In Defense of Shopping Cart Spirituality, Part 3

This post is a little more on schedule, although I’ll delay patting myself on the back until I get into a successful groove. With luck, my upcoming classes won’t derail me.

My last post explored the various reasons for why religious pluralism has become fairly unpopular. Obviously, my posts have generally explored the academic unpopularity of religious pluralism. However, judging from recent news events (Qur’an burnings, protests against Mosques and Islamic Centers), the common American distaste for religious pluralism is a popular topic as well.

Such a rejection of religious pluralism, both in the academic and popular spheres (allow me the fictitious separation for the moment), however, is unwarranted. My first post argued that religious pluralism is an inescapable fact. Below I will outline five of the reasons why I believe that religious pluralism should be a cherished fact.

1.Toleration – While toleration is a weak political goal to desire by itself, clearly the societies of today have much to learn from respecting difference in others. Obviously toleration has its limits. It cannot be allowed to devolve into ethical relativism. Nor is it an excuse for individuals to live in solipsistic, communally-unengaged worlds. While an overemphasized virtue of democratic societies, alone often valued for the wrong reasons, as one gift among many within religious pluralism, toleration becomes a contextual virtue to be cherished.

2.Honesty – I’ll confess, I almost wrote ‘consistency’ here. But let’s be honest, I say somewhat sardonically, I would not have meant consistency as it is typically used. Consistency is another overemphasized virtue of our (post)modern society, particularly (I personally find) among us younger generations. Since I believe that everyone (necessarily) lives a contradictory life within contradictory stories, consistency between stories is an impossible goal, and not the good kind. Still, there is a certain kind of consistency, let’s call it relational honesty, in living within the story of religious pluralism. As I wrote before, everyone lives contradictory stories, so expecting others to live within a singular narrative even while oneself does not is simply dishonest. Call it a (post)modern rendition of the Golden Rule.

3. Engagement – The dimension of religious pluralism that interests me the most is probably rhetorical religious pluralism, that is, that our different religious stories are worth sharing with each other. That is one of the reasons why tolerance by itself is not enough. If we all have different stories to share, there is always a reason to listen to the other. And not just as a passive tolerant. Instead, religious pluralism encourages people to actively engage others’ stories. There are always new stories to hear, to learn. As a personal aside, that is one of the reasons I became interested in studying (and teaching) religion at a college. Religious studies is one of the few fields (unlike, say, Chemistry) where every student in the class has a story worth contributing. There is something special about being a professor in a classroom and still learning everyday from one’s students.

4. Transformation – To some, this might appear to be an obvious byproduct of actively listening to others’ stories. If one honestly engages the other, one cannot help but be transformed in relationship with that other. I do not mean to drastically separate the two. Regardless, for someone who can often hear without listening (say, like the writer of this blog), a reminder is necessary. As an engaged listener to every other, I have a responsibility to be transformed from every conversation. Not necessarily to the other’s point of view. Again, religious pluralism is not religious relativism. Instead, it is within actively engaging the other that the possibility for something new is born, both in the other and in oneself. Call it transformation. Or, perhaps, call it hope.

5. Dialogue – If one does not deny the fact of the multiplicity of religious narratives (both in others and in the self), one might wonder if (in an ideal world), such a multiplicity is to be desired. After all, the previous four points merely uphold the value of religious pluralism in a world that is already religiously pluralistic. I think, however, that one can go further. Many narratives are often beneficial to life. They function, in a somewhat democratic fashion, to keep any particular narrative in check, constantly challenging each other in a nexus of contradictions. If one’s commitment to fundamentalist Christianity calls one to burn a Qur’an, perhaps one’s commitment to American ideals like religious freedom will keep such a call in check. Many (obviously not all) problems in this world occur because people smooth over the ‘wrinkles’ in their value-laden narratives. Differences are not to be overcome, but lived within.

Obviously, this is not a call to indecisiveness. Benefiting from the dialogue of many different contradictory narratives does not necessarily mean that one should become frozen in doubt, stretched out in infinite directions over an infinite space. Our finiteness is to be cherished, a responsibility, but not (yet) a burden. In order to live, one must respond, one must choose. But these choices are not made alone. In communities, we have many stories to draw upon, many wells to drink from. Even within the complexity of the self, there are more stories to rely upon than we often know. Perhaps, again, this is a call to listen. A call not to deny the value of sharing our stories.

As one can see, these values of religious pluralism overlap. This fact is not surprising. Every tapestry has its unique folds, its distinct tears. Next time, I’ll turn to another pluralistic tapestry, a weaving-in-process, and reflect upon Claremont School of Theology’s newly announced University Project.

For this week, open to discussion:

1) Can any of the above reasons for religious pluralism be taken too far? How so?

2) What are some other reasons to value religious pluralism? Or to be wary about it?

3) How does this discussion, in your mind, connect to recent news items (like Qur’an burnings, Mosque/Islamic Center protests, etc.)?


~ by Drew Baker on August 11, 2010.

