05 May 2007

The Beauties and Dangers of Pluralism

After I asked in an earlier post “If there is a God, which one?” Rosie picked up the thread and continued with another posting on Pluralism. Here is my response to hers.

First, let me recount an interesting experience of Pluralism that took me by surprise the other day. I have just finished re-reading My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—fantastic book, by the way, and the most coherent answer I have yet read to all aesthetic questions, all the more amazing because it doesn’t answer them… it just is the answer (or the art itself that lives in the book is the answer) in an almost Till We Have Faces kind of way. Anyhow, it’s about an Orthodox Jew, a Hasid, who is born with an incredible, uncontrollable gift for painting. His parents don’t understand this non-Orthodox gift, this “waste of time.” He should be learning Torah & travelling around the world helping other Hasidim, not scribbling on walls & on the pages of sacred books! But the Rabbi eventually realizes that this is Asher’s gift, & sends him to study with a great (but non-religious) artist. Asher’s parents are more and more alienated, especially when he begins painting models in the nude and studying crucifixes—because “I can’t get that expression anywhere else.”

[N.B. I just discovered that Potok himself is a painter & has painted the central work in the novel! See here]

Some of Asher’s classmates, and even his father, think that he is from the Devil and going straight to Hell because of his pagan paintings. While I was reading, I suddenly became aware of my own involuntary response. I found that, because of Chaim Potok’s great narrative skill, I believed that Asher was going to heaven. I believed it within the world of the novel, of course, but I felt it in my insides as if it were true in the “real” world as well. What does that say about my belief in Christ as the One & Only Way to Heaven?

Well, really, nothing. It could mean that I thought perhaps, as does one of my undergrad profs, reputedly, that Jews are still under the Old Covenant and can be saved by fulfilling the works of the Law without acknowledging Christ as Messiah. I don’t know if I believe that; I think such a suggestion is tenuous at best! But all my response really means is that Potok appealed to the part of me that is able to have pluralistic dialogue—the (small) part that is able to understand what other people believe and to feel with them, while I don’t believe with them.

I have that unfortunately capacity to be able to respond more deeply to fiction than to fact, sometimes. I understand Asher better than I do a Messianic Jewish acquaintance who practices what I judgmentally call “legalistic” rituals and rules and regulations in his home, imposing them on his children—or blessing his children with stability. I feel more sympathy and understanding for Hester Prynne than I do for friends who tell me of their romantic misdemeanors or errors of judgment.

Yet, though my response needs refining and sanctifying into kind, compassionate, Christ-like understanding, there’s something to be said for the distinction. I strongly believe that pluralism should be viewed as an opportunity, not an ontology. I mean that true Biblical love involves communication of the Truth (the One Truth) through compassionate story-sharing, commiseration & empathy, and any other kind and generous means available. But to treat pluralism as an expression of a metaphysical reality is logically, rationally, and spiritually fallacious.

Here is an official definition: “PLURALISM = A condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle” (OED). I think that Rosie’s post is really defining & re-applying pluralism, or trying to free it from its misapplications. When she quotes “energetic engagement with diversity, active seeking of understanding across lines of difference, encounter of commitments, based on dialogue, I believe she is saying what pluralism ought to be, but isn’t. By sheer definition, it can’t be an “encounter of commitments,” because there can be no commitments in a “system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.”

Rosie believes that “there is only one God, and that all the monotheistic religions believe in that same one God, though they may call him by different names. And they all may believe in or experience different attributes of God. Our human minds are limited, so we can only comprehend a small fraction of what God is like.” Now, this may be true as far as it refers to God’s attributes. Even without looking outside of Christianity, the variety of Protestant denominations can illustrate many of God’s attributes: one focuses on His love of spontaneity and effusive, expressive joy, pointing out His imminence; one emphasizes His transcendence and values a respectful, orderly, awe-filled worship; another points up His powers of reasoning and our sub-powers of reasoning about Him, prioritizing discourse and study; and so on.

