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The World After September 11: The Challenge of Religious Pluralism

By May 16, 2003 No Comments

The events of September 11 have presented considerable spiritual challenges to contemporary culture. I would like to discuss one aspect of one of these challenges which, specifically, is how to engage persons of other faiths in a manner consistent with grace and truth. How do we honor their right to practice a religion different from our own, respect them as persons, love them as beings made in the image of God, and yet maintain the integrity of our own faith?

To begin to consider this question we need to have a better understanding of the term “religious pluralism.” This term is in vogue today but has different meanings for different people and frequently is used in an inconsistent and contradictory manner. The confusion around the meaning of this term roils the clarity of our thinking about diverse religious beliefs.

In an attempt to clear some of the muddle, I would like to propose a distinction among three kinds of religious pluralism: prohibitive, relativistic, and authentic. Prohibitive religious pluralism prohibits any religious faith making exclusive truth claims. In other words, this kind of religious pluralism tells persons of various faiths not to make any claims of truth, even if essential to their faith, if these claims cannot be shared by persons of other faiths. Relativistic religious pluralism imposes the belief that all religions are equally true in describing the same reality. Authentic religious pluralism respects a person’s right to maintain his or her particular religious beliefs, including exclusive truth claims, and grants that person the freedom to express those beliefs in ways that do not harm other human beings. This is not an unlimited right, just as one’s right to swing freely their arms and hands stops at the end of my nose.

Prohibitive Religious Pluralism

In analyzing the events of 9/11, Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, argued that the war on terrorism is really a war on “religious totalitarianism” (“The Real War,” November 27, 2001):

“If 9/11 was indeed the onset of World War III, we have to understand what this war is about. We’re fighting to eradicate ‘terrorism.’ Terrorism is just a tool. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism. . .The opposite of religious totalitarianism is an ideology of pluralism–an ideology that embraces religious diversity and the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth” (emphasis added).

Friedman is right in his attack on religious totalitarianism. Only free societies have any hope of genuine peace. He is also right about embracing religious diversity. We should respect the rights of others to hold differing religious beliefs. But he works against his aversion to totalitarianism when he adds the last four: “without claiming exclusive truth.”

The problem with prohibiting exclusive truth claims is that such claims are frequently central to the integrity of a religious faith. If religious pluralism means a prohibition against exclusive truth claims, such a prescription will prohibit some people from following their faith. The three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have exclusive truth claims as essential, integral parts of their religious systems. To remove these claims would destroy the essence of these faiths. For example, to prohibit Muslims from making the claim that the Qur’an is the final recited revelation of God is to prohibit them from believing a central tenet of Islam. That truth claim is exclusive, and it is central to the internal integrity of Islamic belief.

The prohibition against exclusive truth claims works against Friedman’s laudable efforts to embrace religious diversity and avoid totalitarianism because in practice such a prescriptive prohibition is itself religious totalitarianism. In other words, his prescription for an ideology of pluralism which does not allow the various religions to make conflicting truth claims is actually a prescription for an ideology (a belief) which denies freedom of religion.

Such a pluralism is an example of what Michel Foucault described as “policing”–that is to say, a repressive enforcement of a predetermined concept of what something or someone should be. (This policing, by the way, causes the sad state of repression that exists in many universities. Contemporary college students in the United States may be the most politically silenced generation in American history.) To abolish the truth claims of all faiths, except for the faith that one has in the ideology of pluralism, is tyrannical. A central question about any claim is: Is it true?

Claims to absolute truth are always suspect in Western culture, as well they should be. But that does not mean that there are no absolute truths. If a group believes that they know an absolute truth, they should have the freedom to express it, provided they do so in a humane manner. To a growing number in our culture, religious truth claims are completely subjective. In other words, these truth claims can be “true for you” but not true in the sense that they agree with a reality which requires them to also be “true for me.” Admittedly, this subjectivity raises disturbing questions, such as what about those who believed in the virtue of burning widows alive at Hindu funerals?

Should such a belief go uncontested? Is it as valid as a belief that one should love one’s neighbor? Isn’t there some standard of judgment which allows us to say that something is wrong? Without an objective standard for right or wrong the most we can say about September 11 is that we do not like what happened. It is then only a matter of taste and not a matter of truth.

Of course many philosophers have tried to take the position that there are no absolute truths, but never without inconsistencies and contradictions. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that there was no objective right or wrong. But he could not live consistently with that proposition and felt compelled to sign the Algerian Manifesto, which was a protest of France’s occupation of Algeria. In doing so he made a statement that the French were wrong. He could not in practice live his philosophy that there is no standard of right or wrong.

Instead of muzzling persons of faith, we should allow them to make religious truth claims. These claims can then be examined, analyzed, weighed, and considered by interested others. No one should be afraid of truth. Each of us should be allowed to examine all of the evidence for religious truth claims in an atmosphere which encourages their expression.

Relativistic Religious Pluralism

The second meaning of religious pluralism requires that we view all religions as equally true in describing ultimate reality. Relativistic religious pluralism grows out of the fact of religious and cultural diversity and develops from a quite legitimate concern about how best to deal with this diversity in a rights oriented society. We want to minimize differences for the sake of harmony.

