Rethinking secularism:

Rethinking religious pluralism

posted by Courtney Bender

Alongside the ongoing discussion of A Secular Age, I would like to consider another important nexus in modern life—religious pluralism. As is clear from recent immigration debates, conflicts over the legitimacy of religious legal systems within secular states, and a variety of other flashpoints from comic strip controversies to family law issues, religion, or rather religions in plural, are at the center of debates about modern democracies and their futures. In our increasingly global and transnationally connected world, many of our contemporary anxieties about our futures have come to focus on a welter of issues and debates where religious diversity is a key problematic. We live in societies where religious diversity seems to be a new issue, or at least a qualitatively different issue than what nations like ours confronted in even the recent past.

In recent years, studies of religious pluralism in the United States and Canada have worked with dual purposes: first, to identify the shifts in the types of religious actors active in America and to map a newly diverse religious terrain, and second to use such knowledge to promulgate practices of tolerance and respect. One of the most effective and widely-cited practitioners and proponents of such efforts is Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, a multi-year endeavor to map America’s diverse religious landscape. This project was one of the first to mark out the scope of post-1965 “multi-religious America” by charting the presence of religious groups from a wide range of religious traditions in contemporary American cities, towns, and suburbs. The Pew Charitable Trust’s recent Gateway Cities Initiative sponsored similar research analyzing religious diversity among new immigrant communities in ten American cities. Ongoing research in cities in Europe, Africa, and Asia extend the model of mapping and articulating religious differences around the globe.

These projects of mapping the territories of religious diversity are frequently coupled with normative prescriptions about how modern citizens should engage religious others. Professor Eck argues that pluralism, defined as “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference” is best understood as an “energetic engagement with diversity” achieved through a dialogue rooted in the encounter of commitments. Similarly, sociologist Robert Wuthnow worries over the lack of religious interchange between religious communities in his recent volume, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity. He calls for religious leaders to teach their faithful about the theologies and the beliefs of neighbors to better foster understanding and, ultimately, integrated social life.

Recent conferences at Columbia and Toronto began by questioning the types of religiousness that are imagined within these normative projects. Each of the initiatives contains a strong tendency to identify religions as encompassing discrete and recognizable communities and traditions with explicit boundaries across which interchange or conflict occurs. And, while the normative goals of religious pluralism may be debated endlessly (and we certainly hope that such debate will continue), the conversations among scholars gathered at these conferences reflected a broader concern that the blending of descriptive and prescriptive assessments of religious pluralism is problematic. Our question then becomes: To what degree does the view of “religions” as discrete groups occupying clearly marked terrain make sense?

The impetus for these conferences grew out of conversations between my colleague Pamela Klassen at the University of Toronto and myself. We are both completing books in which interreligious interaction diverges radically from the types of dialogue exchange associated with models of “religious pluralism.” In our respective historical and ethnographic research with American Protestants and post-Protestants, we find not borders and exchange, but poaching and appropriation, confusion or lack of clarity about the origins, ownership, and authenticity of various religious ideas, practices, and identities. “Religious diversity” and “exchange” is messy business, often full of conflict and lacking clearly defined lines or boundaries. At other times it takes place via structures that unwittingly shape the possibilities for interaction in ways that demand multiple translations and recalibrations among groups and individuals.

The work of our colleagues in religion, law, anthropology, sociology and history likewise demonstrates the manifold ways in which our understandings about interreligious exchange and conflict can be expanded, sometimes in provocative ways. Institutions in our modern world inevitably privilege certain forms of religiosity and elide or occlude others under the sign of the secular. These processes make certain kinds of “pluralistic exchange” possible and others unthinkable or dangerous. As an example, a recent op-ed in the pages of The New York Times suggests one such process at work. Slavoj Zizek, noting the Chinese government’s new law that prohibits Tibetan Buddhist monks from reincarnating without its permission, finds opportunity to criticize presumably non-religious Times readers for what he imagines to be their tendency to envision religious difference as cultural difference, a translation that mutes and dampens certain truth claims in order to acknowledge, tolerate, or even celebrate difference. The structures and practices that translate the religious into the cultural and back again are one part of our inquiry into the experience, expression, and future of religious engagement.

Overall, our joint aim at the University of Toronto and Columbia conferences was to place the projects of pluralism and exchange in historical and contemporary context to better understand where we are and where we might yet go. We note (and indeed share) a growing sense of urgency among scholars and public figures to “understand” the religious pluralism that appears to be a central and incontrovertible condition of modern global realities. Yet part of that understanding involves taking stock of the ways that religious differences have been shaped in public debate, scholarly work, secular institutions, and in the daily practices and public claims of various religious actors. In this undertaking, religious pluralism loses its natural qualities, and we begin to look more closely at the religious and secular institutions that manage, celebrate, condition, and exclude various forms.

After Pluralism: Reimagining Models of Interreligious Engagement
Toronto conference (with abstracts)
Columbia conference (with abstracts)

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One Response to “Rethinking religious pluralism”

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    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.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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