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Religious pluralism

Religious pluralism refers to theological attempts to overcome religious differences between different religions, as well as attempts to overcome religious differences within different denominations of the same religion.

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Different forms of religious pluralism

Religious pluralists generally do not claim that all religions are absolutely true. Different religions make certain claims that logically contradict each other: For example, most Christians believe that Jesus was God incarnate and part of the Trinity, while both Muslims and Jews hold that it is impossible for any human to be God incarnate, and that no Trinity exists. Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, while Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified. Therefore, claiming that both Christianity and Islam are absolutely true gives rise to a logical contradiction.

However, most religious pluralists hold that no religion can claim to teach the only or absolute truth, arguing that religion is not literally the word of God, but rather is mankind's attempt to describe the word of God. Given man's finite and fallible nature, no religious text can absolutely describe God and God's will in absolute precision. On this view no religion is completely true and there is an infinite Reality, or God, that is beyond the ability of any single religion to capture with total accuracy. Instead, all religions make an attempt at capturing this Reality, but this always occurs within a cultural and historical context that affects the viewpoints of the faith's holders.

A recent theological innovation, held by some religious liberals, is a maximal form of religious pluralism. This viewpoint holds that that all religions are equally valid and equally true. This form has become held by some who accept some forms of post-modern philosophy, especially deconstructionism. Critics of this viewpoint hold that this claim is self-contradictory.

In the last century, liberal forms of Judaism and Christianity have modified some of their religious positions. Religious liberals in these faiths no longer claim that their religion is complete and of absolute accuracy; rather the Jews teach that their faith is only the most complete and accurate revelation of God to humanity that we have, and the Christians teach the same thing in reverse. This allows a religious believer to admit that other faiths have common ground with their own faith, and that these other faiths may even appreciate some other aspect of God that they might not. Adherents of this position argue that just as scientists must have intellectual humility in order for them to find the truth about the laws of nature, religions must have theological humility, and admit that they do not have a exclusive path to God. Religious conservatives in Christianity reject these claims outright, and hold that only their path allows a person to reach God. However, many if not most of these same conservatives would acknowledge that some expressions of faith will vary from culture to culture and from time period to time period, and new cultures may indeed shed new light on old dogmas.

Many people hold that it is both permissible and imperative for people of all faiths to develop some form of religious pluralism. It is intellectually valid for us to do so because since Biblical times, our understanding of man's place in the natural world has changed radically, due to advances in science; since Biblical times, philosophers have challenged us to rethink our notion of truth, and the very way that we use language itself; advances in travel and communications rule out isolationism; and advances in weaponry and warfare rule out religious intolerance, as this can now lead to mass-murder on scales previously unimaginable.

Some religions hold a reverse form of religious pluralism, in which they tolerate and sometimes endorse those religions which were created before them, but will not accept any new religion which has arisen after itself. In computer programming terms, this is analogous to backwards compatibility[?]. For example, Christianity accepts some aspects of Judaism, but generally rejects Islam. Islam accepts some aspects of Christianity, but does not tolerate the Baha'i faith. Most adherents of Baha'i accept Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but do not accept new theoligical innovations that have been created in their community since then.

Inter-religious pluralism (between different religions)

Classical Greek and Roman pagan religious views

The ancient Greeks were polytheists; pluralism in that historical era meant accepting the existence of and validity of other faiths, and the gods of other faiths. Greeks and Romans easily accomplished this task by subsuming the entire set of gods from other faiths into their own religion; this was done on rare occasion by adding a new god to their own pantheon; on most occasions they identified another religion's gods with their own.

Jewish views

There is a separate entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism, which discusses both classical and modern views of Judaism's relationship to other religions, and the permissibility and purpose of inter-faith theological dialogue.

Christian views

Classical Christian views

Christianity teaches that on their own, it is impossible for any person to have a relationship with God, and that the result of a lack of such a relationship is damnation. To avoid such a fate, Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was God made flesh in a literal manner, and that by accepting various beliefs about Jesus and God and repenting, a person could then have a meaningful relationship with God and avoid damnation, and earn eternal life in Heaven. All non-Christians, especially Jews, are specifically pointed to as destined for damnation; they complain that such teachings may be considered hateful or anti-Semitic. Christians respond by teaching that it is not they who teach these things or passing judgement, it is God Himself who passes final judgment. Christians teach that the consequence of self-separation from the triune God, who they view as the ultimate source of all life, is eternal death. In Christianity, all humanity shares a common fallen nature and a common predicament. Christians sometimes view their faith as a form of egalitarianism, because it teaches that all humanity potentially has equal access to salvation: a person simply has to renounce their faith and sincerely adopt Christianity.

