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True Pluralism

Pluralism has gotten a bad rap, and much of it earned based on a misuse of the term. Sociologist Christian Smith suggests (HT: John Fea) that Pluralism is actually the answer that we need to balance traditional sectarianism (where we simply scream at each other and demonize those we disagree with) and what he calls “liberal whateverism” (where we all try to get along by pretending there are no disagreements). Here is his conclusion to what we should do:

Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.

I think we need to reject both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism and commit ourselves instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that “all religions are ultimately the same.” That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private “opinions.” It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.

Read the rest here. Smith has interesting thoughts about current trends, including the large minority who have a nebulous belief in “karma”.

Note that Smith is not suggesting we ignore differences (what I have typically heard referred to as pluralism, but which Smith more appropriately labels as liberal whateverism). He is suggesting that we acknowledge differences, but offer others the respect that we want from them. If we as Christians want to offer our view in the public square, we should be open to Muslims, atheists, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, etc. offering their views as well. If we want to be listened to, we must listen to them. We don’t have to agree, but we do need to listen to and respect them. This seems like a model our Messiah could endorse. In fact, he did: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7.12 NASB) I think this is a proper balance between the demonizing of those we disagree with, and the blind acceptance of them while ignoring the disagreements. I pray that we as a society can move to this model, rather than the extremes that we have experienced in religion and politics recently.

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One comment on “True Pluralism

  1. Well said, Sam. And I agree totally… just because we sit and listen to someone else does not mean we are guilty of syncreticism nor does it mean “liberal whatever”… it means giving grace and love.

    From a Christian theology perspective, may I suggest reading “Manifold Witness” by John Franke who proposes this kind of pluralistic view, at least among Christian denominations and theologies, is actually by design because, with such an infinite God, we need multiple contextual perspectives in order to get the best “picture” of God we can… It’s available in e-book from Amazon (and, as mentioned elsewhere, Amazon has a Kindle for PC and Kindle for Cloud app so you don’t have to actually have the hardware).

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