief system. But others may be pluralistic in a far more agnostic or atheistic sense: “No one can know if there’s a god, so just pick your way of believing that most satisfies your psychological need for meaning,” or “There is no god, and all religions trace similar patterns of imbuing an otherwise meaningless life with meaning. Believe what you want, because it’s actually irrelevant to your ultimate destiny, which is annihilation.”

    So when we’re told to “coexist,” it’s not always an imperative originating from the belief that we should coexist because we all have a handle on the truth, but rather that religions are more like flavors of ice cream than man’s attempt to scale to heaven.

    As a devil’s advocate, let me respond to some of your assertions:

    “Pluralism’s dogma: no one has the Truth (and that’s the Truth)”
    “Pluralism’s gospel: no one is wrong (yay!!), except those who think they’re right (pluralists excepted)”

    By Truth-with-a-big-T, I assume you mean truth about God; if you’re just talking on epistemological terms about any truth, that’s a different discussion, I think.

    However, I might make a far more circumspect claim: the evidence we have does not support the veracity of any given religion. Atheists make arguments with this as a starting point all the time, and then go on to point at where the evidence is lacking (e.g., lack of pillars of fire being called down by prophets today; lack of convincing archaeological evidence for, say, the Exodus, etc.).

    “Pluralism’s greatest commandment: disapprove of others for disapproving of others (or: tell others to stop telling others what to do; even the graphic above is an imperative to everyone else: coexist)”

    To be honest, I don’t think the real belief is that pluralists disapprove of others for disapproving of others. I’ve never met a true pluralist that accepts ANY and ALL truth claims as true, and thus allows “all comers.” There are boundaries for everyone in the real world; therefore, even the pluralist sets limits on what they “allow” to be true, right and good. By what ethical and epistemological system they do this is, perhaps, just as makeshift as moonshine.

    “Pluralism’s greatest virtue: tolerance (i.e., let others ruin their lives and oppress others, because we love them enough to leave them alone)”

    While I don’t think many pluralists would stand for the violation of another person’s rights by an aggressor, I think their response to self-ruination would be: Sure, why not? If someone wants to bring destruction down on themselves, that’s their right! What claim do you have on me? And what claim do I have on you? Existing in community via the social contract only matters if I own myself; if I don’t own myself, and do with myself as I please (and those things being more fundamental than any commitment I might have to the Other), then am I not devalued? Isn’t my autonomy what makes me, “me?”

    “Why should pluralism be the only way? How does the pluralist know that s/he’s right? (Isn’t that arrogant? Doesn’t that make it a fundamentalism of sorts?)”

    I think the issue is one of proselytization. I don’t see many pluralists decapitating non-pluralists. And yet, pluralism springs up out of communities of diverse beliefs. Rather than cutting of each other heads (or engaging us in awkward, existential conversations by the water cooler), we need to ask people to act like they don’t really believe what they claim to believe. Perhaps pluralism isn’t right; but in communities of Christians, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, New Age spiritualists, etc. it appears (to some) to be the only way to get along without an extraordinary amount of conflict. It’s more utilitarian, than any real truth claim.

    Again, the pluralist may be agnostic, or an unconvinced, skeptical atheist. They are right “by default,” so to speak, in that any given religion has failed to convince them otherwise.

    “Why should the pluralist tell me how to live my life?”

    Plain ol’ utilitarian ethic. It’s what works (supposedly) in society. Heck, even the Israelites couldn’t pull it together well enough to bring peace to their own nation when they were being led by a pillar of fire, and they all agreed on what to believe (mostly, basically). Perhaps we might say that flourishing doesn’t proceed from community-building, but rather individual actualization, and that requires that those who would impose on my life get out of the way. I can make my own choices.

    “What is the difference between tolerance and apathy or cowardice?”

    Tolerance is consciously recognizing a belief you do not hold and allowing another person to hold it without interference. You may care very much that they’re wrong, but you value more their ability to choose than their actual choice. You can still talk to them about this, but in some strange way it cannot be with the motive to convince them of another course of action.

    Apathy is not caring. Cowardice is not talking (or doing).

    “If the pluralist is right to say that none of us can see the truth, would this not apply to the pluralist?”

    I haven’t met anyone who honestly, truly, really, in their heart-of-hearts believes, “There is no truth,” or “No one can know the truth.” Maybe a naive adolescent has made a claim without much thought. Now, are people living like this, even if they’re not asserting the claim? Perhaps. This is what occurs when some want the Christian to behave like they don’t really believe what they believe (e.g., dispense with evangelism).

    And maybe the pluralist’s response to your final question would be, “Sure, possibly,” but it again returns to the utilitarian ethic.

  2. GREAT comments! A few thoughts in response:

    On defining pluralism: there are indeed different flavors, but I would want to say that the various flavors claim a common underlying, self-defeating presupposition: somehow they can have a privileged vantage point from which to make authoritative declarations about no one else having a privileged vantage point. My honest question would be: How do they know so comprehensively? Whether the pluralist sees other religions as legitimate ontological “ways” to some sort of ultimate being/presence/reality or, as you say, a flavor of ice cream, how do they in fact know that such claims are true? Any claim to just happen to arrive at a “default” conclusion is concealing a plausibility structure shaped by personal preferences and allegiances.

