DIFFERENT RESPONSES TO RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

RESPONDING TO RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

Interest in religions is growing due to high profile local and international current events.  The realities of our multicultural society also mean that the fact of different religions is becoming increasingly obvious as various Churches, Gurdwaras, Mosques, Synagogues, Temples, etc. share our local landscapes.

The history of the relationships between different religious traditions is long and complex.  It is well beyond the scope of this essay and of my personal knowledge and skill to explore these relationships as they have been played out over time and across and within all the different continents of the world.  Suffice it to say that it is a history that displays all of the good and evil, noble and ignoble, peaceful and violent characteristics of human nature.  My focus is much more on the ways in which people around me seem to express their understanding of what might be appropriate responses to the fact of different religions and, more significantly, how we might seek to engage with members of those various religious communities.  While recognising that my evidence for these types of reactions is somewhat anecdotal and limited, I suspect that they might resonate with the experience of people from a range of different Faiths and from different national and cultural contexts.

I use four verbs to identify and differentiate between these ways of responding to the plurality of religions.  The first three – Ignore, Replace and Harmonize – tend to have, in the main, negative connotations and, as some suggest, do not fit comfortably with contemporary experience in an increasingly globalized world.  The fourth – Embrace – reflects an assertion that the existence of multiple religions within the human race is a natural and inevitable expression of what it means to be human.  Because of this ‘naturalness,’ religious pluralism can and perhaps should be seen as a positive and constructive aspect of the human condition.  Saying this is not to suggest that all religions and all aspects of each religion should be accepted and valued in like measure.  Nor does it exclude the exercising of serious and sustained critical evaluation of all religious claims and behaviours.

Before itemizing each of these four types of attitudes to religious plurality let me make some general comments that apply to each and all of them.  As with all attempts to label different types of human behaviour and intellectual responses to complex issues, this set of categories suffers from logical overlaps.  They are not watertight categories and any individual person is likely to exhibit some characteristics of each of these types.

  1. It should also be recognized that people may not respond in the same way to all of the religions that they may encounter.  These variations in responses may reflect many different experiences and levels of understanding and be supported by a range of emotive and intellectual arguments. 

  2. The nature and durability of personal contacts and relationships with people of different Faiths may be the most significant influence on the formation of attitudes to particular religions.

  3. It must be further recognized that most, if not all of the major religious traditions that have endured over long periods of time, contain strands within their texts, traditions and historical records, material that can, and often is used by adherents to support or confirm their holding of any one of the following attitudes.

  4. The selection of what is believed to be an appropriate response to other religions will also be significantly influenced by the ways in which a sense of “mission” is articulated, prioritized and programmed within different religious traditions.

  5. Of course having a particular attitude to the fact of a plurality of religions or to any specific religion(s) can change.  Such changes can result from a wide range of personal and/or communal circumstances.  A classic example of such circumstances is when some major local, national or international humanly initiated catastrophe occurs where significant players in the event, either as perpetrators or as victims, identify themselves with particular religions.

      Ignore

    For a long time, most people who belong to a particular religious community have been able to ignore other religions.  Any detailed knowledge and sensitive understanding of these religions have been seen as irrelevant.  The regular and often onerous duties involved in maintaining the worship, educational, pastoral care and social activities of their own religious community consume a large measure of their available time and resources.  There may not be any animosity towards people of other Faiths but equally there is no felt need to seek and nurture friendships across these divisions.  Some curiosity may arise when this general awareness is supplemented by casual relationships with people of other Faiths arising in the natural course of living in the same neighbourhood.  However, this curiosity seldom translates into any formal attempts to establish close and on-going relationships with members of other religious communities.  People who adopt this attitude may also perceive other religions as strange, culturally or geographically remote and even threatening.  The intellectual effort required to gain even a minimal understanding is too daunting.  The emotional stamina required to approach the unknown and enter unfamiliar territory, in both physical and intellectual ways, is lacking.  The expenditure of time, energy and resources on establishing any meaningful relationships with people of different Faiths is not a high priority.  There does not seem to be any personal, religious or social value to be gained from such effort.

    Replace

A wide range of attitudes can be gathered together within this category.  The one thing that gives some collective identity to this diverse group is the fact they all involve a desire to replace the other religion(s) with their own or at least to persuade particular adherents of one religion to change their religious faith and commitment.  The motivations for this desire to replace or change the religion of others and the ways and means adopted to achieve this also vary considerably.

Many people within this group believe that the culture, race, nation or civilization to which they belong is inextricably linked to one particular religious tradition.  They may even go so far as to assert that it is the religion above all else, that is the essential defining characteristic of that culture or civilization.  Any notion of a multicultural, let alone a multifaith society, is unthinkable even abhorrent.  People of another religious tradition entering the society with intentions of making it their new permanent home come under great pressure to assimilate (as distinct from integrate!), keep a very low profile or feel that they are being told ‘to go back to where they belong’.

