Friday, August 23, 2013

In Praise of Pluralism

"Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly."      --Diana Eck

When my daughter came home with a worksheet summarizing "The Five Pillars of Islam" a couple of years ago, I must admit my eyes widened and my eyebrows went up a little.

For decades I'd been warned by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Bill Gothard that "government schools" were bastions of secular humanism. That they were hostile to religious faith. That Christians were persecuted in the American education system. 

So I was truly startled to encounter a picture of Jesus hanging in the corridor when I first toured our local elementary school. Still more amazed to find Little Pilgrim's Progress in a classroom library. By the time my kids came home with papers advertising the after-school Bible club, I was figuring out that I'd been misled about public education in America!

At our kids' school, several teachers wear crosses. Fourth-graders attend the play "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever". The third grade holiday concert last year included Hanukkah songs. A patriotic concert included "God Bless America" and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The Boy Scouts recruit during school hours. 

The student body is as diverse as they come. When my kids talk about their friends, I have no idea how to spell the names. English is not every student's first language, their families come from all over the world, and many kinds of costumes appear on picture days when the usual dress code is set aside. The school menu notes which meals are vegetarian, and which contain pork. When I pick up my kids at the end of the day, I see other moms wearing head scarves, bindi, traditional harem pants, nursing scrubs, office skirts, skinny jeans, shorts, yoga pants, and baby slings. It's awesome, one of the things I love about public education.

Clay Bust of Martin Luther
And in this multidimensional environment, our kids are being educated. In history and science and math and social studies and music and so much more. One day at the end of a unit on Medieval Europe and the Reformation, my daughter brought home this piece of artwork (which bears a striking resemblance to one of her German-American ancestors). 

While surprised to encounter Brother Martin again--right in my kitchen!--I was also impressed. I might be tempted to avoid Luther for the rest of my life because of the messy theological and family issues he represents to me, but we can't afford that kind of selective memory. Fact is, he impacted history significantly--world history, German history, American history, my history. 

Avoiding things that make us uncomfortable only shortchanges our children. And our discomfort will be no excuse if they grow up ignorant of the world we brought them into.

Similarly, after my initial surprise at finding the "Five Pillars of Islam" on my kitchen table, I felt grateful. Grateful that the school's curriculum allows my kids to learn about topics that I might let slide, just because they intimidate me. As a homeschooling mom, alas, I didn't have anyone looking over my shoulder or pushing me to cover any topic I didn't want to. Fortunately, my kids' education is no longer dependent on my comfort zone! 

Then this week my kids brought home the following letter from their principal:
      "... Religion is an important component of the history of civilizations. Your students at Minneha cover the five major religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam – as part of their Core Knowledge magnet curriculum. Students study civilizations throughout time, throughout the world, and cover religion with a focus on history and geography in the development of civilizations. 
     "Over the last several days, questions have emerged about a bulletin board in our 4th grade hallway that represents the 5 Pillars of Islam. This display represented one aspect of religion in a historical context. Other aspects of religion in a historic and geographic context will be taught in 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th grades this fall. The purpose of this study is not to explore matters of theology, but to understand the place of religion and religious ideas in history."                                    (excerpt)

Now, I was disappointed to learn that the poster (representing some teacher's effort) had been temporarily removed because it made an adult uncomfortable. I was nonplussed by the fact that ours is the only Core Knowledge school in the district. (Do any other children get to learn about the major religions?) But I was exceedingly grateful to whatever luck allows my children to benefit from this particular curriculum. I plunked down in front of my laptop after dinner and sent off an email to our principal:
"Just wanted to say I am very pleased with Minneha’s approach to the subject of religion. We are not theists, and some of the hall displays do make me uncomfortable, but when I see multiple religions being presented in an even-handed way, I feel much better.
"As an inescapable force in our society, religion must be a part of any complete social studies or history program. And I am pleased to say that when my son was being bullied about religion by his classmates, Minneha teachers were swift to deal with the issue and use it as an opportunity to teach about respect for others and religious tolerance.

"Cultural diversity is probably what we most appreciate about Minneha. Our kids will live in a globalized society. It is invaluable for them to be able to relate to friends who hold different beliefs and traditions."

The flap over the poster has sparked both controversy and conversation. Ultimately, I like to hope it will deepen into a demand for pluralism in the community, helping us come together for common goals--like the education of our children--with understanding and concern for others' well-being. Goodness knows the future of humanity depends on our ability to understand each other and deal with our differences like grownups.

Diana Eck, director of Harvard's Pluralism Project, says pluralism is:
  • The energetic engagement with diversity--not diversity alone
  • The active seeking of understanding across lines of difference--not mere tolerance
  • The encounter of commitments--not their dismissal
  • Based on dialogue--not on agreement but on give and take, criticism and self-criticism

Clearly, this is a dialogue we still need to have. 


  1. Interesting that you mentioned German Americans. My own Kansas relatives are Vulga Germans.

  2. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism, the Trinity, and panentheism, please check out my website at It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

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

    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.

    For more details, please see:

    Samuel Stuart Maynes