Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism: In the Image of God and Covenant

By Greenberg, Irving | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Seeking the Religious Roots of Pluralism: In the Image of God and Covenant


Greenberg, Irving, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


The term "pluralism" is much used and generally beyond reproach -- almost like apple pie and motherhood used to be. Yet, strikingly, the concept remains difficult to accept and widely doubted when it comes to its application in traditional religion. Even people who support pluralism in religion tend to see it as a kind of Western import. The public believes that it is a modern value imposed by cultural pressure on classic religions. After all, for most of their history, the great world faiths did not practice pluralism.

Doubts about the authenticity of pluralism grow out of the widespread feeling that any tradition of ultimate significance should make absolute claims (and that is what religion is presumed to be). A religion that makes allowance for contradictory views somehow must be a less authentic version of the tradition. This hesitation is sustained by the observation, widely made in American society, that greater readiness to practice pluralism is correlated with a loss of intensity of religious spirit. In the last decade or two many sociologists have pointed out that the evangelical Christian groups and conservative churches that are growing the fastest generally are not pluralistic; at the least they are less so than the mainstream liberal traditions that are not growing. Most people assume that the low growth and the more accepting (for example, pluralist) attitudes derive from the same source. These mainstream groups are not as profoundly committed or as deeply convinced of their own truth as the Evangelicals are.

In this essay, I will argue from a Jewish perspective, that in fact pluralism is grounded in the deep structures of Judaism and of religious life. (I do not claim that Judaism alone has such deep structures.)

First and foremost, pluralism is grounded in the fundamental principle of Judaism. (Rabbi) Ben Azzai states that the human being as created in the image of God is the clal gadol, the central category of Jewish tradition.(1) What does it mean to be an image of God? The Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud(2) suggests that there are three fundamental dignities that inhere in the state of being a human being (in the image of God). These dignities inhere in the human condition in light of the Creation story, independent of all societal measures or anthropological considerations:

1. An image of the human has a finite value. (The most expensive human image created thus far is a Van Gogh painting that sold for $82,500,000.) However, the image created by the Infinite God is worth infinitely more. The image of God has infinite value.(3)

2. In human images, there are in fact superior or preferred images. Thus a Vincent Van Gogh painting is worth more than an Irving Greenberg painting. But, all images of God are equal. There can be no preferred image of God. That claim to know the preferred or absolute version of God constitutes idolatry. (The definition of idolatry is to "fix" the ineffable image of God in some frozen or hard-cast form and then to claim to know and/or control God in this fixed image.)

(3.) The image of God is unique. Human images are replicable; indeed, they are made to be replicable. Dollar bills are printed the same way. All coins that come from one mold are identical. By contrast, says the Talmud, all humans come from one mold (Adam and Eve, if you will), yet each one is unique. That uniqueness is the hallmark of the image of God.(4) The reason we do not recognize a person's uniqueness is that we are not seeing him/her as an image of God.

Infinite value, equality, uniqueness -- these are the characteristics inherent in the very fact of being human. To know persons as they really are, to recognize them in all their distinctiveness, is to know them as an image of God.

In the past, these dignities have been obscured by various cultural processes. The function of stereotyping is to deny uniqueness. The fundamental cultural fact of othering -- that is, to say one group is "in" and the other is "out" -- is a denial of equality. …

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