Monotheism and Religious Pluralism

This semester, I’m teaching an introductory course on “Religions of the West.” My initial hope was that the crafters of the curriculum meant the American West. I figured I could spend half the course on Mormonism, complementing that with units on native religions, Mexican-American Catholicism, and the development of eastern religions on the West Coast. Turns out that the title meant Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Fortunately, teaching is a great motivation for learning.

In other ways, I found the course title problematic. It’s no longer accurate to categorize Christianity as a “Religion of the West,” and it was the most Western of the three to begin with. How about “People of the Book” or “Children of Abraham” ?

For our first full day of class, I asked my students to read Rita Gross’s essay “Religious Diversity: Some Implications for Monotheism.” It’s a provocative piece that asserts that in today’s world, universalizing and exclusivist forms of monotheism (namely, Christianity and Islam) are inappropriate and dangerous. I found that starting point rather dubious. To quote from a recent article by Patrick Mason in the Journal of Mormon History (no online link available; it’s the Summer 2012 issue): “The fact is that, not religion, but rather the state, with its various historical antecedents and correlates, is far and away the greatest purveyor of violence in world history and never more so than in the past century.” To be fair, Gross doesn’t specifically suggest that monotheism is to blame for the world’s violence, but she does contend that monotheism is “at least partially responsible for many of the numerous conflicts currently disrupting our world.” I think Mason is correct to shift the blame from religious belief per se to the ways that states utilize various ideologies (sometimes religious) to oppress and kill people.

Gross calls for what she terms “genuine religious pluralism,” differentiated from attempts to finesse the issue by speaking of “multiple covenants” or “anonymous Christians.” I think she is correct that such half-steps obscure real differences between religious systems and limit mutual appreciation (and critique). For her, true pluralism means that “without trying to create a single religious system out of the plurality of world religions, it becomes possible to be inspired by other religions, to the point that one welcomes and fosters mutual transformation, taking on aspects of other religions that are lacking or weak in one’s own.” She continues later: “once one understands other religions on their own terms, it is difficult not to appreciate them. They are so fascinating, so coherent internally, so rich, and usually, so compelling.” Furthermore, she suggests that “this kind of attraction is not threatening because one realizes that appreciation does not demand personal faith commitment to what one appreciates.”

The piece worked well for an introductory discussion, partly because my students were rather divided about Gross’s conclusions. Many agreed that her prescription was a necessary antidote to intolerance and divisiveness. Others, though, paused. Is it tolerant and appreciative to ask monotheists to be, well, less monotheistic? Or to ask religions with universal aspirations to give those up? It’s hard to imagine Christianity being Christianity without, say, the Great Commission.

A few other thoughts:

1) I am fully on board with understanding religions on their own terms and finding things to appreciate. I’ve blogged repeatedly about my experiences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has not been difficult to find things to appreciate. If only Presbyterians would help fellow Presbyterians unload their belongings when they move to a new area! Family Home Evening, jobs for everyone in the congregation, relief funds for struggling members of the congregation, etc. It also wasn’t hard for me to appreciate the Mormon regard for scripture or the internal logic of Joseph Smith’s later theology.

2) However, the sort of religious pluralism Gross proposes is more threatening to both individual and collective faith than she admits. While there are many reasons for their relative decline, the denominations and churches that have come closest to embracing genuine religious pluralism aren’t exactly booming. That doesn’t say anything about the ethics of religious pluralism, but it casts its pragmatism in doubt.

3) I’m not certain that most individuals, even if they seek to understand other religions on their own terms, will necessarily find most religious systems compelling and beautiful. Other reactions may be just as common.

4) Genuine religious pluralism and true toleration would mean that various universalizing monotheists, other religions, and atheists could get along while retaining their differences, including evangelistic imperatives (which certain secuarlists also share).

  • Philip Jenkins

    Time was when universities offered a neat division between Eastern and Western religions, and it made rough practical sense in terms of dividing materials. The trouble was that the harder you pushed the definitions, the more outrageous the distinction became. I particularly reject the idea of including Islam as a “Religion of the West”. That’s not meant as an offensive declaration of cultural warfare, but rather an observation about where the vast majority of Muslims live, and have lived for many centuries. By far the largest communities today are in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh. Of the world’s ten largest Muslim cities, only one, Cairo, is actually Arab. So why on earth is Islam not a “Religion of the East”? The old academic labels collapse neatly before our eyes.

    • Mark Sadler

      Mr Jenkins, in general I agree. The distinction, as I understand (remember) it is one more of a “via negativa”: there were the religions of the East and then the rest; ergo, the West. Perhaps this distinction was one more of accommodation of the noneastern religions coupled with the westward movement of Judaism & Islam and the common Abrahamic tradition. Just a thought.

  • LogicGuru

    Sometimes I just don’t understand what’s at issue in this kind of dispute. Religion, as the Folk understand it consists of (1) beliefs concerning supernatural beings or states of affairs and (2) ceremonies intended to make contact with such supernatural beings or states (3) embodied in an institution. I’ve argued for this. But claims about the supernatural, like all metaphysical claims, are speculative and nothing whatsoever hangs on whether we get it right about these matters.

    So I’m always puzzled by the suggestion that monotheism is somehow inherently intolerant. The virtue of monotheism is that it doesn’t multiply gods unnecessarily–one god is bad enough. As far as religious pluralism goes, the issue isn’t recognizeing the truth of conflicting religious claims or the cults of a variety of gods but simply recognizing, honestly, that religious belief is speculative, that we cannot know that any given religion is true–so that the only reasonable position is agnosticism–and that nothing whatsoever depends on whether we are correct or incorrect in our religious beliefs.

    Various interest groups pick up on religion as a symbol of their agendas. But religion itself while fascinating and fun is of absolutely no consequence. Religion is entertainment–let us enjoy it.

  • Samuel Maynes

    If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the
    Trinity, please check out my website at, and give me
    your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be
    Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan
    Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute
    Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the
    Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned
    Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their
    variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas
    reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept
    of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the
    first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known
    as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other
    names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute
    Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna;
    represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of
    souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or
    Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus
    Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality –
    unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the
    absonite* Unconditioned Absolute
    Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected
    to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being –
    represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas,
    Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological
    variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of
    the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the
    Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two
    insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions
    of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit
    is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme,
    so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a
    synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe
    Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned
    Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit
    Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny
    Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing
    ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In
    the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and
    white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned
    “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle
    that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great
    Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy
    Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other,
    but the Glorified Spirit proceeding
    from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his
    co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from
    him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes