2011: Religious Pluralism, Diana Eck and Vinoth Ramachandra
What is pluralism exactly, and how does it differ from relativism and tolerance? Join Harvard professor Diana Eck and Sri Lankan lay theologian Vinoth Ramachandra in an important dialogue from The Veritas Forum.
Read Diana Eck's Opening Presentation
Read Vinoth Ramachandra's Opening Presentation
Why Tolerance is Not Enough: Myths about Pluralism (2011)Diana Eck & Vinoth Ramachandra
[watch on YouTube]
Opening Presentation by Diana Eck
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The theme of pluralism, that really is a big theme. I’ve lived all my adult life as a Christian, a life-long Methodist, wrestling with these issues of how we think about our deepest human differences, what kind of questions do they raise for our faith, and I do believe this is one of the most important issues for the world in our time.
I grew up in a mountain valley in Montana, an absolutely beautiful place, the Gallatin Valley, where religious diversity was not a salient fact of life. There were Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and some Evangelical Independent churches. And there were Native Peoples to be sure. In fact, my very first job was on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, working for the State Department of Health in Lame Deer. There were no Jewish communities that I knew, then, in Bozeman.
But I did get very involved with my church. I was involved with the Methodist Youth Fellowship, both on the state and on the national level, and we were engaged in some of the big issues of the day. We did work camps, I suppose what they now call Habitat projects, in Mexico on the Blackfoot reservation. I went with the National Methodist Fellowship and the Methodist Student Movement to a conference in Ohio in 1963 and we drove all night from that conference and arrived in the early morning of an August day in 1963 in Washington for the March on Washington. So it was with Christian students that I went to that march and heard those words of Dr. Martin Luther King on that steamy August day, and with my Christian student group that I went to Washington D.C. on spring break in my freshman year and lobbied for the Civil Rights Bill. Those were heady days, and we spoke of race relations. We didn’t really talk of interfaith in those days. I have to confess that I had never met anyone who was Jewish until I went to college.
In 1965, as a junior in college, I went even further east from my home in Montana and spent that junior year in India. It was a year abroad program, it was in Asia, and that was the thing that mattered most. We were deeply, deeply involved in the Vietnam War in those days. Our friends, our classmates were being drafted, were being killed. Our involvement of our lives was part of the ruin of Vietnam and Cambodia, and all of our involvement far outstripped our knowledge of those parts of the world, in ways that remind me very much today of our involvement as Americans in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in parts of the world in which our cultural and religious knowledge as Americans is so shallow, compared to our involvement as a nation. And I felt I needed to know more about the traditions of Asia, that’s why I went to India. It wasn’t Vietnam, but it was close enough.
It was there in India that I really found my life’s calling, what I would consider God’s calling on my life, my vocation. I might have gone into Christian ministry, but my sense of calling was something different. It was the challenge of studying and trying to understand the religious worlds of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs that were religious worlds I did not share entirely (at all, really), that were strange to me as I lived that first year in the city of Banaras on the banks of the Ganges, one of the holiest cities in India. But religious worlds that I was challenged to understand. And my attention was then especially on the Hindus. So many gods, so many understandings of God—singular, multiple—how was I to understand it? How did they understand it? What were their many understandings? But it was also in that sacred city of the Hindus that I first heard the call to prayer, and it was in India that I first went to a synagogue in Cochin in the state of Kerala.
Well, since then there have been many, many years spent in India, many Hindu temples. I work on sacred geology and pilgrimages from the Himalayas to the southern seas, and, as I said, I’ve probably spent more time in Hindu temples than any other living Methodist. And since then dialogue has become a very deeply important and natural part of my life, not a dialogue set apart around an artificial table somewhere, but a dialogue that accompanies day-to-day life, lived in a multi-religious environment, which is almost everywhere these days.
I continued my work in India, to be sure. I also began working in the United States when it became clear that so many people of Indian origin came as immigrants to the United States after the 1965 Immigration Act opened the doors to immigration in the U.S.—for the first time ever, really—to immigrants from Asia. And I also became involved as a part in some of the dialogue movement of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and, as I took up my work at Harvard, I have colleagues who are Hindu, who are Muslim—like my colleague right next door in the Barker Center, Ali Asani—who are Jewish, who are Humanist. I have foster children who are Kosovar Muslims.
