Friday, November 25, 2011

”The Only Real Pluralism”

Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition is an excellent series of lectures by Dr. Tyler Roberts, professor at Grinnell College in Iowa.
Roberts (b. 1962), who has a Th.D. degree from Harvard University, gives 36 lectures in the DVD series produced by The Teaching Company. I have heard only about a fourth of them to this point, but I have been impressed with him and his lectures.
A few days ago I watched and listened to “Pluralism—Religious and Secular,” his 35th lecture in the series. In it Roberts identifies and discusses five possible contemporary models for thinking about religious diversity.
He begins with a discussion of the usual three: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism, the tripartite analysis presented by Alan Race in 1983, although he doesn’t mention Race. (I wrote about Race and my dissatisfaction with his threefold division in my blog posting on 8/10/10, which can be accessed here.)
Roberts goes on to suggest two more possibilities: “postmodern confession” and “secularism.” I plan to write more about secularism soon, but now I want to think more about the fourth position, which I found pregnant with meaning.
Postmodern confession is an idea developed by John Milbank, a British theologian best known as a leader of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement.
I have not read Milbank sufficiently, but according to Roberts he (Milbank) argues that there is really no such thing as pluralism. The idea of religious diversity or religious pluralism, he says, is a concept that developed in the modern West.
In reflecting upon the world religions, I think Milbank is correct on that point. Certainly Judaism has never been pluralistic, except for some modern (liberal) expressions of that ancient faith in the U.S. And Islam does not recognize pluralism, with maybe, again, a few exceptions of liberal Muslims in the U.S.
Hinduism and Buddhism may well be considered inclusive religions, but it would be a push to call the position of traditional or most contemporary Hinduism or Buddhism pluralistic. Milbank seems to be right: religious pluralism is a Western idea that has been developed mostly by liberal (or cultural) Christians.
Roberts summarizes Milbank’s position: “Christian exclusivism is the only real pluralism because it is the only real respecter of difference.” He makes that contention because of the centrality of love to (true) Christianity.
This sort of Christian exclusivism is, as Milbank suggests, paradoxically, “the only real pluralism,” for, properly understood and practiced, it is the position which respects differences and enables people of any or all religious traditions to flourish.
Milbank’s ideas resonate with what I have been thinking recently: I respect adherents of other religious traditions not because of their faith (that is, not because I have thoroughly examined them and judged them worthy of respect) but because of my faith in Jesus Christ.
Since Christ taught, and exemplified, love for all people, I respect (love) others with different religious faiths or worldviews because that is the demand of love. Accordingly, I accept and affirm the freedom of all others to believe and to practice whatever they think is right and good, so long as it is not injurious to others.


  1. "Pregnant with meaning" is a wonderful concept, meaning, we need to think about this some more. And that you have done some thinking and can express your understanding so clearly is a great service to those of us who are more lazy and less curious. My concern is with the slippery slope toward relativism. You condition your "respect (love)" with the flaccid phrase, "so long as it is not injurious to others." I am thinking right now about the Amish cult leader in Ohio, Sam Mullett, whose beliefs finally led to blatant injuries to others ( and has been arrested in the past few days. But the question arises, at which point were his beliefs OK, and when did they become not OK. And by whose standards? I'm not sure how to label or categorize my own views, but I resonate with Jesus's habit of engaging people in dialogue, including his chosen disciples, and pointing out even small differences with them, as if to clarify his disapproval of their views. Right thinking was important to him, but he extended love to those who behaved wrongly. Leroy, I think this is also "pregnant with meaning."

  2. I think I'm finding Milbank's position rather confusing, but I suspect it's related to his terminology. I'm not sure it's most helpful to think in terms of real and unreal exclusivism/inclusivism. And I doubt very much that I would agree with his position on pluralism. But then I haven't read him.

    While you are, in my view, completely correct about love and tolerance because of Christ, it seems to me to be better to avoid Milbank's dichotomy and instead to think in terms of kinds of exclusivity/inclusivity. Among those who believe their faith is true and other faiths are wrong, there are, at least: (1) those who would be intolerant, seeking the suppression of others' views; (2) those who would willingly co-exist but actively seek the conversion of others; (3) those who would willingly co-exist and be tolerantly respectful of others; (4) those who would be tolerant and willingly engage in dialogue, thinking each major faith tradition might have some true and false insights that need to be sought out through mutual and respectful engagement; and (5) those who believe that God, for whatever mysterious reason, wears different masks in human history and culture, and so each faith tradition is a manifestation (through revelation, discovery, or emergence) of the reality of God.