    When we say, “I’ve never met pluralist who…”: On the one hand, this observation could imply a charge of caricature against me (“The pluralists I’m describing are describing are straw men”). This is possible! On the other hand, such an observation could very well reinforce my point: is there such a thing as a consistent pluralism? Or is there only an inconsistent, self-defeating pluralism? If so, one would never meet a pluralist who…

    Wonderfully, offhand I too know of no pluralists (at least Stateside) who resort to acts of violence. Of course, the Roman Empire was tolerant of all manner of religions, yet when some religions challenged imperial interests, they did not behead people either (they preferred crucifixion). More to the point, however, is that there are different forms of coercion, some of which are a bit more subtle than beheading (which tends to get noticed): Why kill you if I can just bully or shame you in the public sphere, so as to silence you? Why kill you, if I can, e.g., persuade you that, whereas YOUR personal explicitly religious convictions should never be expected to be embodied in legislation, MY non-religious (supposedly “neutral”) convictions should be instead?

    Utilitarianism: The question of “what works” still requires value judgments, no? When a married couple comes to me for counseling, one spouse will say something to the effect of, “I tried loving my spouse, but it hasn’t worked.” Implicit is some vision of what a “flourishing” marriage looks like, and this is the problem: there are competing and presently irreconcilable visions for what marital bliss ought to look like.

    I like your contrast between tolerance and apathy/cowardice. My concern is this: I’m strongly inclined to think that pluralism reinforces the status quo. If so, it privileges those who are presently at or near the top of the socio-economic totem pole (e.g., imperial Rome’s pluralism; or the very Brahman idea of advaita Vedanta within Hindu traditions). The motto “Everyone should mind their own business” is hardly a cry for revolution. It could well be propaganda that (perhaps unwittingly) enables oppression. But feel free to push back….

  3. A little more devil’s advocacy, although I appreciate your points!

    “Whether the pluralist sees other religions as legitimate ontological “ways” to some sort of ultimate being/presence/reality or, as you say, a flavor of ice cream, how do they in fact know that such claims are true? Any claim to just happen to arrive at a “default” conclusion is concealing a plausibility structure shaped by personal preferences and allegiances.”

    I think the reply might be from the standpoint of evidentialism: we all shape and maintain our beliefs using evidences. There is no such thing as believing something for “no reason.” Therefore, because I have evidence that the sun has risen many times before and has never missed a day, I believe it will rise again tomorrow. If I lack evidence for a belief, then depending on how bereft of evidence I find myself, I may make various truth claims: anything from, “I’m unconvinced,” to “This is not true,” which are two very different claims on an epistemological spectrum. For example, if someone claims, “There is a hornet’s nest by your mailbox,” you might be unconvinced; you’re not sure, and you need to investigate; you only have this person’s witness as evidence. But if it’s the middle of winter (evidence #1), you walked by the mailbox yesterday without getting stung (evidence #2) and you’re in a part of the country where hornets are never found (evidence #3), you may have enough evidence to assert, “That is not true,” without even having to check by the mailbox. Therefore, the truth of your negative claim is inferred from the evidences at hand.

    Now! What I find interesting about this is what we allow to be considered evidence. Getting off track a little, some atheists dismiss miracles outright; they do not allow, for example, Christ’s resurrection to count as evidence for his divinity. They want evidence for the evidence! And thus they create an infinite regress (i.e., you need evidence for the evidence for the evidence…). Eventually you need to arrive at some sort of self-justifying truth claim. These are what you described as “personal preferences and allegiances.” I don’t think it’s bad that we have those; we ALL have them; what’s disingenuous is when you pretend you don’t and claim to be “neutral.”

    “Is there such a thing as a consistent pluralism?”

    No! 🙂

    Or is there only an inconsistent, self-defeating pluralism? If so, one would never meet a pluralist who…

    “Why kill you, if I can, e.g., persuade you that, whereas YOUR personal explicitly religious convictions should never be expected to be embodied in legislation, MY non-religious (supposedly “neutral”) convictions should be instead?”

    I’m still struggling with the role of the Christian here, and I think we’ve discussed this before. Romans 13 (et al.) speaks to Christians under authority, not Christians in authority. I haven’t found clear guiding principles for how to be a Christian leader over non-Christians; sure, there are passages about Christian leadership over Christians in the church, but nothing like a letter from Paul to, say, Cornelius, as he finds himself in some position of political power over a number of diverse people, capable of changing laws that affect many groups, not just Christians.

    Therefore, I question the source of your complaint: maybe our religious convictions shouldn’t be embodied in legislation not because of what the pluralist says, but because as Christians, we were never meant to wield that KIND of power.

    The issue remains unclear to me, though. I don’t find the OT helpful here, either, because Israel was a theocracy with a king; the Church is not a nation-state and I doubt that the counsel of the OT to Israelite kings can be applied to Christians, just like priestly levitical laws don’t apply to you as a pastor.

    “The question of “what works” still requires value judgments, no?”

    Agreed.

    “My concern is this: I’m strongly inclined to think that pluralism reinforces the status quo. If so, it privileges those who are presently at or near the top of the socio-economic totem pole”

    I agree with you. It takes work, compassion, courage, wisdom, sweat and blood to lift up the poor of this world (whether they be poor in material goods, relationships, spirit, etc.) That work is the opposite of “minding your own business.” Maybe it’s because we can purchase in anonymity so much of what was once grown/traded in community (e.g., food, tools, shelter, etc) that we can fool ourselves into believing we’re independent. When we think we’re independent, we become our own authority, and pluralism stems from that. Folks can make pluralistic claims because we seemingly don’t need each other, and lull ourselves into believing that we each can be left to our own devices. Communities arise out of need; we still need one another, but maybe we realize it less.

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