Pluralism: A View From The Pew
(William C. Buffie’s message to the Oaklandon Unitarian Universalist Church in NE Indianapolis on August 26, 2007. Bill Buffie and John Charles are the co-authors of The Christian Pluralist: An Invitation From The Pew.)
Thank you for inviting me to share with you today. I am sorry that my co-author, John Charles, could not be with us today. Unfortunately, his job with the government has taken him to Baltimore for four months and he could not make it back for this weekend. So, I’ll go it alone today, but I must confess that this is not a comfortable proposition for me at all. By nature I am an introvert, a very private person, with an aversion to public speaking that dates back to the seventh grade. And this isn’t easy trying to condense years of work into a short message today. I’ve lost a lot of sleep struggling with the right words to approach this.
So why am I here? For three reasons – fear, concern, and passion. Extremism, as it relates to religious matters, is everywhere. You only have to open the newspaper or any history book to see the ugliness associated with the practice of religion. And it is not just in the Middle East or Northern Ireland or any number of other hot spots of sectarian violence — it is in our midst everyday. When religious zealots murder a doctor at an abortion clinic or intimidate the women who have made the difficult choice to use such a clinic; when small children are turned away from Christian schools because their parents are lesbian; when a U.S. general in Iraq proclaims that “we will prevail because our god is bigger than their god;” when our own youth group leader declines to share with our youth that John and I are hosting an interfaith panel because she has read our book and after all she believes in Jesus (we don’t?); when our senior pastor, seemingly in response to the pluralist message we share in our book, announces at the end of a sermon that “if you are not with me, you are against me;” when a fundamentalist pastor, who took exception to my editorial to the Indianapolis Star in April regarding the proposed gay marriage amendment, meets with me for several hours to “educate” me about the Bible and at the end tells me that the difference between him and a fundamentalist Muslim is that the Bible was given to him by God, whereas the Quran was given to Mohammed by the devil; these are the type of experiences that make me fear the direction we find ourselves heading and the world that awaits our children and grandchildren.
Granted, these are extreme examples that bring horror to the minds of most mainstream Christians, but what I find disturbing is the realization that these actions or opinions are actually the logical end products if one defines the world in black and white, with absolutes one feels are dictated by God and not the human experience. It is all too easy for dogma and doctrine and definitions to lead fundamentalists to opinions that make us shudder, but my concern is that they are just at one end of a continuum that promotes divisiveness in too many subtle ways. I am concerned because I think we live in a gray and messy world, but the traditional Christian message so often is presented in absolute terms that unwittingly contribute to the extremist mentality. The current religious landscape is so much about “us” and “them” competition, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
I has become our passion to find new ways to communicate our religious experiences; how to share in a way that promotes healthy dialogue, though not necessarily agreement. Globalization leaves us all interconnected. We live in a pluralist society. We must become passionate about being moderate – perhaps a contradiction in terms, but a necessary one I believe.
You might be thinking about now, “Why don’t you just join our Unitarian Universalist Church? Why bother writing a book?” Believe me, it is tempting and I have thought about it. I love the accepting and compassionate message I hear shared in your service today. However, if we were to leave our mainstream church that would say much about what we believe, but the more important issue that we wish to explore is why we believe as we do. We believe that in so doing we can reconcile the term “Christian Pluralist.” Some suggest this is a contradiction in terms; that it is offensive to orthodox Christianity. We propose a line of reasoning that invites an attitude of “we” rather than “us” and “them.” We think we can justify a perspective that promotes true acceptance – not just tolerance. And there is a big difference if you are on the receiving end of being tolerated rather than being truly accepted as an equal. Furthermore, we hope to restore the relevance of organized religion at a time that the church is in steady decline.
Brian McClaren, at a lecture we attended a couple of years ago, shared some disconcerting statistics about the secularization of Europe and the trend in the U.S. following the same path. Though 90% of Americans claim to believe in God, only 40-45% are members of organized religion; in any given week only 18% actually attend services at a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. In Western Europe, the number is only 1%. Does it have to continue this way? Is this a good and inevitable trend? We think not, but more importantly, we believe change will have to come from within. That is why we remain as United Methodists and have written our book.
So how did we get here?
John and I both grew up in traditional Christian churches, strayed from the church during our college years and for a few years thereafter, only to return when we started our families and our wives dragged us to church — and we are glad they did. I suspect our path was similar to many of yours. But over the ensuing years many questions and doubts began to creep into our experience. We wondered, how could God be so angry as to order the annihilation of entire villages of people? How could an omniscient and omnipotent God regret having created humankind and send a flood to wipe out all living creatures except two of each kind? What sense did it make to hear the survivor of an accident thank their personal God for their safety, as nearby we watch a mother tearfully holding her dead child and asking “why?”
We found ourselves having to “translate” sermons into words that were compatible with our developing worldview. We began to feel hypocritical sitting in the pews having our “heresy” thoughts. But through a series of conversations, books, Sunday school classes, lectures, and friendships we came to realize that we weren’t alone. Still, should we stay in our Methodist Church? Or become Unitarian-Universalists? Then, in the late summer of 2003 it all came to a head. Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, took the country, and our church, by storm.
Though we can glean many useful messages from this book, we were particularly uncomfortable with the simple manner in which Christianity was presented – as we had come to believe it to be a very complex subject. One line especially I will never forget. “Obedience unlocks understanding – understanding can wait.” As a parent, I understand the intent. But we, the laity, are not children. We deserve to explore questions and doubts. We need to understand, or at least try. So what was the natural thing to do at this point? We wrote a book in response.
Eight drafts and two and one half years later, after many conversations, confrontations, affirmations and introspection, we published The Christian Pluralist: An Invitation From The Pew.
Our title tells a great deal about our subject matter and us. First and foremost, this is a view from the pew. We are not experts, seminarians, or academicians, but we do represent a common and important, but underrepresented, worldview. We are not here to debate others who gravitate to a different perspective, but we wish to share – a journey, a thought process, questions, and opinions.
We are Christian in that this is our cultural heritage. The Bible is our guidepost. We believe that Jesus Christ was, in human form, the will of God manifest on earth. We believe in trying to lead a Christ-centered life and wish to be followers of Jesus – recognizing that our definition of being a ‘follower’ may differ from others. At the same time, we are pluralists, meaning that we don’t believe that there is any one “right” path to be in relationship with God.
Our invitation is to lay people, who share our sentiments, to speak out and be more vocal in a world crying out to acknowledge that absolutism is dangerous in a world of globalization wherein diverse cultures find themselves in the midst of one another’s theologies, emotions, and insecurities. In so doing, we think we then offer an invitation to our clergy as well – to engage in open and healthy discussion about the questions and doubts that are a part of our spiritual journeys. We suggest that this can be done in a manner that increases the relevance of our religious experience – it need not diminish or demean that experience. A pastor on the south side of Indianapolis thanked us after reading our book, stating that he now felt empowered to address our questions from the pulpit, whereas previously he was afraid of offending those in the pews or making them uncomfortable by giving something other than absolute answers.
Our book is full of questions, questions, and more questions. In an educated and diverse society, we affirm the need and inevitability of this process.
In an early chapter, titled Framing The Discussion, we emphasize the crucial and fundamental fact that each of us, in approaching any type of debate or discussion, must acknowledge the lens through which we see the world and how this affects the tenor of the discussion. It is essential that we recognize that consciously or unconsciously we all have certain defining criteria that we use to judge the validity of any particular line of reasoning. These criteria, in fact, often predetermine the eventual outcome of the discussion. For example, the abortion debate. If one gravitates to the pro-life camp as a result of countless life experiences and reasoning, then this person will define life as beginning at the time of conception; it then logically follows that abortion is murder and therefore intolerable. On the other hand, if one is pro-choice, then life will be defined as beginning later in pregnancy or at the time when the fetus can leave the womb and remain viable; and abortion then can be justified on a number of other grounds with the “murder” label not applying.
Similarly, in the longstanding debate between science and religion, must religious “truths” be born out by scientific method in order to be valid, or can matters of faith and individual religious traditions be “true” in a different sense or realm?
The next chapter, Understanding Bias: Giving Up Control, explores the process of maturation of the individual and the impact on relationships as described in a book by James Hollis, a Jungian psychologist, The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife. Hollis asks of each of us, “Who are we aside from the roles that we have played?” What baggage do we bring to the here and now? Why are we who we are? What factors, conscious and subconscious, contribute to our being and how are our relationships affected? More importantly, once in possession of such knowledge through painstaking introspection, what are our responsibilities going forward? What choices will we make?
We then offer the analogy that perhaps as a collective religious community we also have passed through adolescence and now is the time to take stock of who we are and what might we choose for the future to bring. Why are we “traditional” Christians or “progressive” Christians, Muslims or Jews, atheists or agnostics? How shall we be in relationship with the “other?” Do we choose to maintain the status quo or do we embrace a new future?
Sacred Scriptures: Literal Word of God or Chronicle of the Spiritual Journey? This is the most contentious chapter for the traditionalist. Here we outline the many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible that give us cause for concern. We explore the implications of the human and changing nature of God through the course of the Bible. We tackle those passages that traditionally result in the exclusive claims of Christianity, and offer a different interpretation consistent with our pluralist viewpoint. We offer that all of these considerations taken together seem, to us, to point to scripture being a product of human experience, not divine authority. Clearly, this is where we part ways with the traditionalist, but we would offer that we still believe in the authority of scripture. This authority, however, we believe is warranted as scripture, and the current interpretation thereof, reflects the collective enduring wisdom and values of our elders and our contemporaries who earnestly seek relationship with the divine.
The following chapter, Truth: Relative or Absolute? emphasizes the importance of differentiating what it means to believe something versus truly knowing it. It is important to recognize that if we start out a conversation with, “The truth is …” then we close the door to open discussion. But if we start out, “What I believe is…” or “The truth that resonates with me is …” then we invite dialogue.
The American Heritage dictionary has fourteen different definitions of the word ‘truth’ itself. Perhaps this isn’t the best word to use in matters of religious or theological debate. Mark Twain makes the point quite succinctly, “America has the one true religion – dozens of ‘em.”
We affirm the infinite and mysterious and unknowable nature of God as an entity in the next chapter, Evolution of God: Insult or Progress? We acknowledge that humans, with finite existence limited by time and in perspective, are incapable of knowing God in absolute terms, though God may be “revealed” in effect through the spiritual journey that gives rise to sacred scripture. Furthermore, we contend that this is an evolving process and that the beauty of the Bible is that it, as “the living word” of God, indeed evolves, and must do so in order to survive, just as is true of all living organisms.
In the next chapter, The Bonds That Unite Us, we share discussion of the common needs, values, and themes of the world’s enduring religions. We reference Huston Smith who offers the analogy that the religions of the world are similar to the human body in that at the their core they are almost indiscernible though externally they may appear quite different. Our spines are remarkably the same, though our body types, color, facial features, speech etc. all are unique and individual. We celebrate that religion is the same for all of us and different for each of us.
The final chapter, Embracing Uncertainty, finds us admitting that we are lost in a sea of self-proclaimed experts. Acknowledging that we simply cannot truly know what is right, for a long time it seemed to us that the only logical and defensible position to hold was that of being an optimistic agnostic. If forced to choose between traditional monotheism with its emphasis on a personal relationship with a God of human character or secular humanism, the fact was that neither choice resonated with us. But through the process of writing this book and the resultant “humanizing” of scripture, we found another possibility that did indeed resonate with us. We discovered that once we peeled away all of the human doctrine, dogma, and theology so much a part of our traditional journey, then at the core we found God. God, for us, is a presence that we feel inside of us; a presence that calls for us to be more than what we might be without that presence; a presence that, once experienced, takes on a reality of its own and is capable of transforming daily lives. Though we don’t experience God as a person, we find our relationship with God is personal.
We have been criticized as being “cafeteria” Christians. We accept this label however not as a criticism, but rather as simple acknowledgement of what is now, has been, and always will be the case as it pertains to matters of religion. We wouldn’t have thousands of Christian denominations, fundamentalists and progressives, orthodox and reformed, Muslim and Jew, Hindu and Sikh, … if this were not the case. It seems self evident that one size doesn’t fit all, but if we pick and choose those aspects of our particular tradition that help us adhere to the core universal values common to all the enduring religions of the world – love, compassion, justice, humility, sharing, caring for the least and the lost – are we to be criticized?
