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Pluralism 101

We have barely begun to deal with the fundamental changes that must be effected within our Christian faith. – John Cobb(1)

So here we go! Understand that this is by no means the only way that pluralist theologies are categorized. Different authors use different names and classify theologians differently. Since the subject – and the theologians themselves – are ever-evolving, making a definitive statement is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. But one of the simplest syntheses comes from Gavin D’Costa, who lists the shared characteristics of all pluralists:

* Christ is one revelation among other equally important revelations.

* Religions can learn about the divine from each other.

* The days of religious imperialism and chauvinism are over.

* Mission is understood as dialogue.

He also provides a simple breakdown of three kinds of pluralists: unitary, pluriform and ethical. I will describe each one briefly and then go into further detail about them.


Unitary pluralists are proponents of the “different paths up the same mountain” belief that there is a single (unitary) divine reality behind all religious expressions. All religions are oriented toward the same religious goal, whether we use names such as “God,” “Ground of Our Being,” or “Nirvana” and each leads to the same end. Each religion, therefore, is a valid and equal path.

Pluriform pluralists, on the other hand, believe that religions can be on different paths, moving towards different summits. They would have us understand that different religions promote different ends and that for the sake of integrity we should recognize the differences in the beliefs, practices, and hopes among us. As David Ray Griffin

“Religious diversity involves real differences in the diagnosis of the basic human problem, the type of “salvation” needed, and the nature of the ultimate reality to which attention is directed.”(4)

Finally, ethical pluralists do not want to judge religions by their concepts of divine reality at all. They believe that religions are related to the Divine insofar as they hold to ethical beliefs and practices.

Going Deeper

Unitary (or Identist) Pluralism

It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached, the trails converge. At the base, in the foothills of theology, ritual, and organizational structure, the religions are distinct. Differences in culture, history, geography, and collective temperament all make for diverse starting points. But beyond these differences, the same goal beckons. – Huston Smith (5)

The late John Hick (1922-2012) is arguably still the most well-known (and controversial) adherent of this position. As a result of interactions with other religious traditions, Hick moved away from his conservative Protestant upbringing into a pluralistic way of believing. He proposed a major shift in theology, one that would be as radical as the Copernican revolution, which shifted our belief in how the solar system works. As Copernicus showed us that Earth is not the unmoving center of the universe, Hick called for Christians to “shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the center to the realization that it is God (“Divine Reality,” “Eternal One,” “the Real”) who is at the center, and that all religions . . . including our own, serve and revolve around him.”(6) In other words, this would be a move away from a Christ-centered position to a theocentric one.

Hick’s own thinking evolved as he moved from the use of “God” to other terms, such as “the Eternal One,” “the Infinite,” “the Absolute,” “the Transcendent,” “the Divine,” and “the Ultimate.” He finally settled on “the Real” as the term that could encompass both the personal and non-personal concepts of the Divine in various religious traditions.

It is not difficult to understand why Hick’s proposal would be controversial.
Although he offers a unitary position in which all religions can stand, he still leaves us with the question of what do with Jesus. On this question, Hick is among an increasing number of theologians who have challenged traditional doctrines and have called for a revision of our understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of God, the only way to salvation.

Again, this is an extremely sensitive subject to broach in the local congregation.

However the interfaith landscape in which we find ourselves is making it increasingly difficult for us to ignore the impact that other religions are having on this claim.

Pluriform (or Differential) Pluralism

If practitioners of the world’s religions are all mountain climbers, then they are on very different mountains, climbing very different peaks, and using very different tools and techniques in their ascents. – Stephen Prothero (7)

While both Stephen Prothero (God Is Not One (8)) and Stephen Kaplan (Different Paths, Different Summits(9)) address this position, Prothero’s book is more of an attempt to convince us that there are distinctive differences among the world’s religions and the answers they give to the different questions they ask. Kaplan actually provides a model for developing a pluralism that takes these differences into account: “a plurality of ultimate realities and a concomitant plurality of soteriological (salvation) experiences.”194 He identifies three categories within this plurality, their “summits” and their ways of reaching salvation/liberation: Being/Self (such as the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Hinduism); Becoming/Emptiness (Buddhism); and Theism/Rooted in an I-Thou relationship (the Abrahamic religions).

