Toward an Honest Pluralism

“The sheer range of religions represented led me to assume that they have few presuppositions in common. This assumption was supported by the fact that the main reason they meet is in order to learn about each other’s traditions.” Nate Gonzales, undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, made this astute observation in a paper he wrote about the USC student Interfaith Council, of which he’s an active member and for which I’m the advisor. (It might come as no surprise that he has been accepted into the PhD program in the sociology of religion at the University of Chicago.)

Rajiv Malhotra’s new book, Being Different: The Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, which will be discussed in the blogosphere at the Patheos Book Club on Mar 1, explores presuppositions in the relationship of Indian and Western cultures. Malhotra chairs the Board of Governors of the India Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.  His thesis is that Western categorizations of Indian culture, philosophy, and religion have been accepted not only in the West but also by Indians, thus marginalizing Vedic viewpoints that flow from the inside out. Hinduism itself was a construct of the British raj which blurred into one the enormous diversity of indigenous religious practices on the subcontinent. Can Westerners imagine Indians defining a religion called Jordanism that collapses Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into one entity based on geography? (This idea was expressed nicely by Phil Goldberg in his recent book, AMERICAN VEDA.) Malhotra argues for a distinct Indian alternative to the assumption that Western constructs should define and describe the whole world. His book is an eye-opener, if we recognize the inner vision that can see the seldom-examined presuppositions we use to define and categorize the world. Once that eye is opened, we can learn about each others’ traditions from the inside out.

He opens the book with an indictment against the limits of “tolerance” as a model for relationships among religions. All too often, he says, it becomes a Trojan horse for devaluing and even stifling the religions that are tolerated by faiths that claim ultimate superiority over all others. I would agree that this is a serious problem in Christianity. My own pluralistic position, that other religions can be as good for others as mine is good for me, is still a minority viewpoint in my faith. (Pluralism Sunday, the first Sunday in May, is a time when progressive Christians around the world celebrate religions other than our own.) How did the religion of Jesus, a humble servant, get so full of itself as to claim to be the only true religion?

Malhotra’s breakdown of the different ways that religious people subtly denigrate or degrade the religions of others is useful in explaining why tolerance isn’t an adequate basis for interfaith engagement. Real pluralism is a long way from the Pope’s viewpoint, in which other religions should be engaged, valued, learned from, but ultimately understood as deficient compared to Catholic Christianity. Malhotra argues forcefully, perhaps even stridently, for “mutual respect” to be the norm among religions. I think he goes too far in criticizing some religious leaders for failing to express pluralism in the exact terms he prefers. “Mutual respect” sounds too much like “tolerance” to me, when it’s clear that Malhotra advocates for a strong form of religious pluralism. And he doesn’t seem to recognize the existence of Christians who do practice what he preaches, suggesting that religious pluralism is categorically incompatible with Christianity. I can see why the culturally insensitive efforts at “inculturation” perpetrated by Western missionaries in India would give him this impression, but there’s more difference within Christianity than he appears to know.

Perhaps Malhotra works harder than necessary at “being different”, but he does put into stark relief the difference between a friendliness toward difference that effectively aims to eliminate difference, and a world where different world-views can exist and develop side by side. For many if not most Christians, to aspire to the latter requires a healthy stretch of the imagination.

Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians – my latest book – at
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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