Dialogue is not something set apart, but is the way in which we engage with the people who are our neighbors, either neighbors across the street, across the hall, in our own dorm rooms, or around the world. And it’s not all happy hand-holding, although there is some happiness involved in it, but a difficult dialogue to communicate across some of the great chasms that separate us as human beings. And there also is that dialogue within, within our own tradition. Those are some of the most difficult dialogues in a way, because all Christians don't think the same thing about these issues, as you may well know—and the same with Muslims and the same with Jews.
My teacher, as a student here at Harvard and a young professor as well, was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and it was fifty years ago when he in 1961 gave his inaugural convocation address in Memorial Church for Harvard Divinity School, in which he said—and it’s germane to our understanding of pluralism—that any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith today must include some sort of doctrine of other religious ways. He challenged the Divinity School faculty, and that was fifty years ago, and I’m still not sure how they’ve come up to that challenge, calling for a new theological thinking that would take seriously the voices and visions of equally rigorous thinkers who are Muslim or Hindu or Jewish. From now on, he said, the articulation of our faith as Christians must take into account the world of religious vibrancy and intellectual depth that the study of the world’s religions reveals. “I don't know how we’ll content with these questions,” he said, “but I do know that, from now on, these are the questions with which we must contend.”
These are the questions that are at the heart of Veritas, engagement with our own religious tradition and engagement with the religious ideas and faith of others, and this is a challenge of people in every tradition. Does the study and engagement with another destabilize our own faith, does it threaten our own, does it relativize our own, enrich our own? And of course, in these fifty years, the world has changed so much in the fifty years since Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s inaugural address here.
It changed with two major engines of change. The first, of course, is the massive migration of peoples from one part of the world to another, including the migration of so many peoples to the United States. The religious landscape of the United States is totally unlike what it was fifty years ago, forty years ago, thirty, even twenty years ago. And this is true of countries in Europe as well, where Tamil Hindus have temples and religious communities in Bern and Strasbourg; and Gujaratis, like the global Swaminarayan movement, have landmark temples in London and Houston; and Sikhs litigate for the right to wear their turbans in Canada and carry their kirpan. Or Christians and Jews and ardent secularists in our society encounter new religious neighbors, sometimes with a kind of wary uncertainty.
And the other twin engine of this vibrant and rapid, fast-moving change is of course the communications revolution. That even if you don’t venture around the world or even across the street, the religious teachings and scriptures and words and ideas of people of other faiths are very much part of the discourse of the world. It’s on the news; it’s on the Internet; and Vatican television has launched its own YouTube channel, powered by Google Italia, that makes clips of all of Pope Benedict XVI’s speeches, etc. Sheikh Qaradawi in Doha has a popular show on Al Jazeera and issues fatwas in response to questions submitted from around the world.
So in our time this deep and widespread encounter with religious diversity is more pervasive than ever before. And if I ask, how is this related to pluralism, well, we've already said a little bit. I have a Pluralism Project, I gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh on what I call the Age of Pluralism, and to me, if we look at pluralism, I need to say a few things about it: one, that it is a topic of study, that to study the complexity of our world today places those scholars of religion who want to know something about the energies of religion in a completely different, challenging place. You cannot study a single religious tradition as if it grew up all by itself. No religious tradition has, and especially today. They are engaged with one another in complex societies, and so the challenges for us as scholars for studying pluralism are significant.
There are also challenges for us as citizens, because we share our cities and towns and countries increasingly with co-citizens of other faiths. And the challenge of multi-religious democracy is certainly ours in the United States; it’s part of the challenge of every single nation in Europe, of India, Indonesia, Malaysia; and even for deeply secular people who have absolutely no personal use for religion this is a situation that demands a response of how to live in a multi-religious society in which our citizens, our fellow citizens are as different from one another as they are today. And these problems and the challenges of creativity they pose for all of us as citizens are not just theoretical. They're grounded in our everyday context in cities and neighborhoods. These are the workshops in which our future is being built.
And the third context, of course, is that the Age of Pluralism is not just about how we study this diversity, or how we appropriate it, as citizens, but how we appropriate it as people of faith. Because people in every single faith tradition are faced with this same question that brings you here tonight: How do we interpret the diversity of human religious experience? How do we understand it, as Christians or as Muslims? And one thing is very clear, that pluralism is not just this diversity; pluralism is engagement with this diversity. It is not just tolerance, because tolerance is far too thin a foundation for a world in which we live as closely with one another as we do. We need to know more about one another, and not simply tolerate each other. And pluralism is not relativism. Pluralism does not mean we all agree on this thing or that thing. The paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and commitments behind, because pluralism is the encounter of commitments; and it means holding our deep differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relation to one another.
