Diversity and Pluralism

The plurality of religious traditions and cultures has come to characterize every part of the world today. But what is pluralism? Here are four points to begin our thinking:

* First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

* Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.

* Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.

* Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments.

If an institution has had a history of chaplaincy it is usually of the Christian variety.

When religious pluralism begins to be recognised as a reality by the chaplaincies of institutions an initial response is a recognition that people of other faiths have an equal right to access the services of chaplains.

So what are the choices for the Christian chaplain?
1. to continue to try to meet the needs of all within the institution – in which case the chaplain soon finds that she has no rights to enter the sacred space of the person of another faith.
2. to continue to try to meet the needs of all within the institution, but refer the faith needs of others to appropriate persons outside the institution.
3. To invite suitable representatives of other faith traditions to establish a multifaith chaplaincy service where each minister to their own adherents.

These choices each represent a response to religious diversity.

They are not necessarily easily taken. Some Christians, having had the monopoly on chaplaincy within institutions for so long, are hesitant to give up their status and control to others, whose faith, from their perspective, is inferior or defective. Some object to a vocation of Christian origins being taken up by others outside, and, in the past, seemingly opposed, to Christian faith. Some religious people have long – very long – memories!

Then there is the difficulty of a chaplain, employed by a Christian denomination, having to deal with the denomination’s own values and priorities. The chaplain may be caught between the pluralistic values and inclusive culture of the institution and the narrower culture of the employing church. Her job description is not able to deal with these realities.

So the step of recognising the validity of other faiths can be a very big one for some. But accepting the reality of religious diversity is the beginning of a process of respecting those of other faiths for who they are.

A number of multifaith chaplaincies express this recognition of mutual respect within their mission statements. Within the paradigm of acceptance of religious diversity, such a multifaith chaplaincy works under a common rubric of mutual respect and agreed ethical behaviour.

This was the case at Flinders University with the formation of a multifaith chaplaincy service within the existing Religious Centre at the turn of the Millenium.

But note that none of the Eck’s points about religious pluralism are necessarily met because of this achievement:

1. while individuals recognise and respect each other, nothing need change for each chaplaincy – each may still “do her own thing”.
2. There is no dynamic within the structure to produce understanding, to go beyond mere “tolerance”.
3. There need be no “encounter of commitments”, building relationships across difference.
4. There need be no urgency to enter into dialogue.

The Religious Centre at Flinders University began to recognise religious diversity in the late 90’s. That itself was a big struggle. But the eventual acceptance of the right of religions of other faiths to be able to access the Religious Centre did not necessarily mean an end to hostility. “Walls” may still be built while accepting the reality of diversity. Ignoring others or other passive forms of exclusion may be as damaging as outright denial of the rights of others.

What we needed was to establish an environment that would encourage religious pluralism.

This has been signalled in the change of name from Religious Centre (diversity) to Oasis – faith, spirit, community.

Pluralism, says Eck, is “an achievement”.

It’s still early days.

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