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

  1. 1) Your right we have to make choices. But these choices seem to unavoidably reflect a system of valuation and stratification which is expressed by comparison. From these flow some fundamental problems with pluralism.
    A. Problem of Ownership
    I can listen to the story of the other, and internalize it. But it would be a lie to say this story pulled me in a greater way than the stories which I consider apart of myself (even if i know such stories are not true, but constructed fictions). Those stories I consider my own. The story which is not mine can move me, change me, and make me do a great many things for the other. But the otherness cannot be overcome. And my choices will reflect the difference in value between my story and theirs. There are some stories which I own in this sense, and there some stories I don’t and probably can’t.
    B. Problem of Comparison
    Pluralism in this respect seems to ignore the experience of every society in existence. This experience is that valuation through comparison happens among its constituent members. Some men considered more able than others to think, to write, read etc. And it is a negotiating of difference which leads to subordination and exclusion. It is this principle on which organization is based.
    Truth is usually pointed out as one problem of pluralism’s relativistic stance. But I steer clear from truth since it isn’t possible nor even called for by the average person. It seems most don’t necessarily want truth proper, they want a choice which is better or best of possible choices they have available. In other words they deem meaning through comparisons such as “better than” “worse than” etc. And this comparative nature of valuation is also highly individual and personal; something a grand dispersed theory of truth can never sufficiently cover.
    C. Problem of Exclusion
    It seems odd to mention exclusion, since pluralism is supposed to be the most inclusive. But since Pluralism tries to answer the question of truth proper (big T, absolute T) by saying all religious expressions of truth are valid, it necessarily excludes some basic tenets. Christianity for instance makes its claim as the fulfillment of the old law. This would not be true in the proper sense if the Old Testament was the final word of God as expressed by Judaism. If both religions continue to instruct and uphold these claims, a religious pluralism would do harm to both by forcing them to accommodate the other.
    C. Problem of Power Relations
    Pluralism also suffers because it does not address fundamental problem of power relations. The forum in which the debate takes place is already skewed. If I as a Christian bring a Muslim to the table, I bring the Muslim into “my” world. I set the terms for the meeting. I sit behind the table and try to make sense of their story from my own experiences. So I have still displaced them and subordinated them to my own agenda even If I invite them. And one should not think a secularist table is exempt from such an agenda either.
    D. Transformation to what?
    If we actively utilize pluralism to help us listen to the story of the other, it might be possible to change. But change to what? Narratives have been a great source of power for the marginalized in contemporary history. For the workers without a voice and racial groups that have undergone systematic oppression, sharing their narrative with us has raised our awareness and concern for the plight of someone who is struggling. But what if you’re on top? Do you have an interesting story that should be told? There seems to be guiltiness about listening to my own story when I am the dominant culture, when I have power. Of course my story isn’t obsolete, but it seems their story for good reason is better than mine at the moment. I’m oppressing them with my story so I need to hear theirs. Maybe in 50 years mine will be better again. Or someone else’s will be more pressing.
    The point is that the idea of transformation is left necessarily vacuous in Pluralism and for this reason it promises to not change anything about the way systems of power are reproduced and oppression operates.
    E. We Live Unequal Lives
    Finally, pluralism perhaps suffers because it tries to treat this as if this were not the case. A fundamental equality is supposed to underlie these religious systems of belief. But this is not true. The claim that we are all believers in some ambiguous, ephemeral way is supposed to unify us but it doesn’t. For what I believe is fundamentally different from someone else even within my own faith tradition believes even in the smallest of ways. However, when these myriad ideas come together, everyone has to give in, and some more than others. And this again leads to the cycle of oppression.
    Any solution?
    Final thoughts…
    Perhaps if we stop believing pluralism can escape human valuation in the comparative sense, we can propose something new. In order to truly realize Pluralism, we would eventually have to sacrifice our hardened positions and sacred tenets to some extent.
    Perhaps we also could form a unique coalition gathered around the goal of doing good (and of course define this good form a collective standpoint). We would still have most of the problems mentioned, but it would be a unique creation all on its own, owing to no faith tradition but allowing each religion to aid one another. Maybe in the interest of toleration and cooperation, a kind of underlying humanism is all we have.

  2. Tim,

    You make some really thoughtful and helpful points about the limits and possible problems of religious pluralism. Let me try to respond to your points, although I’ll be the first to admit that some of these dilemmas clearly highlight the limits of pluralistic theory (perhaps even pluralistic practice). Ultimately, I simply want to affirm that many stories are worth sharing, and so far, I find modifying religious pluralism to be the best way to do that.

    Overall, my general response to your points is that I’m interested in a rhetorical (perhaps even ethical) religious pluralism – not an ontological pluralism. In other words, I don’t really care if one can say “accurately” that many religious stories are accurate. What does interest me is support for valuing story-sharing, i.e. inter-religious dialogue (in the broadest sense).

