Toward a Pragmatic Pluralism

Laurie L. Patton, Winship Professor and chair of the Department of Religion

In the twenty-first century, there are no more distant strangers. There are only proximate ones. People in Afghanistan or Iraq or Peru whom we see on television may well be our neighbors in subsequent months. Our movement across the globe guarantees that we will sit next to each other in airports and on trains. It guarantees a closer network than we ever thought possible. We have yet to grasp the basic ethical result of such globally touted “connectedness”: there are no more distant strangers.

We still use words for interreligious relationships that assume distance—words like tolerance and dialogue.  These are no longer effective words for the work that must be done between religions and within religions. They imply a sense of ambivalence about the entire undertaking of interreligious conversation. To say, “I tolerate you” implies condescension at the very best. And “dialogue” connotes something intermittent and episodic. Much of the critique of interreligious dialogue in recent decades has been that it is usually short-lived and its aftereffects are superficial.

We need new words to acknowledge the state of proximity in which we now exist with strangers. The phrase I have been using is “pragmatic pluralism.” This consists of the moment when one religion needs another in order to be itself, or for its very survival. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks about this idea as the “dignity of difference.”

I have begun to collect stories of pragmatic pluralism. First are the stories of guardianship. There is a tradition that the holder of the keys to the Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem must be a Muslim: no single Christian group could tolerate the idea that another Christian group would be guardians of that holiest of shrines. The only way out was to move outside the religion altogether. There is another tradition of such guardianship in India. The grand synagogues of Calcutta are now closed because of a declining Jewish population. The buildings are preserved by the government of India, which employs a hereditary line of Muslim caretakers to watch over them. These caretakers know the Hebrew inscriptions and the story of each building; they are proud of this part of India’s history. The architectural memory of Christians in Jerusalem and Jews in India needs Muslims in order to stay alive.

There are other, more “living” examples of pragmatic pluralism. One was told to me by a Christian activist who frequented a monastery in Bosnia during the war there. The head monk also ran a choir and was determined to hold regular rehearsals even as bombs fell in the countryside. One man kept coming to the rehearsals, staying apart from the others and slipping away as soon as the rehearsal was over. Finally, the monk asked the man where he was from. The man told him he was a Muslim from a neighboring village. The monk asked him whether he was interested in becoming a Christian. “Oh no,” said the man. “Not at all. I just become a much better Muslim when I sing in your choir.”

And there are examples of pragmatic pluralism within traditions as well as between them. In one small town in upstate New York, relationships between Orthodox and Reform Jews were very bad. One winter day the Orthodox synagogue burned down. About a week after the fire, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue was surprised to see the Reform rabbi at his door, with a large donation. “Without you being Orthodox, we couldn’t be Reform,” he said. “So you had better rebuild.”

Perhaps the most moving example was the singing of the psalms after September 11. Jewish tradition teaches that after someone has died and before the body is buried, one sits nearby and recites psalms—called the shmirot. The women of Stern College, a Jewish women’s college in Manhattan, knew that the refrigerator truck with the remains of the victims might well contain Jewish remains. So they set up a chair and sang the shmirot. And people gathered. They were not only Jewish people, but secular people, Buddhist people, Muslim people. The women from Stern College did this for Jewish reasons, but the mourners all around the city needed their ritual as well.  

Situations of pragmatic pluralism are frequently ones of loss and disaster, but they need not be. They can be any situation where the perceived human value is communicated through, yet transcends, a religious tradition. They are focused on logistics and not talk: the making of music, the maintenance of bricks and mortar, the proper treatment of the dead. They create a connection among strangers that lasts longer than an episodic conversation.

Most importantly, they force us to see that there are no more distant strangers, and that we need a new ethic to reflect this fact.



 © 2006 Emory University