Two Faces of Pluralism; or, What does faith look like under conditions of irreducible pluralism?
3 May 2009 has been called Pluralism Sunday, when “Progressive Christians thank God for religious diversity!” What we have here is a particular face of pluralism. It is a more limited face that claims that there is one God and many paths to that one God. Or as they put it on the website: “Celebrating the many paths to God.” In another OST post awhile back, I referred to this as a kind of reducible pluralism, where the visible plurality of religions around the world are ultimately reduced to one final destination—all the paths lead to the top of the same mountain, so to speak.
While some conservative Christians deny visible plurality by saying simply that all other religions are Wrong, more nuanced conservative leaning Christians take a different stance. They respond to the visible condition of plurality by agreeing that while there may be many paths leading to the top of the mountain—the mountain in question is Jesus Christ.
More progressive leaning Christians often respond to limited plurality by saying:
So, conservatives and progressives respond to visible pluralism in similar ways. Ultimately, they reduce pluralism. Conservatives are more exclusive and limiting in their reduction—focusing in on Jesus Christ. Progressives are less limiting in their reduction—focusing in on God. The difference is a matter of degree and not of kind. Both conservatives and progressives reduce the visible condition of religious pluralism to one destination—the question is to what degree of reduction.
There is second face of pluralism that presents an alternative response. It is the non-reductionist path, or what John D. Caputo refers to as “irreducible plurality.” On this view, there are many paths leading up many mountains. Ultimately, the visible plurality of religious faiths cannot be reduced—there are many gods. This notion is supported by the biblical text. Throughout much of the OT, including the Ten Commandments, there is talk of ‘household gods’ and other idols that are symbolic of gods that pose a risk to the believers’ commitment to the God of Israel. In the NT, Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says that there are ‘many “gods” and many “lords.’” The question is how to respond to this condition.
Why take the visible plurality of religious expressions and then presume or assert that that plurality ultimately points toward the same thing?
Why not presume or assert that the plurality ultimately points toward different things?
To say that the visible plurality points toward the same thing is a reductionist move that I am uncomfortable with. I am uncomfortable with the move because it fails to see and, in fact, obscures the historical value of others’ experiences and is blind to the possibility the other symbolizes. Perhaps the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not so much that the Samaritan was following the way of Jesus, but that Jesus saw the possibility and value in the actions of someone who was not following the God of Israel.
Instead of reducing visible religious plurality, an alternative move would be to claim that the visible plurality points to many gods that entail many different paths. The visible plurality of religious expressions is irreducible—not everyone is walking toward the same mountaintop. Not everyone is seeking salvation—only Christians are. Buddhists, Hindus and New Agers are after something else that is entirely different.
Given this condition of visible plurality and the view that each faith offers a different path toward a different mountaintop: how does faith look from the second face of plurality?
Faith is a fearful, trusting commitment that is embodied daily; it is also a generous and open engagement with the others and their expressions of faith that are all around you. We live in a world composed of many gods; my God, our God is the God of Israel, whose only begotten son, Jesus Christ, marks the Way I follow.