Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Good of Religious Pluralism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Good of Religious Pluralism

Article excerpt

Pluralism is often perceived as a threat to faith, associated with relativism and a loss of religious substance. I take a contrary position. It seems to me that pluralism is good for faith. For several years now, my work as a sociologist has circled around the phenomenon of pluralism. The result of this preoccupation is a book I published in 2014, The Many Altars of Modernity. It is an exercise in sociological analysis of the contemporary religious situation, necessarily free of theological presuppositions; I could have written this book if I were a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. In other words, I wrote wearing the surgical mask of social-scientific objectivity. Behind this mask, however, I am a Christian, specifically with a (not very orthodox) Lutheran flavor. Now I want to take off the surgical mask and reflect theologically upon what I see as a sociologist.

When I started my career as a sociologist of religion (this was around the year of Lincoln's Second Inaugural), like just about everyone in the field, I operated within so-called secularization theory. We thought that modernity invariably means a decline of religion. It took me more than twenty years to conclude that the theory is empirically untenable. This had nothing whatever to do with my changing my own religious beliefs; it had everything to do with how I came to read the evidence, which is overwhelming. The world today is as religious as it ever was, in places more so than ever. (There are exceptions, notably Western Europe and an international so-called intelligentsia. These have to be, and can be, explained.)

Secularization theory was not completely false; it was a massive exaggeration of what was a correct insight. It is beyond dispute that secular discourse, probably originating in modern science and technology, has transformed human life. (One such transformation: In premodern societies, almost half of all children died before age five; today most children, even in poor countries, live to adulthood.) The distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote a big book with the title A Secular Age (2007). He gives a rich description of what he calls the "secular frame," a view of the world without religious transcendence. But he exaggerates the degree to which this discourse has pushed religion to the margins. We don't live in a secular age; we live in a pluralist age.

This pluralist age has important implications for religion, but they are different from those of secularity. We can speak of two pluralisms. The first concerns the fact that many religions and worldviews coexist in the same society. This is not unique to the modern era. The second kind of pluralism involves the coexistence of the secular discourse with all of these religious discourses. This pluralism, which is uniquely modern, has tended to accentuate the first kind, the pluralism of religions and worldviews. When I'm sick and my doctor is Jewish or Hindu, our shared secular vocabulary gives us a commonality that makes our religious differences something almost scandalous. How is it that we can agree on medical and other scientific or technical questions, yet not on ultimate matters?

There are some people who avoid the scandal of pluralism because they operate exclusively within a secular or a religious discourse (say, atheist Swedish sociologists, or Russian monks who practice the perpetual Jesus Prayer). However, most people of faith today manage to operate within both discourses. The question is not whether this can be done; we know that millions of people do it. The interesting question is how they do it. The category of "relevance structure," as it was developed in the sociological theory of consciousness by Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), is very helpful in developing an answer to this question. I would love to expound this over the next fifty pages; but, alas, this would exceed what is needed at this juncture (and would tax the patience of the editors, who so often underestimate the stamina of genuinely interested readers). …

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