Toward a Christian affirmation of religious pluralism

Over the holiday weekend I read Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Though it only clocks in at about 120 pages, it’s one of the better books I’ve read on the subject.

Suchocki, professor emerita of the Claremont School of Theology and a noted process and feminist theologian, takes an different approach than many pluralists by arguing that we find support for religious pluralism in certain core Christian convictions. These include God as creator, God as incarnate, humanity as created in the image of God, and the reign of God as the goal of earthly community.

Using a process-relational model of creation, Suchocki argues that God creates the world by evoking a freely given response from creatures, not by unilaterally determining what happens. Because of this element of free play, creation displays great diversity. The diversity of religion–humanity’s response to the sacred–is one aspect of this. This same creator God is “radically incarnate” in creation: by presenting possibilities for creatures to realize, God allows them to incarnate an aspect of the divine, if only in a limited and partial way. The great religious traditions are instances of this kind of culturally conditioned response to an experience of God. While they may seem to conflict, or even to be incommensurable, at the level of conceptualizations, these concepts are abstractions from an experience of the God who is deeply present in the world.

In contrast to much of the Christian tradition, Suchocki argues that the imago dei should be understood as a collective characteristic of the entire human race, as opposed to a more individualistic understanding. She bases this on the trinitarian nature of God as a community of irreducibly different persons. It is only by creating a community of diverse communities, not by erasing difference, that humanity fully images the divine. Similarly, the reign of God is the state of affairs characterized by transcending the preference for “our kind” and fostering the well-being for all, including the stranger. The stranger is welcomed as a stranger, not by being assimilated and required to sacrifice that which makes her different.

All of these considerations, Suchocki maintains, point toward religious diversity as good and as part of God’s will for humanity. The great religions are free responses to the experience of the sacred, which are rooted in genuine experience of God. To live up to our calling to reflect the image of God, we should welcome and celebrate difference, including the religious “stranger,” rather than require everyone to profess the same faith.

Suchocki considers the implications of affirming religious pluralism for two key issues: salvation and mission. Regarding the former, she contends that Jesus truly mediates saving grace, but that doesn’t mean that only Jesus does so. The divine presence manifests itself within and adapts itself to locally prevailing conditions. The questions that other people ask may not even necessarily be the ones that Christianity answers (she points out that some Eastern traditions are more concerned with eliminating suffering than sin, for instance). Jesus reveals God’s love and the life of humanity truly united to God, and the power of this grace-full event is amplified by the texts, traditions, and stories that have emerged in its wake. But this doesn’t mean that no other stories or traditions have the power to save.

The implication for mission is that Christians should not seek to convert others (though conversions may still happen, of course). Instead, they should aim to form friendships with those of other faiths and to share what is most valuable in their tradition, as well as being prepared to learn from the religious other. This creates a very real possibility of mutual transformation. At the very least it should lead to deepened understanding and a willingness to work together for the common good.

What I like about Suchocki’s position is that, unlike some pluralists, she doesn’t try to assume a “view from nowhere”, outside of any particular tradition. Too often, this results in a kind of lowest-common-denominator theology or a covert attempt to impose the standards of one tradition on others without acknowledging it. Instead, Suchocki is contending for religious pluralism on explicitly Christian grounds. More traditional Christians will take issue with some of her conclusions, particularly her apparent relativizing of the salvific importance of Jesus. And I think it’s fair to ask how we’re supposed to maintain that the Christian tradition is normative for us once we’ve made such relativizing moves. However, I think she makes a strong argument that the diversity of religions may be God’s will and that Christians should stop thinking that the ideal would be for all other faiths to vanish because everyone converted to Christianity.

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14 thoughts on “Toward a Christian affirmation of religious pluralism

  1. What about the atheists? Since denying the existence of God would appear not to be an “instance of this kind of culturally conditioned response to an experience of God,” then are they fair game for proselytism?

  2. Good question! Suchocki doesn’t deal with atheism per se. I can think of a couple of possible responses she might make. Maybe she would say that atheists, to the extent that they respond to possibilities for realizing greater value, are responding to God, even if they wouldn’t describe it that way. She might also say that we should make friends with atheists in order to share our deepest convictions and, potentially, change each other’s minds.

  3. Pingback: Follow-up on Suchocki and pluralism « A Thinking Reed

  4. Every time I read something like this, I wonder how the author deals with the extent to which new religions arise from critiques of the existing religions. The Old Testament characters criticize pagan idolatry, Jesus criticizes the religious establishment of his day, Buddha criticizes the religious establishment of *his* day, and so on. This is not surprising, since a new religion doesn’t have much reason to appear if the old religions are perfectly fine. Does Suchocki dismiss those criticisms as not being true to God, does she reframe them in some nonreligious way (e.g., they were really criticizing abuse of power), or what? And what does she have in mind regarding “transformation” through interreligious friendships? That the religions themselves will be transformed, or is she thinking personal transformation in some non-socially-disruptive way?

  5. So, there are two issues here: intra-tradition transformation (which sometimes results in new religions) and inter-tradition transformation. Regarding the first, I don’t think that Suchocki would have any problem countenancing the possibility. Often it occurs when certain norms within the tradition are used to critique existing belief and/or practice. If taken far enough, and depending on how the critique is received, this could result in a new breakaway tradition (e.g., in the case of Christianity it appears that it took a while for it to become a separate tradition). I don’t think Suchocki would have any problem accounting for that kind of evolution.

