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A new kind of pluralism: Lessons and observations on a changing paradigm

Joe Morrow says contemporary life in the 21st century is about “coming to terms with the array of options.”

There’s a lot of pluralism. Some of it is even religious.

On Memorial Day 2020, COVID-19 was still bearing down on many countries, including the United States. The virus had forced lockdowns, closed businesses, moved schools online and generally isolated many in their homes or limited them to small pandemic “pods” of close friends and family.

In Minneapolis that day, George Floyd walked into a convenience store ready to enjoy the momentary reprieve that the holiday weekend afforded from the pandemic realities. His subsequent arrest and murder, along with the outrage that followed, had the effect of temporarily but dramatically relieving the isolation.

Throngs of people left their homes and spilled onto the streets in protests and marches across the country. Several took place in my own city of Chicago. I felt as if a dormant community had sprung to life again. I turned on the TV and saw masses gathering downtown in Grant Park and marching down prominent boulevards on the South and West sides.

As I picked up the media coverage and started showing up in these public spaces, I noticed something peculiar.  For one, the signage landscape at protests occasionally included  messages like “Muslim Lives for Black Lives” or signs in Hebrew that translated “You Shall Not Stand Idle upon the Blood of Your Neighbor.” And then, among the throngs of people marching and the speakers rallying the crowds, I saw both prominent and everyday Jews, Muslims and Buddhists taking the mic, holding the signs, chatting among the people present.

Interreligious solidarity: Encouraging, but not unusual

This interreligious show of solidarity truly enheartened me, but I did not find it surprising. Even if many in the crowds might have found it a strange but welcome circumstance, in some important ways, this solidarity was the fruit of work I had both witnessed and engaged in within the field of higher education. But it was also a sign of something else.

Flashback to several years earlier, during the second Obama administration. I was ordained to work with the national nonprofit organization Interfaith Youth Core, leading consultations on strengthening interfaith cooperation at colleges and universities. I worked with public and private, Protestant and Catholic, rural and urban campuses — all striving and sometimes struggling to realize the potential of the religiously and culturally diverse backgrounds reflected among their students, faculty and administrators.

On campus in those days, I observed thriving student organizations dedicated to specific religious traditions, including JSAs (Jewish Student Association), MSAs (Muslim Student Association), UKirks and IVs (Intervarsity). But I also saw the emergence of faculty members and chaplains who were adept at getting their students to see beyond their own tradition in order to pay attention to historical and sociological points of interaction among religious communities and traditions.

Sometimes success simply meant getting students to not dismiss or disparage the power of faith communities altogether. But our ultimate hope for our work was well illustrated by the story of one of our organization’s alums: Abdullah Mustafa. Having graduated from Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Mustafa became a community organizer with the ACLU in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, where he found himself square in the middle of the protests that followed Mike Brown’s death at the hands of police in nearby Ferguson.

So in 2020, when young people and others who foregrounded their religious identity showed up in social demonstrations about the murder of George Floyd, I was not surprised. Higher education had been producing such leaders for decades.

However, I look back and wonder what was missing in those 2020 protests. What social and religious realities were obscured by the crowds?

The shifting nature of religious identity

One reality is that the very nature of religious identity is shifting. The 20th century was a long period of intense interreligious or interfaith dialogue. The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions met in Chicago on the cusp of a promised century of global reconciliation. In the years leading up to two world wars and in the postwar period, the ecumenical movement brought disparate Christian traditions toward greater recognition of one another and greater cooperation on matters of liturgy, doctrine and mission.

One reality is that the very nature of religious identity is shifting. The 20th century was a long period of intense interreligious or interfaith dialogue.

Documents like the Catholic Church’s Nostra Aetate broke open new relationships between Christians and Jews. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 brought Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus to the front and center of life in the United States. At the local level, these larger trends translated into an era of relatively stable interfaith dialogue, managed and brokered by educated and devoted religious leaders. These interfaith pioneers built tender bridges among their respective communities by forming coalitions for civil rights, social good and material well-being in their towns and cities.

That good-will effort made its way to college campuses, where many chaplains began carrying the local work into higher education spaces. As students of diverse religious backgrounds met on college campuses, higher education began to see their pluralism as a boon to the educational process — giving their students important leverage in a world where such diversity would be a cornerstone of the workforce.

