Interview: What is Pluralism?

The following interview with Rev. Jim Burklo, pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church (Sausalito, California) and TCPC Pluralism Sunday Coordinator took place March 9, 2007, in Sausalito, California. The interview was conducted for The Center for Progressive Christianity by Geoffrey Gaskins. For more information about Pluralism Sunday, please email Rev. Burklo.

An Interview with TCPC Pluralism Coordinator, Rev. Jim Burklo: What is Pluralism?

TCPC: So, what exactly is pluralism?

JIM BURKLO: Professor Diana Eck, founder of the Pluralism Project and recognized expert on religious diversity in America, broke it down this way. When you think about relationships between religions, there are three general ways in which they relate. One is exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, at the worst. So that would be what we have with the Taliban, al-Qaida, which are obviously scarier groups than Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, but they would qualify as exclusivist, as well. Fundamentalism is associated with exclusivism.

The next way in which religions relate is called inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. I can learn and grow from our relationship; however, the truth in your religion only points to the ultimate truth of mine. We should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate. This is the point of view of the Catholic Church and some evangelical Christians.

Pluralism is the idea that my religion is good for me and your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me. So, pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions. Now, pluralism does not imply that all religions are the same or that all religions are equal; but it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way and that my religion is not necessarily superior to yours.

There is a lot of confusion about this. Pluralism often gets confused with other things, like “relativism.” A lot of people accuse religious pluralists, like myself and The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC), as being relativists, but the two ideas are quite different.

TCPC: Sounds like we’re being accused of being ‘post-modernists’.

BURKLO: Well, post-modernism takes things too far, saying essentially that everything is equal and that we can’t make value judgments. Pluralism doesn’t go that far. Perhaps there are aspects of some religions that should be universally condemned. Pluralism is not relativistic babble at all; there are universal laws. Take, for example, religiously sanctioned genital mutilation of women—this isn’t okay; and it would be well within the obligations of other religions to speak out against this practice. So, it’s not like pluralism means ‘anything goes.’ At the same time, it is recognition that no religion has an ultimate or final claim to The Truth.

TCPC: So, how do you understand pluralism personally?

BURKLO: The way that pluralism is integral to my faith and practice is in that pluralism is directly connected to, and is a consequence of, my belief in spiritual humility. Spiritual humility is absolutely integral to Christian faith. Consider this: we worship a god that is really beyond human comprehension. We can experience God and can encounter God directly through mystical and spiritual experience, and through acts of service, worship, and devotion. This doesn’t mean that we understand who and what God is. In fact, our religion has all sorts of prohibitions against making that claim.

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exodus 3:13-14, NRSV)

‘I am who I am’ is not a definition that fits neatly in a box. There is a prohibition in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism against even claiming that we can know all there is to know about God. God is transcendent.

TCPC: Why do you suppose, given that there is this prohibition within these traditions, that the some of the evangelicals and the fundamentalists—the non-pluralists, the exclusivists—so easily claim to know the unknowable?

BURKLO: Well, I can’t speak for those people, but, in my experience in many conversations with people who believe that Christianity is superior to all other religions, what I have found is that they consider that position to part of a whole edifice of their theology. I don’t mean to criticize people of other Christian perspectives; but I would invite them to look within and ask the question: how strong is your faith? How solid could your faith be if, should one of the elements of religious-theological edifice should collapse, the entire edifice collapses with it? But that’s what we have: a very delicate structure of faith that is dependent upon all sorts of dogma. An admission of pluralism is an issue that could topple that structure. They tend to believe their own version of what they think the Bible literally tells them, which suggests that Christianity if the only way to salvation.

TCPC: This would explain why they seem to fight so hard to maintain a doctrinal stance that seems more definitional than spiritual.

BURKLO: Well, yes. If you look at Christianity as a system of beliefs, and if some piece of that is threatened, the whole system is threatened. It’s like a house of cards or a toothpick structure: you pull one out, and down it comes. I would suggest that there is another way to be Christian that is not so delicate, but more structurally sound, shall we say, where faith is a possibility and faith goes on, even if a hole gets punched in some cherished theological concept.

TCPC: What about the biblical basis for exclusivism?

BURKLO: Very often, what gets invoked as the biblical basis of evangelical and fundamentalist exclusivism (or ‘inclusivism’ in the sense of still believing Christianity superior though respectful of other religions) are passages from John: ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” The implication of these passages for many evangelicals and fundamentals is that if you don’t believe these things, you’re going to go to hell at worst and stay dead when you die at best. In other words, they are basing their exclusivist claims on “I am the only way” or “I am the door” concepts. What’s interesting to me is that evangelical Christians rely on these passages from John as proof-texts for the superiority of Christianity. In fact, John is the least “fact-based,” most mystical of the gospels; the least interested in the historical Jesus.

