In the Pluralism of Religious and Cultural Worlds: Notes toward a Theological and Political Program

By Metz, Johann Baptist; Downey, John et al. | Cross Currents, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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In the Pluralism of Religious and Cultural Worlds: Notes toward a Theological and Political Program

Metz, Johann Baptist, Downey, John, Wiggers, Heiko, Cross Currents

Might the authority of those who suffer bring diverse religious and cultural worlds together?

The new political theology is the attempt to talk about the times, more precisely, to discuss the prevailing historical, social, and cultural situation so that the memory of God found in the biblical traditions might have a future. Therefore, one consistently finds in this theology the general markings ("signatures") of its starting point in the so-called "discussions of the times." One speaks, for example, of "the time of a crisis of God," of "the age of cultural amnesia," and, in the light of these, of "the time of a fundamental pluralism" - all attempts to formulate theologically relevant labels for "the spiritual situation of the times" (Karl Jaspers).


We live in a time of fundamental pluralism- of cultures, of religions, of worldviews. Every attempt to question this pluralism is suspect. Universalism is regarded as latent imperialism and universal obligation as a deceptive intellectual and moral trap. The perception and safeguarding of difference and otherness is demanded and sought after- grounded in the ("postmodern") sensitivity to the dangers lurking in universal concepts and their denigration of plurality and difference.

This crisis of traditional universal approaches in no way signals an end to questions about the relationship of "universalism and pluralism." In my view the most important question might be formulated in this way: Given the undeniable diversity of cultural and religious worlds, is there still a universally binding and thus plausible criterion for understanding? Or is everything now at the whim of the "postmodern" market? The era of "postmodern" fragmentation contains an ethical aporia: we live in a time in which the ethical problems of our scientific, technological, and economic civilization increasingly lie beyond the reach of the individual. Such problems can only be dealt with, if at all, under the rubric of politics and political ethics. Never before in the history of humankind has there been so broad and long-term a moral challenge. As never before, ethical concern is about the courage of "an ethics for the future" (Hans Jonas). At the same time, in our era of so-called globalization, any ethical universalism in behavior or action is suspected of being an anti-pluralistic moral totalitarianism.

Is there still such a thing as a moral universe that can be ethically described? How are the universalism of human rights and the notion of the inalienable and intrinsic cultural differences of humankind tied to one another? Must these two repeatedly relativize each other in a non-relational, which is to say "non-committal," diversity which leads again and again to new conflicts and eruptions of violence? Is there any criterion which can help us determine where the legitimate plurality of inculturated ethical approaches finds its limits? One can see the total inconsistency of the situation in Samuel Huntington's bestseller The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.(1)

Huntington warns of universalizing, as he puts it, "Western values." But at the same time he also argues for something like a universal moral standard which, in the case of systematic abuse, might even require intervention. What is that about? What are the criteria and characteristics of such a universality?

We live, one might say, in a world of undeniable plurality. Tolerance, dialogue, and discourse are demanded. Certainly. But is this the entire answer? Are there not limits to tolerance and criteria for dialogue? And are there not also situations in which the formal, purely procedural rationality of discourse fails? Pluralism is not simply the answer, but first of all the question and the problem. To solve this problem doesn't mean to dissolve pluralism. The point is to develop a way of dealing with it that is open and reasonable to all, avoiding cultural relativism without simply relativizing and trivializing the cultures themselves.

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