Knowing our Neighbor: Mormonism’s Failure at Pluralism

One of the key features of modernity is the increasing interaction of peoples of different geographical, cultural, and religious backgrounds. While it is a mistake to assume that pre-modern societies did not interact with other cultures, what makes modernity distinctive is the extent to which this interaction occurs. This condition has lead to a variety of responses, from constructively engaging, to ignoring, to eradicating the Other. Consequently, one of the main focuses in ethics has become how to deal with difference. My concern is that as LDS, we have seriously lagged behind in this project which has impacted us negatively.

Prof. Diana Eck at Harvard has become synonymous with thinking about issues of religious pluralism in the United States and globally. Following the tradition of her predecessor W. C. Smith, she has made it her mission to create a smooth transition for religion to enter into modernity by thinking constructively about how religions and peoples can interact productively. Having founded the Pluralism Project, she blends her study of religion with a normative project of encouraging pluralism.

Her definition of pluralism is instructive. It does not require that people of faith give up on their fundamental beliefs. She criticizes “tolerance” as not going far enough ethically because it doesn’t require that one engage the Other. While I don’t think that there is anything in her definition or her goals that Mormons can find objectionable, my fear is that we have failed to live up those goals.

The result in failing to engage in pluralism is not simply that we fail to be enriched by those encounters (though this is a serious failure), but also that others have failed to be enriched by encounters with us. We cannot simply complain that we have been excluded from larger conversations in and among religious groups because more often than not we have failed to insert ourselves into the conversation. How many of us sit on local religious dialogue committees? How many of us participate in ecumenical groups? How many of us take classes about other religions and cultures? How many of our missionaries learn more than superficial information (often for apologetic purposes) about the cultures in which they serve? Our cultural insularity (and often arrogance) is a double-edged sword, preventing us from a richer understanding of those around us and reinforcing stereotypes that we are not seriously interested in learning about others. Hence, few are interested in seriously learning about us.

How can we engage in pluralism? First, check out the resources available on the Pluralism Project website. I have heard that some Mormons feel like they need official permission to participate in such groups. I am not aware of any such rule (though local leaders may believe that they should have that authority) and it is better to get involved than waiting around for someone to tell you to get involved.

Second, we have too few scholars and public leaders who are capable of engaging with other cultures. Besides the cadre of Judeophiles in the Mormon church and the very few scholars of Islam, we lack those who are able to engage with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc with any depth. We can begin to reconcile this shortcoming by actively seeking and hiring such scholars at church-run schools who can cultivate a new generation of scholars.

But do we lose anything in the process of engaging in pluralism? Perhaps we do. I think that we might lose some of our self-assurance about our monopoly on truth. I think that we might destabilize our previous assumptions about those around us. Though these may be considered “losses” by those who police the boundaries of Mormonism with great zeal, I have yet to met anyone who has “lost” these things and not considered themselves better for it.

9 Replies to “Knowing our Neighbor: Mormonism’s Failure at Pluralism”

  1. TT,

    The kind of pluralism you seem to be advocating sounds like the kind of pluralism that does not coexist peacefully in a deeply missionary minded church like ours.

    Now we we do have a near universalist theology (nearly everyone escapes an eternal hell in Mormon theology and honorable people of any religion escape even an temporary hell) so that is great for getting along well with other religions. But there is no denying that we want everyone to “upgrade” their religion to the fullness of the gospel at some point. That seems to fly in the face of the type of pluralism you are talking about.

  2. Geoff,
    You make an excellent point that the main barrier to our engagement has been the particular philosophy of missionizing that we’ve adopted. When the goal is simply to convert, what need is there to understand? While I am leery of using increased understanding of the Other as a better tool in conversion (think early Catholic accounts of American Indians like Jose de Acosta), I am not sure that missionary work is excluded in this type of pluralism. I think that our current model would change, but I don’t think we would have to give it up entirely. The kind of pluralism that Eck is advocating is one where we share our commitments fully, including our desire to convert others, but that we also engage in sincere dialogue where such conversions are unlikely.

  3. You stated that you feel like Mormonism has failed at pluralism but never explained why, discussing instead the results of such an assumed failure.

    Besides the cadre of Judeophiles in the Mormon church and the very few scholars of Islam, we lack those who are able to engage with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc with any depth.

