Monday, August 30, 2010

Beyond Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism

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.


  1. Thanks again Leroy for a very well thought out statement. Knowing Dr Eck, having worked with her in Syracuse and at the Parliament, I know she picks her language carefully. I agree we need to find another term, but I guess my journey in Buddhism does not come to me a relativism but reality for my spiritual well being. You friend in the early 20th century was not correct in his thought on it, but then it was the early 20th century when the exclusiveness and convert themism(my word) was the way. Even though in the midst of that kind of thinking, South India, the Parliament had happened and was growing in the minds of many. I do not know if Diana says anything about this, but she has been moved by Hinduism in her journey. The Pluralism Project at Harvard has done some great work, which could help us through these days of fear and hate of the other. Great way to start the day Leroy, hi June. It would be fun to be able to sit together and talk for hours...maybe some day. Please send you address again, want to order your book, peace and love from pluralistic Bob, ko shin

  2. I rather like Humpty Dumpty's insistances that words need not be our masters (in Alice and Wonderland), but we, theirs. A word means exactly what I wish it to mean, Berger's usage of an "ism" word illustrates all to simply. But, because you still insist on avoiding such "isms," may I suggest exclusivistic, inclusivistic, and pluralistic? They are not necessarily more precise than their "ism" counterparts, but they may function as sufficient model categories for us, in much the same way that the imprecise term "worldview" does while avoiding your concerns about "isms." They provide broad categories that invite cross-disciplinary participaton in conversation.

  3. Practicality in some way plays a role in cultural acceptance of other religions and Christianity. The early Church was fiercely against this and led to excommunications by diocese and council.

    However others such as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, C.S. Lewis, Walter Cardinal Kasper and Don Richardson seemed to be open in practice although not in acceptance of other religions (Catholic/ Anglican/ Evangelical).

    Baptism - a good definitive practice accepted in some form (but not necessarily inclusively) by most Christian groups..
    Baptistic - an exclusive and rather limiting term.

  4. Our Sunday School class recently completed reading The Second Edition of The World's Religions by William A Young. He ends the book by looking at the very same options discussed above, and then attempts to put them in motion by looking at the ecological crisis and 9/11 as these impacted the religions. Perhaps his most interesting point was the seemingly obvious, that all three options are alive and well in world religions.

    So I would like to suggest a different way of looking at them. Rather than as competing theories, I would look at them as different ways of looking at the religions, just as color, weight and size can measure an object. All religions that amount to anything have a way to identify and define itself, an exclusive principle. All recognize at least some universal features held in common with other religions, an inclusive principle. And all recognize at least the existence of other religions, with some degree of a pluralistic principle.

    If we look at languages, we see similar features. The French are famously protective of proper French, a rather exclusive approach. English is notoriously inclusive, reaching over a million words some years ago, as it eagerly acquires new entries from all sources, even teenage slang. And many languages are stoically pluralistic, just hoping for linguistic space to survive. Not so different from religions.

    Of course, in America, some of the people most chauvinistic about religion, are the same ones most chauvinistic about language. If everyone would just learn English and read the King James Bible, what a simple world it would be!

  5. Thanks for this post, in particular highlighting Berger's edited collection. I remember some time ago Berger labelled his approach to truth claims one of epistemological modesty (see The approach seems to me th be the right away to approach the subject in that it encompasses the approach to pluaralism you've outlined here without converting this to and ism as in what are termed pluralist theologies of religion (e.g., Hick or Knitter).

  6. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

    1. Samuel, thank you for the thought-provoking comments.

      Knowing very little about Urantia, I was unfamiliar with the term "Absonite." I need to read and think more about that concept.

  7. LKS... Yes, I've borrowed from the Urantia Book. By all means read my Preview at, you won't be disappointed.

    Why religious pluralism? Because mere toleration is too fragile a foundation for a world of religious differences in close proximity. It does nothing to unite people, and leaves in place the stereotypes and fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our elitism and ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly. If the interactions of society are to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of religious groups in the oneness of the community, without hindering the maintenance by each group of its own identity.

    Recently, a number of theologians have suggested that the Trinity may provide the key to an inclusive theology of religions, and a new understanding of religious diversity. An expanded abstract version of the Trinity can function as a metaphysical "architectonic principle" to unlock the providential purpose and meaning of religious variety, in the portrayal of the multi-dimensional nature of God.

    In the past, religious misunderstandings have caused immense grief, but civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the very survival of the world depends on overcoming anti-social religious conflicts, and the negative impacts of increasing population on the planet. The human race can no longer afford religious strife that divides people and disturbs urgent cooperation on mutual issues such as conservation and sharing of resources, combating climate change, stimulating healthy economic growth, etc.

    Peace in the world requires peace among religions. Religious pluralism is a necessary paradigm shift whose time has come. Absent any better idea, the Trinity Absolute concept of One God in three phases or personae is the only adequate metaphysical vehicle necessary and sufficient for a real form of religious pluralism that is more than just lukewarm toleration and talking past one another.”

    What do you think?

    Samuel Stuart Maynes