    The second is more problematic in my view. Since, according to her, there are no norms “outside” of all traditions that can be appealed to, it isn’t clear why two traditions encountering each other wouldn’t be immune to mutual transformation. Except, in reality we know that this does in fact happen. People encountering another tradition do find things about it that are appealing, insightful, etc. and often incorporate elements of the new tradition into their own, transforming it in the process. (Examples that come to mind include Christianity’s encounter with Greek philosophy as well as with Aristotelian philosophy in the Middle Ages.) I think that Suchocki could say that these are the kinds of transformations she has in mind (when adherents of one tradtion incorporate beliefs and or practices from another). One question is, though, if I’m adopting some belief or pracitce from another tradition, am I using a criteria from my own tradition to assess its value? If not, what criteria am I using to measure the value of the other tradition?

  6. Yeah, that was what I was getting at, but in particular I was wondering how these critiques reflect how “the divine presence manifests itself within and adapts itself to locally prevailing conditions.” I mean, religious disputes tend to arise within one locality and culture: some first-century Jews accepted Jesus as messiah while many of their relatives and neighbors did not, and neighbors have been similarly divided by Muhammad, Buddha and Bagwan Shree Rajneesh. So are these in-group arguments valid until the disputants drift far enough apart to form out-groups, at which point they should start celebrating their differences? Just when does that happen?

    I think your second point highlights another issue: religion is only one type of in-group. Many of the early Christians were both Christian AND Greek, so they weren’t acting from somewhere “outside” when they blended Christianity with Greek philosophy. The same applies when we try to determine today what qualifies as intra-group criticism. I’m not sure an African Anglican attacking the Archibishop of Canterbury is speaking from “inside” more than, say, a Hindu in Calcutta criticizing his Muslim next-door neighbor. Both of them certainly have the potential for transformation and/or violent conflict.

  7. I may have given a misleading impression: Suchocki doesn’t say we should just “celebrate our differences.” I think she would characterize that as a shallow form of pluralism. The deeper pluralism she has in mind would have us dig down and really talk about what separates us, why we believe what we do, etc. The outcome of such a dialogue can’t be predicted in advance if we’re really open to being changed by our encounter with the “religious other.”

    Your second point is a good one, I think. Religion doesn’t exist in a hermetically-sealed box, and we all inhabit different “communities.” That complicates things.

  8. OK, I phrased that a bit flippantly, but I’m still not sure what her attitude towards difference is. The concept that we fully image God only in diversity certainly implies that difference is good, even God-ordained. But the point I’m trying to make is, religious differences seem more often than not birthed in conflict and unhappiness, whereas the Trinity (I assume) lives together harmoniously. And the Bible certainly indicates that God takes sides in these conflicts, which would be a little weird if he actually wanted it that way. Moreover, if difference is desirable, what do do about this tendency toward homogenization and syncresis that tends to occur when different cultures interact — that is, if they don’t kill each other first? Would it be bad if, after one of these deep discussions, people actually came to an agreement? (I guess my deep skepticism about the “mosaic” model of multiculturalism is showing here — there does not seem to be much historical precendent for that being a permanent state of affairs.)

  9. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think part of her argument boils down to saying that if God only wanted there to be one religion, he should’ve created a different kind of world! In other words, with the world constituted the way it is, it seems guaranteed to result in the emergence of different religious perspectives.

    But your point about conflict still stands. S. notes that the Trinity is a model not for how things are, but for how they should be – community-with-difference. Now maybe that’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but if the alternatives are monoculture or unending conflict, it seems that it’s something worth considering.

    (I should add that I personally am wary when theologians try to use the Trinity as a model for social ethics. First, because it seems to presuppose a great more knowledge of the inner workings of the divine life than we actually have (to put it mildly!) and second, becuase there are real differences and disanalogies between human communities and the divine “community.” For starters, according to Christian theology, all the persons of the Trinity share a single will–i.e., “they” will all and only the same things. The same could certainly not be said of any human community, nor is it desirable for a human community to function that way, even if it were possible.)

  10. Oh, I wanted to add one more thing to this – I think we should re-think the assumption that for conversation to be meaningful or fruitful it has to be aimed at “conversion” – i.e. one party coming around to accept the other one’s views. When it comes to things like religion, that just doesn’t happen that often. People generally have good (or at least very deep-seated) reasons for believing what they do, and I think it bespeaks a failure to take them seriously to assume that we can march in and change their minds with our dazzling arguments. (It’s noteworthy that much of the history of religious conversion has occurred by less lofty means.)

    Good conversation can have other aims like coming to a better understanding of why the other person believes what they do, clarifying areas of disagreement, finding previously unknown areas of agreement, or reflecting more deeply on our own beliefs. All of this can happen without anyone being “converted.” That’s how I see dialogue proceeding beyond shallow politesse without being aimed at conversion per se.

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  12. Pingback: An experiment in apologetics | A Thinking Reed

  13. Pingback: From religious diversity to “confessional pluralism” | A Thinking Reed

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