Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Pitfalls of Pluralism

Posted by Lynnette

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.

17 Responses to “The Pitfalls of Pluralism”

  1. 1.

    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.

    That’s the irony of this type of pluralism.

    It’s a hard one to avoid, though. Beliefs about God(s) are so diverse and mutually incompatible that (no matter what your belief) it’s not clear there’s any way to avoid the conclusion that most people’s theological beliefs are wrong.

    If I understand correctly, your solution is to acknowledge and be aware of the contradictions among beliefs, as a sort of “tension” to keep you on your toes while understanding others by analogy. That makes sense.

  2. 2.

    I can only speak for myself, but I have, for as long as I can remember, believed that other religions have truth and that I, as Mormon, can learn from them. I don’t think I’m THAT different from the norm. Of course there are differences in theology, but for the average, everyday person, we don’t care about theology so much as how someone behaves. And on behavior, I think most religions agree.

    The real issue about “one true church” is not theology, but authority. Did Joseph Smith see God the Father and Jesus Christ? Did they authorize him to restore his church? Is it run today by men authorized to act in such a way and lead by inspiration? Catholics think they have it (and have a decent argument in their favor), protestants don’t think authority is needed. I don’t see a huge “authority” issue with other major religions, but I’m not as familiar with them, so I stand open to correction.

    I think one can be open to learning what we can from all people, while still holding fast to those things that we know are true.

  3. 3.

    I think the truth we seek is beyond our comprehension so it has been dumbed down to concepts we can understand. As man grows these revealed concepts move closer to the truth. Mormons have the lead with ongoing revelation and the four standard works. Other paths have portions of these concepts. The only true church may mean the only true path.

  4. 4.

    I did a stint as a Sunday School teacher for the 14-15s, and was rather astonished to discover they had absolutely no understanding of the tenets of other faiths, at all.

    The first Sunday, in answer to my question: “What do we call a follower of Christ?” (to which I was expecting to hear things like disciple or Christian), I got the sole response of “Mormon.”

    While I do believe that the LDS Church has a fullness of the gospel, and that our openness to new revelation keeps us from stagnation, I found it absurd that these kids had not been taught about the common points of faith we have with others!

    We spent a portion of each week’s lesson discussing common points of faith, and religious terminology. No, that wasn’t a gory statue on the wall–it was the Sacred Heart crucifix, and a visual reminder of how Christ suffered for us. Yes, there is tremendous beauty in the liturgical year of the older Christian churches and the Jewish faith as well. It’s just fine to admire the life-long religious dedication of those in other faiths, in addition to respecting the 2-year sacrifice our missionaries make. And, that our church is NOT the only one with missionaries, at all!

    These kids had been raised with the One True Church phrase, but had no foundation for understanding the difference between “true church” and “full gospel”.

    There’s room within the full gospel for individual understanding. There’s not room for willful ignorance of others’ understanding.

  5. 5.

    Hi, chanson!

    Beliefs about God(s) are so diverse and mutually incompatible that (no matter what your belief) it’s not clear there’s any way to avoid the conclusion that most people’s theological beliefs are wrong.

    Yes, I think that’s exactly the challenge. My experience is that those advocating pluralist ideas sometimes duck the issue with vague assertions that all religious paths to the divine are valid, or that ultimately all religions are teaching the same thing and the contradictions between them are only superficial. (Someone asked me once, with complete sincerity and in a somewhat baffled tone, how could a religious belief be wrong?)

    This can be a hard one for me because I tend to be conflict-averse, but I do think to have real dialogue, at some point you have to grapple with points of disagreement. Not in a, “wow group x is silly for believing that crazy idea” way, but with a respectful acknowledgment that there are issues on which you disagree, and a willingness to seriously look at those disagreements. (I’d also note that I suspect that such conversations are generally unlikely to be useful if they don’t take place within a pretty solid relationship.) I like your point about that keeping you on your toes. I think that genuine conversation requires not only a willingness to disagree, but openness to the possibility that you might be wrong. Which is a real risk.

    On a bit of a tangent, Kiskilili and I were at a conference earlier this year in which someone made the point that missionaries are asking people to take a risk (to question their beliefs, and be open to changing them) that they’re not taking themselves. I’m not opposed to proselytizing, but I do think it’s a point worth remembering.

  6. 6.

    Thanks for your thoughts, DeAnn.

    I can only speak for myself, but I have, for as long as I can remember, believed that other religions have truth and that I, as Mormon, can learn from them. I don’t think I’m THAT different from the norm.

    My experience, like yours, is that this is not a particularly uncommon view. Though I also often hear the idea that the LDS church has all truth, whereas other faiths only have bits and pieces, which precludes the possibility of learning going in both directions. But I agree with you that the “only true church” assertion seems to be more about authority than doctrine (though I suppose the two can’t be entirely separated).

    Of course there are differences in theology, but for the average, everyday person, we don’t care about theology so much as how someone behaves. And on behavior, I think most religions agree.

    I’d agree with you to a point; I suspect that if you looked across religious traditions, you’d find similar behavioral codes when it comes to things like be honest, or don’t be a jerk, or help others. (Though notably, those ideals are also generally shared by non-believers.) But I also see quite a few differences on particular behavioral norms. Is it okay to drink alchohol? To dance? To eat meat? To work outside the home, if you’re female? To wear a tank top? To practice polygamy? To shop on the sabbath? And the question that is currently tearing so many churches apart: is it okay to marry someone of the same sex? I do think there are some real clashes on behavioral questions–though in a contemporary context, they often seem as likely to be intra-faith as inter-faith, arising between people in the same tradition, which poses its own challenges.