Christians have traditionally argued that religious pluralism is an invalid or self-contradictory concept. Maximal forms of religious pluralism claim that all religions are equally true, or that one religion can be true for some and another for others. This Christians hold to be logically impossible. (Most Jews and Muslims similarly reject this maximal form of pluralism.) Christianity insists it is the fullest and most complete revelation of God to Man, that God exists as a Trinity, and that the person of Jesus Christ is not just the best but the only way to encounter God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. If Christianity is true, than Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and so forth cannot be equally true, although they may contain lesser revelations of God that are true. So the pluralist must either distort Christianity to make it pluralistic, or reject it and acknowledge that one cannot be a complete pluralist.

One image of the Church that was often used by the Church fathers[?] was that of a hospital. In this analogy the doctor does not always care for a patient in the way the patient would like, but in the way best suited to bring about healing to the patient. (Entry into the hospital should of course be voluntary.) Doing what pluralists ask would be somewhat akin to accommodating the false "pillow prophets" of the Old Testament who prophesied to the king what he wanted to hear, predictions of victory, rather than God's words of certain defeat that could only be avoided through thorough repentance. Thus, Christianity must preach salvation through the Church to all outside the Church, in order to help people realize that through conversion to Christianity one will achieve salvation.

To these Christians, it appears to be a contradiction for non-Christians to acknowledge the validity of Christian prayers or sacraments, but continue to deny the beliefs which underlie those prayers and sacraments. The central sacrament, the Eucharist, for example, is believed to be the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ; belief in its efficacy is based on the belief that it really and truly is. If a person were to deny that the Eucharist is Christ's body and blood, that would amount to denying that it unites us to God, imparts grace, or administers any other benefit, save possibly through a sort of psychological placebo effect.

Modern (post-enlightenment era) Christian views

Many modern day Christians, including many Catholics and some liberal Protestants, have developed a view of the New Testament as an extended covenant; They believe that Jews are still in a valid relationship with God, and that Jews can avoid damnation and earn a heavenly reward. For these Christians, the New Testament extended God's original covenant to cover non-Jews.

A large Protestant Christian group, the Alliance of Baptists, has broken with traditional Christian theology vis-a-vis the Jewish people. In March 1995 they issued "A Baptist Statement on Jewish-Christian Relations". This document stated that the Holocaust could only have come about because of "centuries of Christian teaching and church-sanctioned action directed against the Jews simply because they were Jews. As Baptist Christians we are the inheritors of and, in our turn, have been the transmitters of a theology which lays the blame for the death of Jesus at the feet of the Jews...a theology which has valued conversion over dialogue, invective over understanding, and prejudice over knowledge...". They then confessed their sins of "of complicity...of silence...of indifference and inaction to the horrors of the Holocaust." Finally, they issues a series of recommended actions that they asked all Christians to join them in, namely:

  • "Affirming the teaching of the Christian Scriptures that God has not rejected the community of Israel, God's covenant people (Romans 11:1-2), since 'the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable' (Romans 11:29);

  • Renouncing interpretations of Scripture which foster religious stereotyping and prejudice against the Jewish people and their faith;

  • Seeking genuine dialogue with the broader Jewish community, a dialogue built on mutual respect and the integrity of each other's faith;

  • Lifting our voices quickly and boldly against all expressions of anti-Semitism;

  • Educating ourselves and others on the history of Jewish-Christian relations from the first century to the present, so as to understand our present by learning from our past."

The United Church of Canada issued a statement in May 1998 entitled "Bearing Faithful Witness: United Church-Jewish Relations Today." This position paper goes further than most other liberal Christians groups, and calls upon Christians to:

  • Stop trying to convert Jews to Christianity; Reject Biblical interpretations which negatively stereotype Jews, as this leads to anti-Semitism; Reject the idea that Christianity is superior to, or a replacement for, Judaism; recognize that anti-Semitism is an element of historic Christianity, but not an inherent part of it - therefore one can remove it from Christianity and still remain faithful to Christianity.

Many smaller Christian groups in the US and Canada have come into being over the last 40 years, such as "Christians for Israel". Their website says that they exist in order to "expand Christian-Jewish dialogue in the broadest sense in order to improve the relationship between Christians and Jews, but also between Church and Synagogue, emphasizing Christian repentance, the purging of anti-Jewish attitudes and the false 'Replacement' theology rampant throughout Christian teachings."

A number of large Christian groups, including the Catholic Church and several large Protestant churches, have publicly declared that they will no longer proselytize Jews.