But once you bring in other religions (or even before), I do not understand how pluralism could possibly work on the cosmic level, I mean ontologically. Do Catholics go to Purgatory and Protestants go straight to Heaven? Do Catholic babies go to Limbo, while covenantal Presbyterian babies go to Heaven? Can the Christian Heaven & the Buddhist Nirvana & Hindu reincarnation all literally exist? Are they different metaphysical spheres, and good Christians go to Heaven while good Buddhists go to Nirvana and good Hindus come back in higher forms, and so on?

I mean, if one exclusive truth is true, it excludes the others.

Rosie said “Perhaps we Jews and Christians also need devout Muslims and Sikhs and others to elucidate other aspects of God that our sacred texts and traditions might not have taught us about.”

Yes. That is true, and neglected. This is “all truth is God’s truth” again. Let me tell you a wonderful account. A missionary friend of mine recently came back from a year in Southeast Asia, where she has been travelling around Singapore, Indonesia, and Burma. She settled in Burma for a time at the end and got to know the culture pretty well. She learned something amazing while she was there. If I’ve got this right, she now believes that Buddhism in some ways prefigures Christianity, much as the Old Testament prefigured the new! Here are her two examples. Apparently the Buddha once said, “I am not the Way. One will come after me who has the Truth. He will be the Way; follow Him.” Wow! And there are speculations that the Buddha, who lived during the reign of Darius the Persian, probably traveled in Darius’s realms and heard the decree, after Daniel stood up to the lions and all that, about worshipping the one God of Daniel! So the Buddha would have pondered what he had heard, and brought some of it into his teachings. The other is that there is a Buddhist festival called, I think, The Festival of Lights (sound familiar?). Buddhists decorate their streets with beautiful lights, strung all across the streets and sparkling all across the sky. They set up these lights to wait for the One Who is to come and to welcome Him when He comes! And some Buddhist monks have found ways to redefine classic teachings in light of the new revelation missionaries have brought. One goes around in his saffron robe, knocking on doors and telling people that “Jesus is the way to Nirvana!”

And that’s my main item to communicate here. In our dialogue with other religions, and all the amazing and beautiful things we can learn from them, we do have to get—somehow, eventually, in relationship, kindly, humbly—to “Jesus is the way.”

Because even though we Christians need to be humble and not go around with our noses in the air thinking “we’ve got a corner on the truth,” nor (maybe not) to be door-to- door salesmen of Christian faith, the one thing we can know, are told to know, must know is that “Jesus is the way.”

Everything else is too risky. Think about Pascal’s Wager. Even if there is a way for people of other religions, or “innocent savages,” to get to God, Christ said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” So anything else is an eternal, damnable (literally) gamble.

So, too, are statements like “Sikh founder Guru Nanak might have been Christ in the flesh again.” That’s exactly what Christ warned us against. He specifically said that people will want us to think that, and that they are false Messiahs. So if I really loved you, wouldn’t I want you to know the truth?


R.T. Jones said...

You quote OED’s definition: PLURALISM = A condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.

There is no reason we must be tied to the OED definition. As long as we are careful define our terms, we may use them however we choose. So I think Rosie is fine to offer her own definition of pluralism, so long as she, and we, are clear that she does not mean by it the same as the OED does.

But even if we grant OED’s definition, I think it is important to qualify the various senses in which one can speak of pluarism. First is descriptive pluralism, which is relatively uncontrovercial. It simply describes the way things are. The system in question here is society, and it recognizes more than one ultimate principle simply because there is no consensus in that society about which religious tradition is correct.

Second is normative pluralism, where one promotes the theory that there is more than one ultimate principle. The most outspoken advocate of this position has been John Hick. (A representative article is available at He argues that all the major world religious traditions offer equally appropriate responses to transcendent reality. They are all equally culture-bound, and thus all equally “true”.

The kind of pluralism offered by Rosie and Diana Eck seems to be a third kind. (Or is Rosie perhaps promoting type two after all?) I’m not quite sure what to call it, but perhaps it could be termed dialogical pluralism. I suppose it fits the OED definition in that it is a theory that there is more than one ultimate principle, and that it is worthwhile to engage in discussion between them. This is also, I think, the position of Leslie Newbigin (, who notes that dialogue is neither a replacement for evangelism nor an opportunity for evangelism, but rather a necessary pre-condition for evangelism. Personally, I don’t see how effective evangelism could ever be done without previous dialogue; brow-beating, if it counts as evangelism at all, is simply never effective.