And the language of pluralism, finally, is the language of dialogue, and it is a language, as we enter into the world in which we live today and will live for the rest of our lives, that we need to learn: a language of hearing and listening, of witness and hearing the other—and this is the language, so to speak, the discourse of the future.
Now let me say a word in conclusion about how deeply important this is for communities of faith and every community. If Rabbi Jonathan Sacks were with us tonight, the Chief Rabbi of England, he might draw on the resources of the Exodus and the lessons of being strangers in an alien land. How do we regard, as Jews, the strangers within our gates? In his book, The Dignity of Difference, he writes, “Can we recognize God’s image in one who is not in my image? Can we recognize God in the face of a stranger in this global age which has turned us all into a society of strangers? Can I, as a Jew, hear the echoes of God’s voice in that of a Hindu or Sikh or Christian? Can I do so and not feel diminished, but enlarged?” Or a Muslim like Tariq Ramadan might turn to the doctrine of Tawhid, the oneness of God. How does the Qur’an’s revelation of God’s oneness shape a Muslim understanding of human religious diversity?
And as a Christian, I have to say I’m astonished at how many Christians seem to think that the only resource Christians have for thinking about their relations for people of other faiths is a verse from John 14, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, etc.” I as a Christian might turn to the Gospels anew and decide that this Good News is not in the first instance about ideas or dogma: it’s about relationships, relationships that transcend the boundaries of tradition, ethnicity, and social standing. It’s even about transgressing those boundaries and restrictions and legalistic constructs of one’s own tradition, even as Jesus did: to reach out not only to neighbors, but to strangers, and outsiders. And in my book Encountering God I explore how my own encounters with those of other faiths have shaped and deepened my own faith as a Christian.
And finally, let me turn to some of the ways in which theologically we need to think together, and I mention the World Council of Churches because I actually believe that whoever the group is you think with, that Christians don’t think all by themselves: we think together, with others. And this has been an important topic of work of the Christians in the World Council of Churches. Thinkers from Britain and Germany, Ghana, South Africa, Lebanon, thinking together as theologians about the changes of our time, that they say “require us to be more attentive than before, to our relationship with other religious communities, challenge us to acknowledge others in their differences, to welcome strangers, even if their strangeness sometimes threatens us, and to seek reconciliation even with those who have declared themselves our enemies.” In other words, we say, we’re challenged to “develop a spiritual climate and theological approach that contributes to creative and positive relations among the religious traditions of the world,” and this is serious business.
Now let me highlight just a few words that are words that have been highlighted here:
One, mystery. The mystery of God’s relationship to all people and the many ways in which people have responded to God's mystery invite us to explore more fully the reality of other religious traditions and our own identity as Christians.
Two, creation. What does this truly imply, the starting point of creation? The conviction that God as Creator of all is present and active in the plurality of religions makes it inconceivable to us that God’s saving activity could be confined to any one continent, cultural type, or group of people.
Three, the hospitality of Christ. Christ’s hospitality is not limited to those in our own community, but extends to the stranger and the outsider, involves us in the kind of self-emptying and receiving others in unconditional love, even for our enemies. As Christians, therefore, we need to search for the right balance between our own identity in Christ and our openness to others in kenotic love that comes from that identity.
And finally, the renewal of the Holy Spirit, that Holy Spirit that the Gospel of John tells us, “blows where it wills.” We discern the spirit of God, these theologians said, moving in ways we cannot predict. We see the nurturing power of the Holy Spirit working within, inspiring human beings in their universal longing for and seeking after truth, or peace, and justice. We believe that this encompassing work of the Holy Spirit is also present in the life and traditions of people of living faiths.
Our ability to think in new ways challenges us in this Age of Pluralism, and it challenges us as scholars in a university committed to Veritas, as citizens, in multi-religious nations, and as people of faith as we think deeply from the resources of our own faith about our encounter with the religious other.
Opening Presentation by Vinoth Ramachandra
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You gather from my name that my father’s family are Hindu. My surname is actually the name of a Hindu God, so I was born and grew up in a very pluralistic society, with all the major world faiths, excepting Judaism, present in Sri Lanka, and all my life I’ve wrestled with some of the questions Diana raised for us, so these are very important challenges, both on the political as well as the personal level.
