Religious Pluralism and Diversity

Being Church
World of Diversity
Questioning Church
Image of a tunnel through wooden arches
Paul Hedges


Diversity in Society

Religious diversity has been the global norm for centuries. In the UK, different Christian denominations have contested and coexisted, while Jews and Muslims have long been part of the cultural fabric. Elsewhere, especially across Africa and Asia, experiencing a wide diversity of worldviews and religious standpoints has been the social norm for Christians. However, increasingly today, new questions are being raised in relation to such differences.

I’d like to start by making a distinction that I will use here. Religious diversity refers to the empirical fact that different religious worldviews surround us. Religious pluralism (or, just pluralism) refers to an attitude, social and theological, to that diversity.

Of course, pluralism, an embrace and openness to diversity, is not the only option. As such, pluralism is often contrasted with exclusivism, a rejection and closedness to diversity. In between these two, we can speak of inclusivism, which is a form of limited toleration and acceptance of some validity to diversity. In very general terms, exclusivist and inclusivist attitudes have been the primary Christian theological response to religious diversity. Arguably, theological inclusivism has been most prevalent, but the social and ecclesiastical attitude has been exclusive. Pluralism, while having some deeper roots, really took shape in the twentieth century.

Exclusivism and Inclusivism in Christian Tradition

Importantly, we do not see a move, as some claim, from an exclusivist Christian base in scripture and tradition, to more liberal inclusivist views as we come to modernity, and finally a form of “relativist” or “postmodern” pluralism today – often for those who don’t take their religion too seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth. Therefore, I’ll say a bit about exclusivist and inclusivist attitudes in Christianity before turning to argue why pluralism can be firmly grounded in a strong Christian identity based in scripture and tradition.

While some may see a text such as John 14:6 spelling out a biblical message of exclusivism, when Jesus is seen to say: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, nobody comes to the Father but by me,” (RSV) the Bible’s message is more complex. An inclusivist would point to the Prologue of this Gospel (John 1:1-18) which introduces Jesus as “the Word” (logos) understood to be in all human beings and to underpin whatever righteousness they exhibit. Meanwhile, when Paul preached to the Athenians at the Areopagus, he used their altar to an “unknown god” to develop an inclusivist stance (Acts 17:23). Paul saw signs of a knowledge of God already present beforehand in other people’s religions and cultures.

Theological inclusivism continued in such figures as Justin Martyr, Origen, Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Charles Wesley. Many of Christianity’s foremost theologians were not exclusivists. They believed that by doing good deeds, or having certain beliefs, people’s ideas and behaviour pointed towards the logos being present in their lives and teachings. Nevertheless, in phrases such as the Catholic Church’s slogan “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“outside the church there is no salvation”), many churches enacted exclusivism. Institutional rationales were often key, with membership numbers signalling power, size, and status. To simplify, historically, we see a theological rationale, grounded in scripture, arguing that we find good and truth beyond Christianity’s borders alongside an institutional dynamic denying this.

Today, dynamics have led almost all mainstream Christian churches to adopt inclusivist attitudes. We can note some key points:

  • Before the twentieth century, most Christians were as exclusive to Christians in other denominations as much as non-Christians. (The ecumenical movement is largely a product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.)
  • At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church recognised its complicity in the antisemitism that led to the Holocaust (Shoah), and embraced a kinship with Jews that placed them alongside other Christians. (Relations with Judaism come under ecumenical affairs, not the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.)
  • This kinship involved a shared reverence for Abraham, leading to questions about Islam. (“Allah” does not denote Islam’s deity, but means “the God,” and is how Arabic speaking Jews and Christians have spoken of the God of Abraham.)
  • Dialogical kinship with Judaism and Islam opened a door to asking about other religions in a “wider ecumenism.” (Engaging non-Christian religions via dialogue rather than – or alongside – mission has evolved from this theological reflection, rather than simply social dynamics.)

A Christian Pluralism?

While pluralism appears as a new pathway in Christian thought, it is not entirely unprecedented. For a start, we have not seen a move from exclusivist roots into a liberal inclusivism and then a recent pluralism. From biblical times onwards, theological rationales for seeing God’s activity beyond the confines of Christianity (or, the Israelite tradition) exist. Neither the Bible, nor Christian tradition, denies that goodness and truth exist beyond the walls of the churches and their institutions. But a Christian pluralist will go beyond acknowledging a limited degree of goodness and truth, to acknowledging a fullness of these qualities that equal those in her own tradition.

Let us therefore think about what a Christian pluralism will look like. We don’t start from nowhere as theologians such as John Hick, Diana Eck, Alan Race, Jeanine Hill Fletcher, Kwok Pui Lan, Paul Knitter, Chung Hyun Kyung, Perry Schmidt-Leukel, and others have already explored this. In general terms, there are two ways we can think about pluralism, one associated with Hick and the other with Eck. A Hickian pluralism is concerned with the question: “Can many religions be equally true?” An Eckian pluralism is concerned with the question: “How can we value everybody’s truths in our social spaces?” Perry Schmidt-Leukel notes that what marks something as a Christian pluralism is that it builds from Christian foundations towards an acknowledgement of the potential equality of another tradition’s truths, values, and way of life as being equal to what is found in Christianity. With Eck, we may add that this means valuing them in our way of life and in social relations, so it is not simply about conceptual equality.