The other fascination to me is that all the passages typically quoted from John are mystical. The I Am passages refer back to the book of Exodus where God speaks from the burning bush. Moses asks God, ‘Who are you,” and God says, “I Am,” “I am who I am,” which, of course, is mysticism. And so, Jesus is recognizing that he is one with God, expressing an experience of mystical unity with God. In John 17, Jesus says, (v.20), “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…”, this is mysticism. Jesus and his disciples are one; Jesus and God are one; the disciples and God are one… this is mysticism, which couldn’t be clearer in the book of John. So, these “I Am” passages are all mystical expressions of union with God. If you look at this from that point of view, then you realize that when Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one comes to the father but through me,” what he is saying is something beautifully, poetically circular. He’s saying that the only way to God is through God. It is only through this mystical union with God where God is “known.” And you can have this mystical union with God through Islam, through Judaism, Hinduism. Even though the Buddhists do not talk about god, but if you read closely, you’ll find that Buddhist spiritual experience resonates with mystical union.

It’s kind of ironic that some evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians are proof-texting from these texts that are clearly the most mystical and Gnostic, non-linear, non-“fact-based” passages that you can find in the gospels (to say nothing of the fact that they represent a first-century reality that doesn’t exist any more. Basically, exclusivist evangelicals and fundamentalists read back into the text the theology that they have concocted here in America. They can’t self-reflect on that, because, again, fear of what will happen if those cherished doctrines would fall apart.

Pluralism is not a threat to Christian identity at all. In fact, I’m convinced that pluralism is integral to Christian practice.

TCPC: It would certainly seem that if you read over the significant interactions that Jesus had with others, actually very few of these were with people of the same faith.

BURKLO: This is a very interesting subject. If you look in the gospels, you will see that Jesus, over and over again, tells his disciples, ‘don’t go to Samaria,’ ‘stay in Israel,’ ‘heal and preach in Israel.’ He insults the Canaanite woman by saying, ‘you don’t give to dogs [i.e., gentiles] what is holy.’ But she says that even the dogs get crumbs from the table, at which Jesus says, ‘Girl, your request for healing is granted. You have shown more faith than the people of Israel.’ So Jesus’ approach was, ‘I’m here to serve my people, but if some of them are not receiving, who am I to turn down people who come from the outside asking for the gospel.

TCPC: Jesus is something of the ultimate pluralist, it seem to me. Consider this: There is nothing to suggest that Jesus was anything other than a devote Jew, but when he dealt with the Samaritan woman and the Roman soldier, for example, he did not follow up his healing with exhortations to convert to the one, true god, say. The Roman soldier was not sent off to the Mohel for circumcision. But he would advise Jews to uphold Jewish tradition (e.g., after several healings, Jesus advises the one healed to present himself to the priests according to the law of Moses. Jesus did not insist that anyone change their theology or their view of God to receive his grace. I think we can only conclude from this that the content of one’s theology was of little or no concern to him.

BURKLO: Jesus didn’t really leave the boundaries of his tradition; he honored the boundaries of his tradition, as you said. Jesus says, ‘I did not come to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. …to cross every T and dot every I.’ But to fulfill the law completely, you have to go beyond it, Jesus says and embody the spirit of the law. When you move beyond the law, then you move into this realm of Christian humility. Those rules are based on culture, religion, and exclusivity, and Jesus was a part of all that. When he spoke to the Samaritan woman, he was going against his own scruples in a way that’s hard for us to comprehend. He was saying that what lies beyond the law is a higher level of spirituality, where all these distinctions fall away. By his example, then, we can see this concept of pluralism as something significant to his message.

TCPC: Well, what about Jesus and other faiths?

BURKLO: Jesus was not going to convene an interfaith gathering; he was trying to take his own religious culture beyond its own limits, to transcend them. To go all the way with tradition, and go past it. I’d like to bring in here something I mentioned above. Pluralism is not about some religion ‘salad’; it’s not religion soup, where we take all the religions and say they are all the same. No. There’s a way to be authentically and particularly religious—involved and immersed in a religious culture and practice a specific religion and path; but, if you go all the way with that, you will discover that we all end up on the top of the same mountain with adherent of other religions because those who have gone all the way in their traditions to mystical unity with God, they discover that they have brothers and sisters of other faiths who have done the same sort of thing. Again, the religions are not the same, but there are phenomenological compatibilities and resonances among them that make these differences more trivial. Something like this has been reported by mystics of every religion.

TCPC: Pluralism seems to require abandoning our strict binary thinking which suggests that in order for me or mine to be right, yours has to be wrong.

