In chapter 4 of Miroslav Volf's “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World”, he attempts to make the case that exclusivist religion can be compatible with pluralist politics. I'm not sure how many blogs it will take to cover this somewhat lengthy chapter. I'll begin with an overview.
The words “exlcusivist” and “pluralist” seem to make their own case against “compatible”, but his argument is thorough and compelling, complete with historical precedent. Even if he is wrong, I think the discussion of the possibility is worth the effort. Any attempt to address the current problems of fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, deserves consideration. A program of elimination of religion or quarantining it is similar in exclusionary tactics to a program of converting everyone to believe in a particular god. A truly pluralist society consists of people with open minds, willing to engage any reasonable argument.
I have already laid several land mines for myself in that opening paragraph and I can see the jaws clenching and the eyes rolling. To allay some of those fears of hearing the same old arguments, Volf begins by noting the Puritans left the religious persecution of England, only to set up their own exclusive system in America. A seeming contradiction. He later explains how pluralism had roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and how the exculsivist and pluralist factions had to part company. He admits that there are limits to the use of reason by fundamentalist. That it is often used only to defend their own preconceived notions and breaks down when challenged. He quotes Popper and Rousseau. He admits not all who embrace exclusivist religion will go along with his ideas. He asks very little of the pluralist society and demands much from his fellow Christians.
When considering the possibility that religion can continue to some extent in the forms we see it now, it's important to take a broad perspective. We are decades into a movement sometimes called the Christian Right, but it is a recent phenomena and it's dominance is starting to wane. Before that, sociologist were pretty well agreed that science would continue to advance and religion would fade. Further back, people like Thomas Jefferson expected the world to move toward some form of the Unitarianism, akin to religion but without all the miracles. He was wrong about that, but he did pretty well with shaping democracy, so I'll cut him some slack. 500 years before that Aquinas attempted to reconcile Greek rationalist thought with his faith. There were other failed attempts, but the important point is that the dominant view of religion changes throughout time and we can influence that view.
In a rare moment for Christian theologians, Volf presents Peter Berger's steps toward the gradual disappearance of religious exclusivism. He contends social pluralism naturally leads to the affirmation of religious pluralism. When religious people mix with other ideologies, they experience a degree of “Cognitive contamination”. Certainly any cult leader who keeps his minions isolated knows this.
Whether this contamination is other religions or not, it eventually becomes secularism. This phenomenon could also be observed in the recent acceptance of homosexuality in America. As more and more people came to know a gay person personally, they found out they weren't so bad. The steps are:
1 Live with others
2 Learn to appreciate them
3 Realize their ways of living aren't utterly false
4 Their truth is as good as yours
Volf points out at least one flaw in Berger; not everyone makes that last step.
This is where Volf's theology steps in, providing a way to live between steps 3 and 4. He notes that the three major monotheisms and even Buddhism contain ideas not only that their god (or in Buddhism's case their ideology) is the only one, and the right one, but also that you should not be arrogant about this. If you are right, and of course you are, you should not need to boast. God will give you the strength and wisdom you need to endure the unbelievers and to convert them. Indeed, you should not fear hearing the ideas of others, you should apply the golden rule and treat those ideas with respect, just as you would expect your ideas to be treated, knowing that in the end you will prevail.
I would like to interject at this point, that Volf, throughout the entire book is notorious for ignoring large swaths of history. He never mentions the dozens of other versions of “do unto others”. I can't tell if this is purposeful or if he is actually unaware that Jesus did not invent that.
He shows a strong grasp of world history, so it is to hard understand how he could miss certain details or why he thinks them unimportant. He covers the unique aspects of Judaism and Christianity, and how they ended up being religions that grew beyond their tribal beginnings. He calls them “world” religions. Christianity for instance took a stand of consciousness against imperialist Rome. Those ideas lived on and have been adapted and used by many revolutionary cultures and oppressed groups. I would have liked it Volf did not slide past the harsh versions of that, when Christianity later partnered with empire and brutally oppressed and enforced its exclusiveness. He may think it would hinder his argument to do so, but I think it hinders his argument to not do it.
I am not suggesting that he, or anyone, meld their precious ideologies into some grand philosophy that is a mix of all human knowledge. I would like to see that, but I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime. What Volf suggests, and I would accept as a minimum, is that religions find an interpretation of their ideology that allows for co-existence with other ideologies. If they can do that, I'm fine with them hanging on to hope of a second coming, or for implementation of as many as their purity laws as they can find agreement for. As long as they maintain values of peace and order while attempting to achieve those ends, the rest of us can continue to work toward those shared values in our own ways. Hopefully we can all find ways to form partnerships and move toward those shared values.