I endorse much of what Professor Eck has been saying, and I’m not going to directly respond to her, but just speak to the topic of religious pluralism and tolerance:
We do not know what we believe and why, let alone how much our lives match up to what we claim to believe, until we engage in serious dialogue with others, especially those who are profoundly different to us. In other words, the other is indispensable to our own self-discovery. And argument and disagreement, far from showing lack of respect, are actually honoring of others: we are saying that the other’s views are important enough for us to engage with them seriously. Not so when we refuse to engage, as when we either demonize others, or we say something like “they are all saying the same thing anyway, but in different ways.” That is a profound lack of respect for people. So often the language of tolerance is used as a way of avoiding the dangerous act of exploring the world of others. We are, in effect, saying, “Leave me alone. Don’t examine and critique my world.” And that is essentially what both relativism and the myth of a supposedly neutral secularity both entail.
Tolerance also raises important issues of power and control: who is tolerating whom? Who speaks of the weak and the powerless tolerating the strong? Or of minorities tolerating the majority? And even when it comes to interfaith dialogue, we need to ask, “Who gets to sit at the dialogue table?” Last year, I met a prominent American theologian who was invited to Tehran to participate in a conference of over 2,000 Iranian Shi’ite clergy. He was the only Christian in this conference. I was so envious of the opportunity that he received. I knew, coming from Sri Lanka, I would never be invited. And I asked him, “These Shi'ite clergy who invited you to speak on how Christians understand peace and reconciliation —do they ever talk with the Iranian Christian leaders?” And he laughed and he said, “No, never. They invited me because I’m an American, and they want to have good relations with America, and they think America is a Christian power, so we need to invite an American Christian.”
So these are some of the myths we encounter, myths that are prominent not only among Muslims, but amongst many Americans, including American Christians. There is a profound ignorance on all sides that we have to struggle to dispel. Most Muslims, and indeed most Americans, are not aware that two-thirds of Christians in the world live in the Global South; or that the majority of recent immigrants to the U.S. are Christians, at least by name. They are often poor, they are located in inner city areas, and these new urban congregations represent a growing “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity.
Most Americans tend to identify Arab with Muslim; they are shocked to learn that there are more Christians in the Palestinian refugee camps than in the entire state of Israel. As for Christian mission, myths are plentiful. It was freed slaves from Jamaica who carried the Christian Gospel into the heart of Africa a generation before the first European missionary set foot on African soil, and the fastest growth of the African church occurred in the post-colonial era. It was Muslims in Africa who profited most from colonial rule. As for Asia, the ancient Persian church of the 4th century witnessed more martyrdoms than in the first 300 years of the Church in the Western Roman Empire, and the first Christians in China and India emerged centuries before the creation of Europe itself.
But perhaps the greatest myths of all revolve around the use of the world Religion, spelled with a capital R. Religion, like mysticism and supernatural, these terms reflect linguistic habits first learned in 17th century Europe and shaped by deism: the idea that there is a universal genus Religion with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and so on viewed as sub-species of this genus. It is assumed that there is either a common universal “religious experience” that undergirds these faiths or a common morality refracted in different practices. And those scholars, usually American and European, who adopt a theoretical, privileged position outside of every specific faith community, try to elaborate a general structure of religious truth that can provide a space for every religious tradition, but which nobody believes in. Lack of commitment under the pretext of openness leads to no real dialogue. We cannot put our faith in parentheses to connect with another’s faith.
Moreover, the more that we explore the faith-traditions and their practices, we discover that they are embedded in world-views that make conflicting, even incommensurable, truth-claims. They embody radically different visions of human flourishing. The shalom of the kingdom of God is not the moksha of dominant Hindu schools or Buddhist nirvana. Theoretical attempts to bring them under some overarching rational meta-narrative end up denying genuine pluralism, of not respecting the otherness of the other. And this is the paradox at the heart of many pluralistic theologies and philosophies of religion. I think it’s more intellectually honest to accept these divergent worldviews and social practices and to say that we have to choose which we consider more truthful than others. Exercising hospitality toward unfamiliar and alien ways of thought and life does not absolve us of the responsibility to be critical. Public indifference to truth is no less harmful to a civilization than fanatical insistence on truth.