    I wonder if I could come up with labels for these positions? (1) crusader; (2) evangelistic; (3) co-existent; (4) conversant; (5) pluralist ???

  3. Well, Dr. Seat and Dr./Mr. Rhoads: I wrote what I think is an excellent response to your interesting and provocative discussions. Of course, I lost it as I struggled around trying to get it to Post. Basically to cut to the chase, I think it is very easy to tell where harm to others begins and ends. We do not hit, kick, maim, molest physically or emotionally harass other people regardless of age, kinship, race, religion. I am so glad that Judge that beat his disabled daughter w/ a belt for some minor infraction has been suspended - reason unknown. His secret, nasty little secret got out. W/ the advent of cellphones w/ cameras maybe children can take pictures of their abuse, women or men of their rapists, attackers. What does Jesus want? Easy, treat one another gently as you would like to be treated. Children get taught hate and ugly behavior - like the young men who kicked the young man standing in line for concessions at a state fair in KY. Their Daddy was Number One Hate Man and thot noone could touch him/them. The kickers were found guilty by a Jury of their peers and hopefully are still in prison & learning a lesson, they should have learned before age 2. Children that bite others are not allowed in preschool. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, whoever should be able to peacefully worship and convene in the mosque, tabernacle, church and no one grp is in their bldg bombs anymore than another. Mr. Rhoads. we all know Amish don't all do what Mr. Mullett did that sounds like it was immoral or illegal but is certainly more serious when it is a leader who teaches others. Any radically crazy person is dangerous & needs taken off the street. Jesus is Love. I love you both. Joyce R. Tinsley, Spfld, MO I'll try to post again, if not give up for today.

  4. I too was impressed with the Robert's lecture series, and I'm gratified to learn of others who agree. His lecture on pluralism I found insightful, and your posting together with the subsequent comments have encouraged me to ponder the issue further.

    I am not comfortable with the concept of Christian exclusivism being the only true pluralism. I'm more inclined to see pluralism as a social phenomenon that is forced on religious people of all faiths and traditions as they become increasingly aware of the diversity contained within the global community.

  5. Don't lie, don't steal, don't murder and don't sleep with another person's spouse (I paraphrase this as "don't be a hypocrite"): These are the four "don'ts" common to all of the faith traditions surveyed by Huston Smith in his book, "The World's Religions." These simple rules, which are clearly not exclusively Christian, jibe with "respect/love" and "do no harm to others." I find it easy to respect individuals and institutions that live by these rules, regardless of their professed faith (including atheism), and hard to love those that don't. I find it hardest, by far, to respect people who do harm to others in the name of Jesus--usually in the service of some other "ism," which is not always named.

  6. Dr. Milton Horne, professor of religion at William Jewell College, sent the following comments by e-mail, and I post them here with his permission:

    "I am away from my desk and only reading remotely, but some rather immediate, and to my mind, important thoughts are evoked by your posting, today. My reading of Milbank extends only to his 'Radical Orthodoxy,' and I am quite certain I did not grasp much of his argument there. Still, what you have gleaned from him seems unfortunately wrong-headed. For while I may accept the claim that the word pluralism is a recent descriptor (minus your and Berger's insistence upon its necessary ideological force), the facts it denotes are not recent at all.

    "I urge you to reconsider the Christian canon itself, as an example (not to mention the Hebrew canon), which entertains deliberately diverse (competing?) versions of Jesus' own story. No one disputes this, although such diversity may be interpreted variously. Likewise, the relatively 'lower' Christologies of the synoptics vs. the relatively 'higher' Christology of the Johannine gospel virtually ensures the intentionality of diverse theology at a very early period. The Apocalypse of John, which you heard Wolterstorff treat (last week at WJC) as the most violent work in the NT corpus, in comparison with the Johannine evangelist's insistence upon love, sets up yet other important variances within the canon. Your implication that diversity was not present except in the most liberal modern expressions of Christianity is simply inaccurate and quite misleading.