BURKLO: Well, I actually think that what you refer to is really an effect of modernism creeping into religion and stems from the Enlightenment emphasis on strict rationality as the measure of human progress, religious or otherwise. While the rational mind is very valuable, it is important to note that it is not incompatible with religion. There are other realms of experience, however: the mystical, the poetic, the metaphorical. Again, this dimension of existence suggests that no one religion is ‘right.’

If we think about religion inclination as an attraction to the center versus being inside or outside of an edifice, we realize that those are two distinct ways of looking at religion. The American way of looking at religion sometimes is that religion is a rectangle with walls and you’re either in it, or you are out; you’re saved or you’re not; you believe in the Bible or you don’t; Jesus is your personal savior or he’s not. Of course, this is one way to look at things, but it’s not the only way to look at Christianity. Another very Christian way of looking at Christianity and religion, in general, is say that we are followers of Jesus Christ or seekers after the Christ. We’re on a spiritual path that is headed somewhere. We are attracted to the divine center. It’s a journey, not a rectangle with walls. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Way,’ the Way is not a static thing. Jesus referred to himself as a door… well, doors swing both ways: in and out.

TCPC: Sengstan, who was the third Chinese Zen patriarch, in a statement about The Way, says, “The great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” I’ve been working with this statement for 15 years or more. I think what he is saying is that when we get attached to anything, even elements of our tradition, then the very attachment to that tradition prevents us or hinders us from that mystical union we were speaking of.

BURKLO: Well, that shows up in Jesus emptying himself and taking the form of a servant. The question I always ask about Christian exclusivism and superiority is, How did the religion of an empty man get so full of itself, that it would claim that it is superior to every other religion? How would the religion of a man who took the form of a servant be so obnoxious as to lord itself over other beliefs. This attitude is so alien to the very concept of the Christ.

TCPC: I found a very interesting passage in Amos (9:7) that deals with the Israelites and their attitude of chosen superiority:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord,
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir?

What we have here, I think, is an evolution in the Israelite concept of God, moving away from a tribal theodicy to a more universal one.

BURKLO: This is a very intriguing think about the Hebrew scriptures is the concept of interreligious relationships at that time. Their view was very alien to modern evangelical Christianity and fundamentalism. All over the Hebrew scriptures, God is described henotheistically. Henotheism is the idea that my god lives in my country and rules there. In your country, your God rules. Take the story of Naaman in II Kings 5. Naaman sends for Elijah to take care of a skin condition. Elijah tells Naaman to come to the Jordan to bathe. Naaman is indignant about having to go to the Jordan, given that Syria (where Naaman lives) is where the water from the Jordan actually comes from. He is asking essentially, why would I come to your country to bath in your muddy river? Can you see the why Naaman has to come to Israel? Elijah’s God is not going to work in Syria.

As the story continues, Naaman recognizes the power of the Israelite god and gets his servants to take dirt from Israel to Syria because the Israeli dirt is YHVH’s. So, Naaman will have YHVH looking after him because he has brought along a piece of Israel into his country. By the way, there are still indigenous cultures that practice a henotheistic concept of god. They might acknowledge God (YHVH) or Jesus as the god of people from certain countries, while recognizing that their god lives with them. It’s a much more tolerant perspective.

TCPC: What do you see as the aim for Pluralism Sunday? What outcome do you want to see as a result?

BURKLO: Well, a couple of things. One is to promote the concept, so a lot of it is about education: What is pluralism, as opposed to toleration? Americans tolerate having other religions in their neighborhoods. America is the mostly religiously diverse country on the planet and that’s because we have a long tradition of toleration. Pluralism Sunday is taking that a step beyond and actually embracing other religions and honoring them at a deeper level. Again, it’s recognizing that there religion may well be as good for their adherents as ours is for ours. And that’s a much deeper level of embrace, a much deeper level of respect and openness. Part of our aim is to encourage our churches to make contacts and develop relationships with people of other faiths. We are encouraging our churches to do that in worship.

Another objective is to let the world know that there are pluralistic Christians and pluralistic Christian churches out there, churches that embrace this concept of pluralism. One of the reasons that people have dropped out of Christian churches is that they are just disgusted with the claim that Christianity is religiously superior, and they have come to believe that Christians are arrogant. We have to remember that millions of Americans have had contact with devote practitioners of other faiths, and they are over it [the claim that Christianity is superior]; they know better. So when they find themselves in a church that espouses Jesus as the only way and so on, this is just nonsense to them. They can’t buy it, so, they drop out of the church. We need to let the world know that there is a way to be Christian—and there are plenty of Christian churches that do the faith without all this hubris. The goal is to let the world know that there are pluralistically-minded churches and that this form of Christianity exists. Pluralism Sunday is a way to make that statement.

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