Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A consideration of (a restricted) religious pluralism

My father unexpectedly passed away early last year. His passing was commemorated with a memorial service whereby dozens of family members and people who had known my dad attended and offered their condolences. Many people stood up and nostalgically told stories illuminating the integrity and humorousness that my dad always employed in the public eye—you see, my dad was an extremely well-known television reporter here. I greatly enjoyed these stories, because they illuminated many aspects of my dad that I was not there to witness.
 I spent the whole twenty-two years of my life with my dad by my side, and (due to my parent’s divorce) I spent the last eight years of my life with simply my dad and I. So, I always felt like I knew my dad better than anyone else. If people said he was funny, I knew how much funnier he was. If someone said he was caring, I knew how caring he really was. With that in mind, my dad, like everyone else, was not perfect, and he certainly had major flaws. And it was these flaws that almost no one, apart from family, knew about. I felt that I alone had the most accurate and intimate understanding of who my dad was.

But, does this mean that those individuals who encountered my dad on a much more superficial level did not really know my dad? Well, while they didn’t know my father as intimately as I did, I fail to see that this entails that they didn’t know him at all. For they surely had experienced accurate aspects of my father, e.g. his charm and sense of humor, and could indeed make positive knowledge claims about what made him him.

It is probably being wondered at this point exactly what such musings have to do with the title of the post, namely, religious pluralism. Well, I believe an analogy can be drawn here with regards to our portraits of God. For when we gaze upon the face of Christianity, we see a multitude of interpretations of God and his will. The Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans obviously all disagree about certain aspects of what God is like and which theological doctrines accurately reflect his will—otherwise there would be no reason to differentiate these denominations. But, do these differences in interpretation of God entail that these different denominations do not worship the same God? Certainly not. Just like the differing interpretations between me and someone who only knew my dad superficially does not entail that we both did not have the same individual in mind as John Morris—my dad’s name, obviously.

It should be realized that differing interpretations abound between individuals even when dealing with the same referent. I will not interpret an American flag the same way a Korean will, even though we would both have the same object in front of us. Similarly, I might not understand God in the same way a fundamentalist Christian would, again, even though we have the same entity as our referent. And should this even surprise us? Should the fact that I don’t believe God commissioned Noah to build an ark, while another Christian does, entail that, therefore, our Gods are wholly different? I fail to see how this could be so. To continue the analogy, the fact that I know my dad had a temper, while another person who knew my dad did not know this, does not entail that we don’t have knowledge of the same individual. What is true is that one of us has more accurate knowledge of my dad, and I would also promulgate this regarding differing opinions of the nature of God. Since two contradictory opinions cannot both be true, it follows that only one can be correct, but this, again, doesn’t mean that both opinions do not have God as their focal point. It simply means that one has more accurate knowledge of him.
It should seem logical that I would also predicate the above thesis of differing religions. While Muslims, Mormons, Jews and Christians all have differing interpretations and understandings of God, I fail to see that this necessitates that they all therefore worship a different God. It is not at all illogical to assert that these religions have God as their focal point. What is different is their overall portrait of God. But, we have seen that differing pictures of a single referent does not entail that that is not indeed the same referent to all.

Now I, as a Christian, do believe that Christians have a more accurate portrait and understanding of God—I believe this especially because of Jesus of Nazareth. Subsequently, I believe that Muslims and Mormons have very many misunderstandings and imperfections in their portraits of God. However, I do not find that these differences necessitate that we all, therefore, worship a different God.

It is this type of religious pluralism that I adhere to, and I see it to be a kind of restricted pluralism, if you will. It is not a pluralism that claims that all religions are true, which is logically impossible. Rather, it is a pluralism that considers that we, Muslims, Christians, Mormons etc., are all worshipping the same God; granted that our worship is focalized through differing interpretations.

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