So, what does keep the traditionalist from embracing the pluralist perspective?
I think there are many fears – some legitimate and easy to understand given the security we all receive from cherished and familiar traditions, but it should be acknowledged that there is some component of just fearing change itself. Uncertainty and change can be disconcerting – especially if one believes that eternal salvation is on the line. But still, I think even the traditionalist has a choice as to whether or not to allow fears and traditions to paint oneself into a corner of isolation. As a pluralist, the last thing I want is to be isolated from others in search for the divine or effective paths to promote the universal values alluded to previously. Simply stated, we want validation from traditionalists; recognition that our journey is not unreasonable for us; empathy as to our struggles; affirmation that we share common goals; and leave the judging to God, if there is judgment to be carried out.
Can we not embrace labels and definitions that are all-inclusive, that don’t isolate, that reflect Jesus’ ministry to reach out to those who are different or disenfranchised? We are not oriented to be exclusive in our claims – this is a matter of choice. Mainstream Christianity can choose to change and that change must come from within.
Some may consider it offensive and presumptuous to suggest redefining Christianity, but we would ask who made the definitions in the first place? Hasn’t this always been a human process? Who, at the Council of Nicea, decided what books to include or exclude from the canon? Who decides the definitions of the “orthodox” Christian? The “reformed” Jew? The “moderate” Muslim? The “fundamentalist?” Acknowledging the human role is crucial if we are to go forward. If we absolutely knew God’s definition of Christian etc. – not just passionately believed one definition or another – then it would be a valid criticism to say that we are presumptuous in arguing with God. Accepting the human role, however, invites choice.
I recently started reading a translation of the Quran given to me by a Muslim friend. It is interesting to note that the author or editor of this particular translation offers that Muslims believe Moses, David, and Jesus all to have been Muslims, because the definition of a Muslim is “one who submits to the will of God.”
In the same vein, I would offer that a Christian is one who is a follower of Jesus. By my definition of a ‘follower of Jesus’ – meaning one who seeks to honor the principles of living and relationships embodied by Jesus – it follows that Mohammed, Gandhi, “good” atheists, … were, or are, also Christian.
This type of circuitous reasoning speaks to the power of words and definitions: defined by core values we are all one and the same and in this sense all are “created in God’s image”; but defined by external details fashioned from human tradition and cultural experience, we are all unique and this is manifest by how we “create God in our own image.”
Is such a perspective naïve and unrealistic? Does it insult the divine? It is an important matter to consider. We don’t think God dictates the answers to these questions.
Reconciling with Traditionalists
Does redefining Christianity undermine and invalidate the orthodox experience? In our book, we argue no — certainly that is not our intent, though we understand from many discussions that it comes across that way to some. For that, we apologize. Remember however that we, as pluralists, frame this discussion not as a debate between us and the traditionalist or between us and God, but rather this is intended to be a sharing of well-reasoned passions. We wish to emphasize again that the pluralist perspective validates all journeys that serve to promote the core universal values common to the enduring religions. We respect, and envy in many ways, the orthodox experience shared by our forbearers and contemporaries, but caution that we all must protect from absolute proclamations that, if carried to their extreme “logical” conclusions, result in some of the horrors committed in the name of religion that we see all too often.
Acknowledging the biases and processes common to all of our paths invites humility. Humility, introspection, and healthy doubts can soften the rhetoric and extremism that plague society. Humility invites dialogue. Dialogue breeds familiarity and respect. Only from this starting point can we hold in healthy tension our divergent worldviews.
At a lecture at Butler University a year or two ago, Reverend Ann Case-Winters of the Chicago Theological Seminary, when asked by John how to speak to others about matters conflicting with their worldview, gave some profound advice, “Speak to them very carefully.” It wasn’t the answer we were hoping for. We wanted to hear the magic words to open ears and minds. When it comes down to it, perhaps all we can really offer is that we believe that God and religion are the same for all of us and different for each of us. Recognizing this, it is our responsibility to engage others in a civil and respectful manner.
