A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Inclusive Vision

Philosophers of religion distinguish three positions you can take about the variety of faith traditions in the world. At one extreme is exclusivism. The exclusivist believes that her religion is 100% correct and that everyone else’s is 100% wrong. The other extreme is pluralism. The pluralist believes that all the major faith traditions are equally correct. As in the fable about the blind men and the elephant they think that each religion has a different, limited but equally valid grip on divine reality. In the middle are inclusivist positions. The inclusivist says that his faith tradition is the best but admits that it is not perfect and that there is much value in the other traditions as well. This label really picks out a range of opinion from views that are so conservative as to be practically exclusivist to views that are so liberal as to be almost pluralistic.

Extreme positions are attractive in one way. Consistency is easier for extremists since they reject wholesale whatever doesn’t fit their assumptions. Those who seek compromise and balance risk being labeled as “flip-floppers.” Despite this I think inclusivism offers the best place to stand for those who want to participate in a real meaningful dialogue among a wide variety of sincere seekers after the truth.

It’s hard to dialogue with an exclusivist. Constructive dialogue is possible between people who disagree about important issues so long as each is willing to concede that the other is at least partially right. These points of agreement are necessary to provide the shared premises with which they can reason together about their remaining points of disagreement. Exclusivists concede nothing. When it comes to religion they are right and their opponents are simply wrong. Exclusivism is most common among evangelical Christians and radical atheists. I am not hopeful about being able to include exclusivists of either sort in meaningful dialogue.

Pluralism offers a much better starting point. Still I have certain reservations about it. By granting too much too soon pluralism tends to dissolve into a murky relativism. In their eagerness to embrace the other, pluralists give insufficient emphasis to what they personally are bringing to the table. Just as there can be no productive dialogue unless there are points of agreement upon which to build, there can be no productive dialogue unless there are clear points of disagreement upon which to labor together. It is hard to talk to someone who clings too stubbornly to their opinion, but it is equally hard to talk to someone who gives up too easily and doesn’t have any firm opinions at all. Another problem I have with pluralism is epistemological. How could anyone possibly know that all religions were equally true? It has taken me a lifetime to begin to understand my own faith tradition. To compare these traditions to my own in full seriousness I would have to understand those other traditions just as well and one life isn’t long enough to accomplish that.

To me, inclusivism offers the best hope. Each individual should come firmly grounded in their own faith tradition. They should be prepared to explain and affirm those spiritual truths they have grasped during the course of their walk. But they should also be eager to listen to new insights and new truths that others coming from a different tradition and different experiences will have to offer. Inclusivists will most naturally assume that they both have something to teach and something to learn. It is the best place to stand for people who love the truth but admit that their own grasp of the mystery is limited.

(This is the fourth in a related series of posts.)


Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I have been enjoying this series of posts, although I have been rather quiet. Your description of inclusivism really resonated with me because of this account I read today about some meetings between Buddhist and Christian contemplatives.
With love,

1:44 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


That description of the meetings between Christian and Buddhist contemplatives was great. Yes, that is exactly the sort of rich interaction that inclusivism makes possible.

I'm glad you've been following it. It's been nice in a way to have so few comments on these recent posts. It means I haven't been distracted by trying to respond to them. It's actually allowing me to progress with my theme a bit faster.

7:59 AM  

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