    Are you sure about this? I think you are being a little bit too critical of Mormons and Mormonism here. Are you sure that “ecumenical” councils and committees want us around? Also, does the Pluralism Project really allow a faith to continue to assert “one true priesthood” as ours does as the basis for our “One True Church” belief?

  4. John F.,
    Perhaps I am wrong and Mormons are really great at pluralism, but the rest of your comment seems to confirm my suspicion.
    I can’t speak for all ecumenical councils, but I know that we rarely if ever try to attend, so how can we say what they would do? As far as the Pluralism Project goes, I don’t see anything that prevents us from making the full claims of our religious commitments in our participation. I think that it will result in a bit more humility in making that claim, but that is not the same thing as saying that we can no longer make the claim.

  5. TT: When the goal is simply to convert, what need is there to understand?

    Well understanding is still very important even when trying to convert. But the kind of pluralism you seem to be talking about in the post doesn’t seem to work very well at all with a fundamental goal of converting all of humankind as Christianity has always pushed. That is why we don’t end up being looked on highly by other members Christian churches with these sorts of things — we are trying to convert their flocks to the fullness of the gospel just as much as we are trying to convert non-Christians. I suspect that will always create limits to the kind of pluralism we can be involved in.

  6. Thank you, TT, for posting this. It has helped me so much. At least now I know how to label that idea I’ve always had that no one should assume they have a monopoly on truth: I’m a pluralist!
    I think it’s just as important on an individual level as on the organizatonal level, if not more so. We shouldn’t wait until our leadership tells us to do something, we can do something that will, perhaps, make them re-evaluate their current position.
    I think that a pluralist approach would help a lot more people to convert, as was in my case. When I had first encountered the Church, I was very strongly prejudiced against it. BTW, NOTHING that ANY of the missionaries ever said in response to my questions helped clarify anything for me. I had to do my own research and develop my own understanding of the Gospel. And I realized that I had been wrong about the religion I had known very little about. Because I could see its point of view.
    Now, I fully believe that my personal religious views are based entirely on my own feelings (and I recognize not everyone may agree it’s the Holy Ghost, as I take it), and I simply choose to believe that there are conditions that make my beliefs possible. For any of it to be true, there would have to be a God. And it shocks a lot of people when they find out that not only do I believe that the existence of God is unproved and unprovable, like an agnostic would, but that we shouldn’t even logically make that assumption, like an atheist would. You know, Occam’s razor, etc., or, to illustrate: just because it’s impossible to disprove the existence of a secret conspiracy to exterminate humans cococted by super-cute mastermind chinchillas, it’s not any more likely to exist. So I can see why atheist could be right no less than I am, if not more. My faith has no rational foundation. So I’ve had my share of being bashed by atheists, agnostics and Mormons for expressing such views. But it’s nice to know that I’m not some kind of a freak of nature and that, hopefully, the number of similar-minded people will continue to increase. Thanks again for posting, TT!

  7. Entropy,
    Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. I think that your comment raises a number of the issues that we are dealing with here so I hope that you will comment more!

  8. Great post, TT. I think there are indeed important difficulties, as others have pointed out, but surely we can and should do better. I had pretty good experiences going to Bible study groups in grad school (in Pittsburgh). I was on “their turf,” so I mostly talked only when I was sure it was a shared belief, but I learned a lot and from time to time others would ask me about my beliefs. For the most part, their efforts to save me from the cult of Mormonism were well-intentioned and polite, and I was able to sincerely appreciate their concern for my welfare. Also, I was fortunate to marry an anthropologist who’s worked for over a year in India at a newspaper, so she always has very interesting things to tell me about Hinduism, etc. Finally, I think the best missionaries are genuinely interested and respectful of other cultures and beliefs—it tears me up to hear RM’s talking disrespectfully about other cultures and religions….

  9. I totally agree!!! At the lay member level, the basic question is, “How are we at broadening our circles just for the sake of broadening them?” We should simply be a part of our community. I have felt like we sometimes create a sub-community (or Mormons) within the larger community and lose the opportunity to really connect with people of different values and lifestyles. I think we would see the Church move forward in a miraculous way if we stepped back and just interacted with all people . . . even if that meant attending fewer ward activities during the week (heaven forbid).

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