Remaining Singular While Making the Plural: Why “Pluralism” Can be a Barrier to Interfaith Cooperation and Why We Should Overcome It

During my time in the church (which is to say, my whole life), I have heard the word “tolerance” tossed around rather often, its usage peaking perhaps around the early-to-mid 2000s, probably in response to 9/11. I gathered it was a dirty word, but could never quite pin down its precise meaning, and thus place its threat to me as a Christian. Sometimes, tolerance seemed an agenda put forth by secular society in order to muddy the theological waters, while at other times it seemed a kind of commandment from God (i.e. “Love your neighbor as yourself”). And, near the end of its peak usage, there was a lot of talk about its impossibility as a social system: “You shouldn’t just tolerate one another, that’s not sufficient enough, it won’t solve anything.” To this end, I agreed. However, I still had little idea what “tolerance” was supposed to do or teach me.

As I became more self-aware and more media-savvy, I made a point to keep up with current events. This is when I saw the word “tolerance” morph into another word in the public discourse: pluralism. Admittedly, I distanced myself from the term because, this time, it was a perceived threat to my faith. I had heard “pluralism” used in order to refer to what seemed an “all roads lead to heaven” doctrine of inclusiveness that accepted all religious persons into the fold. We were all touching part of the same elephant, it seemed to say, and we were just too blind to notice.

That may be what “pluralism” means to some, but that’s not what it means to us. And furthermore, that’s not what it has to mean. It’s not as if, just by proximity or association, deeply held religious tenets melt away. (Although, for quite some time, I felt that this was the case. Later, I realized that the impetus behind this feeling actually came from other insecurities discussed in another “Barriers” post: a feeling of inadequacy regarding my religious literacy.) Religions are not walled-off edifices where, on one side, you have faith A, and then everyone outside the wall is faith B or C or D—religions are groups of people disseminated throughout various cultures and locations. They are moral imperatives and codes, beliefs about the way one should live wrapped in sacraments and sacred words and practiced in community.

In Christianity, this notion of the individual believer forms one of the most crucial doctrines to our identity in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6:19, while writing about the significance of the body’s implication in sin, St. Paul says that our bodies are “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit within [us]” and are thus “not [our] own.” We must care for these “temples” in order to maintain a strong personal relationship with God. If we work to strengthen our “temples,” then a believer’s proximity to other faiths should not compromise the integrity of their own. (For more information on Paul, please click here.)

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to say that the believer should construct the edifice’s walls instead of the church, or that the individual is more important that the whole; on the contrary, it is St. Paul himself who describes the church as the “body of Christ.” What I mean to say is that though there is much to say for the “body of Christ” in the writings of Paul, there is no “fortress of the Church” or “walled off Christians.” Instead, we see the opposite. Paul always wrote to Christians rooted in a culture that oftentimes opposed them or ran counter to their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. They were firmly within the culture, not without it. And, as our culture becomes increasingly diverse, we must learn, just like the early church, how to manage our faith alongside other faiths.

The Interfaith Youth Core (you can find the link in our “Friends” at the top of the page) works as a service organization for a reason: as a Christian, I can serve alongside a Muslim packing meals for the hungry or helping build a Habitat home without either of our faith identities being compromised. Feeding the hungry and housing the needy are simple examples, and yet they illustrate how “pluralism” does not mean smearing theologies. Instead, it shows how two disparate people can come together to develop a meaningful relationship with one another while also improving the lives of others.

What motivates us to serve does not have to be the same theological backing, but simply a desire to help, a desire to see love and compassion overcome strife and dissidence. At its essence, pluralism of the sociological sort is a good thing, and one we must work to rid of its negative connotations within the religious community. The apprehensive Christian must realize that interfaith cooperation does not compromise our faith. It does not have to be a theological pluralism.

Furthermore, the model that Greg and I follow here at FLP—the one put forth by IFYC—for interfaith cooperation protects against theological blurring by its very design. As stated in our “Pluralism” page in the navigation bar (a concise statement of our views regarding pluralism), the IFYC advocates a dialogue that is affirming of different traditions’ identities. From the IFYC site:

“Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus, but the conviction that people who believe in different creeds can learn to live together with, in the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, ‘mutual trust and mutual loyalty.’ It surpasses mere tolerance of diversity and requires that people of different religions affirm their distinct beliefs while making commitments to one another and the world we share. Three components which hold true for a pluralist society are respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.” (“About the Movement” ifyc.org)

The notions contained in the statement above is why I personally became involved with Interfaith in Action at the University of Illinois, and then engaged in interfaith cooperation on a larger scale. I believe that these tenets are important, that this movement is important, and that Christians have a crucial role to play within it. Built into our core beliefs as a religious community stand the values necessary to see a world of peace and mutual respect flourish. We do not compromise ourselves in these endeavors, nor do we merely “tolerate” others; instead, we engage with people of other faiths to improve the world that all of us call home. This is the IFYC’s hope, this is Greg’s hope, and this is my hope. May it be yours as well.

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