Ten days ago I was covering a peace walk sponsored by the Buddhist center in Oak Park for the Wednesday Journal, when Kelsang Lamden asked me if I would like one of the T-shirts being given to each walker.
“Sure,” I replied. “I’d be honored.” They treated me very well that morning. Two Buddhist nuns and one monk together with 30 other participants posed for pictures, answered questions and treated me to a vegetarian barbecue lunch. When I left the center after downing my veggie burger and a chocolate cupcake, I was feeling good-like I had built a relationship bridge with yet another “minority” group.
When I got home, however, I got stuck in a mire of indecision. Will I ever actually wear the T-shirt? I liked the way it looked-maroon and gold, the colors that the monks wore. “Walk for World Peace-2007,” the front of the shirt proclaimed. I could whole heartedly affirm that sentiment.
The problem for me was what was written on the back. The shirt listed the name of the organization and a website for people to contact.
The source of my ambivalence was an internal conflict of values. On the one hand, respecting people who have different religious beliefs is something I value. According to this value, wearing the T-shirt could be a way of promoting tolerance.
On the other hand, the core of my faith is the confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” By this value, the scenario of me wearing a Buddhist T-shirt made me feel a little guilty, like a husband cheating on his wife.
As we move further in the 21st Century, this kind of dilemma is going to arise more and more for me and many of us who are serious about religion. The problem is that in an increasingly pluralistic society, how does one remain faithful to their own religion while at the same time promoting respect for those who believe differently?
Mark Hein, in his book “Salvations, Truth and Difference in Religion,” says that there are three postures a believer can take regarding those who follow a different faith.
1. EXCLUSIVISM. I’m right, and you’re wrong.
2. INCLUSIVISM. I’m right, but mixed in with what you believe might be some aspects of what I believe. In fact, you might believe enough of what I believe to be what I am without knowing it.
3. PLURALISM. All religions are equal. All paths lead to the same goal.
Each stance has its strengths and deficits. Exclusivism allows people to know where they stand. As the saying goes, those who don’t know where they stand will fall for anything. Exclusivism, however, can lead to the kind of militant jihadism promoted by Osama bin Laden.
Inclusivism permits people to respect those of other faiths, but it can also embody a kind of wishy-washy compromise. Besides, it can be really condescending for me to say to a Muslim, “You’re really a Christian, but you don’t know it yet.”
Pluralism has the advantage of providing a clear theology for respecting all religions. It’s disadvantage is that it dodges the issue of truth. All religions are not equal in the sense of teaching the same thing about the relationship between God and humans.
My maroon and gold T-shirt still sits on the living room coffee table where I left it 10 days ago, waiting for me to make a decision.