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?