world council of churches

What Difference does Religious Plurality Make?
R. Stephen Warner



As I thought about this question as it bears on my work and my thinking, I recognized that I was assuming two things. The first assumption was that religious plurality is an issue for me because of encounters with those who are religiously different from me and those I identify with. In other words, religious plurality matters for me because of my personal experiences with, not only intellectual awareness of, religious difference.

Second, for me, a Christian from the U.S., religious plurality includes differences within Christianity as well as between Christians and the Jews with whom American Christians have long lived side-by-side. Born-again Christians who set themselves apart from other Christians whose religion is merely ascriptive (I first encountered such people in 1976, as recounted in my book, 'New Wine in Old Wineskins', page 72) are as much a challenge to religious consensus as are the millions of adherents of other major religions (e.g., Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) who now populate my country.

I therefore approached the question from the point of view of one who has shared religious rituals with friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances who are evangelical, pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. This is the "reality of religious plurality" as I experience it.

1. How does religious plurality affect me as a religious person?

The simple answer is that the experience of religious plurality has led me to embrace the identity of a Christian, and within Christianity, a liturgical Protestant (specifically a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which I joined within the past two years).

My first significant experiences with religious plurality came through Jewish friends, with whom I shared Passover seders and High Holy days services in the 1960s and '70s at a time when I was distant from the church (the Presbyterian church of which I was a member in the 1950s). I admired the moral seriousness I saw in my friends (the obligation they felt on Yom Kippur to seek out and ask forgiveness of those they had wronged during the year) and the narrative power, I felt in their rituals (the way the Haggadah makes the whole group into a storyteller). Had I married a Jewish woman, it is likely that I would have considered conversion. Yet, I never stopped enjoying Christmas carols and Handel's Messiah and in retrospect am glad I never had to renounce them.

Close relationships with assertive evangelicals, beginning in the mid-1970s made me ponder the extent to which I could claim the Christian identity, I embodied in the eyes of my Jewish friends. Never an atheist (at worst an "unbeliever"), I knew I shared ritual knowledge with the evangelicals (how to find my way through the Bible, how to sing hymns, how to behave in church), but I rejected their appropriation of the "Christian" label, as if only those who "knew the Lord" and could testify to the moment they were "saved", could call themselves by that name. I defended their religious integrity in print, but for years I distanced my own identity from theirs. For the past twenty years, I have subjected myself to more experiences of religious plurality, many of which elicited my awe: joining Muslim friends during Ramadan as they broke their day's fast at the mosque; hearing the priest's meditation on falling autumn leaves at a Pure Land Buddhist temple; walking the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday with Mexican American Catholics, asking in Spanish chant for Jesus to forgive his people; studying rudiments of Qur'anic recitation along with Cham Muslim youth in their parents' homes, the devotional art they were learning being beautifully modeled in the voice of the senior male of the group. (I analyze some of these experiences in an article entitled "Religion, Boundaries, and Bridges", Sociology of Religion, 1997.

In these and other aesthetically powerful experiences, I have seen other people--people I knew, some I loved--appear to be lifted out of themselves, to be joined with something greater than themselves, to speak in the language of moral conviction, communal awareness, and personal centeredness. I am convinced I have seen the experience of true religion in people religiously different from me.

One possible response, one I have heard from colleagues, would be envy. "These people are so lucky to be able to believe, to have something bigger than themselves, to have their religion." But I was close enough to at least some of these people of faith to know that their religion was not na´ve, nor an artifact of their simplicity, but an assertion. Because I had never relinquished the Christmas carols (and indeed have spent years indulging in Christian music like Bach's B-Minor Mass and Brahms' German Requiem through my volunteer choir and American folk hymnody, through the Sacred Harp movement), I had no reason to envy them. For I also had a religious idiom through which I could connect to that which is bigger than myself, Christianity.

Because I also know that the Christian tradition is as rich and deep as any of the others, I knew I could connect with ultimate reality and challenge my own moral laxity and self-centeredness through the church.

