Thoughts on interfaith

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

I had lunch with six pastors on Thursday, and we got talking about the tension between maintaining your identity as a member of a particular faith tradition on the one hand and respecting people of other faith traditions on the other.

People who study interfaith relations for a living often divide the responses to that issue into three categories: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism.  The posture of each is as follows:

Exlusivism: My tradition has the truth and yours does not.

Inclusivism: My tradition has the core of the truth but I can still learn a lot from your tradition.

Pluralism: Every tradition is an avenue to the truth, and no one tradition has a lock on it.

Here's my problem with Exclusivism.  Exclusivists, in my experience, tend to view truth in terms of concepts called doctrines instead of relationships.  When it comes to Jesus, for example, Christians will talk about doctrines like the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth or Eschatology.  Doctrines are necessary for faith communities, because they set boundaries.  If I say I'm a Christian, for example, and I believe in reincarnation, worship the devil and believe the amulet I'm wearing will give me good luck, you would be justified in saying that I'm not standing within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. 

The problem with doctrines is that while that are necessary for group identity, they can be used to exclude and demonize people who are unorthodox.  One example is that the cemeteries in Forest Park have large sections for Jews, Druids, Anarchists and Roma, because for a long time they weren't allowed to be buried within the city limits of Chicago.  Other examples include the Crusades, the wars of religion in Europe, and currently ISIS.

Another problem with doctrines is that they try to put God in a box.  It's like saying you know me if you know my Myers-Briggs profile.  The fact that I'm an INTJ gives you hints at what I'm like, but the real me is far more nuanced and unpredictable then those four letters reveal.

Exclusivists are good at maintaining cohesion in their own group but bad at connecting with other groups.

Here's my problem with Pluralists, and I'll begin with an analogy.  I suppose any of us could be happily married to several people.  That may be true theoretically, but it's not the way it works in concrete reality.  Mature, healthy intimacy involves picking one and only one; faithfully walking through life.  There's a certain exclusivity to adult intimacy.  I can be close to many others but only up to a certain point. 

S. Mark Heim wrote a book entitled Salvations, Truth and Difference in Religion.  He writes, "The common thread here [in the Pluralist position] is a consistent disinclination to face otherness. . . .What it claims to assure as the truth of all religion is too generic and too detached from the concrete particulars of the traditions to be satisfying to their adherents."(p. 111)

Heim contends that the pluralist argument depends on accepting what he calls their "meta-religious" view which the members of each particular religion never share.

"Second," Heim argues, "it [Pluralism] seeks to minimize the genuine venture of religious commitment.  There are possibilities which may be realized if we choose one path and other possibilities, perhaps even mutually exclusive ones, that will be realized on another path."(111ff)

"The empirical situation of cultural and religious diversity," he concludes, "is itself a primary factor in making increasing numbers of people aware that there are diverse options, that these options lead in varying directions, and that something is at stake in the difference."(p.112)

Pluralists are good at connecting with people from other traditions but often don't have a clue to their own identity.

Heim contends that everyone is essentially an Inclusivist.  For example, what do Pluralists—i.e. people who say every tradition leads to the Ultimate Concern (Tillich)—do with Exclusivists?  They have to try to convert them to their meta-doctrinal point of view.  It's like the liberal church which told a visitor, "We believe that all religious viewpoints are valid, and if you don't agree with us, you should look for another church."

Pope Francis might be held up as an Inclusivist we can all admire.  His openness to "the other" in no way implies that he does not have a firm religious identity.  What allows us to admire him is that his identity is rooted in the One who washed his disciples' feet, spoke truth to power, and told his disciples "judge not that you not be judged," while at the same time declaring, "I am the way and the truth and the light."

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Interfaith matters  

Posted: November 17th, 2014 4:23 PM

Great topic, Tom. But I think you're a little harsh on pluralists. Is something "at stake in the difference?" Especially with the rise of Nones as a category. Does it matter if we drive a Ford or Honda? The raft is not the river. Not that having a religious identity is bad...the Dalai Lama advocates staying in your birth faith, not switching. But God has no religion. I'd also point out that the problem with exclusivism isn't the beliefs...it's forcing those beliefs on others.

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