Religious Pluralism

We live in a culture in which many of us are increasingly exposed to faith traditions other than the ones with which we grew up. Once we become knowledgeable about other faiths, we are unlikely to have the same prejudices we may have learned as children. We see that people of other faiths are struggling with moral issues similar to our own and we begin to believe that there may be more than one path to God and that our own religion may not be the sole and exclusive source of truth. Perhaps we feel the oneness of God through other faiths and wonder whether other paths might be better suited to our needs than the one into which we were born. As we become accustomed to living in more diverse communities, we may learn that it is possible to exchange ideas with others without betraying our own beliefs and that it is possible to hold strong beliefs without feeling that our beliefs are the only beliefs possible for anyone.

I have felt the presence of God so strongly in Hindu worship and in Zen meditation that I cannot help but hold pluralistic beliefs. It is so clear to me that Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are all legitimate paths to experience of the ultimate that I naturally want to extend the same respect towards other religions. I have developed a trust that other people's attempts to worship and encounter the divine spring from a source of goodness within themselves. Clearly not all people who feel a longing for the holy are ultimately able to act in moral ways, at least not all the time, but the longing itself remains a seed of goodness within them.

As pluralists we open ourselves more fully to God by admitting that encounter with the divine may take forms that we cannot always anticipate using the language and concepts of our own religion. God may call to us in ways that transcend the boundaries of our religious models and institutions.

Those of us who are drawn towards contemplative prayer and meditation experience the ultimate in ways that, though colored by our particular religious beliefs, have much in common with the mystical experience of other faiths and so it is natural for us to find ourselves in dialogue with others. Language and dogma tend to emphasize the differences between religions, while the experiential aspect of faith which focuses on the present moment takes us beyond religious constructs. Some traditions may have techniques that make them more adept at reaching this experiential state, but no religion owns it.

Nevertheless, the different religions are not the same or interchangeable. It is dismissive of the different religious traditions to lump them together as if they were identical. Religious pluralism, the belief that all religions contain an element of truth, is not the same as universalism, the belief that all religions are somehow the same. If we feel that there is no difference between religions, it can become impossible for us to choose a way of worshipping, so that we become unmoored from any tradition. If our relationship with God is to develop the kind of roots that will allow it to flourish and bear fruit, we need to develop some kind of regular practice and participate in a spiritual community in some form, and this requires making specific choices, accepting a particular path in spite of its limitations.


Diana Eck, Harvard Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Director of The Pluralism Project, has written extensively on pluralism. Read her summary What is Pluralism?

More reading suggestions about Pluralism.