    I think one can be open to learning what we can from all people, while still holding fast to those things that we know are true.

    Yes, I think that’s the kind of balance I’m looking for.

  7. 7.

    .

    I think grappling with this question is important. In fact, at risk of being exactly the sort of annoying person you mention, I think it’s vital to a proper understanding of Mormonism. It’s one of our great paradoxes, being the one true Church and yet believing that everyone has some truth and that somehow we can circumscribe it into one great whole etc etc.

    The problem for me is the extrapolation some make from ‘one true Church’ to ‘all else are great and abominable’. That doesn’t sound very Christian to me. And the idea that that idea is Mormon irritates me.

    There is a balance to be found. And I think the keys are in intellectual humility and charity.

    Which is a very helpful solution, I know.

    Much, again, like DeeAnn:

    I think one can be open to learning what we can from all people, while still holding fast to those things that we know are true.

  8. 8.

    Howard, I agree that truth is beyond our comprehension, that we’re all seeing through a glass, darkly. I think the challenge I’m grappling with here isn’t even the question of who is “further ahead” on the path (whatever that might mean), but the sticky situation that arises when we think that some might be not just behind, but going in the wrong direction. How do we make sense of one another?

    LizC, I’ve had similar experiences. I very much agree that it’s important to be acquainted with the beliefs of others both to understand (and possibly learn from) them, but also because you can’t really understand your own religious identity without that context. And especially when you’re first getting acquainted with other traditions, I think similarities are a good starting point. I actually don’t think the pluralist attitudes I’m critiquing here are terribly common among LDS; I suspect, as your example illustrates, we’re more prone to going too far with exclusivism (e.g., we’re the true church and everyone else is just wrong) than with pluralism. Though I wonder if the former sometimes leads to the latter as a kind of overreaction; people get fed up with the exclusivist language and end up making the case that it’s wrong for religion to ever assert any exclusivist truth claims–I have to admit that I can see that tendency in myself. Anyway, that’s great that you went over basic religious terminology with your class (honestly, I can see that being worth doing just to break the monotony that can be Sunday School!)

    Hi, Th.

    In fact, at risk of being exactly the sort of annoying person you mention, I think it’s vital to a proper understanding of Mormonism. It’s one of our great paradoxes, being the one true Church and yet believing that everyone has some truth and that somehow we can circumscribe it into one great whole etc etc.

    I don’t think we disagree here. I see a difference between saying that everyone has some truth, and even that those various truths can ultimately be fit together, and between an assertion that all religious teachings can be ultimately fit together. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that it’s a problem to dismiss other ideas as part of the great and abominable world. But I also think that part of respecting other people’s ideas involves taking them seriously enough to disagree with them (when we do). That’s what I’m trying to get at here.

    There is a balance to be found. And I think the keys are in intellectual humility and charity.

    Which is a very helpful solution, I know.

    But it’s certainly a point worth making. I would imagine that all the theological models in the world aren’t going to get you far in a conversation if you don’t have those ingredients. (Someone at SMPT this year made a provocative comment along the lines of, if you were willing to die for someone, you could disagree with them all that you wanted.)

  9. 9.

    Lynnette, who are you referring to that is going in the wrong direction?

  10. 10.

    I’m not actually referring to anyone specific; sorry if that wasn’t clear. I’m thinking of situations in which competing religious beliefs contradict each other, so that those in both camps see the other as going in the wrong direction (so to speak). That’s where pluralism gets particularly challenging–but I think such situations raise issues that are worth discussing. My critique here is of the tendency to avoid the difficult questions posed by contradictory beliefs with an assertion that everyone is actually going in the same direction.

  11. 11.

    Thanks for clarifying that. Please share some examples of the contradictory beliefs you are talking about.

  12. 12.

    Just to throw out a few questions on which people from different traditions are likely to have competing views–Was Jesus divine? Can people be saved without accepting him? Is baptism necessary? Is salvation even the purpose of life? Is God embodied? Is God trinitarian? Is the Book of Mormon inspired scripture? Did God appear to Joseph Smith? I don’t really want this to turn into a discussion of the merits of particular beliefs, though–I’m more interested here in the broader question of what sense we make of those differences.

  13. 13.

    Thanks Lynnette, my view is that most faiths are generally going in the same direction with stops at telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdoms. For example; I believe that Christian churches are true in the sense that their faithful can reach the terrestrial kingdom.

    Resolving the kinds of questions you pose may move one closer to the CK.

  14. 14.

    i knew it was too good to be true- all that rapid fire posting on zd!

  15. 15.

    Yeah, sorry, CWC. We’re slackers at heart. It was a total anomaly.

  16. 16.

    I’m probably the kind of wishy-washy pluralist you take umbrage with. What matters to me is the integrity shown in a life lived committed to a set of personally undeniable beliefs.
    As for our church, I believe it is no less true that any other church on the face of the earth.

  17. 17.

    You got a nice mention in the Lonesome Node newsletter by Suzette Haden Elgin.

    Drop me an e-mail and I’ll forward a copy of the mention.

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