Religious pluralism, broadly construed, is a response to the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions that exist both in the contemporary world and throughout history. The terms “pluralism” and “pluralist” can, depending on context or intended use, signify anything from the mere fact of religious diversity to a particular kind of philosophical or theological approach to such diversity, one usually characterized by humility regarding the level of truth and effectiveness of one’s own religion, as well as the goals of respectful dialogue and mutual understanding with other traditions. The term “diversity” refers here to the phenomenal fact of the variety of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions. The terms “pluralism” and “pluralist” refer to one form of response to such diversity.
There are a number of different ways that philosophers and theologians have grouped various accounts of religious diversity. One of the most commonly adopted strategies – and the one that will be used in the following discussion – is the threefold division first introduced by Alan Race (1983): exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist. Exclusivist positions maintain that only one set of belief claims or practices can ultimately be true or correct (in most cases, those of the one holding the position). A Christian exclusivist would therefore hold that the beliefs of non-Christians (and perhaps even Christians of other denominations) are in some way flawed, if not wholly false; or that non-Christian religious practices are not ultimately efficacious – at least, to the extent that non-Christian beliefs and practices depart from or conflict with those defended by the Christian exclusivist.
Pluralist positions, in contrast, argue that more than one set of beliefs or practices can be, at least partially and perhaps wholly, true or correct simultaneously – or, that all beliefs intended to be understood in a realist fashion are false. Inclusivist positions occupy a middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism, insofar as they recognize the possibility that more than one religious tradition can contain elements that are true or efficacious, while at the same time hold that only one tradition expresses ultimate religious truth most completely. As McKim (2012) expresses it, inclusivists grant that many (perhaps all) religious traditions do well in regards to truth or salvation, but that one tradition does better than others by more accurately describing objects of belief or mechanisms of salvation. A Christian inclusivist might claim that those who live good lives but remain non-Christians may still achieve salvation, but that such salvation is nevertheless still achieved through Jesus Christ. Inclusivism thus may be understood as a more charitable variety of exclusivism, though exclusivists can also treat it as pluralism by another name. In addition, it is worth noting that exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist arguments about beliefs are sometimes presented separately from those about salvific practice and that consequently one approach to diversity of belief does not necessarily imply the same approach to diversity of practice, or vice versa…
Schleiermacher is in agreement with the argument that the essential core of religion lies deeper than the diverse forms of belief and practice that make up the various religious traditions. Neither Kant nor Schleiermacher accept the idea that religion is fundamentally a matter of adherence to a particular set of dogmatic claims, or that religion, properly so-called, even puts forward any metaphysical claims at all. Schleiermacher goes further though, asserting that morality is no more a part of the essence of religion than metaphysics. In his Speeches on Religion, Schleiermacher explains that religion is primarily a matter of intuition or feeling, with the entire universe as its object. Later, in his systematic theological work, he famously identifies the feeling that characterizes religion as one of “absolute dependence” – that is, the feeling that one’s very existence depends on something that, in some way or other, transcends oneself. For Schleiermacher, then, religion is first and foremost a matter for the individual, and he does not discount the possibility that one could live a highly religious life without belonging to a particular religious tradition. However, he also concedes that consciousness of religious feeling is, in most cases, best developed within a community, and that within such communities the religious intuition is always accompanied by metaphysical claims, moral prescriptions, ritual practices, and so forth. These outward forms of religion, in turn, serve to shape the way that individuals understand and articulate their own religious feelings. Given that the historical forms of religion emerge from individuals’ subjective experiences – and given that Schleiermacher holds the object of these experiences to be both all-encompassing and infinite – a wide variety of religious traditions is inevitable. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that the diversity of traditions is necessary for the task of representing the infinite within the limitations of forms comprehensible to humans. Thus, while he also accords a privileged place to Christianity among other religions, Schleiermacher provides the framework for a type of pluralism grounded in the idea of a universal form of intuition that discounts the importance of metaphysical and moral claims in the foundation of religion…
Religious pluralism, understood as a broad category of philosophical and theological responses to religious diversity, aims to account for this diversity as a positive phenomenon and to articulate ways that religious differences can be celebrated and conflicts mitigated, explained, or at least reasonably discussed. Pluralist positions can vary according to one’s understanding of religion (for example, whether it is taken primarily to consist of epistemic content, culturally constructed discursive practices, or salvation-oriented behavior), as well as according to one’s ultimate goal in articulating a position (for example, clarifying philosophical concepts of religion, or effecting social and political change such as in liberation theology). While there are significant differences in pluralist approaches evident in analytic and continental philosophy, there is also significant overlap in the content of arguments belonging to these traditions.
Major nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts of religion provide important precursors to religious pluralism, though they are largely not pluralist according to the strict sense of the term but rather exclusivist or inclusivist. Religious pluralism as a distinct philosophical and theological position has emerged more recently, and in its various forms it both draws on and is critical of these earlier accounts. Pluralism, of course, continues to be debated. It faces external challenges from exclusivists and inclusivists as well as religious anti-realists and relativists, and its various arguments are contested internally by those who argue that it concedes too much or that it has not yet become pluralist enough.
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