But a funny thing happened on the way to interfaith dialogue-as-usual. Generation X, millennials and now Generation Z began to change altogether the way they oriented themselves to religious traditions. That process has been gradual but unrelenting. Now it’s accelerating.

A January 2023 article in The Atlantic on the dechurching of America, titled “American Religion Is Not Dead Yet,” underscored the problem. Americans born in and after 1970 have been leaving institutionalized religion in droves. Affiliation, attendance at religious services, engagement in programming and service, and donations to religious institutions are all on a downward path. Yet it’s not that these generations are universally nonspiritual or unconcerned about matters of justice or societal well-being.

A childhood friend who found herself caught up in marches and demonstrations from 2016 onward was working through how to cope in the aftermath of the Floyd murder in 2020. She was not opposed to the religious language I sometimes offered in our conversations, but neither did it always, or even mostly, resonate. She long ago left the Catholicism of her youth; but she went to school to study classics, is an avid reader of science and yet approaches metaphysical explorations of religion with guarded curiosity.

Her story reminded me of something I began observing in higher education. Students and young adults, including myself, either came to college with, or experienced in college, fluid understandings of religion. Many grew up with or lived with Muslims who fast or Jews who keep kosher. They might read tarot cards, study the power of manifesting, trust the science — and not have much room left for traditional Christianity. In the 2010s and 2020s even, what were formerly considered political perspectives on issues from poverty to racism to LGBTQ inclusion – opinions open to shifting – had crystallized into something more akin to existential values. The search for justice and righteousness retains a religious devotion, even when it has jettisoned religious institutions.

The result of these shifts is not the secularization predicted to leave religious thought and ferver in the dustbin. As late sociologist of religion Peter Berger and co-author Anton Zijderveld summed it up in their book In Praise of Doubt, “Modernity pluralizes.” In other words, we have multiple widely reputable paths for ethical living. Indeed, our choices in matters of religion, spirituality, philosophy, meaning, identity and practice have exploded exponentially.

Contemporary life in the 21st century is about coming to terms with the array of options. There’s a lot of pluralism: ethical pluralism, narrative pluralism, ethnic pluralism, cultural pluralism. Some of that pluralism is religious. The field of higher education, like many other social institutions, has spent recent decades carefully attending to the vitality of a religious pluralism shaped by multiple, discrete religious traditions. However, younger generations in its charge have been crisscrossing and drawing outside of the lines of those same traditions, investing their lives with new and novel configurations of meaning and purpose.

The changing role of interfaith dialogue and cooperation

While interfaith dialogue remains an important aspect of religious pluralism, it is becoming more of a niche in the face of the waning influence and draw of religious institutions. The radical pluralism that has supplanted such dialogue is a whole other creation. It frustrates those of us who desire to conserve and grow religious communities. And now, in my sixth year of a parish call, I feel this in my bones.

My current pastoral call includes evangelism and mission. At first glance, that word “evangelism” seems counterintuitive to the respectful, non-proselytizing tone of interfaith cooperation. And while many Presbyterian and mainline Christians have been cautious in approaching the subject, given the decline of religious institutions, the work of growing a religious community and attending to its well-being has become a high priority. However, that work can have the effect of reducing interfaith cooperation, as religious pluralism, to an indulgent hobby in the face of overbearing statistical decline. Congregations, after all, are trying to figure out how to survive.

Yet through my experience and ministry, I have come to believe that a Christian faith that chooses to fully engage pluralism, rather than fleeing or avoiding it, will have something meaningful to offer a society navigating a labyrinthine maze of existential and everyday choices.

The interfaith origins of Christianity

If you’re unsure of that, just step back beyond the last 100 or so years, back to the very origins of Christian faith itself. The faith as we know it emerged from the rich and complex soil of religious pluralism. Jesus and his early disciples were Jewish. They read Jewish sacred texts as their canon. Yet we know Judaism in the second Temple period lacked the kind of uniformity of belief and practice that we associate with rabbinical Judaism after the second Temple. It featured various sects, schools of thought, diaspora communities and social responses to the stories and the teachings that lie at the center of Jewish identity.