But the question that remains, and which we address shortly, is how do we find Christianity leading us to pluralism? Before that we need to address two questions: first, why “potential equality”; second, what is meant by “true”?

  • Most pluralists assert that we cannot absolutely know which religion (if any) is true, but rather we have grounds for believing that many religions may be equally valid. This may go beyond traditions we typically label as “religions” (itself a tricky signifier), because atheist, Humanist, and other “non-religious” pathways may equally be ways for people to express humanity’s highest values.
  • Talking about many religion as “true” is often seen as a soteriological claim, i.e. do many religions lead to salvation. However, Knitter has been more concerned with ethical truth: do they teach us to lead our lives aright in relation to each other, i.e. in common action for the poor, dispossessed, and our world. Again, Chung saw it as embodied in her lived experience as an Asian woman who was culturally embedded in Christian, Buddhist, shamanist, and other traditions, so it was a truth about who she was. Saying many religions may be true is not a claim that every religion says the same thing (clearly they don’t). It also does not entail evacuating one’s own religious truth claims, though their absoluteness may be held in abeyance, with pluralists appealing to traditional theological narratives such as the via negativa, where it is recognised that – as humans – we speak in limited language about an ineffable mystery with all our claims about deity/ absolute reality/ the afterlife being, at best, metaphors or images.

Scripture and Christian Pluralism

Let’s go back to that classic verse of the exclusivist, John 14:6. It may not seem like a good place to start looking for pluralists, but as we have seen, when read within the wider context of the whole gospel it also has an equally credible inclusivist reading. A pluralist meanwhile may assert that Jesus shows us a route to ultimate reality that relates to what Jesus calls “the Father,” but we also see other people living good, holy, and morally exemplary lives in other traditions, and having prayer lives that seem as rich and full as any Christian. So, while maybe only Jesus shows us the “Father route,” the Buddha showed us the “nirvana route,” Muhammad showed us the “Allah route,” and Guru Nanak pointed to the “Ek Onkar route,” etc. A classical pluralist analogy is that religions may be like many paths up the mountain, and so they may be thought of like road maps. Or, again, some invoke the ancient Indic analogy of blind men feeling an elephant with each knowing only one part of the animal – but all mistakenly believing that the bit that feel is the real representation of the animal, so one says it is like a snake (trunk experience), another like a tree (leg experience), a third like a large leaf (ear experience), and so on.

If we turn to the Older Testament, we see Isiah 45:1 referring to the Persian King Cyrus as God’s anointed one, i.e. the (a) Messiah. Now, Christians typically associate this term with Jesus, but it is used widely of those blessed by God or having a special role in the divine plan. Cyrus had released some Jewish prisoners from captivity in Babylon, but was not just praised as virtuous, but actually as God’s agent on earth. What is striking here is that the term Messiah can be used of a Zoroastrian. It indicates that God does not see divine plans and blessings limited within one lineage. Pluralists would see this as indicative of a wider message about God’s activity in the world. Again, in the Newer Testament, we see people being praised for their faith, or as acceptable to God, not for accepting Jesus (or having particular theological beliefs about him) but for their good actions and wider trust in God. The biblical message is that God’s blessings are not limited.

Another biblical image that has also been employed by pluralists is hospitality. This is a core virtue in the Bible and involves opening oneself to learning and insights from another. In Mark’s Gospel (7:24-30), Jesus is challenged by a Syrophoenician woman and sees himself challenged and changing his views as he learns from this woman, who would be seen as outside the folds of Judaism. If Jesus can learn from those who are not part of the Israelite-Christian lineage that mainstream Christianity has defined as normative, then who are we not to take those from other religions as our teachers?

Theology and Christian Pluralism

Christianity is, of course, not simply about reading what is in scripture and seeing what is there. Rather, throughout Christian history, in response to the Holy Spirit and in relation to oral and developing traditions, Christians have felt able to see further than the text, even if it forms a kind of bedrock. In these terms, we can suggest that various aspects of Christian theology also lead us towards pluralism. Christians have long held that God is all-loving (omnibenevolent) and just. If only Christianity leads people to heaven, and others go to hell, could it be that the Christian God designed a world in which, for most of history, deprived of access to Christianity, most people would go to hell? This is not a new question, and from the earliest days Christian theologians have grappled with it. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, Frederick Denison Maurice argued that the idea of hell was incompatible with such a deity. His views, shocking then, are today widely accepted by many. Equally, I would argue, while many these days find pluralism somewhat shocking and beyond what they think Christian orthodoxy entails, reflection on the kind of God that Christians believe in will mean that realising a deity who has made access to Her open and freely available, and not linked to just one tradition and its teachings, makes much more sense. Today, interreligious activism and finding common ethical ground, perhaps around gender oppression or other concerns common across religious borders, has led many to pluralism. Again, some have been drawn to pluralism from an interest in Christian missionary activity, but engaging with the worldviews of those they wanted to convert has led them to a place of deeper appreciation, understanding, and kinship.

In our contemporary world, as we reach out across borders and seek to overcome old misunderstandings and prejudices, embracing a pluralist theology offers ways to see Christian teachings anew and revisit old resources to understand more fully the treasures they hold for helping us embrace others and what we may learn from them.

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