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Religious Diversity

Religious Diversity

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Published by Kalimah Priforce

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Published by: Kalimah Priforce on Nov 22, 2009
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RELIGIOUS DIVERSITYhttp://www.crosscurrents.org/gross.htm1 of 1311/21/2009 10:50 PM
RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY:SOME IMPLICATIONS FOR MONOTHEISMby Rita M. Gross
Coming to terms with genuine pluralism is the most important agenda facing religious leaders.
RITA M. GROSS is author of 
 Buddhism after Patriarchy, Feminismand Religion: An Introduction,
and most recently
Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and  Religious Issues.
This essay first appeared in
Wisconsin Dialogue: A Faculty Journal for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
11(1991): 35-48, and is reprinted by permission. It is dedicated to thememory of Howard Lutz, Professor Emeritus of History, whoseloving companionship during the time in which this article waswritten is greatly appreciated.Clearly, the diversity of religions in the world has been a fact throughout the entirehistory of all the world's major living religious traditions. Nevertheless, this diversity has been made the basis for contention rather than community in many cases, and themonotheistic religions have often been among the worst offenders on this score. Thestrong tendency to display hostility toward different religious positions is connected witha strong tendency toward xenophobia and ethnocentrism. This reaction seems to be builtinto conventional human responses and has even been included among the major responses of religious people to their environment by the great historian of religions,Mircea Eliade. He hypothesizes that
homo religiosus
strives to live at the center of hismythological universe, which is felt to be a
cosmos,
organized space inhabited by human beings. Beyond that space is
chaos,
whose inhabitants are felt to be demonic or subhuman.(1)Because the tendency to be hostile to people who are different is so strong, it is animportant religious problem. This essay will systematically consider the dynamics of religious pluralism and propose techniques for dealing with diversity. Religious diversityis an important component of cultural diversity, which educators are now takingseriously in their pedagogies. However, cultural diversity and religious diversity are
 
RELIGIOUS DIVERSITYhttp://www.crosscurrents.org/gross.htm2 of 1311/21/2009 10:50 PM
often evaluated quite differently. In our society now, there is at least a polite andsuperficial consensus that cultural diversity is here to stay and may enrich life.Minimally, people realize that cultural, ethnic, and class chauvinism create problems andare inappropriate, though they may be difficult to overcome. Regarding religiousdiversity, quite a different evaluation is often employed. Many people value the feelingthat their religion is indeed superior to others and regard such religious chauvinism as anecessary component of religious commitment, or even a virtue to be cultivated amongthe faithful. In their official theologies, most religions have dealt with religious diversityonly in a cursory or inadequate fashion. Frequently, religions have encouraged mutualhostility by teaching that foreign religions are not only different, but also demonic, or atleast inferior.The ethical problems with such a position should be obvious. The position is clearlyinadequate in any age and place; in the global village of the late twentieth century it isalso dangerous. Nevertheless, it continues to be popular in many religions and is at least partially responsible for many of the numerous conflicts currently disrupting our world.In this essay, I will explore more ethically sensitive and intellectually satisfying ways of combining commitment to a specific religion with the reality of religious diversity thanthe conventional ones outlined above. I will direct my comments mainly at monotheisticreligions for two obvious reasons. Most readers of this essay will come frommonotheistic backgrounds. And monotheistic religions have had the most difficult problems in resolving the issue of religious diversity.All religions produce a kind of elementary religious chauvinism because of universalhuman weaknesses. However, only the monotheisms raise this homegrown psychological hostility to diversity into a theological principle. It is very tempting for one who believes that one universal deity created and controls the entire cosmos toassume that this deity wants only one religion to be practiced by all humans. Thatreligion, of course, is "ours," which leads to the rather absurd situation of monotheistscondemning each other to oblivion for following the wrong kind of monotheism. Manymonotheists also assume, mistakenly, that nonmonotheistic religions are equallyexclusive in their claims and that all religions feel certain about their position as the "onetrue faith." The creators of monotheistic symbol systems could, with equal logic, assumethat the universal deity gave humans many religious paths, as s/he gave them manycultures, skin colors, and languages, but this has not been the dominant monotheistic position historically. This position is now becoming more prevalent among segments of leadership of monotheistic religions, however, and it has long been the position of nominally polytheistic, but essentially monistic, Hinduism.My method for this essay is that of a trained historian of religions, deeply interested in both normative and descriptive dimensions of religious diversity. Because I amsummarizing immense amounts of information and comparing the world's major religions with one another to propose some philosophical positions on religiousdiversity, I presume elementary knowledge of world religions. My generalizations can be understood without such knowledge but cannot fruitfully be debated if one is familiar with only one religion.Students of religion have long recognized that the world's religions can be divided intotwo groups in terms of their attitudes toward other religions.(2)Some religions, oftencalled "universalizing" religions, have a religious message and set of practices that could be universally relevant, true for all people regardless of culture, for all time. Thesereligions sometimes develop strong missionary movements which attempt both to
 
