The Value of Pluralism

Unity gained through the suppression of pluralism is forced conformity rather than freedom in beloved community. Accepting pluralism is a humble recognition that there is more than one way to understand the reality in which we live and that we might actually have something to learn from persons with views other than our own.

The humble acceptance of pluralism is especially important at it relates to religious pluralism. Religions are at their most dangerous and most deadly when their adherents believe their way is the only way, which can be seen in the horrific history of crusades, inquisitions, colonial conquests, and religiously inspired wars and genocide.

I embrace the reality of pluralism in how we orient ourselves to religion, and I personally don’t find it helpful to make normative claims about the “orthodoxy” of religious doctrines and beliefs. In my experience, such claims tend to bring division and violence rather than love and justice within the human community. I find wisdom in the teachings of religions other than my own and in the thought of atheists, agnostics, and humanists. I think we can all learn from one another as we live into beloved community as long as we practice doing no harm and allowing others to think and feel about relgion as they so choose.

I believe that our human community is enriched by religious pluralism. Our society is better when we have persons who orient themselves to religion differently. My hope is that all persons might find the ways to orient themselves to religion that help them become the most loving and flourishing persons they are able to be.

Looking at my own faith tradition, I don’t believe that a person becomes less Christian by learning from the wisdom of persons who orient themselves differently to religion. Imagine what a loss for the world it would have been had Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. not engaged the teachings of Mohandas Ghandi just because Gandhi was not a Christian. What a loss it would be if Martin Luther King Jr. had not engaged the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh just because Thich Nhat Hanh was a Buddhist.

And this is true of other religions as well. Imagine what a loss for the world it would have been if Gandhi had not engaged the thought of Olive Schreiner just because she was not Hindu, and what if Thich Nhat Hahn had not learned from the thought of Martin Luther King Jr. just because he was not a Buddhist. We all need each other, and we have so much to learn from each other in pluralistic beloved community.

In looking at the value of pluralism within my own faith tradition of Christianity, I think it is important to remember that what we experience as Christianity is various forms of institutionalization of the Jesus movement. If this institutionalization had not occurred, Christianity would not exist today. Religious movements require institutionalization for their survival. In the process of institutionalization, beliefs and practices become codified into doctrine, which is used to create a sense of religious identity that will persist over time, and this in turn supports the stability and viability of the religious institution.

What we know about Jesus primarily comes to us though the writings that occurred during the process of the institutionalization of the Jesus movement. As is the case with the institutionalization of all religious movements, this process is influenced by a number of religious, cultural, political, and economic factors. This process of institutionalization is a human process, and like all human processes, it is subject to human fallibility and all of our human frailties.

As Christianity became co-opted by the Roman Empire in the 4th Century C.E., the cultural, political, and economic influences on the institutionalization of Christianity come more directly from the empire, which had political and economic interests in seeing Christianity unified under a prescribed set of beliefs and practices that were conducive to the well being of the empire. The most widely accepted creedal statements within the institutions of Christianity today were formed during the 4th Century as the empire used violence, exile, and execution fo enforce a set of doctrines conducive to imperial interests. A plurality of views about Christianity was not in the empire’s interest for conformity and order.

This history should lead us all to have some humility about what we think we know about the actual person of Jesus. We see Jesus through the lenses of the processes of the institutionalization of Christianity, and sometimes these lenses may not give us the clearest picture and may actually obscure our vision of who Jesus was and what he did. What we think is a set of “orthodox” doctrines about Jesus may be more of a product of Christianity’s institutionalization than it is an accurate portrayal of Jesus, and thus it is possible that attempts to enforce adherence fo a particular set of doctrines rather than allowing for a pluralism of views might be more about the protection of the institution of Christianity than it is about following Jesus.

The acceptance of religious pluralism and pluralism in thought and action in general is vital for the maintenance of a vibrant democracy and for the freedom and flourishing of persons within beloved community. Every authoritarian and autocratic movement rejects the value of pluralism within society. Nationalism, especially religious nationalism, is built on the rejection of pluralism, which is expressed through actions that discriminate against and oppress persons who are considered to be the “other.” The value of embracing pluralism not only contributes to our learning from views different than our own, it also helps us realize that we can be one beloved and diverse human community, not in spite of our differences but actually because we accept and embrace our differences. Our diversity contributes to the overall flourishing and wellbeing of all persons within community. Acceptance of pluralism is at the very core of a free and democratic society.


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