    "The same can be insisted upon for Judaism and Islam of old, too. In fact, one has but to read the Hebrew Bible to experience first hand the competing Davidic vs. Mosaic theologies that contribute to the difficulty of understanding its story. The clash of Jews returning from Persia with those Jews who continued to make a life in Jerusalem during the captivity, helps us understand the origins of diversities within that expression of Judaism. Ezra's attempt to conciliate the two groups is likewise impressive, but it does not diminish the real diversity that existed. I could go on to elaborate the various expressions that exist within ancient Islam, too, but one only need read, say, Esposito's various treatments of this. But let it suffice that the Medinian vs. the Meccan sayings are significantly diverse enough as to warrant ancient Islamic scholars' reflections upon methods for justifying them.

    "And finally, it seems to me that the notion of orthodoxy is itself a post-Constantinian concept, its having come into existence as the political needs of the church simply called it forward (the more ancient regula fidei being something of its more generous predecessor). If anything a devotion to the more recent orthodoxy poses the greater threat by inhibiting the working of the Sprit of God, which was the main mark of the age of God's reign (if not his realm).

    "So, if what you mean is that the fact of plurality is detrimental to true Christianity, I could not disagree more with you and with those who hold to such a view.Likewise, if you are arguing that true plurality can only be known by allowing it to proceed from a Christian starting point, that seems simply unnecessary. On the other hand, if you are only saying that ultimately Christianity, like Islam and Judaism and others have within them the grounding for celebrating plurality and diversity, I am much more sympathetic. But, I must confess, I do not think that this latter is what you are driving at."

  7. Milton, thanks for sending such “meaty” comments; I appreciate you taking the time to write substantively and forthrightly. I see problems in what you wrote, though, so I feel the need to post this “rebuttal.”

    First, there is no question about plurality, including plurality (diversity) within the various religious traditions. But that is not the sort of religious pluralism I, nor Milbank, it seems, was writing about. I (he) was writing about pluralism as a way of understanding the relationship between/among different religious traditions. So the fact that there was diversity within Christianity, or within Judaism or Islam, seems to be irrelevant to the issue being discussed.

    Also, the struggle within Christianity for orthodoxy over against heresy certainly became more prominent after 325, and not necessarily for legitimate reasons. But it seems to me that the Book of Acts and especially the (traditional) Epistles of Paul are filled with the struggle of the Gospel against its foes. The main foes, of course, were the Jewish religious leaders, who certainly did not accept religious diversity (pluralism). But the early Church also sought to combat those within Christianity, at least to a certain extent, who seemed to endanger the Gospel, those such as the “Judaizers” and especially the Gnostics. For example, I can’t see how you could possibly say that Galatians 1:6-9 is not concerned with a certain kind of orthodoxy and not resolutely against the accepting of all religious diversity among Christian believers.

    I wasn’t making any statement about plurality, which is not a theological/philosophical/ideological position. Plurality is simply a description of contemporary society, especially in this country. But neither was I saying that Christianity (or Islam and Judaism) celebrate religious plurality and diversity. That is what I don’t see anywhere except perhaps in contemporary Western Atlantic liberal theologians/ philosophers. (And that, I think, was Milbank’s point.)

    What I did say is that “I [at least try to] respect (love) others with different religious faiths or worldviews because that is the demand of [Christian] love.” And that is, it seems, an affirmation of what Milbank calls “the only real pluralism.”

  8. This discussion of pluralism is very interesting, and I especially like Dr. Horne's point that pluralism exists within most (all?) major world religions. And I think he emphasizes there is always a tension between competing views, as advocates strive to point out the errors of others and justify their own. Leroy agrees with this.

    If my comment about not harming others being flaccid offends anyone, what I meant was, that seems too passive to me. If I over consume and contribute to global warming, that is harming future generations. If I have a gift for community organizing but I choose to spend my time on Facebook instead, that is an error of omission. I would extend the definition of harm broader than just physical or verbal abuse. And that fits the model, I think, of Jesus's parable of the Talents, and moves beyond the legalism of religion, the "shalt nots."