Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Response to "Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism." (Articles in This Issue, Pp. 385-417)(seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism; Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Foundation Special Issue)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Response to "Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism." (Articles in This Issue, Pp. 385-417)(seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism; Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum Foundation Special Issue)

Article excerpt

Fierce winds in Newark kept our plane in Chicago, waiting its turn, so I arrived too late to hear and thus to respond directly to some of what has been said. Novelist Sinclair Lewis, we are told, once reviewed a play "the morning after" in St. Paul, Minnesota, early in his career. What he did not know is that snow had kept the actors' troupe from arriving at all, so there had been no play. He was reviewing what he thought would have gone on. If my response gets something wrong, one speaker can say that had I heard him I would have said things differently and another, whose presentation while I was here was cut short for reasons of time, can say that the undelivered part would have set us on a different course. This response will be restricted to what I did hear and will be designed to frame the subject in a context familiar to me.

Pluralism is a reality with which we shall continue to deal. The planners of this symposium had to know that they have us all investing in a topic that will be with us all our lives. The human race is so diverse in so many ways that each member of each generation can only pick away at some portion of it, based upon experience and the philosophy we bring to it. The participants, it seems to me, were not troubled by the concept of pluralism -- they take delight in many of its meanings. Troubling is "exclusivism," which, Carl Sandburg thought, was the ugliest word in the language.

Theologically, if you will, exclusivism within pluralism becomes idolatry of one's own tribe, self, group, religious complex, experience. I worry about such forms of exclusivism. How are we going to deal with the other, the others who always outnumber us globally and usually do so next door or in our region? None of us will have the world to ourselves, especially after the electronic revolution that connects so many in so many ways.

Nor is the world's diversity going to diminish. Thomas Mann in his "Joseph" novels somewhere says that the world has many centers, and one of them will not prevail. Professor Thurman spoke of the dream of the universal, and Professor Chung would have us transcend exclusivism through various instrumentalities. Both of them and others of good will may make contributions to lessening tensions between religious groups and will help us find some commonalities. However, they also know that even within the groups -- two of which have a billion or more adherents -- there is "internal pluralism" and disagreement, for which, I will contend, we might be grateful, nettled though we may be by contention within our own.

Why be pleased by "the other's" internal pluralism? A story will illustrate. During Vatican II, wearied by hours of Latin discourse each morning, I would take to the Via Della Conciliazione outside St. Peter's Square and have coffee with American Jewish observer Joseph Lichten. Around 1:00 p.m. we would see 2,300 purple-caped bishops exit the church and enter the buses for their rewards, lunch and wine and siesta. One day Lichten asked me: "Marty, if you were a Jew, would you want them, and all this ecumenism, to succeed?" I told him that as a Christian I had to be for ecumenical entente and interaction, since unity is one of four marks of the church. Then he would say something like: "You are also a Madisonian relisher of a republic, which is a polity that celebrates diversity. How do you square the two impulses?" I told him there were some tensions and conflicts but that we all live with such, and I could live with and enjoy this one. Lichten as a Jew told me then that as long as we Christians argued with each other, subgroup with subgroup, all non-Christians, especially Jews, were well off. If we ever really get our act together, we will focus united energies on the other as outsider -- usually, the Jew.

I was always happy to say (a) that Pope John XXIII had helped fashion the Council and helped provide a pattern of ecumenism that was not threatening, and (b) that he should not worry. …

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