From that milieu, Christianity first emerged as a set of interpretive choices among them. Then, in light of the Christ event, it was transmitted into a world of Roman and Greek mythology, cultic practices and philosophies. In its first half-century, the Christian faith engaged cultures from northwest Europe to northeast Africa to east Asia along the Silk Road. European-led globalization and colonization marred Christian interfaith engagement. Even so, Christians from communities of color and across the 2/3rds world through their embrace, denials and adaptations transformed Christian theology and institutions, raising questions from pluralistic contexts that would otherwise be avoided.

From ecumenical to interfaith

Pluralism is the paradigm from which Christianity emerged, and in which those of us who seek its well-being have always lived — whether we choose to see it or not. That simple confession has helped me to see two ways in which those realities speak to our current moment.

Pluralism is the paradigm from which Christianity emerged, and in which those of us who seek its well-being have always lived.

As a commissioner to the 2014 General Assembly in Detroit and as a subsequent member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, I have had a front-row seat to observe the various splinters in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Some of these have involved what I consider laudable decisions, such as the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons into ordained ministry and the covenant of marriage. I found others to be decidedly more tensive, such as our denominational stances on Israel/Palestine and the ongoing work of addressing Islamophobia, antisemitism and racism more broadly.

Sometimes these discussions have required earnest but difficult conversations with those who remain within the denominational fold as well as those who fall outside of it. In those conversations, I have sometimes felt the gap in experience and perspective so great, it was as if I was talking with someone from an entirely different religious tradition. In such situations, I have relied on tools from my interfaith cooperation work, like focusing on appreciative inquiry, personal stories rather than position points, and common areas of service and social good that we might engage in to better build trust.

But when I move past the world of denominational and community disagreement and down to the street level, where protests happen and individuals are figuring out what they believe in, pluralism also becomes a gift rather than a burden.

So when I talked with my agnostic, effectively dechurched friend from childhood, I could quickly assess that my prescribed systematic theologies were of little use for her. At the same time, I could not hide my pastoral background and theological training. In fact, these very sources of my own identity sparked curiosity for her. So avoiding religious language seemed a nonstarter, too.

What I’ve settled on in the ongoing dialogue with my friend (not a one-time conversation) is a mutual dialogue around shared gifts, but also unvarnished and rough edges. None of our understandings of ourselves or the sources of our morality are complete. None of our understandings of the numinous are refined enough to account for the mystery. But if discipling is the process of moving closer and closer into the walk and way of Jesus, then I trust that we are helping each other walk the path of love and righteousness — even if, in the words of Thomas Merton’s famous prayer, “I may know nothing about it.”

One thing is for sure: That path of love and righteousness leads straight from the sanctuaries and prayer closets into the streets of protests and cafes of community organizing and the sidewalk chatter of community building.

From the sanctuary to the street

One thing is for sure: That path of love and righteousness leads straight from the sanctuaries and prayer closets into the streets of protests and cafes of community organizing and the sidewalk chatter of community building. The protests following Memorial Day 2020 were a symbol of a new era and context in ministry. In that space, many of those young adults and college students, who have spent their lives immersed in pluralisms of all kinds, are already present. It is also an arena of social contestation, where societies like our own are working out new social contracts, new understandings of community, new configurations of unity. And with this path will come new questions that we do not have immediate answers for, ones that cut differently in a new age of religious pluralism, beyond the controlled spaces of dialogues and order:

  • What happens when the church, synagogue, temple or nonprofit down the street agrees about the nature of a problem, but feels its own tradition bars it from addressing the problem in the same ways you would?
  • How do we respond when we see someone bringing salt and light into a neighborhood, when their ecclesiology differs from ours, restricting who fills what kinds of leadership roles? What theology allows us to cooperate with or work separately from such persons and communities?
  • Is there ever a time to put down our discussions of religion or traditions in order to build viable coalitions that effectively tackle the problems of the world?
  • Are there times when our faith needs to question or ask others to question political or economic claims that have essentially become articles of faith?
  • What is the nature of forgiveness? Can it be achieved in this lifetime?

I do not have hard and fast answers to these questions in my own context, let alone the contexts I know little of. But I do know that my training and experience in religious pluralism have helped me face the questions and our new societal paradigms with fresh courage.