RELIGIOUS DIVERSITYhttp://www.crosscurrents.org/gross.htm3 of 1311/21/2009 10:50 PM
undermine other religions ideologically and to convert members of other cultures to thesupposedly universally relevant and true set of religious beliefs. Often such conversionattempts are motivated by the conviction that those who lack the proper religious perspective are in serious danger of long-term malaise. Additionally, such religions areoften relatively uninterested in culture-bound practices and habits having to do with diet,social customs, family law, purity and pollution, or the minutia of daily life, et cetera.The individual's mind state and belief system are usually considered to be far moreimportant than conformity to behavioral norms. This kind of religion is also far morefamiliar to most people in Western cultures than is its counterpart. Nevertheless, for most of human history most religions have not presumed to possessuniversal significance. This position is not taken out of ignorance of the existence of other religions, but out of a judgment that a specific religion has, at most, a claim onthose who belong to the culture in which that religion is found. To be born into a cultureis to inherit a religion; to be born into a different culture is to inherit a different religion.To change religions is to change cultures, to change lifestyle and identity, to be adopted by the culture whose religion one adopts. However, such adoption is not encouraged or expected, since no one presumes that members of other cultures are inherently deficient;they are merely different, and unless hostility develops over an economic matter or anissue of prestige, there is little reason to disparage a different culture and its religion.Furthermore, though there is a clearly developed system of belief, myth, and ritual inthis kind of nonuniversalizing religion, membership is more often measured byconformity to cultural mores and by participation in important group activities than byorthodoxy of belief. Because they present obvious and intimate connections betweenreligion and culture, such religions are often called "ethnoreligions."Classical monotheism in its stereotypical form clearly assumes a universalizing stance.However, monotheism did not emerge into history full-blown in this form. A brief sketch of the emergence and development of monotheism can help locate monotheism's particular difficulties with religious pluralism.It seems safe to say that the earliest "monotheism" having long-term historicalconsequences, early Judaism, probably better labeled as "ancient Israelite religion,"actually had most of the characteristics of an ethnoreligion. In early Israelite history,only Israelites were expected, indeed privileged, to observe Israelite beliefs and practices. Certainly there was no major effort to spread these practices and beliefs tonon-Israelite people; it was sufficiently difficult to cajole the Israelites into retainingthem. However, in this phase of Israelite history, certain attitudes regarding foreignreligions were prevalent. These attitudes, which are not especially characteristic of ethnoreligions, were critical for the long-term. Monotheism, for early Israelite religion, probably meant that Israelites should worship only the Israelite deity, rather than a claimthat this deity alone existed. However, the attempt to convince Israelites to worship their deity alone prompted virulent attacks on the deities of the surrounding nations,especially the Canaanites, forging that classic and invidious category that has so coloredmonotheism's reactions to other religions throughout history -- "idolatry."A major change in attitude important to the transition from ancient Israelite religion toearly Judaism is a tendency towards a universalizing perspective, away from the ethnicstance. Israelites, militarily defeated by a stronger force and taken into captivity in 586B.C.E., did not follow the typical ethnic response of assimilating religiously andassuming that their god had been defeated by a stronger deity. Rather, they retained their allegiance to their own conceptualization and naming of deity, even in exile, reasoning

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