Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Can't do this alone

Just learned that Diana Eck gave the 2008-9 Gifford Lectures, entitled "The Age of Pluralism" - just in time for the session of Theorizing Religion for which we read her essay "Is Our God Listening? Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism." The argument of the six lectures seems to be essentially the same as that of the 1993 article: We find ourselves in an age of unprecedented religious plurality, and the challenge and opportunity of our time is to learn to be pluralistic about it. Pluralism is not a given but an achievement, not just tolerance but an active seeking of understanding, not a "free-form relativism" but an encounter of commitments in dialogue, not an ideology but the creation of new, bridging relationships. She quotes her teacher Wilfred Cantwell Smith's claim a generation ago: One must be a new kind of person to live aptly in the new world community that is struggling to come to birth.

What does this mean, exactly? How does pluralism really differ from "inclusivism" on the one hand, and "syncretism" on the other? I described these terms and their difficulties for Eck's view in a post from when we read the article last year: while pluralists actively seek to understand other traditions (unlike smug inclusivists), they aren't supposed to assimilate anything from them, at least not in a "syncretic" way. We tried to puzzle out what this meant in class today and came up with this: Nobody can transcend her own tradition on her own, even if she thinks she can. Her attempts to honor other traditions, being inevitably in some version of her own language, are doomed to being mere inclusivism. And her efforts to learn from the others, by fitting them into her inclusivist views, won't be transformative either, will miss the true significance of the other view. To be a pluralist, you need to be in dialogue: you can be an exclusivist, an inclusivist on your own but you can't be a pluralist alone - and the minute your dialogue ends, with conclusions or collaborations, you've betrayed your pluralism. Pluralism isn't a stance or an attitude, but a specific practice, with specific interlocutors. That's why, as Eck insists in the 1993 article, "there is no such thing as a generic pluralist": you have to have specific commitments to start, and you have to have specifically committed interlocutors to proceed. Pluralism is a culture, a form of shared life.

It's a pleasing view - and second nature to anyone who's had transformative experiences in cross-cultural settings, or across languages, not just religions. But Eck's view is a religious, a theological one, based in ideas from the theology of religions of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (above). From Smith Eck has absorbed the idea that it is religiously valuable to engage other religious traditions in dialogue - the best way to stop your own tradition from limiting you, becoming an empty idol. (And every tradition worries about this, conceives of ultimate reality as greater than we can yet or perhaps ever grasp.) God speaks through many traditions, and we may be best informed and transformed when we encounter God in the (to us) unassimilable aspects of other traditions. We should not then make that other tradition our own; the value is in the Wholly Other speaking to us through the religious other. Triangulation gives a better sense of Ultimate Reality but also of the non-ultimate character of one's own (as of every human) location. So ever ongoing dialogue is called for, not agreement or closure, for closure is always premature in the encounter with the Wholly Other.

The encounter with others doesn't round out or complete your knowledge of Ultimate Reality; it keeps you aware that Ultimate Reality is transcendent. You can't be a pluralist on your own. But then, Eck and Smith seem to be arguing that you can't even be really religious - humbly open to the mystery - on your own either. Is that right?

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