By M. M. Abraham
30 June, 2014
In today’s world, it has become almost impossible for any religious community to live in isolation. Therefore, we can no longer be indifferent to people of other faiths. For a better world, we need to seek the co-operation of others. And for that, we have no option but to seek to find ways and means for durable inter-religious or inter-community harmony, based on awareness of the equality of all of us as human beings created by the one God. The task is difficult; it may be painful, and it may even seem impossible, but it has to be done. Nothing less than the very future of the whole human race is at stake. We cannot turn our faces away from the followers of other religions. We have to meet each other and look into each other’s eyes with an open heart.
The British historian Arnold Toynbee (d. 1975), in his monumental twelve-volume work The Study of History, contended that mankind could not convert to a syncretic religion, constructed artificially out of elements taken from various existing religions. He cites the example of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s attempt in India, in the early years of the seventeenth century, to create a new, composite religion blending elements of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, and the attempt of the Roman emperor Julian to reverse the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire by inventing a pagan counter-church in which he tried to weld together all the non-Christian religions in the Roman Empire. Neither of them captured the imagination, feeling, and allegiance of many people. Toynbee asserted that it is notorious that such attempts have failed in the past, and remarked they are also likely to fail in the future, insofar as the past is any guide to the future. And so, it may be expected that the adherents of various religions may retain their historic identities. Yet, it is hoped that they will become more open-minded and open-hearted towards one another as the world’s different cultural and spiritual heritages become the common possession of all of humankind.
Religious plurality has been a fact throughout history. In the past, various religions existed in isolation from each other and without serious encounter. They were almost indifferent to one another as long as they were faced with no serious threats to their existence from others. Today, however, the situation has drastically changed. There is an increasing awareness of the plurality of religions in almost every part of the world.
The term ‘religious plurality’ signifies a state of religious diversity within a society. On the other hand, the term ‘religious pluralism’ refers to a particular kind of response or attitude of an adherent of one religion towards another religion.
It has been customary in recent literature on the subject to distinguish between three broad perspectives on the relationship between of people of one faith to other religions and their adherents: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.
Exclusivists maintain that the claims of their own religion alone are true and that where these claims conflict with those of other religions, the latter are to be rejected as false. Salvation, religious exclusivists believe, is not to be found in other religious traditions.
Inclusivism, like exclusivism, maintains that the claims of one’s religion are true, but it adopts a much more positive view of other religions than does exclusivism. For instance, although inclusivist Christians believe that God has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ and that Jesus is somehow central to God’s provision of salvation for humankind, they are willing to allow that salvation is available even through non-Christian religions.
Pluralism deviates from both exclusivism and inclusivism by rejecting the premise that God has revealed himself in any unique or definitive sense in just one religion. To the contrary, God is said to be actively revealing himself in all religious traditions. Pluralism then, goes beyond inclusivism in rejecting the idea that there is anything superior, normative, or definitive about any particular religion. All religions are believed to be equally legitimate human responses to the same divine reality.
Religious pluralists see God as active in every religion. When the Christian Roman imperial government was forcibly closing the pagan temples and suppressing pagan forms of worship in the western part of the Roman Empire, it ordered the removal, from the senate house of Rome, of the statue and altar of ‘Victory’ that had been placed there by Julius Caesar. The spokesman of the senate, Symmachus, opposed this move, but was beaten and silenced. Despite his opposition, the authorities closed the temple and removed the statues. But, in one of his last pleas, Symmachus put on record these words:
It is impossible that so great a mystery should be approached by one road only.
The mystery of which Symmachus was speaking is the mystery of the universe, the mystery of God, the mystery of man’s relation with God. God, the Infinite, who is beyond all human comprehension, is simply too vast to be contained in just one religion or religious tradition.
To suppress or to seek to combat and destroy religions other than one’s own is simply not the way.
The point raised by Symmachus is still alive today, many centuries later!
MM Abraham, a priest of the Mar Thoma Church, is Associate Director of the Hyderabad-based Henry Martyn Institute, a centre that seeks to promote dialogue between people of different faiths