Diana L. Eck, a professor at Harvard University and the Director of The Pluralism Project there, is the author of Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993, 2003). That book was the subject of the discussion at the Vital Conversations gathering in the Kansas City Northland earlier this month, and I found it to be quite good and helpful.
The subtitle of Eck’s seventh chapter is “Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism,” which is the usual tripartite description of Christians’ attitudes toward non-Christian religions. The use of those three terms has become increasingly common since the publication of Alan Race’s seminal book Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions in 1983.
Eck (b. 1945) represents many contemporary, non-conservative Christians who understand the development of those positions as follows: (1) For more than 1,900 years the primary position was that of exclusivism: Christianity was thought to be the only true religion. (2) In the twentieth century, a better position, inclusivism, slowly became more and more accepted: Christianity includes all that is true and good in other religions. (3) But in recent decades pluralism has come to be seen as the best position: all the major world religions can be considered equally true, good, or salvific (able to effect salvation).
As those of you who have read my blog postings over the past year may guess, I am not satisfied with this three-fold division, mainly because all three are “isms,” that is, ideological positions. As I have said before, nearly all “isms” are questionable from the stance of Christian faith, mainly because an ‘ism’ usually represents an ideological standpoint, a rival “faith.”
Certainly, religious plurality has to be recognized as a fact in our world, especially here in the United States. But there is a big jump from the recognition of plurality to propounding the position of pluralism. The main problem of pluralism is that it necessitates a relativistic view of truth, another issue I have previously discussed.
So, rather than a position characterized by some “ism,” I suggest that a better way to look at the religious faith of other people is with an attitude or stance characterized by several different adjectives, words such as open, respectful, and dialogical. Of course, an open attitude that is respectful and dialogical may be all that many people mean by pluralism. And that is more or less how Eck ends her chapter on the subject.
In his introduction to Between Relativism and Fundamentalism (2010), a book which he edited, Peter Berger (b. 1929) refers to pluralism as a “less-than-fortunate term” since the “‘ism’ suggests an ideological position.” But he goes on to define pluralism as often used now as simply “a situation in which different ethnic or religious groups co-exist under conditions of civic peace and interact with each other socially” (p. 4).
If that’s what religious pluralism means, I can agree with that. Certainly, that is the kind of society we need. But I still wish there was a better name for that position, and I want to identify with a view that goes beyond exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.