Tag Archives: pluralism

A Common Platform

July 2018 Feature

For anyone living in this century, it is evident that one of the contemporary issues facing the world today is that of religious diversity. From the perspective of a Christian, the question of the role of other religions is especially acute given the ultimate claims to truth and salvation that Jesus Christ has made.

However, this phenomenon of multiple religious traditions is not a new one. The books of the Old Testament were written during times when peoples of other faiths surrounded the nation of Israel. The same holds true for the New Testament when Greco-Roman religions proliferated alongside the newly established religion of Christianity.

In some ways, this necessity to learn how to understand other religions is not unique to the Christian faith.  Every major world religion in its history has had to grapple with the existence of the “others” ever since they become conscious of the existence of one another. Each tradition has had to learn to navigate its way through its social, historical and religious contexts.

The contemporary theologian of religions, Harold Netland, has pointed out that it is increasingly important for Christians in the twenty-first century to respond to the changing religious landscape. He asserts it is possible for Christians to be firmly committed to Christ as Lord and be responsible citizens in their own countries. At the same time, he calls for new ways for Christians to respond to the other faiths rather than merely repeating the practices of the past.

As different religions attempt to co-exist, co-operate or even compete with one another for converts, it is crucial that a shared framework or language be found to avoid misunderstandings. This is especially so given there is always some level of incommensurability to religions. Words such as “God” and “salvation” can mean very different things to a Christian or a Buddhist.

The scholar of religion and philosopher, Robert McKim, has proposed that when it comes to determining what he calls “attitudes to and beliefs about others,” it is helpful to note the ranges of positions that one may adopt. He proposed that for any religion, its self-understanding with respect to another tradition can be classified under one of the following categories. That it is:

  1. The only tradition that is any good in the relevant respect
  2. The tradition that is better than other traditions in the relevant respect
  3. A tradition that is as good as other traditions in the relevant respect

These constitute the starting points for what is commonly known in the field of theology of religions as the traditional three-fold typology of exclusivist, inclusivist, and pluralist positions respectively. McKim also argues that this schema is suitable not only for theistic faiths but non-theistic ones too.

If that is so, then by utilizing a common vocabulary of terms and conceptual structure, this may allow the various traditions to participate in a form of dialogue that promotes understanding of the other. While it may not wholly nullify the difficulties to attempt to read another using only its categories, it could represent an initial step towards reducing isolationism and enhancing greater concordance.

The typology proposed above may be used with respect to issues of truth and salvation. It may also be employed concerning other matters, such as the ethical guidance provided in each religion.

While some Christian scholars have argued that the tri-fold typology which was initially proposed by Alan Race and Gavin D’Costa is skewed towards pluralism, subsequent analysis by others have shown it is, in fact, a relatively neutral logical construct that each respective position could claim to be biased in or against its stance.

Also, despite these objections, since its first proposal in the 1960s, the tri-polar schema has continued to play a significant role within Christian theology for scholars to clarify their assertions. In addition, while many other competing proposals have been put forth, none seems to be capable of replacing the traditional proposition, as seen in the recent numerous scholarly articles that continue to argue based on, either explicitly or implicitly, its underlying logical structure.

It is possible that this analytical framework could be one of the tools that the Christian tradition may offer to the broader world of inter-religious understanding, given that it was developed within itself and undergone robust discussion. As an Adjunct Lecturer at the NTU S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) for a post-graduate course entitled “Christianity and Religious Diversity,” I have found it serves as a common platform for students from various religious backgrounds to discuss features of their faiths vis-à-vis another as part of the M.Sc program.


 

Dr Tan Loe Joo is lecturer in systematic theology at Trinity Theological College.

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

 

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.