Rosie Perera said...

Wow, Sorina, you caught me and corrected me in a very thoughtless and erroneous wild speculation. You are absolutely right. I had at one point a few years ago allowed myself to be seduced by the similarity between some of the stories of Guru Nanak's life (which I read in some Sikh magazine I found in the lobby of a Sikh-run printing business here in Vancouver where I was having my Christmas cards printed -- irony of ironies!!) into thinking maybe they were really just rehashed stories of Jesus' life. Maybe the "guru" Nanak really was Jesus and actually lived in 1st century Palestine, and these stories somehow got brought (by early missionaries?) to India and got retold enough and transmogrified enough to create the legend of Nanak, the founder of their religion. Well, if that were all I'd said in my sentence which you quoted, then I wouldn't have been stepping quite so far into heretical territory. But that isn't all I said. I said maybe Nanak was Jesus "in the flesh again" which of course you were right in pointing out was preposterous and damnably dangerous, as we've been well warned not to be misled by imitations. Christ will only come once more, and that will be in Glory. I don't know where my thinking got derailed from the rather plausible speculation that maybe the stories of Nanak which bore some similarity to the stories of Jesus (I can't find them anymore right now, but they had to do with specific biographical details, miracles he performed, his depth of wisdom as a child similar to Jesus' in the temple, etc.) were in fact derived from the NT accounts and were really just about Jesus himself under a different name...onto the quite heretical track of "well maybe Jesus became incarnate again to a different culture to show himself that he was the only way to God for them as well" while still being the same Jesus who is the only way for us. I'm convinced you're right, and that I was wrong. Jesus of Nazareth (the Only Begotten Son of the Father, true God of true God himself) is the Way the Truth and the Life, not some one-size-fits-all Jesus who can fit into any other religion by morphing into their chief guru/teacher/sage/avatar.

I think perhaps one story which might have contributed to my error was this one which I heard many years ago from my mother or someone at Grace Church (I think). My memory of the story is quite vague, since it was something I heard in childhood, but I believe it was passed back to the US by a missionary who actually met this woman and that it is a true story. However who knows. Anyway, it seems there was a woman in some remote village in a far away country (I think it was India) which had not had any contact with Christianity ever, or at least not since long before her time, so that nobody in her village knew anything about it. She'd never even heard of Christianity before, until she became an old woman. When one day a missionary reached her village and told the old lady the gospel about Jesus, she exclaimed "oh, so that's who that is! I've known him since I was a little girl" (or something to that effect). Apparently, as a young woman or girl, she had been "visited" by a man or a spiritual apparition of a man, who for all practical purposes (as we would describe him) was Jesus. She had known him by a different name, or maybe didn't even know his name at all, but she knew (because he told her) that he was the only way to God. She knew some of the things that the Bible said about Jesus, as this visitor had told them to her himself, though she'd never seen a Bible or heard the gospel preached. She had kept him in her heart and worshipped him as best she knew how, for all those years. (I think perhaps she might have told her family and fellow villagers about him, though I can't remember, but it seems to me if she did, they took her as crazy and didn't pay any attention to her girlish fancies.) Then when the Western missionary came and gave her his version of the gospel, it was nothing new to her. She recognized it and said she already knew this Savior and was delighted to know his name and that this missionary knew him too.

I ask myself "could such a story be true?" Would Jesus ever reveal himself privately (or perhaps through an angel) to a person in a remote village which could never have had access to the gospel through missionaries? I wouldn't put it past him. I believe he desires for all to be saved, and if no one will preach the gospel to a remote village, why, he can raise up the very stones to preach the gospel to them. So why couldn't he come to them in an apparition (though perhaps not an incarnation) and reveal himself to them? The story had always charmed me as a kid, and I wished for it to be true, whether it was really true or not.

Somehow, that story got conflated with the stories of Guru Nanak (who I think was actually a real verifiable human in history [though most of his life details are known only through the hagiography of the Sikh religion], and thus could not have been a "private apparition of Jesus" to some remote tribe that couldn't have heard the gospel from any other source), and I got carried away.