The position that all religions can be equally true is a very attractive concept. For the sake of harmony it presents a line of least resistance, but we cannot logically maintain that all religions describe a path to the same ultimate reality and make consistently compatible truth claims.

We do not have to hold that other religions do not contain elements of truth. All major religions have elements of truth. What cannot survive logical analysis is the proposition that two essential and irreconcilable truth claims can both be true.

To illustrate this point, let us briefly examine two examples of essential and irreconcilable differences between Christianity and Islam which if they were minimized would destroy the central essence of these two faiths. First, Muslims regard the Christian claim of God becoming man in Jesus of Nazareth as blasphemous for they think that Christians honor a human being as an equal of God.

Second, with regard to the crucifi
xion of Jesus, the New Testament is emphatic: Jesus died on a cross. The Qur’an is equally emphatic: he did not. Muslims believe that when the crowd came upon Jesus with the intention of crucifying him, God would not allow his chosen messenger to suffer a disgraceful death so he took him up to heaven and then placed his likeness on someone else, who, by mistake, was crucified.

The historical question is crucial: both the New Testament and the Qur’an cannot be right. If one is correct on this historical issue, the other is incorrect. We are not here arguing which one is true, but the simple fact that both cannot be true. We have to admit to genuine and irreducible differences of essential beliefs at this point.

The solution is not simply for Christians to drop the claim of the Incarnation and their belief in the historical crucifixion of Jesus and for the Muslims to drop the belief that Muhammed recited the Qur’an as God’s final revelation. To eliminate these truth claims would destroy the Christian and Islamic faiths. The religions are not putty to be molded by relativistic ideologues. We have to respect their internal integrity. From what authority or higher perspective do relativists claim a superior knowledge?

We need to ask the question of whether real dialogue can take place between Muslims and Christians without facing up to such clear and overt differences. Tolerance is much more likely to result from showing respect for other religions than from forcing them into an artificial framework which suppresses their central tenets. This kind of relativistic religious pluralism is an attempt by those in positions of intellectual power to mold religious beliefs according to their will. It too is a form of totalitarianism.

Authentic Religious Pluralism

Any discussion among persons of different faiths should be conducted on the basis of mutual respect. This respect can be expressed in dialogue, which is to be understood as an attempt on everyone’s part to gain a better understanding of the other. Such a dialogue cannot be conducted on the presupposition that each faith is saying the same thing. Dialogue implies respect and intellectual honesty; it does not presuppose agreement.

In considering how to engage persons of other faiths with authentic religious pluralism, we can learn from Sir Norman Anderson, a lawyer with Christian commitments, who was also an expert on Islamic law. In reflecting on his early encounters with persons of other faiths, he noted how he often found himself drawn into an argument with a Muslim friend or pupil about the relative excellencies of Jesus or Muhammed. He found that the trouble with any such argument was that both parties easily became heated and said things that irritated the other. Anderson concluded that any spirit of rivalry militated against spiritual understanding.He decided to avoid arguments and enter into a dialogue by making a proposal on the order of the following: “Instead of arguing the merits of our position, may I ask you instead to tell me, as fully and frankly as you can, what your knowledge of God, as this is ministered to you through the Qur’an, really means to you. I will listen with interest and respect to understand the nature of that knowledge and its practical implications, trying to stand in your shoes. And then perhaps you will permit me to tell you my understanding of God in the Christian faith.”

By substituting dialogue for argument and centering on the effect of one’s faith on one’s life, Anderson was able to engage his Muslim friends with respect and concern. His is a good example of authentic religious pluralism.

Our cultures are increasingly marked by diversity. We need to explore ways which allow us to be deeply committed to our faith and also appropriately tolerant and accepting of diversity. Of course, one of the best examples we can look to is Mother Teresa in her work with the poorest of the poor in India. Stories about her abound, but one demonstrates her engagment of persons of the Hindu faith. Many years ago a New York Times reporter was given the assignment of writing an extensive article on Mother Teresa for the paper’s Sunday magazine. He was not looking forward to his visit to Calcutta and decided to write an article that questioned her motivation. Watching her hold and care for persons of the Hindu faith in their last days, he was impressed with her work and with the care given by the Sisters of Charity in their home for the dying. Then it occurred to him that perhaps the love shown to the dying was not so much love, but an effort to convert the Hindus to Christianity, to see the conversion as a mark, a victory, on their behalf for God. So he asked Mother Teresa, as she held a very sick man, “I suppose with all the wonderful work that you do for these people that you now believe that you have the right to convert them?” “Oh no,” she responded, “My job is to love them.”

Mother Teresa did something beautiful for God by loving the dying poor in India because she loved the God who had made them. If we try to do no less in all of our engagements with people of other faiths, we will be practicing authentic religious pluralism.

Dean L. Overman is a partner in the law firm of Winston & Strawn and a member of the faculty of the University of Virginia Law School. He has also served on the Board of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.