How Ought Christian Ethics Navigate Pluralism?

Religious diversity in America is not just pluralism, but rather, pluralisms within pluralism. Religions and faith traditions should not just be simply understood as singular entities, but as countless spectra of varied beliefs and practices unto themselves. How should Christian Ethics navigate this pluralism? What is the role of Christian Ethics in an interfaith society? The first step for navigating pluralism is to break down the concept of pluralism into meaningful, workable parts. It is important to consider the diversity of beliefs and practices inside and outside of one’s own faith tradition, particularly when forming an ethical argument or advocating policy. Dialogue is inherently relational, and thus demands a deep understanding of other religious traditions and familiarity with the individuals themselves with whom one is in dialogue with.

I argue that the role of Christian Ethics when engaging in interfaith dialogue is not to evangelize and “win souls for Christ” per se, but rather to advance a moral plea that is intelligible and applicable to people of multiple faith traditions. This helps avoid several of the difficulties of interreligious dialogue, such as the hang up of interminable theological differences, or the hostility of Christian evangelism. Christianity is but one faith at the table of dialogue; Christian Ethics has a place as a participant, but not as an overseer. Nor is interfaith dialogue just an opportunity for evangelism, as some critics assert. For Christian Ethics to successfully and respectfully navigate pluralism, it will require a nuanced understanding and approach. To see “pluralism” as a singular conceptual entity is shallow and not particularly useful as an abstract and general idea. I prefer to break pluralism down into two categories: internal pluralism and external pluralism.

Internal pluralism refers to the spectra of beliefs and practices found within one’s own faith tradition. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others are all pluralisms unto themselves, and must be understood as such. “Spectra” over “spectrum” is apt because religions become progressively more complex to classify and understand the more you break them down. Consider “Christian Ethics.” What sort of Christianity? What sort of ethical framework?

It is useless to consider “Christianity” as a singular entity. Within the single denomination of Lutheranism, there are incredible differences between synods. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod teaches biblical inerrancy, considers the ordination of women to be contrary to Scripture, and that homosexuality is a “sinful distortion of [God’s] desire.”[1] Compare this to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which generally shies away from biblical inerrancy, ordains women and LGBT individuals, and allows blessings of same-sex marriages.[2] Lutheranism in America cannot be rightfully understood as a singular denomination with unified beliefs and practices. The idea holds true for other denominations within Protestantism and for other religions apart from Christianity.

External pluralism, on the other hand, refers to the diversity of beliefs and practices outside of one’s own faith tradition. The temptation exists to treat other faiths as singular abstract concepts. However, this unfairly generalizes entire communities and reduces individuals to rigid doctrines. Just as a progressive Christian might not appreciate being lumped into the same category as others who differ on Scripture, women clergy, and LGBT issues; they too should recognize that other faith traditions are pluralisms unto themselves, and an adherent of another tradition would similarly not appreciate being generalized to a single conception of their religious tradition.

Instead of debating on the differences between religious traditions, communities engaging in interfaith dialogue are better served focusing on a shared goal or vision. It is for this reason that I argue that the role of the Christian Ethicist in an interfaith society is to advance a moral plea, not to debate apologetics with those outside of Christianity. There is a certain sort of pragmatism in this approach, but it mostly acknowledges the reality that it is far easier to convince someone of a single position or accomplish a communal goal than it is to convert them to a different faith.

Another consideration of focusing on policy over conversion is to shift the role of Christian Ethics in interfaith dialogue to that of a participant, not a director. In her chapter in Understanding Interreligious Relations, Marianne Moyaert argued that the legacy of Christian colonialism is still very present today. She wrote, “The belief in the necessity of interreligious dialogue is at least partly inspired by the desire to put the earlier dominant and privileged position of Western Christianity to rights.”[3] Particularly in America, Christianity’s position in interfaith dialogue is still largely one of power and privilege. In lessening one’s reliance on Christian-specific language and rhetoric, one makes room in the conversation for other perspectives and values.

A critique to this approach to Christian Ethics is that eschewing Christian-specific language in interfaith dialogue is giving up on an opportunity for evangelism. Paula Silva, founder of Focus on the Family, wrote, “Let’s not forget what our call really is. If you don’t share the truth of salvation, have you really loved your neighbor?” She was ultimately dismissive of the idea of Christian-Muslim dialogue, unless it entailed informing Muslims that their faith did not save them from Hell. For Silva and others, interfaith dialogue is less about communities coming together to address real issues and more about preaching Christ to lost souls. I do believe as a Christian that there is a place for apologetics, but that place is not in a communal interreligious dialogue focused on a specific vision or goal. Again, it is far easier to say to someone, “Consider this ethic or policy,” than it is to say, “Reject and abandon your faith so that you might accept mine.” To do otherwise is not only obtuse and combative, but it is also ineffective. When engaged in interfaith dialogue, the Christian Ethicist is not converting others to Christ, but rather merely convincing them that Christ has something to offer the world—whether he is mentioned or not.

[1] http://www.lcms.org/doctrine

[2] https://www.elca.org/Faith/ELCA-Teaching

[3] Marianne Moyaert, “Interreligious Dialogue” in Understanding Interreligious Relations, edited by David Cheetham, pg. 197.

Image source: U.S. Embassy Pakistan (Attribution via Flickr Commons)

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One thought on “How Ought Christian Ethics Navigate Pluralism?

  1. This is real good. It also challenges us to be able to articulate values in ways that don’t use insider knowledge of one faith or one tradition.

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