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Religious Tolerance and Pluralism

In: Religion Topics

Submitted By treebark7
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Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Langdon Gilkey are religious theorists who both propose theories of pluralist religious dialogue. Their theories turn out to be quite similar, with Cohn-Sherbok’s proposal actually fitting into one of the categories Gilkey proposes. Like many other theories of religious pluralism, their ideas tend to conflict with established religious ideas and may not be feasible for actual use in interfaith conversation. However, Gilkey finally concludes that in order to figure out a pluralist model for religious dialogue, it must first be observed in practice, rather than putting forth proposals that are conflicted in reflection. In the end, the best step towards religious pluralism is in practice, rather than in thought and reflection. Cohn-Sherbok, from the Judaic perspective, starts with the basics, with the history of Jewish inclusivism, before he turns to show how that could turn into pluralism. He explains how, before the Holocaust, Judaism has had a comparatively tolerant attitude towards other religions, while still believing that Judaism was the one true faith. They did not condemn other religions for their practices, as their prophets said that in the end of days all people would accept their God (Cohn-Sherbok, 121). After the Holocaust however, Jewish thinkers distanced themselves from Christianity (Cohn-Sherbok, 123) Unlike the exclusivist view of Christianity, Jews have a long tradition of toleration, with the belief that God’s will extends to other faiths, even while they are the chosen people (Cohn-Sherbok, 124). Even with a history of relative religious inclusivism, the shift into pluralism requires more of the faith. Cohn-Sherbok points out that the inclusivist position is not without its faults. It seems to include two conflicting convictions: the belief in God’s universal concern and the belief that divine revelation was given specifically to the Jewish people. If God’s concern is for all of humankind, the revelation of God’s Will would not have been to just one group, disregarding the rest of humanity (Cohn-Sherbok, 124). In explaining this inconsistency, Cohn-Sherbok compares liberal Jewish thinkers who saw the inherent value in other religions while believing they possessed the “fullest divine disclosure”, to scientists who previously sponsored a view in which the earth is the center of the universe (Cohn-Sherbok, 124-125).
In more recent times, however, with the increased contact between religions now impossible to ignore, these beliefs are harder to support. As the final step to pluralism, Cohn-Sherbok proposes a “Copernican revolution” in the understanding of humanity’s religious experience (Cohn-Sherbok, 125). This change would put the Divine as the centerpiece of the world’s religions, rather than Judaism. This would require a shuffling from a Judeo-centric notion of religious history to the divine-centric perspective. From this starting point, each of the world’s religions would be comprehended as each community’s response to the same Divine Reality (Cohn-Sherbok, 125). Cohn-Sherbok explains this comparing each religious tradition to a path up a mountain, all of them with the same goal of reaching the Divine, floating above the peak. Each path is different in response to cultural and symbolic variations, and at times they may intersect or run parallel to another religion. But in the end the Divine reality sought after is unattainable by these many paths, as it is the ultimate—unknowable and incomprehensible (Cohn-Sherbok, 125). “On this view there is one ultimate Reality behind all religious expressions.” (Cohn-Sherbok, 125)
This pluralist model of religious conception, Cohn-Sherbok argues, provides a better understanding of the differences between religious systems as well as a better platform from which to base interreligious dialogue (Cohn-Sherbok, 125). Rather than assuming that Judaism is the center of Divine attention, Jewish inclusivists are able to engage with members of other traditions in a conversation in which they bother share a portion of the larger truth that is not longer static. “This new pluralistic model further reflects our current understanding of the world in which no truth is viewed as unchanging.” (Cohn-Sherbok, 126) This new idea of relational truth is constantly being developed and changed by religious interaction. The importance of relational truth is that it allows for each religion to have its own version that isn’t true in the universal sense, but is true “only for those who subscribe to it.” (Cohn-Sherbok, 126)
Even so, Cohn-Sherbok’s pluralist model is far from perfect. The idea of ‘many paths up one mountain’ is contrary to the fact that the Jewish belief that they are God’s chosen people, which has always been a central feature of their religion. He answers this by saying that the belief that God has chosen a certain people is just the manifestation of the Judaic sense of superiority and their faith’s claim to the Absolute (Cohn-Sherbok, 130). Another issue is that placing God at the center of religion is not feasible for religions where there is no God or there are many Gods. How can religious dialogue be possible when there is an assumption that the other’s God reflects your own? This question goes unanswered by Cohn-Sherbok, and remains a flaw in his theory. Gilkey, much like Cohn-Sherbok, begins the description of his pluralist ideas with the explanation of how steps toward inclusivism have already been made. He points out that the only way Christianity is able to take that step towards inclusivity is because claims of Christian superiority no longer ring true. Without this realization of the loss of power, the realization of religious diversity would not be possible, let alone an interfaith dialogue (Gilkey, 37). Gilkey goes on to describe both theological and cultural changes that resulted in this change, citing the cultural shifts as more influential. He believes that this new environment has forced a new understanding of the relationships between religions, as well as a sense of religious equality, with faiths being both raised and dropped to the same level (Gilkey, 40). In a new world more oriented toward religious equality, there is now opportunity and necessity for interreligious dialogue. In interfaith dialogue, Gilkey rights, one does or must open oneself to the “presence of truth and of grace, validity of symbol and efficacy of practice” in another faith. To do this, one relativizes one’s own religious faith as well as the revelation on which it stands (Gilkey, 40). Therefore to be in dialogue is also the “effort to interpret one’s symbols as neither to exclude nor offend this other.” (Gilkey, 41) Thus begins Gilkey’s quest to find a form of religious dialogue that is accessible to both sides. After exploring various attempts, he examines two separate paths that involve attempting to find some form of universality between religions through an interpretation of symbols that is inclusive of other religions (Gilkey, 42). The first attempt, originated by Schleiermacher, is to “propose on the one hand a wide understanding of general revelation through which the truth and the grace evident in other religions (and cultures) can be theologically explicated, and on the other hand some form of universal salvation through which the efficacy of these other religious ways can be affirmed.” (Gilkey, 42) This is problematic because it ends up explaining all other faiths from the basis of Christianity, because it provides the framework through which other religions are interpreted. The second theory of interreligious discourse states that there is a mystical center in each religion, which is then interpreted differently by different cultures. These interpretations lead to claims of absolutism by each tradition. As Gilkey says, “each particular religion is true and yet relative, a true revelation for that community, relative to other true revelations to other communities, and relative to the Absolute that each only partially and so somewhat distortedly manifests.” (Gilkey, 43) This theory is also problematic as it raises one aspect of religion over others, whereas the first attempt raised a particular religion above all others. Gilkey concludes that “in neither case is universality achieved, and in neither case is dialogue possible.” (Gilkey, 43) The similarities between the pluralist theories of Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Langdon Gilkey are unmistakable. The former proposes to shift from tradition as the center focus, to the Divine as the center focus. This theory fits into the category of Gilkey’s first theory, where the framework of one religion is used to judge others, and is problematic because a certain religion (Christianity) is raised above others. Gilkey’s second theory involves judging all religions through the mystical essence at the center of each religion, which raises a certain aspect of each religion above the others, which is also problematic. These theories are flawed, and yet, there is still a need for interreligious dialogue. After uncovering the issues with his theories Gilkey ponders how there seems to be no “consistent theological way to relativize and yet to assert our own symbols,” even though it is required for dialogue (Gilkey, 46). In theory, it seems impossible, but in practice, Gilkey finds, it happens anyway. He concludes, “What to reflection is a contradiction, to praxis is a workable dialectic, a momentary but creative paradox.” (Gilkey, 47) While the workings of pluralistic theory are conflicted in reflection, in practice, they are possible and workable in facilitating interreligious dialogue. It is this thought that bring his thoughts to the forefront of the pluralistic theories discussed here. Gilkey asserts that through reflection, the answers to creating a pluralistic environment are not to be found. Instead, they must be practiced first, used and embodied in interfaith conversation. It is there that the model for pluralist dialogue is to be discovered: not through theorizing, but through practice.

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