    A) While I am reluctant to use ownership language (since I’m not really sure we “possess” our religious stories… do they possess us? move beyond us? are they fields we live within? that make us up?), you are certainly right that it is impossible not to value some stories over others (generally the stories we hold closer to ourselves – that may be a tautology, as you rightly suggest). Still, since I want to separate the common association of relativism with pluralism, I don’t really mind if a particular theory allows for difference in valuation – heck, I support it! Valuation is life! The trick, I think, is making sure that valuation doesn’t close doors, stop the flow of stories, so to speak, and prevent true listening. The gap between self and other may, indeed, be insurmountable. Still, I’m generally surprised to discover that our stories, despite our worst efforts, often cross that insurmountable boundary. Such gives me hope. Hence the rhetorical pluralism – ideally, one cultivates the conditions that open us up to novel stories. I’ll admit, however (and I would say such is lucky) that the ability for stories to break in upon us is largely out of our control. Thank God(s) (I say with my tongue near my cheek).

    The take-away, here, is that I don’t believe that relativism and pluralism have to be synonymous. That doesn’t mean I have a system for valuation (I agree with Derrida, I doubt there is one, and I cherish that fact), but that doesn’t mean that valuation can’t (or should not) occur. Heck, valuation is, from one perspective, the very beginning of dialogue. The beginning of every story.

    B) I agree. Valuation is human. Still, if one agrees with me that pluralism and relativism aren’t (necessarily) synonymous, there is at least hope that difference in valuation and rhetorical religious pluralism can coexist.

    C1) You are right, pluralism does exclude the exclusive perspectives, at least the strong ones. However, if one accepts my claim that even the most strident exclusivist lives a pluralistic life, two facts become obvious – every one necessarily excludes, and, just as every pluralist is an exclusivist (of sorts), every exclusivist is a pluralist (of sorts). I’ll be open about the fact that my base-value here is that many different stories are worth sharing. As such, if both certain kinds of pluralism and exclusivism are necessary facts of life, I think I’d choose to cultivate the pluralistic tendencies. Mitigate the violence. Although, I’ll be honest, violence as exclusion is a fact of life. Pluralism cannot allow escape (no theory can). It can only help us cultivate compassion in the wake of violence and suffering.

    C2) I agree here as well. The limits of power-relations coexist with the limits of subjectivity. There is no understanding without doing (at least some) violence to the other. I’m not sure this is so much a limit on pluralism as it is just a limit on theory in general. If I’m right in that, again, we might as well look for the theories that help the most despite universal limitations.

    As an interesting aside, I think a Levinasian reading complicates things here. It is not just the self that reduces the other (your suggested reading of dialogue), but the encounter with the other (‘s stories) that makes the very possibility of the self possible. Such a suggestion could be taken in all sorts of ways – that dialogue is not only necessary but inevitable, that narrative power relations aren’t simply just subjectively reductive, or even, that somehow, stories break through the solid barriers of the self.

    D) Your point is well taken. I obviously provide little to no goal/telos for transformation in dialogue. I’m not sure there is a single end. My contention, however, is simply that dialogue itself as a practice will typically lead to creative transformation, something of intrinsic worth (call me a Kantian on that one). Certainly some dialogues will have more worth (sometimes a lot more worth!). I agree with you that the stories least heard are often the stories that should be heard the most – and on top of that fact, us empowered folk really do talk too much. Again, I don’t believe pluralism necessarily means relativism. One can find the value of sharing different stories without asserting that all those stories are created equal or should be shared equally.

    I think I’d turn your final point on its head – if we don’t take different stories seriously, how else will we change the world, change the systems of oppression? Stories are the grandest power I know… which, I’ll confess, is dangerous. With great power comes great responsibility, to be somewhat trite and quote Spiderman. And yet, exactly because of that fact, the possibility for hope is born. As I write above, the danger is minimized the most (and the hope still burns bright) when many stories are told/written/shared. Power dispersed and yet still present. Still present to move the world. Hopefully toward a world where the stories of the oppressed can be shared more openly.

    E. I agree. Beliefs do not unite (even a belief that we all believe). But somewhere in-between our suffering, our prayers for justice, and the stories that arise and fall between them, one can find some kind of unity, albeit not a unity of belief or purpose. Perhaps a unity of relationality or reality? I don’t know. Perhaps, like Camus, a unity of agonizingly loving duty to a better world without a rejection of this one. And no, I wouldn’t call that humanism, for a whole multitude of reasons. The stories of this world go so far beyond us homo sapiens, after all.

    I think, as far as I grasped your thoughts, Tim, that you and I agree – the cycle of oppression is not a reason to reject religious pluralism, just a reason to refine it; heck, for me, it is its very origin, its raison d’etre.

    My thoughts were born in the desire to respond to our world of inescapable violence. Violence is a fact of life. But I do believe we can live more compassionately in the wake of every moment of violence. Religious pluralism is one possibility for that. Call it a work in progress, a story yet to be fully told (something like life, eh?) 🙂

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