Incidentally, I want to give some further elaboration on the two different meanings of pluralism. You were right in that I was intending to focus on the former definition (the co-existence in real time of multiple views about ultimate reality) rather than the cosmic possibility that these multiple truths could all be true at one and the same time. What I understood "encounter of commitments" to mean in the text I was quoting from was the first definition. While ultimately of course there is only one true reality, one true explanation of the way to salvation, and one true God, and I believe Christianity has the one true way of salvation in Christ, there are sub-truths within each of the various religions, some of which could possibly be true and co-exist without clashing with the many sub-truths in Christianity. Some don't contradict the main claim of Christianity because they are oblique to it. For example, one belief within certain kinds of paganism is that you can encounter God in Nature, which in itself neither confirms nor denies that Jesus is Lord and is the one way to salvation, because that pagan belief isn't a truth claim about salvation at all. It's just talking about "encounter." And we Christians (some of us anyway) do agree that we can encounter God in his Creation (we often prefer to call it that than "Nature," because the latter is ambiguous about whether God actually created it or not; I'm not sure what the pagans think about that).

I'm not sure I can come up with an example off the top of my head of a truth or a different angle on a truth that another religion explains more clearly or more memorably than the Christian Bible does, but I'm open to the possibility that there might be such. The Four Noble Virtues of Buddhism (lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and joy in the happiness and wellbeing of others) are distinctly not in conflict with Christianity, and while they are not systematically outlined as such anywhere in our theology, they are probably each detailed in some passage of Scripture somehow. Certainly lovingkindness and compassion are all over the place. I cannot find the word "equanimity" in any translation of the Bible (I've got most of the common ones online in Logos and a global search turns up zilch), but perhaps it has some synonym that is used somewhere. The closest I can come is that it might be a possible translation of the Greek word Paul uses in Phil 4:5: "let your gentleness be known to all" (translated in other versions as moderation). My pastor in Seattle used to tell us that Greek word meant, in more colloquial words, "mellowness" and that is kind of what equanimity means ("steadiness of mind under stress"). Finally, joy in the happiness and wellbeing of others seems to be encapsulated pretty well in passages like Rom 12:15 "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." But even if all of these are virtues not foreign to Christianity, it might be quite useful to group the four of them together and see that as a possible definition of what makes a person noble of character.

Anyway, I don't go trying to get to know other religions in order to find the missing pieces of my own religion, because I find that Christianity is quite complete just as it is (in fact it will take the rest of my lifetime to learn it, and it just keeps getting better and deeper the "further up and further in" I go). However I do now feel that a basic understanding of some of the key points of other religions is part of being a culturally literate adult. And if, in encounters with others of differing faiths, I hear ideas that make me take pause and say, "Wow, I'd never thought of that before, that's really quite profound (or beautiful)," I would possibly look into it further and (like the Bereans) compare it to what Scripture says, to see if it contradicts. If not, it might be worthy of believing, even though it would still likely not be worth changing my life over.

Thank you again for raising the cautionary note to me. When it comes to communicating "Jesus is the way" to others of other religions, though I do believe that's important, I always end up falling back to the position (the excuse, perhaps?) of the Golden Rule. I wouldn't want people of other religions to try to persuade me to adopt their faith, so I have a really hard time trying to do it to them. Right now we as Christians enjoy a majority in our part of the world. But imagine if the tides were turned and we lived in a largely Muslim world. Would we want them trying to convert us...the way they tend to do so (by the sword)?

Darlin said...

As it has been written on the blog already: Christ is the only way to God & Heaven.

But this does not mean that there is only One way to find Christ. nor does it mean that all other religons are wrong. Or rather... all aspects of other religions are wrong.

I do not believe that there can be two ultimate truths that contridict each other.
It isn't logical or rational.

Although there may be similarities between two subjects doesnt mean both are correct.

E.g. (Lame example....but illustrate my point.) : There is a real Louis Vuiton wallet and next to it sits a knock off. They look practically identical. However one is fake and one is real.

There are imatations for everything and we have to beware of them. It is important for us to be able to empathize and keep an open mind. But it also important for us to guard our beliefs and reason and carefully choose what we accept as truth.