This I Believe

william - indianapolis, Indiana
Entered on November 14, 2006


Dr. S. Wesley Ariarajah, a Methodist minister in Sri Lanka, lived in a city of diverse religious traditions. During Christmas and Easter seasons he received invitations from the local Hindu community to come to their place of worship and share the meaning of Christmas and Easter with members of the Hindu community. He said he marveled at the willingness of the Hindu worshipers to hear the message of Jesus Christ. He felt they really wanted to understand their Christian neighbors and were eager to hear stories from the Christian tradition. Dr. Ariarajah also felt sadness that he could not reciprocate and invite the Hindu Swami to share the Hindu stories during his Christian worship service. If he were to do so he was certain his congregation would react with anger at such “betrayal” of the faith. This, we contend, is a dilemma contemporary Christians should consider as we seek to engage and interact with others in a pluralist society.

Can we be true to the teachings of Jesus and still be open and accepting of the faith journeys of other traditions? Increasingly, many Christians are affirming this stance. The emerging Christian church, also known as the progressive Christian movement, seeks to embrace the paths of all spiritual seekers who try to adhere to the two most important commandments as taught by Jesus — love and honor God and love your neighbor. This desire to follow the example of Jesus, regardless of doctrine or interpretation of scripture, is the fundamental defining aspect of the progressive movement in search of a more compassionate and less divisive world.

Perhaps, however, words like “progressive”, or “orthodox” are simply inadequate to convey the true essence of the concepts to which they refer. Perhaps the spiritual journey itself, as one seeks relationship with God, more appropriately defines each seeker, but in an evolving and fluid sense. Labels are just restrictive terms that put us all at odds — creating “us” and “them.” Humanist vs. faith believer; Muslim vs. Jew; Sunni vs. Shiite; progressive Christian vs. the religious right; all are just names conjuring up stereotypes that do a disservice to those interested in sharing a common good. Perhaps “Christian” need not define us beyond describing our shared experience of choosing to embark upon a journey wanting to learn from the life and teachings of Jesus.

The concept of pluralism may more accurately put into proper perspective the reality of our limited human ability to define such words as those above, or to determine absolute truths. It was said by the French novelist Marcel Proust, in In Search of Lost Times, that “The universe is the same for all of us, and different for each of us.” Substitute the words progressive, orthodox, Christianity or, most especially, the word God for ‘universe’ and one can gain an appreciation for how the pluralist views our complex and interconnected world — ‘{God} is the same for all of us and different for each of us.’ A pluralist finds humility and comfort in one’s own relationship with the divine (however one’s own experience, tradition, reason, and faith define this journey), balanced with truly accepting the paths of others as equally valid if they adhere to principles that promote honesty over deceit, compassion over indifference, humility over arrogance, and caring for the poor and disenfranchised. If one believes in God, is it so difficult to believe that an omnipresent God of infinite dimension, time, and character might be different for each of us, yet the same for all of us? Perhaps all of us, in being “created in God’s image,” have been infused with the same moral fabric and spirit (as suggested by Thomas Aquinas) despite being outwardly different on so many levels.

Our challenge in a pluralist society is to celebrate our oneness with the universe, yet hold in healthy tension the individual differences that make us unique. Pluralism itself is not a new or progressive phenomenon. It is simply a description of our social and religious reality — a humble recognition of our collective diversity with an appreciation that any one of us (individuals, denominations, religions …) represent only one small, but significant, part of an unfathomable whole. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels practiced this perspective when he told a group of Muslims at the Governor’s Mansion a few weeks ago, “All God’s people are equal in His eyes. I am glad to welcome you to this home. You should think of this as your home.” We need more leaders with the courage to lead in this manner.

The pluralism movement is unfolding seemingly below the radar screen of the masses, yet paradoxically seems to be inherently necessary for the survival of us all. The Harvard Pluralism Project,, The Center For Progressive Christianity, The Interfaith Alliance, Common Ground, and countless other organizations embrace the pluralist mentality with passion, yet our mainstream churches struggle with how to balance orthodox Christianity and Christian pluralism. Again, it seems that words fail us. Who defines “orthodox?” Who defines “Christian?” Must one definition apply to all? Can we — should we — choose to embrace the paradox that Christianity is the same for all of us and different for each of us? It is time for passionate Christian pluralists to shed the traditional labels that relegate us to our respective corners preparing for the next battle for moral or theological superiority. It is time for us to deliberately share our differing experience and perspectives (whether they be religious or secular, believer or atheist, Muslim or Jew, …) in our churches, schools, the media, and over the dinner table not with the intent to convert, but with the intent to listen, learn, and become more whole. Only in this fashion will “us” and “them” ever have a chance to become “we.”