Significant numbers of religious people, even those living in established multifaith societies may also be classified under this heading because of the very strong evangelizing or proselytizing tradition within their Faith.  An exhortation, if not Divine Command, to convert all people to ‘The True Faith’ (theirs), lies at the heart of their religion.  This is particularly true of theistic religions that have emerged in response to what is believed to be a specific, unique, and changeless revelation from God about what is required in both belief and practice of all humanity.

Harmonize

People in this group hold a belief that in spite of all their differences in cultural orientation and phenomenological manifestations, all religions, at their core, are essentially the same.  The all too frequent and often hostile disputes and competitions between, and indeed within the religions, frustrate and anger them.  These people look for the things that all religions have in common and suggest that the differences between them are of purely personal significance, of secondary importance or even irrelevant.  This attitude often leads to a strong advocacy of the position that there is no place for religious rivalry and competition in the public space.  Evidence of commonality is looked for in the theological, spiritual and ethical dimensions of the religions.

The basic theological argument is that if ‘God’, is at the centre of all ultimate reality then people who belong to any one religion are traveling along one of the many radii that lead to that center. The picture of many pathways leading to the top of the mountain is also used to illustrate this understanding of the plurality of religions.  Supporters of this approach also seek to identify and compare the spiritual outcomes that accrue in the lives of believers after long years of faithful commitment to a particular religion.  Here again many common features emerge.  Each of the religions has produced followers who are widely accepted as saintly, holy or mystical.  The different religions have comparable records in producing powerful prophets, radical reformers and charismatic leaders.  Many of these people have exercised an influence for good that has transcended the temporal and spatial bounds of their own life and work.  Acknowledgement of these achievements goes well beyond the immediate followers of the particular religion to which they belong.  Some assert that the so-called ‘fruits of the Spirit’ such as, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, humility, graciousness (a Christian expression), are evident in the lives of people who are nurtured in many of the world’s religions.

Along with these core theological and spiritual concepts, many people see, or look for a broad ethical commonality between the religions.  All religions, we are told, are committed to and seek to nurture in followers a shared set of values and ethical standards.  These usually include a call for compassion towards all living creatures, the elevation of truth, honesty and goodwill over lies, deceit and mistrust.  The espousal of social justice, peace and an acceptance of the oneness of humanity also rank highly in the ethical frameworks of most religions.  One result of this focus on the ethical commonalities across religions has been the desire by many to recruit the different religious traditions in the search for a Global Ethic.  This search receives increasing credibility and is even surrounded by a sense of urgency within the context of the apparent inevitability of the globalization process and the increasing threats to our global environment.

 Embrace

If the harmonizing group major on the commonalities between religions, those in this fourth group focus on what is different between them.  For this group religious differences are important.  They are the essential defining characteristics of each religious group and of individuals who belong to them.  Expressed negatively, Jews are not Christians; Christians are not Muslims; Muslims are not Buddhists; Buddhists are not Hindus; and so on.  Of course, there are clusters of religions that share family characteristics such as the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and, perhaps, Baha’i.  Members of these religions are often keen to recognize these family characteristics.  However, each religious community within the family group finds its essential identity in those beliefs and practices that are unique to it and which distinguish it from the others.

An embracing attitude goes beyond a benign tolerance of people who are different.  An attitude of tolerance reflects a ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’ kind of distancing from one another.  An attitude of tolerance can also have the negative connotations associated with the idea of ‘putting up with’ unpleasant yet inescapable realities.  The word ‘tolerance’ when used in relation to attitudes to people of other Faiths can convey to its hearers the rather negative sentiments akin to those of the attitudes of ‘ignoring’ and ‘replacing’.  In contrast, embracing the multifaith realities of human life acknowledges the unique identity of each tradition, celebrates the shared humanity that unites all people and actively seeks to cultivate friendships across religious boundaries.  The dominant modes operandi of embracing is dialogue.  Dialogue requires moving out of one’s own religious comfort zone and move, for a time, into the other’s realm of belief, spirituality, ethical mores, ceremonies, rituals and festivals.  If people move into and remain in the other’s religious domain and community, it is conversion not dialogue.  A dialogical relationship is based on the expectation that participants remain committed to and represent their Faith of choice and/or birth.

Conclusion

Interfaith Dialogue necessarily involves conversation between people of different Faiths.  The people involved may be professional leaders in and official representatives of the different Faiths.  They may be authorized to represent their particular Faith in formal ways to explore doctrinal differences, plan interreligious projects and generally promote communal harmony.  Alternatively, they may be small groups of people from different local religious communities seeking ways to meet and communicate with their immediate neighbours.

 

Garth Read, 2016

RESPONDING TO RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

 

Tags: Religion, Multifaith, Interfaith, Garth Read

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