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Religious Pluralism for a Pluralist Age

The election of Pope Benedict XVI and the global war on terror have brought unprecedented attention to the role of religion in our world. There has been particular interest (most specifically in the case of Islam) as to whether specific religious traditions are compatible with the institutions and values of liberal democracy. But focusing exclusively on what is believed and practiced overlooks a potentially far more important question: how religious precepts are believed and practiced.

Despite massive evidence to the contrary, many people – not least theologians – fear that we live in a secular age. But, far from being characterized by secularization, our age has witnessed vast eruptions of religious passion. The modern age is as religious as any previous historical period, and in some places more so.

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One exception is geographical: Western and Central Europe have indeed experienced a significant decline of religion, which has become an important ingredient of European cultural identity. The other exception is sociological, comprising a relatively thin but influential international intelligentsia, for whom secularization has become not only a fact, but, at least for some of its members, an ideological commitment.

These are exceptions. What modernity more or less inevitably brings about is not secularization but pluralism – the peaceful co-existence of different racial, ethnic, or religious groups in the same society.

Modernity undermines communities’ traditional homogeneity, because insiders and outsiders constantly rub up against each other, either physically (through urbanization and travel) or “virtually” (through mass literacy and mass communication). Pluralism – accelerated, expanded, and intensified by globalization – has become a pervasive fact of social life and individuals’ consciousness.

On the institutional level, pluralism means that established religions can no longer take for granted that a particular population will supinely submit to its authority. If freedom of religion is guaranteed – the typical situation in liberal democracies – religious institutions cannot rely on the state to fill their pews.

Instead, people must be persuaded to accept such authority, giving rise to something like a religious market. Even if one religious tradition still claims a majority of a population as its nominal adherents, individuals can still choose to disaffiliate from the institution representing that tradition (as in the Catholic majority countries of Europe).

At the level of individual consciousness, this means that religious certainty is now harder to come by. A religious decision can be a matter of passionate commitment (as in Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”), or, more commonly, an emotionally low-intensity consumer option (expressed in the telling American phrase “religious preference”).

In either case, the individual is thrown back on himself to reflect upon and come to terms with his native religious tradition. Even if an individual decides to affirm a very conservative version of a tradition, this decision may, at least in principle, be revoked at some future time.

As a result, pluralism pressures churches to become denominations. A denomination has the characteristics of a church, into which one is born, but individuals adhere to it voluntarily and it accepts other denominations’ right to exist.

From the standpoint of their compatibility with modern liberal democracy, acceptance of pluralism, more than adherence to particular beliefs and practices, may be what most clearly distinguishes religions. Within Christianity, for well-known historical reasons, Protestantism has had a comparative advantage in adapting to pluralism. The Roman Catholic Church, after a long period of fierce resistance, also has adapted successfully to pluralist competition, legitimating it theologically in the declarations on religious liberty that began with the Second Vatican Council. Acceptance of the market economy has been slower, but that, too, has begun since the encyclical Centesimus Annus of John Paul II.

Eastern Christian Orthodoxy is, however, a different matter. The relation of divine and secular fuels passionate debate throughout the Islamic world and in Israel, but the Orthodox idea of sinfonia – the harmonious unity between society, state, and church – constitutes a distinctive challenge to the acceptance of liberal democracy. And comparable Orthodox ideas about communal solidarity (Russian sobornost ) make it difficult to accept capitalism, because competition and individual entrepreneurship are seen as a morally repulsive expression of ruthlessness and greed.

Responses to the challenge of global pluralism will take different forms in different parts of the Orthodox world. There may be efforts to re-establish something like the traditional sinfonia , as in Russia; embrace of “Eurosecularity,” as in Greece, Cyprus, and other countries entering the EU’s orbit (Romania and Bulgaria sooner, Armenia and Georgia later); or moves toward voluntary association, as in the US.

But the challenge facing Orthodoxy underscores the three options that all contemporary religious communities now face: to resist pluralism, to withdraw from it, or to engage with it. None is without difficulties and risks, but only engagement is compatible with liberal democracy. Engagement means that the tradition is carried into the open discourse of the culture, and that those who represent the tradition make unapologetic truth claims.

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This will inevitably lead to charges of “proselytizing,” a term that has come to carry a pejorative meaning. But proselytizing means only that one tries to convince others of the truths to which one is committed. A self-confident community will usually do just that. To put it bluntly: instead of worrying that Roman Catholics will “steal” Orthodox souls, the Orthodox should try to steal Catholic souls.

Barring that, in an age when religions must persuade , they must still “proselytize” within the community – pointing out the truth, the values, and the beauty of the tradition – even if they refrain from doing so outside it. Otherwise, they will lose their children.