Religious Pluralism, in Brief

For the first of a four-session Interreligious Series scheduled at Greencroft Retirement, Goshen, on February 15, 2022, I made this presentation on Religious Pluralism. This was followed by two speeches about Scriptures depicting another important feature of major religions. The series plans to feature Judaism and Islam during the next sessions before a fourth that highlights stories of interfaith good will.

Having been a student and teacher, wife and parent, plus researched writer, my Christian faith is deepened as I openly learn from people loyal to other religions through friendship and dialogue, scriptures and rituals. My library shelves hold many books about diverse religions. Last week John and I again shared curry lunch with our Sikh friend in Mishawaka. I rely on Asian Christian writers who daily live among other majority religions: Hinduism in India, Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and Islam in Indonesia.

(Presuming that you can listen and watch at the same time, our 60 photos of religious symbols or sites where we visited will appear non-stop on the screen.)

Consider these quotes:

“Difference and distinctive insights of the various faith traditions might, in fact, be key to human fulfillment in the never-ending coming to know of God.” Jeannine Hill Fletcher1

“We must be willing to challenge the belief that we have about those who seem different.”—Chris Stedman2

From His Holiness the Dalai Lama: ”I believe that the purpose of all the major religious traditions is . . . to create temples of goodness and compassion inside
our hearts.”3

I am drawn to religious pluralism, to raise lots of questions, compare viewpoints, and affirm faith in God. The word religion reminds me of places where I have worshiped. During my first two decades, I worshiped at Lower Deer Creek Mennonite. I have worshiped at Sikh gurdwaras where all sit on the floor, members after deep bowing before their scripture known as their Guru. I also met God at a large Buddhist stupa in Sri Lanka around which the loyal circled in silence; at diverse Hindu temples, in both Chicago and multiple cities of India; at majestic cathedrals—to hear the “Messiah” sung in Milwaukee, the “Coronation Mass” in Strasbourg, France.

At each location I sensed what Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki defines as religion: “binding and bonding together of peoples into community, woven together by a sense of what is sacred.”4 Noted Indian Raimundo Panikkar, whose father was Hindu and mother Roman Catholic, defined religion as “a set of symbols, myths and practices that people believe give ultimate meaning to their lives.”5 Asian Jesuit Aloysius Pieris explains that religion brings together three elements: a core experience, collective memory, and interpretation. For example, both Christianity and Buddhism began from core experience: Jesus proclaiming the reign of God and Buddha receiving enlightenment. Collective memory builds on “narratives, sacred texts, liturgy, songs, or drama.” . . while interpretation explains and transmits insight about the core experience.6

Regarding the term pluralism or plurality, different kinds exist like ethical or radical. Most religions face plural life issues: like prayer, relationship, or death. In essence, I believe that having many religions is part of God’s plan. Ancient Israel needed to learn through the Tower of Babel incident that Yahweh God scatters people stuck with one purpose or language. Difference or manyness is good. As Max Muller, known as “father of comparative religions” said: “To know one religion is to know none.”7 Might our Christian practice often counter such Wisdom of diversity if we succumb to think that one religion, ours, reflects what alone is right? Do we then blur the vision that each religion needs other religions to fully exist? Aware that no religion is whole or without limits keeps believers from being arrogant or ignorant about others’ worthy truth. For example, Hindus & Jains have profound insight into many or many-sidedness from which Christian preference for one can learn.

While plurality differs from diversity, it needs the diverse. Each religion’s claim to distinctness, like Jesus’ resurrection, can benefit from unique patterns of others like Muslim prayer or love of text for Sikhs. Diana Eck, noted religion prof, offers a key requirement of meaning with religious pluralism: “to be willing to see ‘my perspective as ‘a’ perspective rather than the only or whole one.” Since growth is ever welcome, religious views avoid being final or dogmatic. Christian pluralists need not fear loss of loyalty to Jesus whose focus was on God, the God of all nations, not himself.

Perhaps you know the trilogy of models to classify approaches to religious belief —exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist. While the exclusivist model names only its own religion as true or valued, the inclusivist type finds partial value in the other’s which, in the end, must be replaced by its own. And the pluralist model values all religions and learns from them without trying to convert them.8 Hill Fletcher cautions how all three positions of the typology can limit the others’ distinctness.9 Pluralistic inclusivism, the goal of Indian acquaintance K. P. Aleaz, prompts a person to learn from Hindu sacred lore as surely as to share meaningful teaching of Jesus’.10

Buddhist teacher and writer Thich Nhat Hanh, who recently died, found eternal life in both Buddha Nature and the Holy Spirit. He adds “Wherever there is compassion and understanding, the Buddha is there.” Will we trust his conviction as we in faith value Jesus’ compassion, without judging his as ‘better’? Or can we receive a Muslim’s central belief that “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah”? Is the Muslim distinct name for the Divine, Universal One comparable to other names like Yahweh or Krishna?

