“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Challenges of Pluralism

For the last couple of weeks, I have been listening to a wonderful Great Course called Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know. The tutor is Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University, and it has been fascinating listening.

In the last lecture of the course, Religion Today - Trends, Challenges and Hope, there is a very interesting section  entitled Thinking about Others - Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism, which is very relevant to Unitarians. Obviously we are not exclusive - we don't believe that our religion is the only truth, and that folk who don't agree with us are destined for eternal hell-fire.

But "inclusive" is a word bandied around quite a lot by Unitarian communities. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming. So I found his definition of inclusivism quite interesting. He writes: "Inclusivism states that while one's own tradition is the only one that contains complete truth, salvation is still available to those who are outside of the tradition. The grace of God is extended to all human beings, and the saving work of grace can be accomplished even if the individual is not a member of their faith."

And I don't think that's what Unitarianism is about. If we take that definition of inclusivism to be correct, then we are not inclusive; we are pluralist.

Berkson states that pluralism has two forms:

1. "One form of pluralism holds that, despite the outward appearance of difference, at the deepest level, all religions are the same." (emphasis mine) In the lecture, he mentions the much-used metaphor of us all being on the same mountain, but using different paths.

2. "Other pluralists deny the sameness of all religions and argue that if we truly want to respect and appreciate other traditions, we must maintain their distinctiveness and not try to blur the differences.  The latter pluralist approach begins with the notion that ultimate reality - God, the divine - is beyond our ability to completely grasp. We must acknowledge that, as limited human beings, we can never understand divine reality in its entirety ... no religion possesses truth in its entirety. Each tradition possesses its powerful truths, but also its blind spots. The more religious traditions we welcome into the conversation, the more illumination there will be." (emphasis mine)

This is why it is so important for Unitarians to be involved in inter-faith stuff in their communities. If we are truly the second kind of pluralist, (and I think that at our best, we are) then we should welcome the opportunity to engage with other faith traditions and learn more about how they perceive religious truths, both to enrich our own knowledge, and to move into a place of understanding and compassion about people who believe differently to us.


  1. I think Prof Berkson is oversimplifying the picture. It is possible to be the second kind of pluralist, and still want to stick within one symbol-system. Most Pagans accept that there are many different perspectives on reality, but are quite happy within the Pagan paradigm.

    The thing with polytheism, of course, is that you can always add other people's deities on as a few extra ones. Whereas a monotheist has to try and see the other lot's deity as a different facet of a single divinity - which is really hard if the characteristics of the other lot's deity or deities are so radically different that they just don't fit.

  2. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes