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Pluralism is the way to stop fighting in name of religion.
Not long ago, interfaith dialogue in this country was based on the idea of “tolerating” other religions. This was clearly a derogatory attitude, suggesting that other religions had to be given permission to exist. The dialogue has since moved on and is now framed in terms of “respecting” other religions. This may appear to be a more mature approach suited to the needs of a multi-faith society, but in reality this terminology is a camouflage, shielding an exclusivist, non-negotiable agenda of the Abrahamic faiths.
A sarcastic interpretation of the idea of “respecting” other religions is: I know that my faith alone is right and the others are in error, but I will not make a fuss about it. While this may reduce the chances of open confrontation between people of different faiths, it is hardly a prescription for community cohesion. Recently Pope Benedict declined to participate in a joint prayer meeting with people of other faiths because that might have given the impression that the Catholic church considered all religious traditions equally valid. This can be interpreted as “Catholicism alone is right; the rest of the religions are in error”.
One of the greatest challenges we face this century is how to defuse strife caused by people in the name of religion. Continuing to shield exclusivist agendas is no way forward. The solution lies in an innocuous-sounding word: pluralism. In a nutshell this is an acceptance that there can be many pathways for making spiritual progress. It can be made in a theistic mode, a non-theistic mode, and even in a non-religious mode. We are all different and this difference shows up in the way we relate to ideas of spirituality.
Down the centuries, different prophets have promoted different pathways for spiritual progress, tailored to suit the needs of the society they inhabited. Over time these teachings ossified as various religions. Every religion can be seen as a particular pathway promoted to suit the needs of the time. The destination they promise may be glorified as absolute, but the pathways can certainly not be absolute. They are always relative because they have to relate to us.
Every religion is entitled to make claims about its pathway and promote it to its adherents, but when it attempts to impose its pathway on people of other faiths or no faith, a religion can turn into an explosive device. One would think that mature theologians would recognise the seriousness of the situation and be happy to affirm that there can be many pathways for spiritual progress, their religion being just one of them. But my experience suggests otherwise.
In the view of those theologians who are committed to exclusivist claims, God has been well and truly encapsulated within their system of doctrines and dogmas, so how can He escape and make an appearance in another religion? But if any system, however esoteric, captures God within its framework then by definition that system has superseded God. So a God easily confined by a religious system is hardly worth bothering with.
The exclusivists also see pluralism as amounting to relativism – a dirty word to them because it suggests there is no absolute truth, hence anything goes. But pluralism does not suggest that; it simply states that there will be a diversity of prescriptions adopted by different groups as they reflect different starting points, but crucially these prescriptions are binding in each case. This is not relativism.
If there are no absolutes in religious teachings then pluralism too cannot be an absolute injunction. But pluralism has never claimed absolute status. It is simply an instrument to address a need: how can people of different religions coexist without thumping each other?
One casualty of pluralism would be the proselytising agendas of missionary religions. I suspect this is the real reason why there is such resistance to this simple but potent concept – and that it is not spiritual but monetary considerations that prevent pluralism from being allowed to address the needs of a pluralistic society.
* Jay Lakhani is the education director of the Hindu Council UK
By Jay Lakhani of the Vivekananda Centre London
Recently I have been invited to speak on the theme of “Interfaith” at quite a few meetings held in London. Let me share my thoughts on some of the key issues I have touched on.
In the last century we witnessed strife in the name of political ideology. We had two World Wars, with millions of people being killed. The challenge we face in the new century is perhaps even more worrying. This time we are seeing strife in the name of religion. This is a far more contentious issue. Religions are far more emotive subjects and can generate much stronger passions. There is a reason why this happens. Religions have a habit of telling us, “Carry out this much finite activity here on earth and we offer you infinite rewards in the hereafter.” The risk/reward ratio is skewed to the extreme. If we kill in the name of religion or be killed in the name of religion, surely, that is a small price to pay for an infinite reward in the hereafter! One can see how the emotive aspects of religions enter the arena. How do we diffuse the situation?
We see the politicians and diplomats working away frantically trying to address the issue. We may think, “Surely these issues will get resolved by diplomatic manoeuvring; or by a bit of political give and take! Surely, all this is to do with economics and the control of oil fields! Or maybe we have to show offer greater justice to some disadvantaged people.” But we know in our heart of hearts that all these: Political, Diplomatic, Economic, Judicial or Military approaches, at best are mere patchwork solutions.
The resolution of a problem that arises in the name of religion lies firmly in the field of religion. It is wholesome spirituality that can tackle the issues thrown up in the name of religion.
I suggest that the reason these problems have arisen in the first place is not because the world is somehow becoming more religious and that these tensions are showing up as the world religions are forced to interact with each other. The reason I suggest is precisely the opposite. It is because we are becoming less religious minded that these problems surface. We sometimes forget that we just cannot afford to ignore religions. (Even if some of us were to believe that all religions were erroneous these issues arising in the name of religions have to be tackled and contained).
In a highly secular world that we live in the role of religions in society is no longer very clear. As society can no longer find a role for religions two things begin to happen. On one side we see society adopting a more materialistic stance, and at the other side religions increasingly fall into the hands of fanatic wings. This happens as the mainstream aspirants of these religions are no longer there to guard their religions; the rational and tolerant elements of these religions get pushed aside in favour of the more fanatic elements. What is the solution?
The solution is to become truly religious. Not to be religious only in name but in the real sense of the word. The problems we face are the symptoms of a society that needs religion and yet has difficulty in relating to it. The religion that I come from has important contribution to make in this process.
The issue is: – How can many exclusivist religions co-exist in a single society? We do not have the luxury of living in isolation, practising our own exclusive religion. We live in multi-faith societies and operating, as single faith communities is no longer an option. The resolution offered by Hinduism is unique to this faith.
It is called ‘pluralism’. It says that the same ultimate reality sometimes called God can be thought of and approached in different ways. “Why, different ways?” “It is because we are different”, comes the answer. The goal may be same but as we are different; coming from different backgrounds; inspired by different prophets and scriptures, thus the manner in which we relate to the same ultimate will necessarily be different. This proposal suggests that however relevant are our prophets and scriptures to us they only have contextual validity and cannot have absolute validity. They relate to us and only to that extent can they be considered absolute; but not true for the rest of mankind. The simple example I use to illustrate this is – Imagine two children in the playground. One says to the other, “My mum is best.” The other says, “No, my mum is best in the world.” They both have tremendous love for their mothers and cannot tolerate the statement from the other so they fight. A wise man comes along and says to both of them, “Why don’t you change your statements and instead of saying just My mum is best, incorporate two little words at the end ‘for me’ and say: – “My mum is best for me”. Then you are both right and there is no need to fight.
These children would perhaps take the advice easily but many of my interfaith colleagues have great difficulty with this proposal. The advice suggests that their prophets and their scriptures are no longer absolute but only have contextual validity. Sounds blasphemous! The best resolution, the mainstream religions have been able to come up with so far is to use phrases like ‘we tolerate other religions’. Meaning, we hold the monopoly on the absolute – the others somehow exist by our permission. As we see we still have a long way to go!
I have often wondered how can any religion claim to hold the Absolute within its framework of prophets, scriptures, doctrines and dogmas? By the very definition of Absolute if anything can encapsulate it then it is no longer Absolute, as the religion that has captured it within its dogmas has now become bigger than the Absolute! Hindu teachings on this matter are very clear they say, “At best even the most esoteric religions can only offer a ‘perception of the Absolute’ – but never the Absolute.”
As we can see, if the mainstream religions adopt this idea of pluralism, the sharp edges seen dividing the major religions disappear. This simple idea says, “Your prophet and scriptures suit you and are best for you, my prophets and scriptures are fine for my purposes so why threaten or feel threatened by each other? This is the Hindu concept of pluralism.
Many of my Interfaith colleagues shudder at such proposal as it suggests that the prophets or the scriptures they hold so dear are at best a ‘perception of absolute’ rather than the real thing. Why should this be? The reason I come up with is that we human beings show weakness in dealing with spiritual matters. The Absolute is elusive in all religions, we try hard to grasp the idea but fail. So in our weakness we ascribe absolute stature to what we can grasp in our religions: i.e. The Prophets, the Scriptures, the doctrines and the dogmas. This is the source of our problem. We are not brave enough to recognise the necessary limitation when we are dealing with the absolute. This is the transition I advocate when I suggest: “We need to be truly religious in order to resolve the issue of religious strife”.
Some interfaith colleagues ask, “what is involved in being a pluralist?”
Firstly, pluralism does not require that we do water down our convictions. In fact pluralism suggests that our faith is perhaps the most suited to our requirements so there is no need to shop around or change direction. We do not have to emulate other faiths, as that may not suit our own frameworks. We should hang on to our own path with full confidence and vigour. We can see how pluralism would view ideas of ‘conversion’ from one faith to another. It could best be described as ‘perversion’. Why should spirituality, that is supposed to be so universal, be restricted to the teachings of one or two ancient prophets?
Secondly, pluralism does not suggest that the validity of other faiths somehow compromises of our own faith. If we call God infinite then how can his presence in other religions reduce his presence in our religion? Definition of infinite does not allow that.
In a way, pluralism already exists in an apologetic manner in all the mainstream religions. These religions accept a variation of approaches within their religion. A vast number of denominations and approaches are grudgingly accommodated within these faiths. Pluralism gives all these denominations full dignity and promotes the idea of extending this dignity to cover all other faiths too.
Pluralism has never promoted the idea that we take bits of all religions and produce a mix of all faiths called Inter-faith. The very idea is grotesque!
One Christian colleague said quite candidly: “No doubt, we are nervous about taking on this idea of pluralism but in a way we are relieved that it is being put across. Thank God for that!”
One of my interfaith colleagues suggested that even though pluralism sounds like a good idea it will not be easy for the theologians of the mainstream faiths to adopt it so easily. Why not be practical and focus on the common ground of humanity and develop interfaith ideals based on shared human values rather than through religious teachings? My response has been: – This is precisely what the outcome will be if the secular lobby gets its way. The secular lobby has been suggesting that religions are responsible for the serious problems we face today hence they should all be toned down or snuffed out. If we adopt this scenario religions would have lost out to the secular lobby.
Second criticism of pluralism comes from the ‘main weapon of all philosophers’. (Using logic to show weakness in a logical argument!). In this instance it would translate as: But then ‘Pluralism too is also a dogma’ hence why should it be given a better footing than the ‘Exclusivist agenda’? Sounds like a valid argument but fails to hit the target in this instance. Pluralism by its own admission recognises its limitations. It never says that ‘pluralistic’ approach is in anyway is somehow ‘absolute’. It recognises its own contextual nature. But then we can ask why invoke it? Because there is a great ‘contextual’ need for it in the world we live in. A world where many religions promoting exclusivist agendas just cannot co-exist without thumping each other! Hence this urgent need to invoke this Hindu concept of ‘pluralism’.
The third criticism directed towards ‘Pluralism’ is that it appears to be a ‘Relativist agenda’. ‘Anything goes’ may be the mantra of pluralism suggesting that there is no underlying absolute. This is not true. Pluralism is not relativism. Let me use a metaphor to explain the subtle difference. Suppose all of us are in a maze and are searching for the exit. For each one of us there will be a fixed prescription that will suit us most and will allow us to get out. (e.g. Go straight take the third right then second left and so on). The prescription for each one of us will be different and yet binding. If we compared our prescriptions we may be fooled into thinking that all these prescriptions seem random and we may conclude wrongly that we are promoting a ‘relativistic agenda’ – which is not ture. Pluralism accepts varied pathways but also recognises the binding nature of the methodology we need to adopt.
We have suggested that we have two options in this matter of resolving the issue of strife in the name of religion: – Either we adopt the idea of pluralism and incorporate it quickly within our faiths to diffuse the serious situation. Or, we may sing the glory of pluralism only after further serious catastrophes. The choice is ours.
