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The Moral Challenge of Religious Diversity PDF Print E-mail

Lewis Rambo, San Francisco Theological Seminary

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

At conferences such as this it is very common for us to affirm religious diversity and the importance of dialogue. All of us would agree with that. What I would like to do is derive something of an overview of the contours of the issues in relationship to religious pluralism, as well as to the issue of how do we do dialogue, not just merely affirming these things, but getting down to some of the hard work of how this is done.

So I would like to provide something that might be called a grammar of pluralism. How do we explore the deep structures of the issues that we confront when we talk about pluralism and the imperative for dialogue? This is an important issue in my own life, having grown up in a small town in west Texas as a member of the Church of Christ, which some of you may know if you know something about American religious history. It is a very conservative, fundamentalist church that essentially considers itself the one true truth, which excludes the validity of all other Christians on the face of the earth, much less Buddhists and Hindus and so forth, who are not even in the equation. So you can imagine the impact of going to graduate school and other kinds of institutions where I was coming face to face with people from other traditions. How does one negotiate this?

So the issue of pluralism was both pushed into my face, as well as something that, as time went on—teaching at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley—actually came to be something that I relished. One of the things that I want to emphasize is that it is very easy to affirm religious pluralism and the importance of dialogue. I think, though, that it is extraordinarily difficult to do it with authenticity and integrity and to have lasting impact. In other words, it is very easy to come to a conference such as this and almost have a celebration of diversity and dialogue. But to actually engage in significant dialogue later is an extraordinarily difficult challenge.

Growing up in the sectarian background, you can imagine that there were many jokes about this kind of an issue. We had a number of lawyer jokes and so forth. But let me give you one. The typical joke is somebody dies and goes to heaven. And someone is now giving them a tour. Heaven, of course, is vast and beautiful. It is filled with Roman Catholics, it is filled with Orthodox Christians, it is filled with Baptists, it is filled with Seventh Day Adventists, even with some Buddhists and Hindus and so forth. But as the tour goes on, they go further and further and further into the hinterland of heaven. And for a time there is almost no one there. Finally they get to a point in heaven where the guide in heaven says, now be very quiet, because just around the corner we will find the members of the Church of Christ, but be very quiet because they think they are the only ones in heaven.

The issue of religious pluralism is one that in the past was something we didn’t really have to deal with very much because most people lived in a relatively isolated community. When there was contact between religious groups, the boundaries were usually very clearly drawn because of ethnicity, nationality, and other kinds of issues, so that there was rarely significant interaction in most places in the world. It was rarely a significant intellectual issue except for questions such as how do you condemn other religious groups, and/or, how do you do apologetics in such a way that you can persuade them into your particular version of the truth.

But in the last 100 years or so, because of communications, because of mobility and so forth, whether we like it or not, we have been thrown into a world in which virtually no one can escape the reality of other religious groups. As Peter Berger and other sociologists of religions have pointed out, when one comes in contact with other religious groups, often, especially for those who are still engaged in what might be called a lust for servitude, they are profoundly disturbed by meeting people who have different religious orientations. This creates a profound problem for many people and there are many different reactions to this. I came from these people who believe that the proper response is to try to convert those who disagree with you. That is the way to deal with it. That particular strategy is actually relatively easy and can make your life relatively simple because the world is clearly divided up and one doesn’t have to worry too much.

At the other extreme—which I think is very popular in circles in which many of us may delve, especially people in academic institutions and people who are bureaucrats in religious organizations—is the theological position that might be called inclusivism. It is the exact opposite: We are ultimately trying to say the same thing. We may have different languages, we may have different rituals, and so forth, but ultimately all roads lead to God or to the Transcendent or whatever. Both of those positions are relatively easy, in the sense that you either exclude everyone, or, on the other hand, in what I would consider to be a rather bland, naive inclusivism, defend the idea that we are all doing the same thing. In all the situations I’ve found myself where that kind of position has been articulated, most of the people in the group, those that are committed to religious traditions that have deep and long histories, know that there are unique particularities to our group that we want to be heard.

So it seems to me that the position that I once advocated in the face of pluralism and the complexity, is one in which we see dialogue not as simply finding points of convergence—although I would agree with the first speaker that finding these points of contact are very important. But I think what is even more profound is when we discipline ourselves and discipline is where the moral challenge of religious pluralism enters. That is, I believe that we have a moral imperative to listen with authenticity, to listen with generosity, and to engage one another in ways so that people are heard at a very deep level.

Not merely, "Oh, isn’t it nice to have this conversation?" But, what is your history? What is your tradition? How do we engage one another in ways that we can see that it is not merely a bland celebration of things that we all have in common? But rather, what are the distinctive gifts that you bring to this discussion. What can we learn, for example, from the Jewish community? How do you survive in the face of thousands of years of persecution? How do they maintain integrity and strength? What are the distinctive theological positions that they carry? What are the organizational strategies that they have developed in order to survive and, I would even argue, to thrive, in extraordinarily hostile environments? We can ask this of many of the groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Coptic Christians in Egypt, or wherever you might want to say that these places exist.