Methodist Wesley Ariarajah grew up in Sri Lanka where those loyal to Buddha hold a sixty-plus majority.11 He encourages Christians to rethink our theology of terms like God, sin, salvation and mission. Which reminds me of another Asian named Min who encourages all religions to “rethink outdated paradigms, revise some traditional concepts, and remove parochial and destructive (stereotyped) views of one another.”12 Since all people of faith know only in part, Ariarajah asks: Will we degrade or denounce people loyal to other religions in order to present Jesus as only, best, or final?

Perhaps you recall the Kudzu comic strip. In one of them, a theologian asks a preacher? “How do you define God?” This reply followed: “The Holy is greater than the sum of its parts.” Do we expect our Christian part to benefit from other partial truths? Have we absorbed the command that appears thirty-six times in Hebrew scripture to “love the stranger.”13 Stranger refers to those who are different—often thought of negatively as outsiders or ‘others.’ How we relate with others reveals our attitudes. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states: “There is nothing harder in the history of civilization than to see God, good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is of a different color, whose faith is not mine, whose truth is not my truth.”14 The biblical Good Samaritan story addresses that very problem—for Jews to call their enemy Samaritans Good.

Consider further questions. Do we credit the Hindu woman who comments: “Whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s,” likely meaning Lord Krishna’s? Do we commend Buddhist peace activists who confront a nuclear arms race? Do we rejoice with Jews who express strong faith in God when reciting psalms? On reporting a painful experience, I have been assured by a Hindu friend that she quote, “will pray for me.” Am I duly grateful that she will share my concern with Durga, one of many names for her Hindu view of the Divine, One God?

Do we really trust others’ religious integrity? Or are we manipulated to think that Christianity alone saves? A Hindu might well ask how a Christian who is not informed about Hindu paths could presume to know that Jesus alone saves. Paul Knitter notes that while Christians confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love” we avoid saying that he does so fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God. Other religious figures may also be wholly God.”15 To be open to other believers means to recognize their serious faith, to trust their religious faith to shape their behavior and belief. Christian theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests that the more truly principled a Christian is, the more openness to truth in others follows.

Louise Classen will briefly comment about a book edited by Hindu Arvind Sharma titled: Why I Am A Believer.

Do we affirm that all religions promote fundamental human values? Might we then be free to commend distinct features like Buddhists for compassion, Islam for brotherhood, Hinduism for tolerance, Sikhs for being duty conscious, or Jainism for non-violence. Seeing a recent documentary about the Dalai Lama, I noted his saying: “All religions have interest in and the ability to work for harmony.”16 Might we also admit that all religious symbol systems have limits? And do such limits or unique ways to understand faith broaden people’s approach to learn from others in order to change and improve their own being religious? In other words, being self-critical can enable being open to others.

Buddhist Rita Gross reports that Rumi, the noted thirteenth century Muslim mystic, stated: “Knowledge about God cannot be limited to insight from the Qur’an. Muslims cannot presume that they have either the fullness or totality of divine revelation.” Might Christians also believe that Christ is the Way that is open to other ways? Since Gandhi knew that no religion is perfect or conveys all truth, he studied Truth from Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian and Hindu texts. Study of other religions enriched rather than diminished his reverence for Hindu scriptures. His belief in nonviolence, what he called the “very nature of God,” grew from his Bhagavad Gita scripture and from Buddhist and Jain sources. Nonviolence is the basis of all Jain ethics; ahimsa (nonviolence) has been one of its core teachings for 2500 years. Will we value Gandhi’s crediting those roots and look to Asians to enlarge our own practice of nonviolence?

Throughout world history, plural religions and cultures existed and competed. Some ancient Hebrews worshipped Asherah along with Yahweh for centuries. More than once Jewish Jesus commended Samaritans, women and men. Muslims and Christians fought over Jerusalem through centuries of Crusades. U.S. Puritans and Protestants thrived before letting Roman Catholics immigrate, and the current “Belfast” movie recalls “the troubles” of North Ireland. We choose how to integrate our interfaith context. We choose whether to stereotype others or to unduly glorify our own faith. As Hans Kung stated years ago: “There will be peace on earth when there is peace among religions.”

Hear in conclusion from a June 2020 meeting of 250 people loyal to Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois: The event echoed with those praying and preaching in Arabic, English and Hebrew languages. Such pluralism, enriched by difference, prompted seeing the religious ‘other’ as a gift, not threat. They practiced authentic dialogue as they owned, learned from and shared insight, as they sought healing and peace for our broken world. Aware of our hope to become more accurate and just in views toward specific religions, we can also be self-critical of our attitudes while determined to combine personal commitment of faith with openness to difference.