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Dangers and fulfilments of living in a religiously plural world

Dangers and fulfilments of living in a religiously plural world

Dangers and fulfilments of living in a religiously plural world

Mangalore Today News Network

By K.C. Abraham

Bengaluru, Nov 3, 2016:
Religious pluralism provides an opportunity for many people for greater exchange between different traditions and to some extent appreciation of faiths and traditions that are different from one’s own.

It is an undeniable fact that the multi-religious situation enriches our life and its relationships. Therefore it is affirmed that “the future lies not in shedding or suppressing the particularities of our diverse cultural/religious heritage, but in finding non-hegemonic ways to celebrate them.”

religiously plural world

Samartha writes, “To reject exclusivism and to accept plurality, to be committed to one’s faith and to be open to the faith commitments of our neighbour’s, to choose to live in a global community of communities, sharing the ambiguities of history and the mystery of life—these are the imperatives of our age.”

Pluralism gives an alternate vision. You receive the other in your private space. It is this publicness that is difficult for us to accept. In our religious consciousness we jealously guard our own God and religion in our private space. We do not want other gods and religions to intrude into our space. But pluralism comes as a demand of the other to come into our space. This requires a new orientation altogether.

Terrorism has opened our eyes to look afresh at the social and political dynamics of religious pluralism. My thesis is simple. Our discussion on religious pluralism centred on interfaith dialogue and cooperation on a formal level does not take into consideration the “ground realities.” For example, we have developed some typologies: Inclusivism, Exclusivism and Pluralism. All these are helpful, especially if we consider religions as systems of beliefs and doctrines. Certainly doctrines and beliefs constitute an important part of religion. However, attitudes towards other religions do not neatly follow the typologies identified. There are many mixed types! One can be an exclusivist and inclusivist at the same time. In fact both these attitudes are found within the same religion. For this reason these typologies have limited usefulness.

I am not proposing a comprehensive framework for dealing with the phenomenon of religious pluralism but I want to lift up at least three factors that help us in our deliberations.

One, religion under the impact of modernity. All religions come under the pressure of modernism or modernity. It consists of the impact of Western technology, and its value system and lifestyle. They are spread all over the world by the process of globalisation. The media projects a new culture. Often it is perceived as a threat to the traditional culture and religion. Three kinds of responses are discernible. One, revivalism or fundamentalism. It is argued that modernism/westernisation is destroying our culture, our identity and our religion. We need to preserve the pristine purity of the traditional faith by resorting even to military strength. The extreme form of this is evident in the Taliban regime. Behind this is the suspicion that the western epistemology based on scientific and secular ideology is harmful. God is the sovereign source of knowledge and therefore secular education is contrary to faith.

Two, the secular option. Some of the intellectuals within these faiths, although a minority who are educated in the western liberal tradition adhere to a secular option, embrace almost uncritically the western/modern science and secular education. Secular option in the midst of multi-religious conflict seems to be an attractive option. In fact, modern politics and education, regardless of any situation is secular. The secular values are spread widely and to a large extent our life is secular. But any attempt to displace traditional culture by western/secular culture i.e., the rejection of religion by secular is not a realistic option. The Shah of Iran and his experiment will be one example. The difficulty is, no people can forget their past. The emergence of consciousness of their cultural identity is one of the potent factors necessary for people’s development. (Some of the Indian thinkers make a distinction between “closed secularism” and “ open secularism”.)

A third option is the synthetic model or re-interpretation model. It is agreed that the traditional faith cannot remain frozen. Tradition is dynamic and it should be reinterpreted in terms of challenges of modernity. It is said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Gandhi is a good representative of this view. He maintained his identity as a Hindu but absorbed liberal ideas of the West and reinterpreted Hindu culture. He was also sensitive to the common elements in all religions. The story is told that during the Hindu-Muslim clash a Hindu who had killed a Muslim couple out of fury approached him. He was repentant and asked Gandhi how to attain atonement. Gandhi told him to adopt a child of the parents whom he had killed and bring the child up in Muslim faith.

But if our criterion for judging what is true or false, good or bad, is no longer “Is it in the Bible or the Upanishads or the Koran?” but rather “Does it remove human suffering and promote life?” – if this be our criterion, then we cannot apply it without listening to the poor and the victims. The oppressed, the marginalised, those who in the past “didn’t count” must also have a voice in a dialogue.

In any situation of a healthy religious pluralism identities of different religions should be preserved. However, we need to reject all absolutising claims in the name of identity, all ethno-centric programmes distort the web of human relationships. We envisage a pluriform community of communities. This comes as a challenge to the homogenising tendency to globalisation.

The Crisis of Institutionalised Religion and the Search for Spirituality
Organised religions have lost their authority over people but people seek a life beyond the religions—a spirituality that is non-religious. The picture is complex. In the East, in Asia and other non-European contexts we witness a revival of religions. But often they are being co-opted by fundamentalist and militant forces providing little hope for people in their strivings for a just world. There is a liberative strain often preserved and articulated by the poor and marginalized.

In the West there is conflict and rejection of organised religion. Life is organised by modernists, technological culture. But there is a crisis of modernism effectively articulated by post-modern critic. People are seeking meaning and community beyond the material affluence and consumerist ideology. The discussion on sexuality and ecology are indications of a search for spirituality that goes beyond the patterns of relationships legitimised by organised religion.

The focus of religious pluralism is not in constructing a grandiose new religion, but this emerging spiritual question. The spiritual core of the different faiths and the spiritualities of the poor and marginalized will participate in ushering a new world—a world in which persons matter over systems and traditions. The existing vacuum in secularism and modernity should be filled with a new awareness of a spirituality that is dynamic, liberative and life affirming.

Power is the key element in the understanding of spirituality. Having, consuming and dominating is accepted without question by the modern society. The spirituality of all religious traditions envision a different view of power. Power in giving and sharing is celebrated by the Christian faith and Buddhist tradition. Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, the symbol of an alternate model of power. Buddha taught that even the morsel in beggar’s bowl should be shared. Sharing and not accumulation is the criterion for a liberated life. “Power which isn’t shared – which in other words, isn’t transformed into love is pure domination and oppression.”

A new language was born with the birth of the community – a language of love. This was further expressed as mutual responsibility. They became a caring community. The fruit of spirituality is the community of love. Plurality expresses this reality. It maintains different identities, but strives for a unity in dialogue. Each assimilates the other, without destroying the identity of the other.

This brief exploration may be concluded with the words of Stanley Samartha who has given us valuable insights into the phenomenon of religious pluralism. “The plurality of religions and cultures, of languages, ethnic identities and social systems, is the best defence against the forces of domination and the push towards uniformity.”


Dr. K.C. Abraham, who passed away recently, was of great support to the Meeting Rivers team. He walked the talk and lived the life of a Christian committed to social justice and ecological regeneration. He was, among other things, the former Director of the South Asia Theological Research Institute (SATHRI).


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