Whence Pluralism, Whither Denominationalism?

Article excerpt

Differences themselves are a gift from God.

I stumbled over the future of pluralism just last week. Literally. I tripped on a Muslim prayer rug tucked not quite far enough beneath a choir pew in the divinity school chapel at our university, where my own community meets for a noon Eucharist each week. Later, as I put away the prayer books and vessels, I maneuvered a maze of Orthodox icons and the Catholic community's Salvadorian processional cross in the tiny cubby hole beneath the gallery stair that serves as sacristy to us all.

And like that dark closet we campus religionists share in the chapel, we are just a tiny cubbyhole in a sprawling cultural landscape of diversity. In the aisles of the local supermarket, Betty Crocker shares the shelf with risotto, couscous, and salsa. A walk around my neighborhood takes me past tidy bungalows, one with the Blessed Virgin Mary standing knee-deep in bark mulch among the shrubs, another with a minivan parked at the curb bearing the rainbow flag of gay liberation on the bumper. I stroll past a Mexican restaurant boasting of mariachi bands and margaritas, its parking lot filled to capacity with sport utility vehicles, past a corner diner where you can get spanakopita and baklava with dark, strong coffee all night long, past a Czech eatery whose biggest clientele qualifies for Social Security and whose dining habits allow the place to close at eight in the evening, to a grocery where the produce and patter are pure Italian.

Pluralism is the reality in which we live. And it's here to stay. What might the possible alternative be? Is it conceivable that all humankind might ever be of one mind and one heart? Since there is no apparent unity foreseeable even among the separate but distinct communities of Christians, Jews, or Muslims in our own time, can we even conceive of a day when unanimity might pertain not only within each but among them? Would we want to? As monolithic models of centralized organization devolve in favor of scattered, horizontal models of governance, organic unity seems vain folly.

Pluralism has a robust future, built upon a solid past. In all its many dimensions, pluralism has been a consistent reality, evidenced in history. Those political forces designed to corral human diversity into an organic unity under a single governor are themselves the anomaly. Measured against the trajectory of history, empires unified under a single authority -- and religions unified within a single empire -- are fleeting things. Indeed, they have been largely illusory, for even under the most virulent hegemonists dissident cells have survived, their devotion carried out under cover, their presence a subversive challenge to claims of religious purity or unanimity. One could well rewrite the aphorism to argue that pluralism, not the church, is the true anvil that has worn out many a hammer.

That pluralism seems so prominent just now is not the result of some sudden ground swell in diversity. Rather, it is more likely the result of enhanced communications and a correspondingly heightened consciousness of the many differences that make us who we are. This expanding knowledge, like any challenge to our ordered lives, provokes fear and resistance. Attempts to secure authority and preserve hegemony only lightly veil the anxiety and insecurity that animate them. And, in its overwhelming scope, this enhanced awareness of difference can stun, rendering us stupefied--which condition is most prominently evidenced in contemporary American culture as atomized claims to spirituality without religion, as though such a dualism were possible.

Certainly, we are in the midst of a great shift in the human landscape, made all the greater for the scope of its embrace. The global village is a dauntingly accurate metaphor; the consequences and reverberations of change anywhere inevitably touch us all somewhere. We feel the shifts acutely, and often to immediate effect. …