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Commitment and Openness: A Contemplative Approach to Pluralism

Written by Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown
February 16, 2015

by Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown
Late in the nineteenth century, the city of Chicago hosted the World’s Columbia Exposition in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. In conjunction with that occasion, the World Parliament of Religions was planned as a conversation “higher and nobler,” which could explore the foundations of religious unity in the world. The Protestant hosts invited a rainbow array of presenters from all the major world religions, and those present were exposed, most for the first time, to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other Asian religions.
The purpose of the Parliament was, according to reports, “to indicate the impregnable foundations of Theism,” [1] especially to prove the superiority of the Christian religion. What occurred there was much more significant: white American Protestants met Buddhists, African-Americans, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, and found them powerful, worthy of respect, and remarkable. What occurred there is what has come to be called the “dawn of religious pluralism” in America. This was the first time that mainstream America really looked at the question of difference in religion, acknowledged there were actually a variety of different religious paths, and realized that the superiority of Christianity was not obvious to everyone. The delegates of the Parliament proclaimed the coming of a new era in the twentieth century.
Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have only begun to digest the power of plurality in American life. We might humbly predict that a major task before us in this new millennium is to learn to fully engage diversity, plurality, and pluralism in our religious lives. Indeed, for contemplatives like ourselves, pondering pluralism is essential to the integrity of our spiritual journey–I would suggest that we cannot consider ourselves contemplatives without pluralism at the heart of our practice.
When we talk about religious pluralism, we are talking about encounter with difference or otherness in whatever religious form it may take. Raimundo Pannikar, who has done a great deal of work on inter-religious dialogue, says that “What to do with the barbarian?” is the central question for religion in the time of pluralism. [2] We all have some notion of “barbarian” in our minds: for all of us, there is some presence, some person, or some tradition that is barbarian to us. In practicing religious pluralism, let us ask how it is that we make a relationship with that which is other or different from ourselves. Pluralism respects the differences that reside in the variety of religious traditions, without reconciling or integrating those differences into a single path. Pluralism is willing to rest in the ambiguity of religious difference. From this point of view, pluralism is a very courageous practice, an engagement with the fact of diversity in our world. And this practice is appropriate and important for contemplative communities. In fact, I’m not sure if it is possible to be truly contemplative without engaging in pluralism.
[1] Richard Hughes Seager, ed., The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893 (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Press,1993).

[2] Raimon Panikkar, “The Myth of Pluralism: The Tower of Babel,” Invisible Harmony: Essays on Contemplation and Responsibility, (Minneapolis, MN> Augsburg Fortress Press), 1995. p. 59.

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