We can grow closer to God and deeper in compassion – and we can understand our own traditions better – through more intimate awareness and experience of the world’s religions. Pluralism Sunday, May 5, is a time when churches around the world celebrate elements of other world faiths in sermons, litanies, and music. Many feature speakers and singers from other faith traditions. Some congregations have exchanges with other faith communities, going to each other’s houses of worship. Pluralism Sunday is an initiative of ProgressiveChristianity.org. Congregations worldwide have adopted its “Welcome Statement” affirming “that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.”
Professor Diana Eck of Harvard, founder of the Pluralism Project and recognized expert on religious diversity in America, suggests three general ways in which religions relate to each other. One is exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, at the worst. This is associated with fundamentalism as it manifests in many different religions. The next way in which religions relate is called inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. I can learn and grow from our relationship, but the truth in your religion only points to the ultimate truth of mine. We should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate. This is the point of view of the Catholic Church and that of some evangelical Christians. The third way is pluralism, the idea that your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me. Pluralism does not imply that all religions are somehow the same. But it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way, and that my religion is not necessarily superior to yours.
Religious pluralists are sometimes accused of being relativists, but the two ideas are quite different. Pluralism does not suggest that all religions are equal. It does not suggest that we can’t make value judgments about the tenets or practices of other religions. Rather, pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions.
Pluralism is a consequence of spiritual humility. We can encounter God directly through mystical and spiritual experience, and through acts of service, worship, and devotion. But this doesn’t mean that we come close to understanding who and what God is. Humility before the mystery and majesty of God or Ultimate Reality makes it very hard to claim that one or another religion has all the answers about matters spiritual.
A common biblical argument for exclusivism and inclusivism comes from passages from the gospel of John: ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” The implication of these passages for many Christians is that if you don’t believe these things, you’re going to go to hell at worst, or at best stay dead when you die. But it is worth noting that the gospel of John is the most mystical of the gospels – the least interested in the historical Jesus. The “I am” passages in John refer back to the book of Exodus where God speaks from the burning bush. Moses asks God, ‘Who are you?” and God says, “I am who I am.” Jesus expressed his experience of mystical unity with God. In John 17, Jesus says, (v.20), “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” Jesus and his disciples were one; Jesus and God were one; the disciples and God were one. The “I Am” passages are mystical expressions of union with God. When Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one comes to the father but through me,” he said that it is through mystical union with God that God can be known. And you can have this mystical union with God through Islam, through Judaism, through Hinduism. Buddhist spiritual experience also resonates with this mysticism, even though it does not make reference to God.
Pluralism is not a religious salad. Nor is it a religious soup, where we cook all the religions down till they taste the same. There’s a way to be authentically and particularly religious, immersed in a religious culture and practicing a specific religion and path, while maintaining a pluralistic approach to other religions. Religions are not the same, but there are phenomenological resonances among them that make their differences a source of spiritual enrichment for all.
Americans historically have tended to see religion as a rectangle bounded with walls of belief. You’re either in or you are out, you’re saved or you’re not, you believe in the Bible or you don’t, Jesus is your personal savior or he’s not. But this not the only way to look at Christianity. It is a spiritual path that is headed somewhere. We are attracted to a divine center, not stuck in a theological box. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” The Way is not a wall. The Way goes places! Jesus referred to himself as a door. Doors swing open!
America is the mostly religiously diverse country on the planet because we have a long tradition of toleration. But Pluralism Sunday is about Christians taking a step beyond tolerance and embracing other religions and honoring them at a deeper level. And that’s a much deeper level of respect and openness. Pluralism Sunday encourages churches to make contacts and develop relationships with people of other faiths, and to experience those faiths personally.
Increasingly, Americans have close personal contact with devoted practitioners of faiths other than their own. When people hear Christian pastors claim that theirs is the only true faith, they often reject the church altogether. Unfortunately, people tend to associate Christianity with exclusivism. It requires a vigorous, intentional effort to let the public know that there is another way to be Christian. If you are a member of a progressive, pluralistic church, you need to let the outside world know who you are, in language they can understand – or they will assume you have a narrow view toward other faiths.
Only ten percent of Americans believe that people of faiths other than their own cannot get to heaven, according to Putnam and Campbell’s book, AMERICAN GRACE. A rapidly growing number of people who identify as evangelical Christians have rejected what they’ve been taught by their pastors about other religions. There is a pluralism revolution brewing among the members of conservative churches. Pluralism Sunday gives encouragement to Christians coming out of the evangelical closet on this issue.
Thomas Jefferson, celebrating religious diversity in an 1820 letter to a Jewish leader in Savannah, Georgia, wrote: “the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is, “divided we stand, united we fall.” The differences among religions offer countless windows through which to contemplate the endless mystery of the Divine. Peering through those many windows on Pluralism Sunday, among other occasions, grows us in our separate faith traditions, while bringing people of all religions closer together.
A TASTE OF HOW CHURCHES CELEBRATE PLURALISM SUNDAY:
Rowntree Memorial United Church of Canada, London, Ontario, celebrated Pluralism Sunday for the first time this past Sunday, April 28th – relying on materials available through The Center for Progressive Christianity with the Bohemian Cafe dialogue from the Pluralism Project presented during sermon time.
St Andrew’s on The Terrace Church, Wellington, NZ, will be inviting a member of the Buddhist community to speak about his journey as a secular Buddhist at our Sunday morning service on May 5.
First United Methodist Church of Madison, WI will be celebrating Pluralism Sunday on May 5 with worship focused on appreciation of religious diversity and what we receive from other faiths. Liturgical movement and music of other traditions will be included. The church will also host an interactive, intergenerational World Peace Village that day with banners, prayers, traditions, and sacred items from several different faiths.