The Difficulty of Pluralism

“The Difficulty of Pluralism,” Rev. Jim Turner
Sunday, May 5, 2013


Hebrew Scripture:  Isaiah 11:6-9

Christian Scriptures:  Acts 2:1-13

The Disciples had “all come together in one place,” because it was the Festival of Weeks, a lengthy celebration remembering the giving of the law on Sinai.  This Jewish festival occurred exactly fifty days after the celebration of Passover.  Keeping in mind that the Christian Scriptures, or New Testament, were written in Greek, the word Pentecost is Greek for “fiftieth day.” Pentecost was Greek for the Festival of Weeks.

The disciples’ experience at Pentecost became a powerful metaphor for the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Disciples.  I suspect today has been designated “Pluralism Sunday” because the Pentecost story can also be a metaphor for pluralism.  The account describes many people having gathered from many different cultures, speaking many different languages.

(To digress a little, I think it is fascinating that the story of Pentecost describes people speaking many differing languages, but understanding one another.  Yet, the “speaking in tongues” of the modern day Pentecostals is a kind of gibberish which only a special interpreter can understand.  I find that to be interesting.)

Back to the point, the people gathered together on the day of Pentecost were quite a Pluralistic group. defines Pluralism as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”  In reality, we cannot talk about any one of these four, (ethnic, racial, religious, or social), apart from one or more of the others.  All four are so much a part of the other three, that none can really be discussed in isolation.  I am a Christian because I was born in the American society in 1947.  If I had been born in Iran, I would most likely be a Muslim.  My religion is tied up with my social setting.  As a hospital chaplain I needed to enter a Muslim woman’s room cautiously.  For most, it was not a problem.  For a few, however, it would be a problem if her husband was not present.  But this was not a religious issue, this was a cultural issue. The various degree of restrictions placed upon a Muslim woman has as much to do with the society she lives or has lived in as it does her religious tradition.  Pluralism, then, has to do with all four, ethnic, racial, religious, and social experience.

Needless to say, we are a pluralistic congregation.  We are a congregate in a pluralistic community, in a pluralistic country, on a pluralistic planet.  Most of us living on this “big blue marble,” live amidst pluralism.  That does not necessarily mean we are comfortable with that fact.  This nation has been called the “melting Pot” of the world.  Lady Liberty stands in the harbor as testament to our invitation to pluralism.  Emma Lazarus’ ode on the grand ladies base heeds the call:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”


(This is true, of course, unless you are from “South of the border.”)

In certainly, we have always struggled with our pluralism.  (I’ll digress once more, but not so far from the point this time.  I have a tee shirt I love!  It has the image of Seven Native Americans on horse-back, standing on a knoll. The caption under the picture reads: “Homeland Security, fighting terrorism since 1492.”)

It did not take European immigrants long to decide that the ethnic, racial, religious, and social experience of the Natives was unacceptable.  Evan as the early European immigrants worked at eradicating the natives, they faught the influence of later immigrants; the Chinese, the Irish, and the Japanese.  Of course, the Africans were O.K…   as long as the whites could retain right of ownership. Our biggest struggle now is with that race from South of the Boarder, with their own ethnicity, Hispanic Catholicism, and social order.  And then, of course, there are other societies which are even less open to pluralism than we are. In fact, some societies, dominated by a fundamentalist religion, are not pluralistic because the influence of otherness not allowed allowed.

Unfortunately, I tend to develop issues like this at too large a level to contend with.  So, I want to try and bring this down to size.  What difficulties do we, as individuals, in our daily lives, experience with Pluralism.  We are here, at New Covenant Community.  Obviously we value Pluralism.  Yet, I’m pretty sure each of us struggles with issues around pluralism.  I know I do.  I wrestle with the fact that most of my colleagues outside of this congregation are not comfortable with many of my religious views.  Jim Boswell currently serves as the pastor of the last congregation I served before going to what is now Advocate BroMenn Hospital.  Jim is probably the only Disciples clergy in this area I could be completely open with about my religious beliefs.  The fact that Jim attends the NCC men’s group indicates he probably feels somewhat the same about me as well as the other men in our group.

You see, diversity may involve tolerance of faiths differing from ours.  Pluralism involves respect of faiths differing from ours.  I find that most of my colleagues tolerate what I have chosen to share with them.  However, I do not feel their respect of me and my beliefs.  I often experience a vigilance in them when I talk about faith issues.  Even though I may disagree with many of their views, I am able to respect their views.  That is, I can respect their views up and to the point where they judge the beliefs of others, me included, as not suitable.  There in is my struggle with pluralism.  How can I be pluralistic, that is, respectful, of those who do not respect me?  While the way of worshiping I experienced at the Muslim center was not meaningful to me, I respect the fact that it is for them.  To the degree that the women there are comfortable watching the worship from another room via closed circuit TV, I can respect their doing so.  To the degree that some Muslim cultures, (and note I am speaking of culture here), seem to tolerate, if not encourage violence toward women, I cannot respect their position.

What I’m trying to express this morning is that I value Pluralism.  I want to encourage Pluralism.  I believe this nation, indeed, the world is better off the more accepting of Pluralism we become.  But, I am also aware that Pluralism is a difficult thing.  So, as we turn to the “open mike” this morning, I would lift up three questions for your reflection:

• What have been your experiences with Pluralism?

• When have you found Pluralism to be difficult?

• When is it better NOT to try and be Pluralistic?

Perhaps you can help me with the difficulty with pluralism.


  1. Steve N. says

    For me, Pluralism is living a dialectic. I journeyed from chaos thru catharsis into Protestant evangelism, thru doubt into agnosticism, thru betrayal ino atheism, thru relational spirituality into pluralistic trinitarianism. I have been at or near some theological positions. My progress has always been accompanied by difficulty integrating my old worldview into my new, and encouraging and/or challenging companions on their journeys. I do not apply the umbrella of pluralism to someone who does not practice neighborliness. My neighbor is definitely not someone opposed to my needs, and is probably not someone opposed to my rights (a function of this nation state). Not everyone is my neighbor. I can behave flexibly.