Perhaps we just live in a religious continuum understandably spanning literal truth to metaphorical truth. In orthodox Christian fashion, the traditionalist might be able to relate to and find some comfort with the pluralist’s perspective by considering Jesus to be 100% divine/literal and 100% human/metaphorical, depending on the seeker – and that individual’s culture, experience, and reason. Is it rational to accept this paradox? We think so. This is our book, providing the rationale for being pluralists – Christian Pluralist, Jewish Pluralist, Muslim Pluralist, Hindu Pluralist … we’re all the same in so many ways.
Message of Hope
Ultimately, I want you to realize that we come to you with a message of hope. Change is occurring, but it will be gradual; it will be multigenerational. Not unlike the course of women’s rights, the civil rights movement, or the current gay rights issues, change will be slow. For it to occur, we need to be intentional, deliberate, and steady in our efforts.
I am encouraged to see that it is indeed happening. When we started this process I had never heard of the word ‘pluralist.’ Eighteen months into writing the book I came across an article that made reference to ‘post-modernist pluralists’ and I had my ah-ha moment: “I’m a pluralist!” What a great feeling to realize that I belonged to a defined group. Most of us find comfort in being part of something bigger than ourselves. From this point on we came to realize that this movement has been going on for centuries. In the late 1700’s the previously accepted tenets of scriptural and papal infallibility came into question and were the subject of much debate. The questions with which we, as lay people, find ourselves now struggling have been heatedly debated for the past 100 years in seminaries and academic circles. We have been validated and energized by the realization that there are countless organizations globally that find a home with the pluralist perspective.
Particularly exciting in my mind is to see organizations such as the Interfaith Youth Corp, founded by a young Muslim man, bringing together kids from a variety of faith backgrounds to share about their individual traditions and passions. These encounters are not about converting, but simply sharing, getting to know the “other.” Once one really knows the other, it is much more difficult to demonize them or their beliefs. This is the type of deliberate effort that we call for at the end of our book. We feel that these types of discussions should be mandated by our public schools and that our children need to appreciate diversity and learn the art of acceptance from the earliest of ages. Such discussions should include not just the experiences of people of faith, but atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc. also must be able to share and be understood for their journeys as well.
The Network of Spiritual Progressives is a global organization comprised of passionate people of multiple faiths, and those who characterize themselves as spiritual but not religious, trying to become a political force promoting a platform endorsing love and generosity rather than dominance. They have proposed a global Marshall Plan requiring the U.S. and other industrialized nations to commit 1-2% of GDP over the next twenty years to fund efforts to eliminate global poverty. They seek to overcome the cynical realism that binds us to the status quo. The pluralist mentality is at the core of their very being. These efforts give us hope.
But we also have experienced change locally. The fundamentalist pastor, who made the comments about the origin of the Quran, and I were at least able to sit in the same room together for 3 1/2 hours without becoming angry. We had a civil and respectful discussion, though not one that brought agreement or resolution. I believe these difficult conversations will bear fruit in the future; maybe not with this generation, but with the next or the next.
Our youth director, though declining to invite the youth to our interfaith panel, did come to the panel herself, and we have subsequently been involved in a Bible study together through our church wherein we are able to share differing views. Our senior pastor, in giving a sermon explaining the exclusive claims of Christianity (and seeming to go chapter by chapter through our book and refuting our rationale), at the end did acknowledge that it is the responsibility of the orthodox Christian to “propose” theology, not “impose” it, and that in dealing with those who have conflicting theologies it is important to show love and respect and realize that, after all, we are not God and there just may be some things that we just cannot understand. We also now have a presidential candidate who has offered the novel idea of actually talking with the leaders of “the axis of evil” rather than bombing them into submission!
We read a book not long ago for our book club titled The Shadow of the Wind. I’ll always remember one line that really resonated with me as a pluralist. A character in the novel speaking about the importance and role of books in our society makes the statement, “Books are mirrors; you only see in them what you already have inside of you.” I would suggest that God/religion/scripture/definitions also are mirrors and that we only see in them what we already have inside of us. It is time to expand what is inside of us, and our children.
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