The church my wife and I chose, because of the excellence of its preaching and congregational singing, is a Lutheran congregation a few blocks from our home, and through our worship there, I have begun to experience the power of the liturgical tradition, including weekly communion at the altar rail and observing the seasons of the church calendar. As a religious person, I am now more liturgical and less Reformed.

2. How does religious plurality affect me as a person?

Most of what I would have to say to this question I said about myself as a "religious person," and so I will interpret "person" here to mean public person, or citizen. In that capacity, I think that religious plurality is healthy for the United States. The "open market" for religion in the U.S.--the fact that Americans have been unable to take religion for granted since the time of disestablishment in the early republican period--has been conducive to religious mobilization in this society. To the extent that the U.S. is a society of immigrants and that religious groups must compete for the allegiance of characteristically mobile people, religion is salient for Americans and religious institutions flourish here. For reasons similar to those I spelled out above, the greatly expanded religious plurality of the last quarter of the 20th century has tended to strengthen religious institutions in the U.S., and, with some exceptions, this is good for the society.

Religious plurality is a positive force in the U.S. because, whether or not Balkan societies are "balkanized," American society is not. For all the overheated rhetoric one hears about "culture wars," American public opinion is not polarized and is increasingly liberal on issues of race, gender, sexual morality, and religious civility; this for several reasons. Education liberalizes, and although Americans are hardly learned, the U.S. has very high rates of formal education. Spatial and social mobility entail crossing of cultural boundaries, so many Americans are intimately related to people on the other side of one or another cultural divide. Widespread affluence and isolated poverty mean that most people have a stake in the system and those who don't are difficult to mobilize. Pluralistic religion is an accepted medium of social participation--"go to the church of your choice"--so by default Americans are inclined to accept others' religious commitments as legitimate. Being accepted as legitimate impels the leaders of those religious communities to adopt civil rhetoric and to cooperate in interfaith activities.

3. How does religious plurality affect me in my profession?

This question is both the easiest and the hardest to answer, because most of my recent work as a sociologist of religion--both teaching and research--has centered on religious diversity in the United States. So one way of addressing the question would be to reference my publications of the past ten years, which have been animated by my theory that the variety and vitality of religion in the U.S. go hand in hand. At a minimum, the increase of significant religious plurality--especially the growth of the Muslim and Latino Christian communities in the U.S.--is for me a welcome research opportunity.

The student body at the university where I teach--in the heart of Chicago--is greatly diverse in racial, ethnic, and religious terms, and I typically have significant numbers of Muslims (Indo-Pakistani, Arab, and African American), evangelicals (Latino, Asian American and European American), and Roman Catholics (European American, Latino, and Asian American) in each class, as well as those professing no religion. (The representation of mainline or "historic" Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists in my classes is more spotty.) For twenty years, I have used "field trips," visits to religious sites, as a teaching method, and many students invite the class to their own places of worship and sometimes to religious sites in their homes. Thus, to take only a few examples, Muslims from my class have celebrated the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth in the home of a Jewish student; Anglo Americans and Muslims have participated in an observance of the Mexican "Dia de los Muertos" as part of a Roman Catholic mass; white, Latino and Arab students have experienced at first hand the power of worship in an African American church. The effect of these field trips is usually to engender respect and fellow-feeling across religious boundaries, even when the language or ritual is literally incomprehensible to the visitors. Students learn that religion is something more than doctrine and that to appreciate others' religions one has to do more than read books.

I believe that these extra-mural but curricular exercises provide a valuable learning experience for my students, and I only wish that I could offer the sociology of religion course more frequently. Yet, such is the pluralism of American society that I believe these experiences merely foreshadow what my students will likely encounter in the future, when as adults in the workplace they are invited by their colleagues to weddings or other public celebrations. I expect that such encounters will be welcomed.

R. Stephen Warner is Professor of sociology of religion at the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, U.S.A.



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