On the Limits of Religious Pluralism

Victor Anderson

Pluralism is celebrated as a necessary idea for meeting our social arrangements today and respecting the diversity of our faiths. However, it raises other problems. It is a term that can actually minimize or smother difference, holding it at bay by a kind of ethical politeness.

Regarded this way, pluralism seeks to create geographical centers of agreement or commonality among differing faith traditions: the Abrahamic religions of the West, the Asian religions of the East, as well as other religions delicately called “indigenous” (African, Native religions of the Americas, aboriginal religions of South Pacific Islands). Uneasy differences between beliefs are thus hastily resolved. Real-life diversity melts into an abstraction of false unity, rituals fold into symbols, and the encyclopedia of beliefs are reduced to their ethical import.

Not in Kansas Anymore

We can see the emotional pragmatism and attraction of this. John Howard Yoder describes it as a quest for a modern trans-tribal validation.1 He offers a metaphor – a “wayward child” who runs to the big city in flight from the customs and morals of her small town. She finds she must adjust spiritually to the great pluralism of the city, its buildings and bridges, towering lofts and skyscrapers, its markets filled with different-looking people speaking unknown languages, embracing unusual religions. She’s “not in Kansas anymore.” But she must make sense of this world of differences if she is to make a new home here, a place where she must live cooperatively with others. Religious pluralism steps in to offer a trans-tribal model for coping with the tensions and validating the differences.

Is this enough to navigate our differences? Diana L. Eck of Harvard’s ambitious, compelling Pluralism Project argues that the achievement of pluralism must always push beyond mere tolerance – a minimal standard of cooperation within our political culture – and commit to an “active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.”2 “Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity,” she says. “It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another …” It leaves in place stereotypes, half-truths, and fear.

She argues that pluralism is not relativism but “the encounter of commitments.” However, I believe pluralism does not resolve the benign relativism that characterizes so much of the discussion around difference, as if our specific religious beliefs are irrelevant to the task of making sense of the world we all share.

Our beliefs are not just a matter of holding a set of claims about the world. They hold consequences for the way we regard ourselves, estimate human worth, treat others sexually, view and care for the poor, children, and families, and how we regard our planet, our environment, and our sustainable future. Our commitment to the integrity of our religious beliefs is usually too great to settle for a benign relativism. Religious pluralism must somehow acknowledge that the trusts and loyalties of believers are matters of ultimate concern.

Indeed, it is here, at the place of trust and loyalty in specific faiths, that the ethical limits of religious pluralism are exposed. Calls for dialogue are often made in order to clarify religious common ground and differences. But how potent is dialogue when our trusts and loyalties stir seemingly interminable conflicts over our ultimate commitments? What moral or metaphysical hope will mediate or transcend such conflicts of faith and draw us closer together? Religious pluralism appears unable to speak to a high religion and high morality that might mediate such places of faith.

MLK and High Religion

This question of appeal to a higher morality was on the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in 1957, he faced a group of young people at the University of California at Berkeley and explained his philosophy of nonviolent direct resistance. He was keenly aware that nonviolent resistance or direct action was not likely to win favor among critical young minds who were skeptical of both his philosophy and his Christian faith that God was on the side of love and justice in the American struggle for civil equalities. King could not presume sympathy for his moral language, even as he tried to explain the ways that agape love was compatible with robust social activism, and nonviolent direct resistance was compatible with the demands of social justice. At such a moment, King offered skeptical listeners a powerful image of all-pervasive justice. He said:

“I am aware of the fact that there are persons who believe firmly in nonviolence who do not believe in a personal God, but I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance believes somehow that the universe in some form is on the side of justice. That there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice, and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.” 3

King evoked a generous confidence that no matter what creed or faith, or whether one rejected such things, no matter one’s social location, the world that is inhabited by all, the universe itself, is measured by a moral arc that bends toward justice. The moral ends of justice are to protect the “world house in which we have to live together,” as he said in his 1964 Nobel Prize speech. King articulated his faith in a mode of high religion and a high morality beyond the many religions and moralities.

The postmodern temper has done away with such appeals that might touch the loyalties of believers and redirect them to ecumenical, planetary ends – done away with them, at least for now. My foregrounding the limits of religious pluralism is in no way a rejection of it or its ethics of dialogue. In the absence of a vision reminiscent of King’s, pluralism remains our best hope for mediating our conflicts. Yet, in our pressing times of terror and conflict, religious dialogue perhaps needs most to be about the kind of hope and vision that King prized so highly – a world of cosmic companionship, where justice is all-pervasive, and where cooperation toward forming beloved communities is the highest aspiration of religious pluralism.

Victor Anderson is the Oberlin Theological School Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He earned the M.A and Ph.D. at Princeton University in religion, ethics, and politics. He is the author of Creative Exchange: A Constructive Theology of African American Religious Experience (Fortress, 2008) and other books. He is currently working on Creative Conflict and Creative Exchange: A Christian’s Social Witness to the Public and its Problems, a book to be published next year.


1 John Howard Yoder, “On Not Being Ashamed of the Gospel: Particularity, Pluralism, and Validation,” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers (1992, 9:3), pp. 285-300.

2 See pluralism.org/what-is-pluralism.

3 See teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/ the-power-of-non-violence.