Note that most Christians, including most Orthodox Christians and most conservative Protestants, reject the idea of the New Testament as an extended covenant, and retain the traditional, classical Christian view as described above.

Muslim views

Classical Muslim views

Modern (post-enlightenment era) Muslim views

American Islamic Congress (http://www.aicongress.org/)

Muslims Against Terrorism (http://www.matusa.org/home.asp)

Baha'i views

Bahá'u'lláh urged the elimination of religious intolerance. God is one, and has manifested himself to us through several historic Messengers. We therefore must associate with people of all religions, showing the love of God in our relations with them, whether this is reciprocated or not.

Bahá'í's refer to the concept of "Progressive Revelation", which means that God's will is revealed to mankind progressively, as mankind matures and is better able to comprehend the purpose of God in creating humanity. In this view, God's word is revealed through a series of messengers: Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahá'u'lláh (the founder of the Bah'ai faith) among them. In the Book of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh acknowledges that what these messengers say about themselves is inevitably true, thus if Jesus claims Divinity then this cannot be denied, since God is speaking through him.

According to Baha'is there will not be another messenger for many hundred of years.

Hindu views

The Hindu religion is naturally pluralistic. As such the Hindu religion has no theological difficulties in accepting degrees of truth in other religions. Just as Hindus worshiping Ganesh is seen as valid those worshiping Vishnu (who accepts all prayers), so someone worshiping Jesus or Allah are accepted. Indeed many foreign deities become assimilated into Hinduism, and some Hindus may sometimes offer prayers to Jesus along with their traditional Gods. For this reason, Hinduism usually has good relations with other religious groups accepting pluralism. In particular, Hinduism and Buddhism coexist peacefully in many parts of the world.

Despite the lack of theological barriers to pluralism, relations with other religions are not always good. In particular, in India there is a history of conflict with Islam. Muslims view Hindus as the worst kind of infidels, as unlike Christians and Jews they do not worship Allah, and are not "people of the book". This is reciprocated by Hindus, who view Muslims as hostile to their religion. In India, a number of Muslims mosques have been built on the sites of ancient Hindu temples; this has lead to violence such as the sacking of the Babri[?] mosque in 1992. The number of sites where mosques have been built on Hindu temples is disputed. Some Hindu group claim that tens of thousands of sites are effected, whereas some historians claim that the number is less than a thousand.

Intra-religious pluralism (between different denominations within the same religion)

Jewish views

Jewish views on relations between different Jewish denominations is covered in the entry on Jewish views of religious pluralism.

Christian views

See Ecumenism.

Classical Christian views

Prior to the Great Schism, mainstream Christianity confessed "one holy catholic and apostolic church", in the words of the Nicene Creed. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians and most Protestant Christian denominations still maintain this belief.

Church unity was something very visible and tangible, and schism was just as serious an offense as heresy. Following the Great Schism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have generally continued to recognize each others' baptisms as valid, although they are still not in full communion. Both generally regard each other as "heterodox" and possibly even "schismatic", while continuing to recognize each other as Christian. Attitudes of both towards different Protestant groups vary.

Modern (post-enlightenment era) Christian views

Most fundamentalist Protestant Christian groups hold that only their Church provides a pathway to God and salvation. All other Christian groups are held to be heretical, and are sometimes attacked as Satanic. Neo-evangelical[?] Protestant Christian Churches reject this view outright, and hold that most forms of Christianity are valid pathways to God. They continue to believe in "one" church, but see the Church as being generally invisible and intangible. Many Protestants doubt that either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are still valid manifestations of the Church.

Muslim views

Classical Muslim views

Modern (post-enlightenment era) Muslim views

Buddhist views

Classical Buddhist views

Modern (post-enlightenment era) Buddhist views

Universal Vehiclism is an attempt to unite the different branches of Buddhism into a single coherent Buddhist philosophy and set of practices, in order to increase the appeal of Buddhism to the youth in Asia.


  • "Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism", Robert Gordis et al, Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1988
  • "Ground Rules for a Christian-Jewish Dialogue" in "The Root and the Branch", Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962
  • "Christians and Heretics in Rabbinic Literature of Late Antiquity" Richard Kalmin, Harvard Theological review, Volume 87(2), p.155-169, 1994
  • "Toward a Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christiantiy" Ed. Leon Klenicki, Paulist Press / Stimulus, 1991

  • "People of God, Peoples of God" Ed. Hans Ucko, WCC Publications, 1996

See also Projects working for peace among Israelis and Arabs -- Jacques Dupuis -- freedom of religion, pluralism, syncretism

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