When it comes to religion, I have strong pluralist sympathies; one of the aspects of the LDS church I personally find the most challenging is the “only true church” claim. I’ve blogged before about why I think it’s a mistake for Mormons to assume that we have nothing to learn from other traditions, or to conceptualize them as–at best–less developed versions of ourselves. In my own life, I have found that serious engagement with the teachings and ideas of other traditions has tremendously enriched my faith.
Nonetheless, there are ways of talking about pluralism that I find problematic. (I’m using the term “pluralism” here to refer broadly to the theological notion that truth can be found in multiple faiths.) A couple of years ago, I had an extended online discussion with someone who was extremely critical of organized religion. He explained that he never wanted to be so arrogant or intolerant as to assert that his beliefs were right, and someone else’s were wrong. Yet he was clearly committed to a particular belief: the notion that religious truth can be found in multiple places, and it is therefore wrong for any one church or tradition to claim superior or privileged access to it. Even though I found myself somewhat sympathetic to this viewpoint, I was struck by his apparent inability to see that he was in fact asserting a particular truth claim, and thereby implicitly suggesting that anyone who disagreed with him (i.e., anyone who didn’t think truth could be found in multiple faiths) was wrong. The moral superiority of enlightened pluralists can be every bit as grating as that of the true believers whom they so vigorously denounce.
I have particular reservations about what I might call bland pluralism, the notion I sometimes hear that deep down, all religions are more or less the same, that they are merely different ways of saying the same thing; or in a somewhat milder form, that the variety of truth claims made by different faiths can be fit into a harmonious whole. I think this is often a well-intentioned proposal, aimed at promoting good will between people of different faiths. But it can also be a way of not having to deal with real difference. It is certainly more convenient and comfortable to think that deep down, those with different beliefs actually think the same way that you do, or at the very least that their ideas aren’t ultimately in contradiction to yours. But meaningful tolerance, I believe, is impossible without acknowledgment of the real differences that exist. Otherwise, you’re merely “tolerating” people whom you’re seeing in your own image. True tolerance isn’t easy; it involves grappling with the continually challenging fact that there are beliefs and experiences which are radically other and alien, which make no sense to you, which call into question your most deeply held ideas.
This does not mean that I am opposed to seeking points of connection, of noting common ground. I like what contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy has to say on this subject; he talks about what he calls the “analogical imagination” as a way of approaching pluralism, emphasizing that an analogy is always similarity-in-difference, and cannot be collapsed into either continuity or discontinuity. This provides an alternative both to a viewpoint in which religious truth is fundamentally private, and contradictions are therefore irrelevant because people simply believe what is “true for them”; and to a viewpoint in which your group has the truth and others do not, and so there is no reason to engage in serious dialogue with them. Holding the tension of similarity and difference is what makes genuine conversation possible; as Tracy observes, “each of us understands each other through analogy or not at all.”
I would also propose that a rigorous pluralism requires a clear articulation of its own premises. The notion that of course multiple religions would convey truth is too often, I think, simply taken for granted. But this is in the end a statement of faith, one that is based on a particular assumption about how God works. I have no problem with that assumption. But I think it is important to acknowledge it upfront. My own pluralist leanings arise at least partly out of of what my particular religious tradition tells me about the nature of God, and God’s concern for all the world’s population, not just a chosen few. In other words, I am sympathetic to pluralist ideas not because I have somehow transcended a commitment to the truth claims of a particular tradition, but precisely because of my acceptance of those claims.
I’m all for exploring the possibilities of a pluralist approach to religion, of talking about truth in many different contexts and traditions. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it well.