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.