world council of churches

Impact of Religious Plurality on my Life, my Work and Thinking
Christine Lienemann

1. Biographical notes

I am Swiss, I live in Switzerland and belong to the same Evangelical Reformed Church, in which I was raised. I grew up in a pastor's house and I am married to a theologian. I studied theology and for nearly seven years now I have been professor of Ecumenics and Missiology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Basel. My experience with religious plurality is related to various types of Christianity in Switzerland, and I have some insights in Christianity outside Europe (Congo/Zaire, South Africa, South Korea, India). I am less familiar with other religions and the impact of religious plurality on them.

2. My use of the terms

Faith: the religion of a person or community seen 'from inside', e.g. by that very person or community.

Religion: the phenomenon 'Religion' in its various forms. In Switzerland the main religious presence is Christianity. In an inquiry of about 1000 Swiss citizens and some non-citizens taken in 1990, 90% of them professed to belong to either the Evangelical Reformed Church or the Roman Catholic Church. Another group belonged to other Christian churches or regarded themselves, albeit without formal membership, as being Christians. Only 1.7% of all respondees identified themselves as members of another religion. Although formal membership does not automatically mean commitment to and involvement in church activities, these figures point to a still significant stability of Christian roots in our culture and a quite remarkable appreciation of the role of the church within our society.

Religions / belief systems: the currently practiced religions in Switzerland (in addition to Christianity, in particular, Islam and Judaism, but also Buddhism and Hinduism). Religious Plurality: (a) diversity within the Evangelical Reformed Church to which I belong, including various forms of informal religion (religiosity). (b) diversity within Christianity (denominations, Christian movements, African Instituted Churches, etc.). (c) manifold religions and religion-like movements.

Religious Pluralism: (a) an attitude or mentality drawn in the context of religious plurality. (b) approved principle or normative guidelines for living together within a religious plural society.

3. Consequences of religious plurality in my personal life

Religious plurality gave, and continues to give me a great freedom in the organization of many facets of my life: in education, marriage, family, profession and leisure including my social contacts. Religiously motivated social controls did not play, in my own life, a significant role in cases in which I had to make essential decisions. At the same time, I note that in these cases I had a substantial need to justify my decisions and actions both to myself and my associates (Example: care for aging parents).

4. My personal view of religious plurality

In Switzerland, a gradual change in the laws regulating religion during the last hundred years has led to diminished church power. The church lost its sanctioning power with reference to its members in areas of secular administration (divorce law), life style ('marriage' without licence), religious education, religious status (right to withdraw from the church, sect adherence, conversion to another religion, right to have no religion at all). As a consequence of changing attitudes of the population since the 1950's, the spiritual and moral sanctioning potential of the church has been progressively reduced. Someone would say for instance: "I am not concerned with my church's view of my behaviour, because it has no effect on my situation." The decline of the legal and moral power of religions over individuals in a state neutral in religious terms guarantees each individual freedom in his or her life style choice. Conversely, the need has grown for individuals and groups to account for their normative guidelines and their mode of behaviour.

5. Consequences of religious plurality on my religious life

Religious plurality in society challenges me to live side by side with many religious forms which are foreign to me. I am constantly challenged to try to understand that foreignness and to develop a greater ability to deal with it. During my childhood and adolescence little weight was given to those skills. Today, more is expected from me than mere tolerance towards 'free floating' religiosity inside and outside the church and towards members of other religions and alternative convictions. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty puts it: "It is about learning how to perceive what is ours as if it were foreign to us and to perceive what is foreign to us as if it were ours."

6. Religious plurality from my perspective as a religious person

Religious plurality is experienced by some people as providing them with personal freedom and space for personal responsibility. But it also affects many people in less positive ways. I will mention four examples:

6.1 Religious diversity can lead to religious indifference. In this case one encounters an increasing indifference with regard to the question as to how one's own faith and other faiths are related to each other. They are not interested any longer in the questions of whether faiths or belief systems are compatible with each other, or if they are similar in some respects or mutually exclusive. I call this attitude 'post-dialogue mentality' (in contradistinction to a pre-dialogue and anti-dialogue mentality).

6.2 Religious freedom can lead to a lack of religious orientation. This expresses itself in an increased request for religious counselling as well as the new quest for building up a religious identity.

6.3 Religious pluralism revitalizes Christian confessionalism. This is obvious when, for instance in my own church, members urge church authorities to examine the content of Christian preaching and teaching for heretical elements. Recently, disciplinary action has been requested in Basel against several church employees as a consequence of their involvement in esoterics and a religious dedication to the 'Black Madonna'.

6.4 Religious diversity provides fertile ground for religious fundamentalism. The latter is expressed as hate towards anything culturally or religiously alien and is manifested by the willingness to use psychological and physical violence.

7. Effects of religious pluralism on my professional life

According to wide spread public opinion Christian mission has no role to play in a religiously plural society and is incompatible with religious pluralism. The term 'mission' is, in this sense, equated with religious propaganda, with proselytism, with an assault on the private sphere (religious 'breaking and entering'), with an absolutist attitude regarding the Christian perception of truth, with intolerance towards people of other faiths, atheists or agnostics. Based on such prejudice, the theory and practice of mission are forced to operate in a permanent apologetic posture. - Paradoxically, there is, on the other hand, within the church, in the public and even in the academic field, substantial demand for missiological expertise to solve social conflicts which result from the coexistence with people of other faiths.

As a Christian theologian and missiologist, I attempt to make clear that religious plurality cannot be viewed from a perspective above all religions, but rather must be seen from the standpoint of one specific perspective, in my case for instance, that of the Christian faith - just as people of other faiths experience and define religious plurality from the angle of their own faith.

I compare Christian mission with the 'skin' of the church, and missiology with the 'skin' of systematic theology. Mission is situated at the extremities of the church, choosing the most possible direct contact with those faiths and world views which, according to their self-understanding, are situated outside Christianity or, at least, outside the church. Missiology has to do with hermeneutics. It tries to explain Christian faith for non-Christians, and to communicate other faiths to Christians. The purpose of missiology is to think about the relevance of other faiths for the Christian faith, but also to be clear about the differences between Christian faith and other faiths. To account for the Christian faith to people who do not (want to) belong to Christianity is an other task of mission and missiology.

8. Religious diversity in my professional view

In addition to the question of a sustainable theology of religions, the coexistence of religious communities and individuals of differing faiths confronts our society with new challenging situations. Currently in Switzerland we are concerned with several problems of religious law: separate cemeteries for religious minorities (Muslims); entitlement to construction of non-Christian assembly areas for worship (mosques with minarets; Hindu temples); questions of marriage, divorce and the right to the custody of children. Additional questions concern religious instruction in markedly mixed school classes. Further issues are raised by religious and cultural problems of patients during hospital stays.

Conflicts arise at the intersections of cultures, and these occasionally result in violence. To give an example: Recently a teacher who championed integration of foreign students was shot by the father of a Muslim girl. But fortunately, in our civil society and in the churches and other religious communities of Switzerland, there is also evidence of a remarkable readiness to build bridges across religious and cultural gaps.

Dr Christine Lienemann is Professor of Ecumenics and Missiology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Basel, Switzerland.

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