SEPTEMBER 29, 2003
Martin E. Marty
"Pluralism" is a word with plural meanings. In America it refers
mainly to the way citizens live with a polity and with practices that recognize
diversity and assure civil peace in the face of it. However, in theology in
recent years there is also a different, international movement, which finds
significant support and impetus in the United States. These American "theological
pluralists" jetted to Birmingham, England in September to compare notes
with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others.
John L. Allen Jr. reports on their conclave in the National Catholic Reporter (September 19). He defines their belligerent-sounding intent to be "smashing what these thinkers regard as the 'idol' of claims to superiority by one religion over others." Birmingham's John Hick, who taught for decades in the United States, is the grand old man of the movement; Allen mentions Paul Knitter of Xavier and Roger Haight, S.J. and Chester Gillis of Georgetown as American Catholic leaders.
Needless to say, the orthodox theologians in all these traditions are nervous, at best, and outraged at worst, since pluralist theology would undercut all claims that a faith, e.g., the Christian, is not only a distinctive, but an exclusive way to God. Pluralism, according to Allen, says that "all the world's great religions are valid paths of salvation." It contrasts itself both to "exclusivism" and even "inclusivism," the view that only one religion saves and followers of others can be included." (Post Vatican II Catholicism takes a measured and guarded inclusivist position.)
Questions raised at Birmingham: "Is it important to persuade religious institutions of the pluralist views, or it better to make the case from the outside, assuming that institutions will catch up?" "Are the pluralists on a frontier where the mainstream will eventually arrive, or is pluralism destined to remain on the margins?" "How far is too far?" Do pluralists want "dialogue" or do they want to "evangelize" people into pluralist views?
Catholic backlash was apparent in Dominus Iesus, a Vatican document of 2000,
which warned against relativism in a "gravely deficient situation."
Critics fear that relativism, skepticism about objective truth, and a rejection
of some basic creedal features of Christian faith will follow. Paul Knitter
responds: "pluralists accept universal but not absolute truth -- a doctrine
can be true for all, but it cannot be the
Hick thinks the pluralist view will win; that cultural and religious evolution are on its side. Haight, however, says he has no expectation that pluralism could become official Catholicism. He would "carve out space for it to be accepted as an orthodox Catholic view, even if it's a minority." A Jewish participant, Rabbi Michael Kogan, wrestled thus: "I believe God chose the Jewish people. But who said God can only make one choice?"
This column, necessarily brief and sketchy, cannot begin to begin toresolve the pluralist-anti-pluralist debate. But we can say that it does not take a telescope to sight it: it is becoming one of the most controverted and public themes among world religions, especially where they interact.
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by Thomas J. Curry, a colonial historian and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The essay is entitled "Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement."
Our modern problem arises from the fact that government -- the Supreme Court especially -- has determined that the free exercise of religion is something guaranteed by government, that courts are to define and protect. As a result, understanding of the First Amendment is in utter disarray. Because judges assume themselves to be the protectors of religious liberty -- rather than a threat to it, as the Amendment proclaims -- they assume that they are the judges of what comprises that religious liberty. Thus they read the Amendment as containing substantive theological statements.
Invited responses to Bishop Curry's essay from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and W. Clark Gilpin, both of the University of Chicago Divinity School, may be found on the forum's public discussion board. We invite you to engage the materials and offer your own thoughts on the same discussion board throughout the month of September. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive.
Coming up in October, look for a web forum commentary from Professor William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective." The essay anticipates issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Divinity School conference "Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics," October 21-23, 2003.