In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 2

Quite an overdue post, eh? This summer has been quite hectic – guests, thesis research, xbox 360. Ok… I’ll admit, emphasis on the xbox 360. With luck, this post will start a new batch of regular posts. But hey, a grad student can relax from time to time, right? Or at least enjoy multiple modes of story-sharing?

Speaking of multiple modes of story-sharing, as I recall, my last post was a general defense of religious pluralism. I argued that religious pluralism (many religious stories are worth sharing) is an inescapable fact. Such, of course, is terrible news for religious exclusivists, as they rather make their living out of the desired survival of a single religious narrative.  Religious pluralism is certainly not gospel to religious exclusivists (pun intended).

Still, at first glance, anyone could embrace the fact of religious pluralism mournfully. Perhaps it not just bad news for the religious exclusivist, but bad news for us all. The cynical response, so to speak – the (malicious) cosmos makes religious pluralism an inescapable fact, and yet, only as a ploy to make us suffer in our singular desire to live one story among many.

Before I get more into why I think an optimistic response is much more appropriate to religious pluralism (i.e. we should cheerfully embrace the fact that we tell many religious stories), I think further background exploration would be helpful. Specifically, why has religious pluralism lost its popularity? While many different points could be made, I would like to highlight two specific dimensions in the faltering of religious pluralism.

The first is that religious pluralism has often fallen into religious relativism.  Many have heard of the mountain metaphor.  Religions are like mountains; some religious pluralists claim that each one of us, in our religious journey, climbs our own independent mountain. Each religion is an accurate tale, just local to the particular person.

Even if one avoids religious relativism by claiming that not all religions lead up a mountain (only some), such an account of religious diversity ultimately leads to a lack of engagement between people, or in other words, religious solipsism. If I have my own mountain, so to speak, why should I care about your mountain? Do I have any reason to learn about your religious stories? Do I have any reason to story-share?

The second is that religious pluralism has often been mistaken for religious inclusivism (which, however,  is often the fault of religious pluralists like John Hick). Religious inclusivism is the claim that in the end, there is only one religious story. We all tell it. In other words, to continue the well-worn mountain metaphor, there is only one mountain (perhaps many paths up it, perhaps not), and somehow we just think there are many different mountains. We simply deceive ourselves when we believe that the different religions are different stories – really we walk the same paths.

To the extent that religious pluralism is mistaken for religious inclusivism, it suffers some real problems; religious incluvisism has rightly been rejected. Like the many mountains, one mountain damages the reasons for religious story-sharing. If we all walk the same paths, and we already know them, why would we bother telling each other what we already know?

Worse, religious inclusivism imperialistically erases the (very real) differences between the religious stories we tell, often in the name of the religion of the religious inclusivist.  Karl Rahner, for example, a famous Catholic theologian, claimed that there were many “anonymous Christians” among the world, presumably even anonymous to themselves. If one reduces every religious other, every other story, to the same, the value of other stories has been violently decimated.

The (common) mountain metaphor itself suffers from many problems. Why privilege ascent over decent? Why describe religions as singular hikes and/or journeys? Why presume that religions are defined by a goal (reaching the top)?  In many ways, the mountain metaphor itself, while it can be helpful to explain, functions inclusively, reducing the complexity of many religions to one mold. That is one of the reasons I hesitate in defining religious narratives more than my general definition: value-laden stories.

Obviously, however, I believe these shortcomings can be overcome. Religious pluralism is distinct from religious inclusivism. One can construct a theory of religious pluralism that encourages religious dialogue. I should be open about one fact, however.  For me, theories of religions take a back seat to questions of value. As such, if we are to tell a story about religions, the ultimate goal should be upholding the value of story-sharing. So far I have argued that many religious narratives are the fact of life (even individual life), and I have taken a brief detour through the history of religious theory.  Next time, I’ll turn to why living and sharing in a world of abundant stories should be cherished and cultivated. With luck, I’ll wrap up this series with Part 4, a reflection on the University Project, an experiment in religious pluralism (in my very own backyard at CST). You know, if the many stories of the xbox don’t steal me away.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) What metaphors do you find apt for describing religious narratives?

2) Is there a value in an account of religious diversity beyond tolerance? What is the value (if any) of religious dialogue?

3) Is there a viable way of separating religious pluralism from religious inclusivism? Can we uphold the value of sharing many stories without reducing them to a singular expression?


~ by Drew Baker on August 4, 2010.

3 Responses to “In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 2”

  1. One of the reasons Sam Harris offers against religion is that its insistance on “one right narrative” is the spiritual equivalent of a totalitarian state. I guess by extension, then, allowing multiple narratives creates a more democratic state. I have met Christianas who hold each kind of mind-set. On the one side, there is the idea that you can’t be Christian if you don’t uphold all the Christian beliefs and that everyone must practice the same version of the faith. On the other side, there is the idea that while Christianity is an institution, there is room for each individual to make their own subjective journey within the confines of that institution. The people I have met in this camp allow for other narratives, engage with them, and learn from them, without relinquising anything of their own beliefs. (in contrast to these two groups I would place the true “shopping-cart” people, who take bits and pieces from many belief systems).

    So how can multiple narratives be compatible? An excellent novel that asks (but doesn’t answer) this question is “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, if you haven’t already read it (see, having already been guilty of distracting you with a visit, I am further adding to your truancy by recommending novels).

    I of course incline towards a more democratic version of religion. The totalitarianism of “one right narrative” more often leads to troule than understadning.

  2. Margaret and I love Life of Pi! One of our favorite books. And believe you me, it can be somewhat rare for us to agree on books, so it must have done something right. 🙂

    I think your account does an excellent job of reflecting up religion and singular narratives. As a Christian, I hope to go even further beyond the tolerant Christians you speak of, and find ways of living multiple narratives without compromising my Christianity (or my Buddhism mind you). A difficult task, but not an impossible one – I think one of the ways is, perhaps like Pi, to give up on trying to make our narratives fit together literally like puzzle pieces. For example, I don’t really mind that “my” Buddhism speaks of cycles to history, and my Christianity speaks of a more linear direction to history. They both affirm important aspects to the complexity (even contradictory complexity) that is history.

    I think even a majority of Christians do this fairly obviously, even if they deny it. Take the popularity of Yoga (or meditation), for example, among many Christians – no matter how much Christians deny it, Yoga has its roots in more than just a “health practice,” (despite the fact that it can be a very healthy practice!). Or even within the Christian tradition, Christians have long disagreed (even internally) what it means to be Christian – compare, for instance, pro-war and pacifist Christians today, or the debates over female clergy even within the Biblical texts. In these encounters (within one’s own religion or with another religious practice) our outlook can be transformed without us even knowing it.

    That said, I agree with you – a more democratic version of religion, an account that calls for toleration and engagement (even apart from transformative dialogue) would be quite the improvement in today’s societies.


    that is all.

    And yay pluralism too I suppose. 🙂

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