So the strategy that I would argue is that, for religious pluralism to make sense, more than just merely "live and let live" would be a theological position that would invite serious dialogue. Now this kind of dialogue is very hard work. Anybody who doesn’t believe that really hasn’t tried. Because I know in many different situations when I entered into this kind of discussion, I had very good intentions, but oftentimes it is very difficult to set aside my history, my convictions, in order to really listen to someone who has a radically different point of view. In fact, in many positions the real test of being able to live with pluralism is to listen to people who would condemn you. Or would condemn me. In many of these kinds of situations, we need to face the fact that the real test of pluralism will be for those of us who are from more mainline traditions and so forth to allow and support groups that if they were in power, they would probably want to run us out of the country; put us in prison, or condemn us to eternal damnation. The limits of our generosity are sometimes pushed in these kinds of dialogues.

Now let me give some examples of some issues that I think should be dealt with in this kind of authentic dialogue that goes beyond mere patting each other on the back. I mentioned already that it is still important for each of us to affirm and celebrate our own tradition. I also think that before we can engage in certain kinds of dialogues and discussions—and this is especially true for the majority group, whatever that might be—if you are in Texas, the Southern Baptists, if you are in most of Latin America, it would be the Roman Catholic Church. In the United States it would be Christians, vis-a-vis the Jews, Muslims, etc. But whoever is in the majority needs, I think, to do a very careful assessment of their own history and what we have done to the outsider, to the marginal person, in this case we are talking about religious groups.

I think that before serious dialogue can ever take place with Jews, for example, all Christians, especially those of us who have roots in Europe and the traditions that have contributed to 2,000 years of persecution and murder of Jews, need to do a long historical confession of our sins, for if not our complicity, then in terms of creating an ideology that in many cases feeds anti-Semitism. In other words, I think in many situations what needs to happen is a confession of sins of the majority group.

Recently I have been doing some study of Native Americans or indigenous people in the United States. Of course, you have this similar issue here in Latin America. I think that before the Christian community in the United States can ever deal with some of the more recent issues of Asian immigration and so forth, we must deal with the issue of what Christians have done in the United States in the colonial period and earlier, vis-a-vis Native Americans. What did we do vis-a-vis Africans who were brought here as slaves? I think the beginning point of serious dialogue is the confession of our own sins.

Most of us don’t want to think about this stuff. As I was thinking about this presentation, I realized that the memory of the victim is very long. The memory of the perpetrator is very short and very distorted. So those of us who are white Christians in the majority of different places, we think, "oh, it is no big deal, it was a long time ago," blah, blah, blah. But my experience has been—and I have done work mostly in Korea, Japan, and China with regard to some of these issues—even though the missionary enterprise has been long transformed, people remember what Christian missionaries have done in all of these places to denigrate, to ridicule, and to punish thousands upon thousands of people who did not conform to various forms of Christian orthodoxy, whether it be the Roman Catholic version of orthodoxy or the Protestant version of orthodoxy. So we must be aware that before significant dialogue can happen, we have to face up to the victim, of what we have done. The victim remembers. We want to forget—those of us who perpetrated it.

One of the things I would like to propose in thinking about this conference and talking with people, and I think this will emerge even more as our time together goes on, is to call for, in a sense, a new job description or perhaps a new vocation. In my field of pastoral care and counseling in the last couple of decades, we have been emphasizing the importance of cross-cultural counseling, cross-cultural psychology, and so forth in order to build bridges. It seems to me that we have come to a time when we need to have people whose vocation it is to be substantial, in-depth people who can deal with the issues of religious dialogue. So that, for example, when we talk about cross-cultural counseling, we believe that people need to be fluent in at least two languages. To spend time within another culture so it is not just a passing interest. It is not something you can just read a few books about.

And I would argue that the same thing should happen with people who are called to the vocation of dealing with religious pluralism in-depth. So I am calling for those of us in the academic institutions: let’s start creating some courses, let’s start communities so people can actually deal with the issue of religious pluralism in something other than just a litany of "isn’t nice, let’s do it, let’s be friendly." I am arguing, let us move to a new depth so that with this kind of understanding we can grow and develop with much more maturity and with much more sophistication.

This calls for extraordinary discipline and, I argue, extraordinary courage. Probably many of us come from traditions where this kind of vocation would be ridiculous. We are not going to win any points with most of our communities of origin for this kind of thing. But we must move into the 21st century with dignity, courage, and a vision for how all the religions of the world can work together in ways that are not just a few friendly meetings, but in-depth significant relationships that would lead to a richer understanding of God, a richer understanding of nature and of our neighbor, whoever that neighbor might be.