What does pluralism mean?


It was suggested in a comment to one of my postings that it contradicts the principle of pluralism to criticize any practice of another faith. However, I would distinguish between what I would call pluralism, which values other faith traditions, and a mere relativism that considers every religious practice acceptable. Using these terms (which may not be the most accurate, but for want of better terminology that is what I will use), I consider myself a pluralist; I do not consider myself a relativist.

I believe that pluralism recognizes the value of various religious traditions as means of mediating the experience of that which is Greater than us--whether we call that the Divine, or the Real, or the Ultimate, or whatever. Each of these various traditions expresses finite, human means of characterizing this experience, filtered through the various cultural and historical lenses of the times and places where these traditions developed. Humans, as finite beings, can never fully comprehend the Divine, which is infinite. Thus humans must necessarily mediate their experience of the divine, often through myths, legends, scriptures, and practices--and these necessarily reflect the culture from which they came. Thus we have various religious traditions across the world. As finite human endeavors, religions can express that which is sublime, but, unfortunately also the foibles of human beings and their civilizations.

It is this combination of the sublime and the flawed that has to be accounted for in religious pluralism.

We can look at other faiths and appreciate their deep religious value for their participants, while at the same time criticizing certain practices that may emerge from those traditions. For example, Hinduism offers a deep and meaningful means of communicating with a greater presence. But by the same token, that doesn't mean that the caste system that emerged out of Hindu cultures is therefore acceptable simply because it was traditionally integrated into the Hindu faith. Similarly, I believe that Muhammed's prophetic voice for monotheism was an important stage in human religious history, and I believe that many devout Muslims have found a connection with God through Islam; but that doesn't mean that I cannot criticize the Sharia (which emerged long after Muhammed's death) for its repressive views on women.

Over time, as circumstances change, theologies and practices may evolve to address changing conditions. In some cases, the political or social situation that believers find themselves in forces them to confront their religious ideals and to evolve new responses in the face of various challenges. And in the modern world, we are confronted with challenges from several fronts, including the rational understanding of the world that science has given us, the moral imperative of various human liberation movements such as feminism and the gay rights movement, and the social injustices perpetrated under capitalism in modern society. These radical changes have forced believers to re-examine the Christian paradigm that dominated over past centuries. Religions can and do undergo reformations. Sometimes these reformations are painful.

Judaism, for example, evolved in the centuries before and after Christ, in response to changing conditions--including the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Judaism may not have originally believed in an afterlife--certainly it did not as expressed in the early writings of the Bible--but the concept emerged in the face of such events as the Babylonian exile (and even in Jesus's lifetime, the Saducees possibly did not believe in an afterlife, although apparently the Pharisees did). The same can be said for Satan--the concept of which did not exist when the Torah was written, but was found later in Jewish thought. Perhaps most significantly for modern Judaism, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD forced Judaism to evolve away from the practice of animal sacrifices, and a new form of Judaism emerged as a result.

The point is that religions inevitably change to meet evolving circumstances. If religions are the product of human cultures in response to an experience of the Divine, then as human products, they sometimes get things wrong. Some practices that may have made sense at one time come to be understood as repressive or morally unacceptable. When this happens, it becomes appropriate to ask whether it is necessary to evolve theology to meet the challenges to the old paradigms.

That is how I can criticize certain conceptions of God that I believe represent an outdated paradigm. The idea of God as an interventionist patriarchal master who doles out favors according to his whims, for example, makes no sense in the modern world. It makes no sense because, first of all, it contradicts our modern understanding of how the world works--we know that the world acts according to physical laws. (Lightning bolts don't come out of the sky to strike people dead for uttering words of blasphemy--even believers in an interventionist God realize this at some level.) We also know that the universe has evolved in a creative process that goes back to the Big Bang and which includes the evolution of life on this planet. We know that horrible evils have taken place in the world that make no sense if one is to believe in an interventionist God (when the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner looked at the reality of the Holocaust, for example, he realized that the notion of an interventionist God became utterly untenable.) And we know that injustices have been perpetrated on women, gays and other outcasts of society, often with religious justifications.

I believe that the old paradigm of the interventionist male God authority figure has negative consequences, both for religious communities and for the world at large. One of the steps towards building a more just world is, in my view, to put aside the old oppressive stereotypes of God as a male "Lord" and master, and instead introduce into our conception of God one who instead incorporates both the masculine and the feminine, who lives among us and who shares our experiences. If our concept of the Ultimate reality is oppressive, then it is harder for us not to apply oppressive values in our worldly and community life. Does it mean that I think that those who continue to use traditional ways of conceiving of God are not able to experience the Divine? Of course not. Religions throughout time have often enriched and enhanced the human experience, regardless of the fine points of theology. But by adapting our conception of God according to a new paradigm, we respond to God in the ever continuing process of revelation that God offers to us, the process of Divine call and human response.


CT said...

One of the benefits of globalisation is that we get to see how the other 5.99 billion people in this world live. It then becomes apparent that it is arrogant to assume we have all the answers and the 'others' have got it all wrong.

Above all we need to recognise that religion is a complete mystery with very few definites. Having said that we are still obliged to analyse and evaluate each religion's beliefs to see if they make sense of our world. Some beliefs are simply unsupported by any evidence at all and deserve to be questioned.(and maybe even denounced).

I suppose I'm just echoing your thoughts on this topic mystical .......