Process theologian John Cobb would also be included in this category. Cobb calls his position, which is based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), “complementary pluralism.” He disagrees with those who argue that even though there are two different perceptions of ultimate reality – personal and non-personal – they indicate the same transcendent reality. In fact, he posits that there are at least two different ultimates.(10) One of these is the formless ultimate reality he calls “creativity” (a la Whitehead). It “has been called by names such as ‘Emptiness’ (‘Sunyata’) or ‘Dharmakaya’ by Buddhists, ‘Nirguna Brahman’ by Advaita Vedantists, ‘the Godhead’ by Meister Ekhart, and ‘Being Itself’ by Heidegger and Tillich (among others).”(11)

The other corresponds to what Whitehead calls “God.” This ultimate “is not being itself but the supreme being. It is in-formed and the source of forms (such as truth, beauty and justice). It has been called “Amida Buddha,” “Sambhogakaya,” “Saguna Brahman,” “Ishvara,” “Yahweh,” “Christ” and “Allah.”(12)

Following then from the distinction between these two kinds of pluralism are two kinds of interfaith dialogues. There is a different kind of conversation among traditions with the same ultimate (such as Christians, Jews, Muslims and theistic Hindus) than there is when those with another ultimate are involved. Cobb explains:

“Consider the Buddhist claim that Gautama is the Buddha. That is a very different statement from the assertion that God was incarnate in Jesus. The Buddha is the one who is enlightened. To be enlightened is to realize the fundamental nature of reality, its insubstantiality, its relativity, its emptiness. . . . That Jesus was the incarnation of God does not deny that Gautama was the Enlightened One. In that vast complexity that is all that is, it may well be that God works creatively in all things and that at the same time, in the Buddhist sense, all things are empty. . . . To affirm both that Jesus is the Christ and that Gautama is the Buddha is to move our understanding closer to the truth.”(13)

Ethical Pluralism

Can we dare to live a reign of God that reaches not toward an imperialism of one religion – our own! – sweeping the planet, but that reaches toward a new form of community: a community made up of diverse religious communities, existing together in friendship? – Marjorie Suchocki (14)

Marjorie Suchocki is representative of this position. She believes that, even as we affirm pluralism, we must find a way of determining how religion provides for the well-being of the human community. She would have us make a shift away from discussions centered on ideology to those centered on ethics, in which justice would be “the funda-mental criterion of value and the focus of dialogue and action among the religions.”

Writing from a feminist perspective in “In Search of Justice,” she rejects any system that makes only one way of being normative for all. This applies to gender, race, class, sexual identity – and religion. The criticism of ethical pluralism, however, is this lack of normativity. Who sets the criteria for what is just? For example, there are differences within the religions concerning homosexuality, the role of women and contraception.

Confessional Pluralism

The attempt of Gavin D’Costa at a simple definition notwithstanding, it is not easy to fit all the pluralist positions into his three categories. If you haven’t torn your hair out by now, bear with me as I try to explain another way in which theologians have attempted to come to the table of interreligious dialogue from an explicitly Christian point of view.

In The Many Faces of Christology (17), Tyron Inbody concludes that the choices of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism are inadequate. He argues instead for what he calls confessional pluralism, defined by Anselm Min, Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, as one “that encourages each religion to confess its distinctive beliefs and claims including the claim to finality. . . .,” that does not “relativize the absolute claims of religions or demand . . . renunciation of such claims as a condition of interreligious dialogue.”(18)

In this model there are two basic points:

1) Christianity (as are all religions) is contextual. We can see other traditions only through the lens of our own; we cannot claim to have a neutral perspective. Here in the West, we must even acknowledge that our lens is, in fact, Western. In this way, we do not presume to possess the entire truth. In other words, we can be pluralists, not from a universal perspective, but from an explicitly Christian one. We can affirm that no one religion has the complete truth, but that all of them embody part of the truth. This entails “a lack of finality and absoluteness” and an affirmation of “modesty about theological claims.”(19) In other words, we can speak about other religions only from the perspective of our own particular views.

2) A confessional pluralist, who is a Christian, can affirm the universal significance of Christ and can enter interreligious dialogue from an explicitly Christian point of view. For instance, Inbody uses the Trinity to argue that the triune nature of God would suggest that plurality is an irreducible fact about the world. The world is characterized by pluralism because unity-in-difference is the character of the Divine life itself.