Role of Pluralism 21st Century
In the last century the term spirituality was used in such a casual manner that it lost almost all its dignity and potency. It was seen as a floaty term suited for the new age movement and received no acceptance by rational thinkers. Atheists in the West often ridicule the term as utterly meaningless.
It is my proposal that in the 21st Century we will see this term re-emerge and not only regain its dignity but occupy the centre ground in the realms of both religious and scientific thinking. I maintain that Spirituality holds the key to reconciling a multitude of religious world-views as well as religious and science oriented world-views.
In order to see this reconciliation it is necessary to bear in mind the role of language and the limitations it comes with, when trying to grasp some of the key ides both in religions and science.
Language is not only something we use to communicate with each other, but it is the tool we require to understand things ourselves; to gain a handle on reality. Without a string of words appearing in our minds we cannot make sense of the world we live in. Without this linguistic tool; which we seem to possess naturally; the world will appear as a blur to us. Weigstenstien caught on to this idea and became the most renowned philosopher in the last century. This concept is not new in Hinduism. Since ancient times we have used the terminology: ‘Nam/Rupa’ (or name and form) as being the handles we require to capture reality. The interface between our mind and reality is name and/or form. Unfortunately the use of language has become second nature to us, and we sometimes forget its importance in making sense of the world we live in. However the use of language also comes with a serious down side which we fail to recognise. Though languages allow us to get a grip on reality they also limit the locus of our understanding of the workings of the world. The locus of our linguistic capacity also becomes the limiting factor in our ability to grasp anything whether it is religious or scientific.
Role of language in Religions:
The fountain- head of every religion or mystic tradition is the firsthand encounter of the spirit by some individual. These individuals seem to gain a deeper insight into the nature of reality and become prophets of mankind. They report experiences that are far more intense than the intensity with which we experience the empirical world. The lives and teachings of these seers and sages, both ancient and modern become the basis of religion or a sectarian movement within a religion. I am suggesting that the reason why we have such vastly varying religions is not because these prophets had different experiences, but because they offered different interpretations to their experiences. Christ proclaims that he encountered the father in heaven; while Buddha claims he gained enlightenment and Sri Ramakrishna talks about the vision of the Mother Divine. Their experiences are essentially transcendental (meaning that they defy articulation) and yet every prophet then gives a verbal expression to his or her experience. The mind-set of these sages colours and interprets their experiences. It cannot be otherwise. This becomes the source of variations in religious world-views. This feature is unavoidable – the only way anyone (including the prophets) can give expression to their experience is using the mental framework they possess. What they experience is absolute, but the expression they give is always relative. The variations we see as religious outputs are nothing but variations of the mind-sets of these sages in reporting their encounter of the Spirit. This marvellous insight was encapsulated by Sri Ramakrishna who said, ‘The love of the devotee freezes this formless God (Spirit) into the form of his or her desire!’ Here lies the genuine reconciliation between a multitude of religious world-views. What Sri Ramakrishna has suggested offers solid ground for genuine inter-faith and intra-faith understanding. The present form of Inter-faith dialogue is way off course. It started as we must tolerate people of other religions. I once challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the term ‘tolerate’ because that means I give you permission to exist! The Archbishop graciously agreed that the term was concessionary and as such poor for inter-faith dialogue. The interfaith dialogue then progressed to respecting people of other religions. This is still not satisfactory. I have repeatedly challenged this terminology as being hypocritical because it allows exclusivist agendas to hide behind such diplomatic terminology. For the exclusivist religions and its evangelical followers this simply translates as ‘We know that our religion alone is right but we are not going to make a fuss about it here and now – people of other religions will find this out in the here-after!’ As long as such exclusivist agendas are not put to rest, the world will continue to witness bloodshed in the name of religion. Plural ways to God or plural ways for making spiritual progress is a potent idea all world religions need to embrace. In Swami Vivekananda’s words at the parliament of religions: ‘We do not show tolerance of other religions but accept them to be true.’