The End of Pluralism


In the current Boston College Magazine, William Bole writes about a lecture that the provocative theologian Stanley Hauerwas recently delivered at Boston College. Characteristically contrarian, Hauerwas, among other things, said that he wanted no part in a project to “reconcile the beliefs and ultimate truth claims of world faiths” in what might be dubbed a “McPluralism.” Bole writes, “Still, Hauerwas insists that he does want Christians to engage with believers of other faiths, although he argues that ‘the way forward [in interfaith discourse] must be fragmentary and occasional,’ and he is skeptical of a purely academic approach (‘scholarship can never replace the concrete encounter with the neighbor who is different from me’).”

For my part, I’m not sure if, particularly for Christians in diverse settings, interfaith discourse can be realistically kept “occasional.” Furthermore, recognition of the “universal action of the Spirit” places dialogue and proclamation in a mutual relationship, and thus gives an urgency to interfaith discourse. Of course, I am not sure if Hauerwas would necessarily disagree with what I have just said. His arguments for the importance of “concrete encounter” and against “McPluralism” are doubtless important.

And Hauerwas does give us a moving example – his friend, the Notre Dame theologian, Fr David Burrell, CSC:

As chairman of Notre Dame’s theology department, Burrell received funding to set up a chair in Judaica, but Hauerwas said the priest resisted the temptation “to make Judaism an exotic other” or to make the Jewish faith appear as a mere antecedent to Christianity, and so Burrell incorporated the Judaica chair into the curriculum “in a manner that made clear the work done by our colleague in Judaica was crucial for Christian theology.” After stepping down as department chair, Burrell, who still teaches theology at Notre Dame, went on an interfaith adventure: living in Jerusalem, where he immersed himself in the lives of Jews and Palestinians, celebrating Mass in Hebrew, learning Arabic (through Hebrew), and translating Islamic texts into English. He authored several important commentaries and books, among them Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (1986). For Hauerwas, a telling tribute to Burrell is that after he left the Middle East, Iranian mullahs invited him back to talk about prayer, Christian prayer, not about pluralism or interfaith dialogue as such.

“That David Burrell has been drawn into the lives of Jews and Muslims is not because he is a cosmopolitan. Rather, he has been drawn into the lives of Jews and Muslims because he is a Catholic,” said Hauerwas, whose best-known work, A Community of Character (1981), appears on Christianity Today’s list of the 20th century’s 100 most important religious books.

Hauerwas did not connect all the dots between Burrell and the purported “end of pluralism,” although he suggested that a decline in their worldly power has freed Christians to be Christian, and so to talk about Jesus, about praying to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without seeming threatening to other believers.

“As a Christian I have no theory or policy to solve the problem of the new religious pluralism,” he confessed at the end of his lecture. “But I do have something to give. I give you the example of David Burrell.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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