Confessional pluralism can affirm that no one tradition possesses the complete truth; all religions embody part of that truth. It can also claim the universal significance of the revelation of God in Jesus. That may seem like an unreconcilable paradox, but John V. Taylor (1914-2001), the Anglican bishop and theologian, might help us out here. In his book The Christlike God, Taylor wrote:

“The different ‘faces’ of God which are set forth [in the various world religions] will seem in some respects to be mutually contradictory, and for a long time we may not be ready to guess how, if at all, they will be reconciled. I believe we can confidently leave that in the hands of the future if we will only persevere in the agenda for today. And for us who are Christians this is, quite simply, in reverent appreciation of the beliefs and prayers of others, to affirm that, whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love–and that we have found in that revelation the salvation that all peoples look for.”(20)

By living with this paradox, we do not have to surrender our loyalty to the revelation we have received nor presume to be in possession of the entire truth.

These are very limited explanations of the basic pluralist positions. I encourage anyone with an interest in exploring them further to read the sources cited in the footnotes.


Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions by Alan Race, Chapter 4 “Pluralism”(21)

From The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters by Susan M. Strouse, Wilgefortis Press, San Francisco (April 13, 2016)

(1) Cobb, John, in Griffin, David Ray, ed., Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 65.

(2) Anselm Min in “Dialectical Pluralism” uses these classifications: “. . . there are the phenomenalist pluralism of John Hick and Paul Knitter that takes religions as diverse phenomenal responses to what is ultimately the same ineffable transcendent reality, and the universalist pluralism of Leonard Swidler, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Ninian Smart, Keith Ward, and David Krieger that stresses the possibility and necessity of a universal theology based on insights from the history of religions. Rosemary Ruether, Marjorie Suchocki, Tom Driver, and Paul Knitter propose an ethical or soteriocentric pluralism that insists on justice as a measure of all religions (Hick and Knitter), while Raimundo Panikkar advocates an ontological pluralism that asserts the pluralism not only of our knowledge of being but of being itself (Swidler 1987; Hick and Knitter). There is, finally, the confessional pluralism of Hans Küng (Swidler 1987), John Cobb (Swidler 1987; D’Costa), Jürgen Moltmann, J.A. DiNoia, John Milbank, Kenneth Surin (D’Costa), and Mark Heim that insists on the legitimacy and necessity of each religion to confess itself precisely in its particularity including the claim to finality.”

(3) D’Costa, Gavin, Christianity and the World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009, 7.

(4) Griffin, David Ray, ed., Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 29.

(5) Smith, Huston, The World’s Religions: our great wisdom traditions. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, 73.

(6) Hick, John, God Has Many Names. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1982, 36.

(7) Prothero, Stephen, God Is Not One: the eight rival religions that run the world– and why their differences matter. NY: HarperCollins, 2011, 11-12.

(8) Prothero, Stephen, God Is Not One: the eight rival religions that run the world– and why their differences matter. NY: HarperCollins, 2011.

(9) Kaplan, Stephen, Different Paths, Different Summits. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

(10) Cobb developed the idea of two ultimates as a way to address theistic Christianity and non-theistic Buddhism. But he would also include a third ultimate: the cosmos or universe.

(11) Griffin, David Ray, ed.., Deep Religious Pluralism, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. 47.

(13) Ibid.

(12) Cobb, John, Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way Beyond Absolutism and Relativism. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999, 140.

(14) Suchocki, Marjorie. Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Nashville: Abingdon
Press, 2003, 86.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid, 149.

(17) Inbody, Tyrone, The Many Faces of Christology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

(18) Min, Anselm, “Dialectical Pluralism and Solidarity of Others: Towards as New Paradigm,” Journal of the American Academy of Religions, Fall97, Vol. 65 Issue 3, 588.

(19) Inbody, Tyrone, The Many Faces of Christology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002, 209.

(20) Taylor, John V., The Christlike God. London: SCM Press; 2nd edition (November 9, 2011), 5, quoted in Lee M., “From Religious Diversity to Confessional Pluralism,”, December 18, 2011

(21) Race, Alan, Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions. London: SCM Press, 1983.

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