A second reason that I am uncomfortable with talk about religion in this generic sense is that it occludes from view the way that consumerism, sport, nationalism, capitalism, scientism, for example, function as global religions today. The shopping mall, the health club, the football stadium, the stock exchange, July 4th celebrations—these are great places to study religious behavior. They are the new temples and sacred icons of the late modern world, they are all surrounded by elaborate liturgies, rituals, the aura of the mysterious; they place a high premium on community and collective loyalty and blind worship. So by treating “religion” as a separate academic discipline we may be blinding ourselves to the ways that religion is flourishing among so-called “secular” people.
Thirdly, so much of religion, traditional or modern, is the locus of superstition, gullibility, cruelty, exploitation. And that goes for much of Christianity, too, in its history, not least the folk Christianity of Christendom. But the assumption that the human/divine encounter takes place primarily in the realm of “religious experience” and “religious communities,” this assumption is challenged fundamentally by the heart of the Christian gospel.
The earliest Christian profession, what made a man or a woman a Christ-ian, was the confession “Jesus is Lord,” And “Jesus is Lord” was never merely a statement of personal devotion. It was an announcement of a decisive event within secular human history that had universal, indeed cosmic, implications. The Jesus of whom the first Christians spoke had been crucified by the Roman authorities. And in the Roman Empire crucifixion, though widespread, was viewed with universal disgust and horror. It was the most humiliating form of execution, the death penalty reserved for rebellious slaves, insurgents against the sate, people we would call terrorists today. No Roman citizen could be crucified. Romans didn’t even discuss the subject; they pretended it never existed. It was the way they preserved the Pax Romana. So crucifixion was a way of obliterating not only the victim but also the memory of him. And that’s why not a single ancient historian pays attention to crucifixion.
So I cannot over-emphasize the absurdity, the foolishness of the Christian proclamation. If you wanted to convert the educated and pious religious people of the Empire to your cause, whatever that cause may have been, the worst thing you could ever do would be to link that cause to a recently crucified man in an obscure part of the Empire. To put it mildly, that would have been a public relations disaster. And to associate God, the source of all life, with this crucified criminal was to invite mockery, ridicule, sheer incomprehension—and that was indeed the experience of the first Christians.
But if this message were true, then surely it subverts the world of religion. It claimed that if you wanted to know what God is like, what are God’s purposes for the world, you had to go not to the countless religious temples and sacred groves that dotted the empire, or even the lofty speculations of the sages and philosophers, but you had to go outside the walls of Jerusalem and gaze in your imagination on that broken, battered, tortured corpse, that that is what God is like.
For the Jews, a crucified Savior, this was a contradiction in terms; it expressed not God’s power but God’s powerlessness. For Greeks, the idea that a god or a son of god should die as a state criminal, that human salvation should depend on that particular historical event, was not only offensive, it was sheer madness.
The Roman pantheon was most hospitable. It could readily accommodate any new deity in a manner somewhat similar to that of Hindu Vedanta. The public cult of the emperor was a way of preserving the religious pluralism of the empire. The new Christian movement would have been accorded a ready welcome if it simply took its place as another private cult amongst the myriad of cults that the empire boasted. But the early Christians refused that offer, because for them Jesus was not a deified man, like the emperors that the senate decreed to be divine; nor was he a mythological hero, like Hercules or Arjuna, in the Hindu epics. His labors were real: the agony of a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Now, it is the madness of this “word of the cross” that compels us to take it seriously. And I am a Christian today because there is something so foolish, so absurd, so counter-intuitive, so topsy-turvy about the Christian message that it gets under my skin: it has the ring of truth about it. No one can say that this was some pious invention, because it ran counter to all notions of piety.
This vision of ultimate reality as self-giving love, a love that suffers with us and for us and yet is not overcome by suffering— this vision of ultimate reality is not found anywhere in the religious traditions of humankind or even in the great literatures of humankind. And the Church that has been entrusted with this message for the sake of the world is still itself discovering the richness and ramifications of that message through the church’s encounter with others, an encounter that is not confined to the realm of the “religious” or the “spiritual,” but embraces the economic, the cultural, the political and every other area of life.
The Christian movement is the world’s most extensive and longest sustained engagement with human otherness. Wherever the Church has been faithful to the Gospel, it has recognized the intrinsic worth of peoples and cultures long despised by the dominant religious and political elites. The Church has been motivated to serve the so-called “dregs” of humanity: the destitute, the disabled, the dispossessed. And this is the continuing story of Christian witness in many parts of the world. So far from the message of the incarnation of God in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth breeding any notions of religious or cultural superiority, it actually humbles human pride.